BATTLE OF NEW MARKET HEIGHTS
In March 1864 General Grant was put in charge of the Union Army. General Grant organized a coordinated invasion of the South. General Sherman’s Army invaded Georgia and marched towards Atlanta. General Sigel invaded the Shenandoah Valley. General Crook and General Averill mission was to destroy railroad supply lines in West Virginia and General Banks was sent to capture Mobil Alabama. General Grant and General Meade attacked General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Butlers mission was to invade the Confederate capital of Richmond Virginia with his Army of the James.
General Butler was given command of the Army of the James in April 1864. The Army of the James was composed of 33,000 troops, 13,000 or 40% of which were black. On May 5, 1864 Butler traveled down the James by means of the Navy and established his head quarters at a small village called Bermuda Hundred. This was the same day that General Grant engaged Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness.
Before attacking Richmond, Butler must first attack Petersburg to destroy an important railway supply to Richmond. Butler however, had to contend with the Confederate Army led by Confederate General Beauregard. His subordinate was General Pickett who led Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, guarded Petersburg.
“The very name of Butler struck terror, or horror, into Confederate generals. When Pickett heard of a movement of the Army of the James, the Southern Gettysburg hero wrote to Adjutant General Cooper:
Butler's plan, evidently, is to let loose his swarm of blacks upon our ladies and defenseless families, plunder and devastate the country. Against such a warfare there is but one resource to hang at once every one captured belonging to the expedition, and afterwards every one caught who belongs to Butler's department. Let us come to a definite understanding with these heathen at once. Butler cannot be allowed to rule here as he did in New Orleans. His course must be stopped."
R. S. Holzman, Stormy Ben Butler, p137
In September 1864 President Lincoln trailed his anti-slave liberation candidate in his bid for re-election.
On August 23, 1864 Lincoln wrote “ It seems probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
Martin Graham and George Skoch, Great Battles of the Civil War
Lincoln confided in Butler to the point that he asked Butler to join him on the 1864 presidential ticket as vice president. Butler declined the invitation stating that he wanted to stay on the battlefield. Butler mustered the first Black regiment into service for the Union Army and played a key roll in establishing the United States Colored Troops. Like John Brown, Butler felt that he was doing God's work. Butler said:
"God Almighty himself is doing it. No man's hand can stay it. It is no other than the omnipotent God who has taken this mode of destroying slavery. We are but the instruments in his hands. We could not prevent it if we would. And let us strive as we might, the judicial blindness of the rebels would do the work of God without our aid, and in spite of all our endeavors against it."
Because of his liberal leanings, Butler was criticized by his conservative colleagues and his colored troops were not respected. Butler needed a great victory that would earn respect for his colored troops and himself as well. Union victories at New Market Heights and Atlanta were enough for Lincoln to pass his opponent and win the election.
Since the summer of 1864 the Union Army was south of Richmond and unable to control the territory north of the James River. Butler’s headquarters was located at Deep Bottom which was on the north shore of the James River. Butler developed a plan in which Black troops would attack New Market Heights which was a heavily fortified redoubt on the left flank of the Confederate line protecting Richmond. At the same time the plan called for White troops to attack the middle of the Confederate line at Fort Harris.
Richmond was protected by 3000 entrenched Confederate troops and most of these were positioned close to New Market Heights and in front of Butler at Deep Bottom. The target for the Black troops had failed to be taken by White troops twice. Success by Black troops would prove the value of Black troops once and for all. He told his Black men to “take New Market Heights at any cost”.
New Market Heights was heavily fortified, in fact Cadets from a near by military school successfully defeated a Union attack there earlier that year.
General Butler discussed is attack on Richmond with General Grant and he also described his dual objective.
" I further told him that I had another thing in view. The affair of the mine at Petersburg, which had been discussed between us, had convinced me that in the Army of the Potomac negro troops were thought of no value, and with the exception of an attack under Smith on the 15th of June, where they were prevented from entering Petersburg by the sloth, inaction, or I believe worse, of Smith, the negro troops had had no chance to show their valor or staying qualities in action. I told him that I meant to take a large part of my negro force, and under my personal command make an attack upon Newmarket Heights, the redoubt to the extreme left of the enemy's line. If I could take that and turn it, then I was certain that I could gain the first line of the enemy's entrenchment’s around Richmond. I said:" I want to convince myself whether, when under my own eye, the negro troops will fight; and if I can take with the negroes, a redoubt that turned Hancock's corps on a former occasion, that will settle the question." I proposed to try this in a manner that I had not before seen attempted, either in the Army of the Potomac or else where, - that is, by a regular "dash" such as I had read of in the history of the wars of Europe. "
My white regiments were always nervous when standing in line flanked by colored troops, lest the colored regiments should give way and they (the white) be flanked. This fear was a deep-seated one and spread far and wide, and the negro had had no sufficient opportunity to demonstrate his valor and his staying qualities as a soldier. And the further cry was that the negroes never struck a good blow for their own freedom. Therefore, I determined to put them in position, to demonstrate the fact of the value of the negro as a soldier, coute qui coute, and that the experiment should be one of which no man should doubt, if it attained success. Hence the attack by the negro column. on Newmarket Heights."
Black troops had demonstrated in places like Fort Hudson, Millikens Bend and Fort Wagner that they were effective at charging Confederate works. Their charges were often described as determined and tenacious. Butler’s plan called for them to not stop and fire their muskets during their charge but continue until they entered the Confederate works. This tactic would utilize their strength of charging works. The Joint Committees warned General Grant after the "affair at the mine" to utilize Black troops when the situation called for their talents. General Grant approved Butler’s plan.
“At half past four o'clock I found the colored division, rising three thousand men, occupying a plain which shelved towards the river, so that they mere not observed by the enemy at Newmarket Heights. They were formed in close column of division right in front. I rode through the division, addressed a few words of encouragement and confidence to the troops. I told them that this was an attack where I expected them to go over and take a work which would be before them after they got over the hill, and that they must take it at all hazards, and that when they went over the parapet into it their war cry should be, " remember Fort Pillow."
"The caps were taken from the nipples of their guns so that no shot should be fired by them, for when ever a charging column stops to fire, that charge may as well be considered ended. As their was to be no halt after they turned the brow of the hill, no skirmishers were to be deployed.
We waited a few minutes, and the day fairly shining, the order was given to go forward, and the troops marched up to the top of the hill as regularly and quietly as if on parade."
“Then the scene that lay before us was this: there dipped from the brow of the hill quite a declivity down through some meadow land. At its foot ran a brook of water only a few inches deep, a part of the bottom, as I knew, being gravely and firm. The brook drained a marsh which was quite deep and muddy, a little to the left of the direct line. The column of division unfortunately did not oblique to the right far enough to avoid that marsh wholly. Then rose steadily, at an angle of thirty to thirty five degrees, plain, hard ground to within hundred and fifty yards of the redoubt. At this point there was a very strong line of abatis."
At one hundred yards above that, the hill rising a little faster, was another line of abatis. Fifty yards beyond was a square redoubt mounting some guns en barbette, that is, on top of the embankment, and held by not exceeding one thousand of the enemy.
I rode with my staff to the top of the first hill, where everything was in sight, and watched the movement of the Negroes. “
Crossing the brook their lines broke in little disorder, the left of the divisions having plunged into the morass, but the men struggling, held their guns above their heads to keep them dry. The enemy directed its fire upon them; but, as in all cases of firing downward from a fort the fire was too high. The leading battalion broke, but its Colonel maintained his position at its head. Words of command was useless as in the melee they could not be heard; but calling his bugler to him the rally rang out, and at its call his men formed around him. The division was at once reformed, and then at double quick they dashed up to the first line of abatis. The axe men laid to, vigorously chopping out the obstructions. Many of them went down. Others seized the axes. The enemy concentrated on the head of the column. It looked at one moment as if it might melt away. The colors of the first battalion went down but instantly they were up again but with new color bearers. Wonderfully they managed to brush aside the abatis, and then at double quick the reformed column charged the second line of abatis.
Fortunately they were able to remove that in a few minutes, but it seemed a long time to the lookers on. Then, with a cheer and a yell that I can almost hear now, they dashed upon the fort. But before they reached even the ditch, which was not a formidable thing, the enemy ran away and did not stop until they had run four miles, I believe. They were only fired at as they ran away and did not lose a man."
“As I rode across the brook and up towards the fort along this line of
charge, some eighty feet wide and three or four hundred yards long,
there lay in my path five hundred and forty-three dead and wounded of my
colored comrades. And, as I guided my horse this way and that way that
his hoof might not profane their dead bodies, I swore to myself an oath,
which I hope and believe I have kept sacredly, that they and their race
should be cared for and protected by me to the extent of my power so
long as I lived.
General Benjamin Butler, Butlers Book, p731 - 733
“When the first Negro Congressmen were met with cold courtesies on every hand, Butler was quick to be on familiar terms with them. His solicitude for Negroes was so great that at a colored banquet in New Orleans, the master of ceremonies offered this well intended toast: "Here's to General Butler. He has a white face, but he has a black heart."
Stormy Ben Butler, R. S. Holzman, p205
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