The Union Perspective of the Battle of New Market Heights
by Michael D. Gorman
I want to convince myself whether the negro troops will fight, and whether I can take, with the negroes, a redoubt that turned [Major General Winfield S.] Hancock's corps on a former occasion.
So said Union Major General Benjamin F. Butler to Ulysses S. Grant. Butler, more of a politician than a general, was proposing to take two corps and strike north of the James River at Robert E. Lee's works - a plan that had been tried twice before - and failed.
General Butler had recruited the first black regiments, and advocated their use throughout the war. Despite his urgings, black soldiers had been used primarily for manual labor and garrison duty. Butler believed the blacks could and would fight, and wanted to prove it. After the infamous "Battle of the Crater" on July 30,1864, black troops had been unfairly blamed for the Union failure by Northern newspapers. Butler, who had had no hand in the attack, was incensed. He wrote to Grant urging a court of inquiry to show that the leaders of the assault were to blame, not the USCTs. Grant, eager to put that debacle behind him, ignored Butler's request.
Butler was an inept and controversial general - in May, he had assaulted Drewry's Bluff from the south, in the hopes of breaking the Confederate line and achieving a clear road to Richmond. He hesitated in his attack and was assaulted and driven by Confederate General P.G.T Beauregard all the way back to Bermuda Hundred - exactly where he had started from. Confederates threw up fortifications across the neck of Bermuda Hundred, leaving Butler's army contained "as if it had been in a bottle strongly corked." Neither Grant nor Lincoln was particularly impressed with Butler's performance, but the necessity for Lincoln to have a War Democrat in the field compelled him to leave Butler alone for the time being. After the November elections however, Butler's days would be numbered.
With Butler and his army "bottled up" at Bermuda Hundred, Grant laid siege to Petersburg. Butler remained at Bermuda Hundred with what remained of his Army of the James.
It was in this political and military climate that Butler hatched his plan. While at Bermuda Hundred, Butler had been studying the New Market Heights defenses. He had gotten some good intelligence that the line of Confederates north of the James was stretched very thin, and could be penetrated if pressed. With these reports in hand, he confronted General Grant with his plan.
Essentially, it would be a two pronged assault. Two divisions of Brigadier General Edward O.C. Ord's XVIII (18th) Corps would cross the James at Aiken's Landing and assault north, taking Confederate Fort Harrison and then pushing up the Osborne Turnpike. A short distance to the east, David B. Birney's X (10th) Corps, along with one division of the XVIII Corps would cross the James at Deep Bottom and storm the Confederate works at New Market Heights. Once they had achieved this goal, they were to drive up the New Market road and link up with Ord. With the two forces combined, they were to march on Richmond. The division from the XVIII corps that was to assault New Market Heights was the Third Division, a division made entirely of USCTs. They were to spearhead the assault.
Grant doubtless inwardly chuckled at Butler's proposal. What he was suggesting had already been tried twice; and failed twice. The only difference this time would be that the units spearheading the assault would be black. However, even if Butler's attack failed, it would surely force General Lee to shift some of his troops north of the James and away from Petersburg. Grant had nothing to lose. He adopted the plan.
Butler shifted the Third division of the XVIII Corps to the force assaulting New Market Heights. If all went well, they would carry the Confederate works and be in line to be the first regiments into Richmond. Then there would be no doubt that black troops could fight. Butler obviously wanted New Market Heights to be the crux of the fighting to come - Birney's force would outnumber Ord almost 3 to 1.
The key to Butler's plan was time. It was absolutely essential that both prongs of the assault strike simultaneously at 4:30 AM on September 29. If there was a mix-up, Lee would be able to shift troops from Petersburg, and potentially divide the Union force. Therefore, Butler left nothing to chance. He ordered all baggage left behind so that his troops could move quickly. In addition, he insisted on the strictest secrecy, lest word of the impending assault leak out. Butler assembled his corps commanders on the 28th and issued his orders. These orders, 16 pages long, covered every contingency and were very specific. He wanted no confusion to cloud this attack; unlike at the Crater, this time the black troops would be well led.
The troops who would make the assault would not know until nightfall of the 28th that they were to attack when the sun came up. With only a few hours left before they were to move out, the soldiers got little sleep that night. Butler stayed awake most of the night drinking coffee. It must have been especially tense that night for the men of Paine's division - the USCTs. They were by far the least experienced division, and Paine himself had never led a division under fire. Yet they had been given the honor to lead the attack. Butler needed them there. They were well-rested, but more importantly, they were black.