Hill’s Point – First Effort
While the two sides probed and skirmished along the siege lines the Confederate battery at Hill’s Point continued to harass the Union boats on the river. Incidents on the 17th and 18th concerned LT Cushing enough about the safety of his flotilla that he proposed a solution. Lt Lamson also was concerned about the effectiveness of the enemy guns to suggest that his boats only “run down (the river) at night.” Both men believed that the enemy position was vulnerable to a land attack. Lamson went so far as to suggest that “it would be quite easy to throw a body of soldiers across here and march down in the rear of the battery and rifle pits that have annoyed us so much and capture them all.”
On the 17th he went to General Getty’s headquarters and requested support for such an operation. Getty thought the idea sound and gave Lamson about 200 men from the 10th New Hampshire Infantry for the amphibious effort. From the very beginning Lamson was suspicious of the commitment that these troops had for the mission. He noted that the very first thing that the land commander, COL Donohue, wanted verified was the signal for return to the boats. At 2300 he put the landing party ashore and went up to draw the attention of the enemy gunners. As he suspected the plan was short lived when the Granite Staters “marched about 50 yards” and returned to the boats when the enemy picket line was sighted. One history of the 10th New Hampshire stated that the men made a reconnaissance “across the river which developed the enemy in great force.” LT Cushing scoffed at the effort made by Col Donohue and his men. In a letter to Admiral Lee he stated that the mission failed because the “army men being frightened by nothing.” Explaining his opinion he noted that the land force had spent less than five minutes ashore and retreated after seeing “three rebel pickets running away.”
A disgusted Cushing re-introduced the idea with a request for “two lunches with 12 pounder howitzers” and a committed land force. He suggested a night time attack would be ideal for the new attempt. Lee again accepted the idea but suggested a daylight attack. In a bit of inter-service arm twisting he also sent Commander Pierce Crosby forward with a threat to remove all naval support from the river. The land commanders certainly would have realized that this meant free access across the river and would be forced to cooperate more fully. The next effort would be more committed or else.
Fort Huger Falls
Another effort to take the guns at Fort Huger went awry on the 18th when the assigned troops did not arrive at the boats in time for the planned night attack. Lamson again wrote to Lee explaining that although Getty was cooperating the subordinate leaders “have failed to do their part”. While the attack went on hold again another development on the river changed the course of the operations. In the wee hours of the morning on April 19th another battery of artillery (Alexandria Battery) was moved into a masked position north of Hill’s Point at Knob Hill. The new earthworks were created for two purposes; to help protect the Confederate works at Fort Huger and to further deny use of the river to the Union gunboats. Undeterred by the new threat to his flotilla, Lamson continued on with the operation.
The Confederate gunners did not have long to wait before they were tested. At 1000 five federal vessels appeared moving south up the river toward Suffolk. The guns at Knob Hill immediately cleared away the screening vegetation and took the Union fleet under fire. The Federal sailors responded and the supposed running of the batteries turned into a five hour artillery duel. The Union boats received assistance from the land based guns at Battery Stevens. With the enemy guns preoccupied another vessel, the USS Stepping Stones, was loaded with about 300 members of the 89th New York, 8th Connecticut, and four boat howitzers. A system of canvas screens was used to hide the landing party from view and the boat began the run up the river at 1730. As the Stepping Stones approached the gunboats a prearranged signal sounded by the steam whistle alerted the Union boats to reinvigorate their barrage. Behind the screen of smoke, haze, and confusion from the battle the Stepping Stones, with the assault force aboard, slipped past the guns at Knob Hill and Fort Huger nearly unscathed.
Lamson then gave another signal to stop the barrage and he “put the helm hard astarboard.” The boat glanced off an underwater obstacle but was recovered by the skillful maneuvering of LT Lamson. The boat stuck fast into the muddy bank in an area close enough so the Confederate guns could not be depressed enough to engage her. The assault force jumped off the boat into the waist deep water and waded ashore, led by CPT Hazard Stevens. The defending infantry, consisting of about 150 members of the 44th Alabama, was taken completely by surprise. The rifle pits along the banks were over run with almost no resistance. The Federals charged across a field and into the rear of the fort without firing a shot. A smattering of gunfire from the Confederate defenses caused the only casualties (4k, 10 w) of the entire affair before the position was surrendered. The reconnaissance effort and estimated force necessary had been perfect. As predicted by Lamson the fort had fallen easily. The entire compliment of Confederates was captured along with all the guns. The sole Confederate casualty was one man killed supposedly shot by his commander as he tried to run away.
The success of the Union assault was intended to be immediately reinforced but transportation difficulties delayed the process. During the course of the night and early morning five companies of the 10th NH, four companies of the 117th NY, a detachment of the 9th VT, and enough men from Battery A, 5th US artillery to man the captured guns were put across. The Federals went to work reversing the position and by the mid morning of the 19th “a formible line” had been created. Quite naturally they anticipated the Confederate response to their foray.Siege of Suffolk (Campaign Series)