(part one of two)
Many of us know that the Civil War involved both large and small campaigns. There are the main theaters: Eastern, Western, Trans-Mississippi. We may also consider sub theaters such as the Carolina coast or Mississippi Valley in our studies.
While the large operations and great battles occupy much of our attention, it is good to reflect on smaller or side operations as well. They not only have value in that they are important events in and of themselves, they also in many cases influence the larger events and operations which dominate our attention.
On a recent drive through southeastern Virginia I had the chance to do just that, visiting a few sites from the 1863 siege of Suffolk. Never heard of it? I had heard of it, but didn’t know much more.
There is no park or historic site specifically dedicated to the siege (although there is one important landmark you can visit, more on that later). I did a good bit of research ahead of time, looking at historic maps, modern maps, Google earth, web searching, looking at accounts of the battle, etc. I realized this would not be easy, but I enjoy the challenge of finding tangible remains of history.
In the spring of 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia was being poorly supplied. It was both partially a result of railroad inefficiency, and partially of a general lack of food. Lee detached General James Longstreet and two of his division (linking up with a third from upper North Carolina) to the southeastern part of the state. This served several purposes. First, it protected Richmond from the southeast. Second, Longstreet was to drive out the Union garrisons there if possible. Lastly, these troops were to gather supplies, primarily food and forage. This region had been largely unaffected by the war, at least compared to that around Fredericksburg. An important point to note is that both Lee and Secretary of War James Seddon expected Longstreet to attack the Union garrison at Suffolk, this was not initiated by him, as some analysts have suggested.[i]
The Confederates entered a bountiful area, relatively untouched by the war to this point. Longstreet’s commissary and quartermaster personnel scoured the area, gathering corn, bacon, fodder, and other foodstuffs. Civilians were paid in Confederate script. The harvest was so successful that wagons, horses, and mules had to be impressed to transport the goods. This part of the operation was a success for the Confederates, the rest, not so much.[ii]
The siege of Suffolk was not truly a siege in the sense that the Union garrison was never fully cut off—rail and naval support could enter the town freely. Yet being surrounded by a formidable and veteran Confederate force was certainly nerve-racking, and impacted the town’s civilians, as well.
Suffolk residents were not happy about being occupied (the Federals had arrived in May of 1862). Since the town was cut off from the countryside, the Union army supplied civilian needs. Resident Mattie Prentiss wrote, “The Yankees have opened three or four stores, I don’t intend to get anything from them.”[iii]
As with anywhere that the Union army moved in Confederate territory, runaway slaves flocked to the town. Southern civilians were not used to seeing blacks with freedom of movement. Prentiss noted, “It is awful to have to stay here with the horrid things . . .”[iv]
The occupying Union troops initially built a line of defenses around the town shortly after their arrival. General John Peck took command soon after and had them strengthened when word arrived of Longstreet’s’ approach in the spring of 1863.[v]
While at first this engagement might seem insignificant, consider that it involved three Confederate infantry divisions, and an equal number of Federal troops. Union naval forces were active during the entire operation, and played a crucial role. The fighting featured artillery bombardments, night action, and river landings. General Peck’s troops dug ten miles of earthworks, Longstreet’s men about twelve. Peck reported that “not less than ten miles of batteries, covered ways, and rifle pits have been thrown up; most of the artillery was protected by embrasures; the parapets were from 12 to 15 feet in thickness and well revetted, while the covered ways were from 8 to 10 feet.”[vi]
The most heated part of the action was from April 13-15th, 1863. General Peck, whose garrison initially consisted of 13,000 troops, was gradually reinforced to have nearly 30,000. Longstreet hoped to hold the Union troops in place while he gathered supplies from the countryside. If possible, he hoped to retake the town and capture its defenders.
On April 13th, Confederates of General Hood’s division built a battery at Hill’s Point overlooking the Nansemond River. The goal was to block naval supplies from reaching the garrison. Union ships could still make the run, but had to contend with Confederate artillery fire.[vii]
To counter this move, on the night of the 14th, Union troops secretly placed their own batteries across the river. The next day they suddenly opened fire and weakened the Confederates occupying Hill’s Point. It was a massive artillery exchange.[viii]
In the meantime, General Peck requested both reinforcements, and more importantly, supplies. His letter of April 13th noted that they had only 12 days of rations on hand. A few days later he notes that the civilians are suffering, and considers evacuating them to spare them both starvation and the potential shelling of the town. It never came to that.[ix]
On the evening of the 19th, nearly 300 Union troops stormed ashore from transports at Hill’s Point, capturing the Fauquier Artillery’s battery and 130 prisoners. It was an incredibly successful join army-navy operation.[x]
General Peck remained confident, writing to superiors that Longstreet “will not succeed.” The Confederate forces surrounding Suffolk, never able to fully cut the garrison off, were not strong enough to force its submission. Events elsewhere soon forced Longstreet’s hand.[xi]
As the end of the month approached, Lee needed Longstreet’s men back from the Suffolk area, as there were signs of movement among the Army of the Potomac near Fredericksburg. Lee recalled his subordinate on the 29th, and the last of the Confederates departed on May 4th. They were too late to participate in the fighting at Chancellorsville, fortunately for Lee he was able to fight a masterful battle with the assistance of Stuart and Jackson.
(To be continued…)
[i]Brian Steel Wills, The War Hits Home, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 108-110.
[ii] Ibid., 147, 167, 168-9. Some of Longstreet’s commissary agents actually ran into competition with Confederate government agents, a situation which undercut both of their efforts, and one that was common in other areas in the Deep South during the war.
[iii] Kermit O. Hobbs, Storm Over Suffolk, (Suffolk, VA: Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society, 2007), 8, 19.
[iv] Ibid., 8.
[v] Ibid., 17.
[vi] Ibid.; George Davis, Leslie Perry and Calvin Cowles. Atlas To Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1891-95), Plate XXXVI.
[vii] Hobbs, 19.
[viii] Ibid., 20.
[ix] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC. 1901), Ser. I vol. XVIII p 606, 626.
[x] Hobbs, 21.
[xi] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Ser. I vol. XVIII p 663.