In August 1864, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Army of the James, ordered that a ditch or canal be dug across the narrow neck of land here to enable Union gunboats to evade Confederate batteries on the James River. Under brutal conditions and occasional Confederate sniper and artillery fire, Union soldiers—mostly United States Colored Troops—completed the canal on December 31, 1864, except for a slender piece of land or bulkhead between the ditch and the river. On January 1, 1865, 12,000 pounds of powder were exploded to demolish the bulkhead. The blast, however, sent much of the earth into the canal and collapsed part of its walls. The canal was not completed until April, too late to achieve Butler’s objective.
Butler commanded more African American soldiers than any other general and advocated their use in combat, not merely as workmen and guards. In May 1864, his USCT regiments had seized strategic points on the James River at Wilson’s Wharf, Fort Powhatan, and City Point. USCTs were among the troops assaulting the Petersburg defenses on June 9 and June 15, and took part in the Battle of the Crater on July 20. On September 29, two USCT brigades spearheaded a successful attack at New Market Heights and took part in the assault on Fort Harrison on the north side of the James River. Fourteen black soldiers and two white officers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions there. USCT regiments were among the first to enter Richmond on April 3, 1865.