A Self-Guided Tour of Confederate Ft. Harrison

The Fall of Fort Harrison, September 29, 1864 as depicted by artist Sidney E. King. Photo by Author

In a continuation of our series of posts providing walking tour maps and guides to Civil War sites, we offer this close up look at Confederate Fort Harrison, a key work on the defense lines east of Richmond. Federals captured this large earthen fort on September 29, 1864 in a surprise pre-dawn assault. Although lightly defended, the small Confederate garrison waged a brisk defense, costing the attacking Union forces heavily. While the Federals maintained control of the fort they were unable to further exploit the dent in Richmond’s defense perimeter as Southern troops from other sections of the line heroically plugged the gap. It was, as they say, a near run thing.

Considering the recapture of Fort Harrison vital, General Robert E. Lee launched a counterattack the following day aimed at ousting the Unionists. The attacking Rebels never really stood a chance. Many of the defending Federals were armed with seven-shot Spencer carbines that poured out a literal sheet of fire. Casualties among the Confederate forces, including the North Carolina brigades of Kirkland, McKethan, and Scales, were devastating. Lee was forced to call off the assault as a bad enterprise.

In the end, Fort Harrison remained in Federal hands and was considerably strengthened into a fully enclosed earthwork. It was renamed Fort Burnham, in honor of Union Brigadier General Hiram Burnham who was killed in the September 29th attack. Confederate forces meanwhile constructed a secondary defense line in their Chaffin’s Farm defenses that effectively sealed off the breach. They made one further attempt to repair the broken line on October 7th but it too failed. However, it was not until Richmond fell on April 3, 1865 that Union troops ever reached the city.

Fort Harrison/Burnham today is well preserved, along with many secondary works, as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Presented below is an excellent walking self-guided tour of both the Confederate and Federal sections of the fort. This brochure was printed in 1961 and has been long out of print. Your blog host is pleased to make this excellent tour map once again available to enhance your battlefield experience when visiting this fortification. Please left click on images for enlarged views.

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By Bob Williams


Fred Olds, faux Confederate

Anyone with even a passing interest in North Carolina history owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Fred A. Olds. An inveterate and unapologetic collector of the first order,  Olds’ passion for acquiring and preserving artifacts and documents related to the Old North State was boundless. By the end of the nineteenth century he had amassed a huge collection that included land grants, marriage bonds, portraits, photographs, military relics, and other assorted records. These he generously donated in 1902 to the state of North Carolina as the core of its Hall of History exhibit, then located in the state library. For the next thirty years Olds served as “collector” for the state and built the foundation for today’s North Carolina Museum of History.

Old’s was regarded with considerable disdain by professional historians of the day. To many, he was more of an acquirer than a true historian or curator. One scholar, perhaps not without a tinge of jealousy, declared Old’s work “a horrible example to be avoided.” He was often accused of playing fast and loose with facts in order to stimulate interest and enthusiasm. Yet, whatever his shortcomings, Old’s had a tremendous ability to infect others with his love of North Carolina’s rich historical past. He would freely admit that his purpose was as much to entertain as it was to instruct. He was considered a modern day Pied Piper to school children across North Carolina. He also conducted tours of the Hall of History to such visiting dignitaries as King Albert of Belgium and Marshal Foch.

Perhaps as part of his showmanship, Old’s posed at some point for a series of photographs showing him wearing various Confederate uniform examples from the hall’s vast collections. Readers of the blog may recognize some particular items of clothing and equipment including General Johnston Pettigrew’s uniform coat! Taken altogether, these images provide an interesting glimpse of the North Carolina Confederate soldier as he may have looked and fought. They also capture a bit of the warmth, charm, and enthusiasm of Fred Olds, dapper father of the North Carolina Museum of History. All photographs are from the museum’s collections. Readers may left click on photos for enlarged views.

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By Bob Williams