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Members of the 1st Connecticut Artillery
Members of the 1st Connecticut Artillery at Fort Brady, 1864.
Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Fort Harrison

In the pre-dawn darkness of September 29, Grant quietly slipped Gen. David Birney's X Corps and Gen. Edward Ord's XVIII Corps back across the James in a surprise move against the outer defenses of Richmond. The primary purpose was to prevent Lee from reenforcing Early in the Shenandoah Valley. If, however, any weakness was discovered it could be exploited fully, and it might force Lee to weaken some part of the Petersburg line.

Shortly after daybreak Gen. George Stannard's division of the XVIII Corps successfully stormed heavily armed but badly undermanned Fort Harrison on the Varina road. Gen. Hiram Burnham, commanding the leading brigade, was killed in the assault and the Union forces renamed the captured fort for him. A mile and a half farther north, Gen. Adelbert Ames' division of the X Corps was repulsed in a similar attack on another fortification, Fort Gilmer, on the New Market road.

General Lee regarded the loss of Fort Harrison as serious enough to demand his personal attention. The next day, with re-enforcements rushed from Petersburg, he directed several vigorous assaults against the fort. However, the Union forces had closed in the rear and strengthened it, and, armed with new repeating rifles, successfully beat back the attacks and inflected heavy losses on the Confederates.

map of area
Area of the Richmond battlefields.
From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

The fall of Fort Harrison forced Lee to draw back that part of his outer line and to build new entrenchments to compensate for the loss. It also forced him to extend his line north of the James, thus weakening his already dangerously undermanned defenses in front of Petersburg. The Union forces, to protect their position further and to neutralize Confederate gunboats, constructed Fort Brady a few miles south of Fort Burnham (Harrison) on a high bluff over looking the James River.

No further serious efforts were made to enter Richmond from the north side of the James, and the two armies faced each other in these respective positions until Grant finally broke Lee's lines at Petersburg on April 1, 1865, forcing the Confederates to abandon Richmond.

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