Wednesday, June 7, 2017

A Visit to Deep Bottom and New Market Heights

I took advantage of some unseasonably cool June weather early this morning to take drive up to the New Market Heights Battlefield and the Deep Bottom crossing point on the James River. I had never visited Deep Bottom, so it was a treat to see the famous location that appeared in many period photographs and often served as the Union army's route of transfer between the Petersburg and Richmond fronts during the summer and fall of 1864.

The Deep Bottom area figured prominently into Gen. Grant's offensive plans to keep Lee's limited manpower resources tied down and less able to support one another on the two fronts. The first action there was in association with Grant's Third Offensive at the end of July 1864. On the 28th, Grant had Hancock's II Corps move across the bridge from Petersburg and sent Sheridan's cavalry on a move toward the Confederate defenses from Deep Bottom, but they were turned back by forces in Lee's Second Corps under Gen. Joseph Kershaw. This setback combined with the failure of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg did not dissuade Grant from his strategic campaign goal.

The second movement involving a crossing at Deep Bottom's pontoon bridge occurred in mid-August in conjunction with the movement at Petersburg toward the Weldon Railroad in what was Grant's Fourth Offensive. Again, Hancock's II Corps was involved. However, this time Gen. Birney's X Corps movement on the left flank of Lee's line drew a fierce counterattack at Fussel's Mill that resulted in a Federal retreat with the fighting occurring over much of the same ground as that a half a month before. Although this movement did not result in a substantial gain, it did keep some of Lee's forces occupied north of the James River while Grant snapped the Weldon Railroad at Globe Tavern outside of Petersburg.

Finally, in late September, Gen. Butler's Army of the James tested Lee's Richmond defenses at Chaffin's Farm. The Army of the James, which consisted of the X Corps and XVIII Corps, crossed the Deep Bottom bridge and hit the Confederate earthwork line along the New Market Road. Fierce resistance saw savage fighting between Gen. Gregg's Texas Brigade and African American soldiers of Birney's X Corps. Fourteen black soldiers earned the Medal of Honor for their fighting spirit at New Market Heights, where they captured the rebel works. The XVIII Corps also experienced initial success farther to the west capturing sparsely held Fort Harrison. Stiffer resistance was encountered at Fort Gilmer, just to the north of Fort Harrison, where many of the Texans ended up facing some of the same black troops they had fought earlier in the day at New Market Heights. Gen. Lee attempted a counterattack the following day in attempt to regain Fort Harrison, but was unsuccessful and things settled back into stalemate mode again.

It is a shame that the New Market Heights battlefield is not more accessible and better interpreted than it is. Only a Civil War Trails wayside sign and the above highway marker are posted to inform the public about this significant action where African American soldiers proved they could fight as well as any white troops.

It would only be just for some type of monument to be erected at the little park just east of the I-295 and New Market Road intersection to honor those soldiers that fought so gallantly at New Market Heights. Hopefully, some day that tribute will come to fruition.

Deep Bottom historic photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Photographs of present-day Deep Bottom and the New Market Heights marker by author June 7, 2017.

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