AKA, Fort Burnham
8621 Battlefield Park Road, Henrico
Built, 1862, 1863
The Southern fort that went North.
Confederate-built Fort Harrison crowned a prominent hill with a commanding view toward the James River. Constructed in 1862 and 1863, it became the most heavily fortified position north of the river. Any Union push toward Richmond from the south required the capture of this fort.
Union commanders recognized the significance of Fort Harrison and chose it as the primary target of their determined efforts to reach Richmond in September 1864. The action here was one of one of several separate episodes connected with the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. [National Park Service]
Chaffin’s Farm, and Chaffin’s Bluff, were on the opposite side of the James from Drewry’s Bluff — a strategic point protecting the naval approach to Richmond.
Major General Benjamin Butler was given the task of breaking the logjam.
Fort Harrison was key to General Butler’s plan of attack. It represented the strongest point on the Confederate line of defenses. From it, one could see all the way to the James River. However, in 1864 most of the Confederate forces were in Petersburg and here the Confederate defenders numbered barely 200.
Their guns were mostly so poor as to be scorned by the main field artillery. The Union attack pierced the fort quickly, with relatively few casualties. Had the Union attacks on the rest of the Confederate line succeeded as well as at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, the overall military significance would have been greater.
On September 30, Robert E. Lee personally organized a major effort to recapture the lost fort. His attack also lacked coordination, and the well prepared Union defenders-some of them armed with multiple shot weapons crushed the Confederate effort and inflicted great loss on the attackers.
The victors abolished the Confederate title for the fort and renamed it Fort Burnham after the Union general killed in the attack of September 29. (National Park Service)
The scars of the wars fought on American soil are captured in earthworks. If you want to find the most extensive, and best preserved Civil War earthworks in the Richmond area, look no further than Fort Harrison, out in Henrico.
The extensive trails and 20-minute walking tour are a stark reminder of the sheer size of the war effort here in in the Richmond area. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a short drive on Route 5 past Varina, and you’ll see the other forts mentioned above along the way.
So what are you waiting for? As a reward for your valiant history excursion, you can always hit Triple Crossing or Stone Brewing in Fulton on the way home, ‘natch.
(Fort Harrison is part of the Atlas RVA Project)
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