Suffolk – Introduction
Following the overwhelming Confederate victory at Fredericksburg in December of 1862 the primary Union army, the Army of the Potomac, fell into disarray and ceased to pose an immediate threat. Robert E. Lee took advantage of this respite to address another challenge by Federal forces. The growing number of Union troops and increased activity in the Tidewater region of Virginia seemed to evidence a challenge to the Confederate capital. These indications were enough to convince Lee that the threat to the capital was legitimate and that it was necessary and militarily prudent to detach a portion of his forces to oppose it. Writing to LTG James Longstreet on 18Feb1863 Lee instructed the I Corps commander “to move two divisions of your corps towards (the) James River.”
After ensuring that the divisions (McLaw, Anderson, and Ransom) of his corps that were to remain with the Army of Northern Virginia were properly established in defensive position on the Rappahannock River, Longstreet moved the remaining two (Pickett and Hood) east. On 26Feb1863 Longstreet assumed command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina with his headquarters at Petersburg. In addition to his organic troops, he absorbed the Department of Southern Virginia which consisted of a division commanded by MG Samuel G. French. The purpose of this deployment was four fold:
1. Protect the Confederate capital from the expected attack. Lee promised Longstreet that if this came to be he would send forward the divisions he had left behind on the Rappahannock.
2. Support the operations of the Army of Northern Virginia as directed. Lee saw little opportunity for offensive actions against the numerically superior Union forces but wanted Longstreet to be prepared to react to any move by the enemy.
3. Forage the area for supplies. The badly denuded area of northern Virginia could not support the ANV and the new sources of supply had to be exploited.
4. Reduce the Federal garrison at Suffolk, if possible.
In an effort to accomplish the logistical portion of the mission Longstreet moved his forces as far forward as possible. Longstreet justified the move in his memoirs stating that to secure “a goodly supply of produce along the east coast of Virginia and North Carolina, inside the military lines of the Federal forces. To collect and transport this to accessible points for the Confederates, it was necessary to advance our divisions so as to cover the country, and to hold the Federal forces in and about their fortified positions while our trains were at work. ”
This decision to expand his area of influence made confrontation inevitable. While MG D. H. Hill moved towards the Federal position at New Berne, North Carolina Longstreet moved closer to the enemy garrison at Suffolk. The opportunity to fulfill the fourth goal led to the fight for Suffolk. Sandwiched between the great Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Longstreet’s operations in Virginia have been overlooked and nearly forgotten.
Union Build Up and a Bizarre Incident
The Confederate concern about the growing threat to the Virginia Tidewater area and North Carolina was not without justification. Union forces were indeed flooding into Fort Monroe and Newport News as IX Corps was transferred into the area. As with all military build ups the move was encumbered by a myriad of coordination and logistical details. The pace of the movement was dictated by the availability of transportation and left the early arrivals, including the 9th New York (Hawkins’s Zouaves) and the 51st New York to await the arrival of the remainder of the units. The boredom of garrison duty gave rise to recreational endeavors. Baseball “nines” were formed and games became a regular amusement. A series of games was played in the early part of March between the Zouaves and the team from the 51st. The Zouaves bragged that they “were nearly always victorious.” Horse racing also came into fashion with the biggest race pitting the Brigade Commander Colonel Rush Hawkins and his mount against a member of the staff, a Captain Stevens. A huge crowd gathered for the event which was won by Hawkins much to “the chagrin and humiliation of the partisans of Captain Stevens.”
All was not fun and games however. The rest of the Corps was eventually debarked and a grand review was held on 25 February. The units were designated for assignment and began deployment shortly thereafter. The rush of units into the forward areas changed the attitudes from the pursuit of recreational diversion to operational mindset. This transformation led to a tragic and bizarre incident. Among the last units to depart was the 9th New York. On 3 April they boarded the Robert Morris and sailed to Portsmouth. On 11 April they marched out 27 miles to Suffolk where they occupied the camp of the 103rd New York who were on picket duty. LTC Edgar Kimball while either going to or returning from General Getty’s headquarters to report the arrival of the regiment became involved with a sentry post that was having difficulty securing the correct password from a mounted party. In defense of the beleaguered sentry who was being harangued by the mounted men Kimball also challenged the men attempting to pass. In the dark he personally issued the challenge but instead of the countersign he was confronted with the claim that the unseen men were being led by BG Michael Corcoran and they demanded to pass. Stubbornly Kimball refused to give in and heated words were exchanged. In an effort to explain his part in the affair Corcoran wrote that Kimball answered his announced identity by explaining “I do not care a (expletive) who you are.” Having his command authority openly challenged in front of staff sat poorly with Corcoran. He continued his explanation of the incident writing:
“I then told him to get out of my way and attempted to proceed. He thereupon put himself in a determined attitude to prevent my progress. It was at this point I used my weapon.”
A shot rang out from Corcoran’s revolver and Kimball fell dead with a bullet through the neck. The unfortunate and unnecessary incident led to many hard feelings between the soldiers of the 9th and Corcoran’s headquarters. To quell any chance at further violence General Getty ordered the 9th to the forward lines at Fort Nansemond. Here the 9th spent its final 22 days of service “constantly under fire.”Siege of Suffolk (Campaign Series)