Siege of Suffolk Part 2

by Dan O'Connell on August 28, 2012 · 0 comments

Faceoff at Suffolk

The object of operations for both sides became the transportation hub city of Suffolk, Virginia. The city fell into Union hands when the Confederates evacuated Norfolk in May of 1862 but it had remained a military backwater until September of that year. As McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign played itself out the area became threatened by a concentration of Confederate forces. Despite suggestions that the city be relinquished it was determined that it would be held. A new commander, MG Peck, was sent to the city on 22 September with orders to execute the construction of “a system of entrenchments” for the defense of the city. For the six months preceding Longstreet’s advance Peck’s troops “were diligently engaged in the construction of these works.”

On April 2 Lee writing to Longstreet regarding the possibilities of offensive action in his sphere of influence stated that he believed that Longstreet was “strong enough to make any movement that you consider advisable.” He tempered his statement by reminding Longstreet that he had previously felt “that as long as the enemy choose to remain on the defensive” there was little hope of success in the region other than gathering supplies. By April 6th Lee’s attitude toward the move was softening. Writing to Longstreet he authorized the general to continue “according to you own judgment.” He continued on with a suggestion that “careful reconnaissance’s” be made before any effort against Suffolk should begin. Lee also sent a request to MG Arnold Elzey at Richmond requesting a brigade of infantry and artillery support to reinforce Longstreet.

As his lines closed “about the forts around Suffolk” Longstreet’s ability to gain intelligence on the disposition of the Federal forces around the city was greatly enhanced when two men arrived bearing letters of introduction from Secretary of War Seddon. They were touted as “trustworthy and efficient scouts” and Longstreet put them to work on a reconnaissance of the “roads or routes for our troops in case we should wish to make a detour for the capture of Suffolk.” The report of the two men impressed Longstreet, especially that of the scout named Harrison, and the decision to make an attempt was made.

The location of the Great Dismal Swamp south of the city prevented any large scale approach from that direction so any effort was forced north of the city. Here the greatest obstacle to operations was the Nansemond River, which separated the opposing forces. The river was patrolled by two flotillas of Union gunboats, one above the city and a smaller one below. Realizing that no cross river attempt could be made nor subsistence stores transported across the river until it was swept clean Longstreet began operations with a request for naval assistance. On April 9th, General Lee forwarded this request to Secretary Seddon, but by the 17th was forced to announce to Longstreet that “I have had no reply.” Longstreet took matters into his own hands and wrote to Seddon that “Suffolk would surely fall if the Richmond would only come down and anchor at the mouth of the Nansemond.” Seddon could offer no assistance as he responded to Longstreet on the 18th that “I regret not having been able to receive the cooperation of the Navy.” The status of obstructions in the James River and the general lack of naval assets precluded any such assistance. In the interim a frustrated Longstreet ordered MG French* to move batteries to the river to challenge the Union boats.

* By order of Longstreet on April 14th , French was put in charge of all artillery in the Blackwater area. French began moving the guns on the 15th.

Naval Support

The Confederate operation against Suffolk began on April 11th when their forces moved across the Blackwater River and pushed out to the western bank of the Nansemond River. Led by troops from Hood’s division they routed the Union cavalry outposts on the South Quay Road, capturing a good number of those posted there. As they pushed across the Nansemond they could not stand up to the combined fire of the Union batteries and gunboats. The Federal line was restored along the eastern bank of the river. The Confederates began to establish their line on the opposite bank where they were joined on the 12th by Pickett’s men. Both sides began to improve their positions. The Union Navy assumed the important role of defending the river.

Union Rear Admiral S. P. Lee, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, instructed his flotilla captains, Lieutenants Cushing and Lamson, on the 12th;

“The object of the enemy will be to cross the Nansemond in order to get into the rear of our forces at Suffolk. To accomplish this he will endeavor to silence or capture the gunboats by the use of scattered field pieces and by musketry”

This clear understanding of the Confederate objective and the importance of control of the river put his subordinates on alert. The available vessels were to be put in “the safest and most commanding positions.”Lee also realized the dangers of operating in the narrow and shallow river. He ordered that under no circumstances should the boats be surrendered. In case of emergency they should be destroyed to avoid them falling into enemy hands. As an extra precaution against the anticipated small arms fire Lee had 16 sheets of boiler iron shipped in to form rifle screens for the protection of the pilot houses of the boats operating in the river. The two flotillas went immediately to the dangerous work.

Lt Cushing, commanding the lower Nansemond flotilla, indentified the two possible crossing sites in his sector of control. He reported that the Confederates had possession of a pontoon train and could “easily bridge the river (if not closely watched) in the night.” He also noted the difficulties of operating in the river and requested permission to lighten the boats to pass over a restricting bar if the enemy attempted a “fair attack” on his boats without attempting to cross. Cushing noted that the restricted maneuver area would make it a “hard task” to remain under Confederate artillery should that be the case. Not surprisingly he was ordered to cover the two possible crossing sites.

On the upper Nansemond, Lt Lamson, positioned his vessels to cover the high speed avenues of approach to the river. His crews reported that the Confederates advanced down the Somerton Road “10,000 strong” before moving off into the woods. This report prompted MG Peck to remove his artillery and leave the defense of the river to Lamson’s boats.

On the 13th Cushing sent back a young Confederate that deserted to his boats. He was extremely suspicious that intelligent young enemy soldier was a spy. After interrogation he discovered several discrepancies in the man’s story. Cushing was afraid to keep the man aboard for fear that he would “go back to them with information at night.” Otherwise he reported that he found “no point on this river that can be called a good artillery position.” Accordingly, he reported that he had “no doubt that our light boats can retain command of the Nansemond.” The feeling of safety was not universal. Cushing also reported that the gathering of forces in the area led to the “women and children” of the area reporting to him seeking refuge from the impending fight.

The situation was much different for LT Lamson on the upper Nansemond. At around 1600 the enemy “appeared on the Somerton Road” and were driven back by the combined fire of the Mount Washington, Cohasset, and Alert. Asked by MG Peck if he could hold the river against 5,000 men, Lamson replied that he thought he could if “they had no more than one light battery.” Enemy artillery was on the way and the tense situation at the river was about to change.

Siege of Suffolk (Campaign Series)

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