On this day in 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant tries to break the stalemate around Richmond and Petersburg (25 miles south of Richmond) by attacking two points along the defenses of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The assault against Richmond, called the Battle of New Market Heights, and the assault against Petersburg, known as the Battle of Poplar Springs Church (or Peeble’s Farm), were both failures. However, they did succeed in keeping pressure on Lee and prevented him from sending reinforcements to the beleaguered Rebel General Jubal Early, who was fighting against General Philip Sheridan in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
Grant selected General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James to make the attack on New Market Heights. Butler carefully scouted the network of Confederate fortifications and, after determining that there were weaknesses in Lee’s lines, he instructed General Edward Ord to strike at Fort Harrison, a stronghold in the network, and ordered General David Birney to attack New Market Heights.
Birney began the assault, sending a division of African-American soldiers against New Market Heights. Butler proved correct about the weakness of the Richmond defenses, which were significantly undermanned since most of Lee’s force was protecting Petersburg. The 1,800 Confederate defenders of New Market Heights soon realizedthe Yankee attack threatened to overrun their position. After a brief battle, they retreated closer to Richmond. At nearby Fort Harrison, Ord’s troops swarmed over the walls of the fort and scattered the 800 inexperienced defenders.
Despite the initial success, the Union attack became bogged down. The leading units of the attack suffered significant casualties, including many officers. The Confederate defenses were deep, and the Yankees faced another set of fortifications. Butler instructed his men to secure the captured territory before renewing the attack. That night, Lee moved several brigades from Petersburg for an unsuccessful counterattack on September 30.
In the end, Union soldiers bent the Richmond defenses but did not break them. Yankee casualties totaled approximately 3,300 of the 20,000 troops engaged, while the Confederates lost around 2,000 of 11,000 engaged. The stalemate continued until the following spring.