Repercussions and Retreat
For the Union soldiers at Fort Huger the expected attack to regain the fort never materialized. Only a barely perceptible probe by the 55th North Carolina tested their resolve to hold their prize. The attention of the Confederate command shifted to the blame game. Longstreet called the event “a serious disaster” and that the defeat came as a result of an “entire want of vigilance” by the troops there. He insinuated that General French had not lent proper support to the battery because the regiment meant to supply that support was never called upon to react. A dispatch from Longstreet to French, dated the 19th lends credence to his assessment, he asked “have you the regiment of infantry so placed as to support the batteries in time should the enemy attempt to land an infantry force against them?”
On the 21st, Assistant Adjutant General Sorrel of Longstreet’s staff, wrote a scathing report assigning blame to French for “a most remarkable and discreditable instance of an entire absence of vigilance”. Not surprisingly, when French’s report finally arrived at Longstreet’s headquarters he pushed the responsibility down the chain of command stating that “Colonel Cunningham (acting for French who claimed illness) instructed Colonel Connally (55th NC) to support the batteries.” He concludes the report with the excuse that “they did not offer a sufficient resistance.”
It mattered little. Around 1500 the order to leave the exposed position was issued by MG Peck. According to BG Getty the “artillery, intrenching tools, surplus ammunition, c&” were removed by the Stepping Stones. The last troops, most likely from the 117th NY, were put back on the east shore by 0030 on the 21st by small boats after the Stepping Stones had difficulty negotiating the shallow waters on the return trip. Acting Rear Admiral Lee reacted strongly to the removal of the Union force “against the urgent remonstrance of LT Lamson.” He acted upon his previous threat and called for the removal of the “little gunboats” that were “so much called for” but “really necessary elsewhere.” If the enemy batteries might be replaced upon the retreat of the Union force then Lee did not wish to hazard his boats further. As might be expected, MG Peck reacted strongly to the news. He replied to Lee in a challenging tone:
“This is a very late day to advise the authorities of the inability of the Navy to hold water communications.”
He continued to chide the naval Commander stating that “your boats are all safe were you ordered them.” He then proclaimed that if inter-service cooperation was to end that “boats or no boats, I shall hold the river.” The heated exchange continued when Lee replied that Peck’s land force in “earthworks and rifle pits” was more than adequate to deal with the emergency. He also suggested that it was obvious to “every candid and intelligent professional mind that had General Longstreet really intended to force a crossing of the upper Nansemond with the reputed means at his command” he could have done so despite the presence of the improvised gunboats that he had placed there. His point was never to be proven.
After the capture of Fort Huger “nothing of special interest occurred Until May 3.” The Union forces continued to work “vigorously” on their defenses and occasionally probed the enemy lines. The Confederates satisfied themselves with continued attempts to harass river traffic with new batteries but made no offensive moves with their ground forces. On the 3rd the Federals mounted a reconnaissance in force along the Providence Church and Reed’s Ferry roads.
The plan called for “two expeditions” to cross the river at different locations and seize Reed’s Ferry and advance to “feel the enemy’s left.” The first of these was comprised of the 103rd NY, 89th NY, 25th NJ, 13th NH*, and two batteries of artillery. Their advance easily pushed the enemy pickets away from the river and into the main defenses. The effort was then reinforced by three Connecticut regiments (11th, 15th, and 16th) who moved up to take the front of the move. Their efforts revealed that the Confederates were “strongly posted” and terrain restrictions (swamp) prevented them from being flanked. After consultation it was determined that “a direct assault had to be made on the front” of the enemy defenses. Unwilling to spend “a great sacrifice of life” in an assault on the rebel works the units were retired under the cover of the 117th NY in the rifle pits near the bridge. The operation cost the Union forces sixty killed and wounded.
The second force made up of the 4th RI, 21st CT, 4th WI, and detachments from the 117th NY and 1st NY Mounted Rifles crossed at two points at Sleepy Hole. The two parties pushed forward on different routes to Reed’s Ferry capturing 16 men on the way. When they were unable to communicate with the other force they retreated to the Nansemond and dug in. After a tense night they were recovered to the eastern shore on the morning of the 4th. The effort cost 2 killed and 4 wounded. The next day Longstreet’s forces were gone, called back by Lee in response to the Chancellorsville campaign.
Conclusion and Assessment
The inability to control water traffic with land based artillery ruined any hope of success Longstreet might have enjoyed. It was a recurring theme for the Confederacy during the Civil War that highlighted their failure to develop an effective naval force. Without means to cross the river Longstreet could not actually threaten Suffolk. The siege was never a siege at all. The Confederates did manage to successfully complete 75% of the intended purpose in the region. They scoured the area for the badly needed supplies. They prevented an attack on Richmond, although it is unclear that such an operation was ever seriously considered by the Union command. They were well prepared to return to the ANV, although they arrived a bit late for the great victory at Chancellorsville.Siege of Suffolk (Campaign Series)