By Mark St. John Erickson, firstname.lastname@example.org | 757-247-4783
April 14, 2013
No one remembers how high Lt. Amos Thayer had to climb on April 11, 1863, as he scrambled up to a tree-top observation post overlooking the western approaches to Suffolk.
But despite his lofty vantage point — and a panoramic prospect that Union axmen had cleared for 1,200 yards — the Signal Corps officer didn't see the Confederate legions of Maj. Gen. John B. Hood looming in the distant woods until the last moment.
The first warning came at 3:30 p.m. when a former slave reported large numbers of gray-clad infantrymen moving toward town from the distant Blackwater River. Then a desperate band of mounted Federals appeared on the gallop two-thirds of a mile away, some riding bareback in their haste and all spurring horses soaked with lather.
"Pickets driven in," Thayer signaled from his perch with his red-and-white "wig-wag" flags. "Reinforcements needed."
Enveloped by the advance wave of the Confederate tide, Thayer might have joined 16 captured Union cavalrymen had it not been for a timely rescue party. And as he fled into the 10-mile ring of earthen forts and rifle pits defending the town, the beating of drums, the pounding of hooves and the roar of cannon signaled the start of an epic struggle.
For 24 days, nearly 60,000 men faced off across the Nansemond River in a critical siege that pitted some of the South's best and most battle-hardened soldiers against a smaller Union force watched intently by Washington, D.C., as well as Fort Monroe. So thunderous were the ensuing artillery duels that they were heard as far away as Williamsburg, which was itself pulled into a region-wide wrestling match that helped shape the subsequent and better-known clashes at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
"What happened at Suffolk has been lost in the shadows of these other battles," says Suffolk-born historian Brian Steel Wills, author of "The War Hits Home: The Civil War in Southeastern Virginia."
"But back then, nobody knew how it was going to turn out. It was all a big puzzle, and the confusion and fear it caused stretched all the way to Washington and Richmond."
Building a Federal bastion
Occupied by mounted Union riflemen shortly after the South abandoned Norfolk and Portsmouth in May 1862, Suffolk straddled two crucial rail lines as well as a lightly defended corridor that ran south of the James River to Richmond.
It also posed a threat to the Confederate farm belt in northeast North Carolina.
Not until Maj. Gen. John J. Peck took command in early fall, however, did the Federals begin fortifying the town and using it as a base for increasingly ambitious operations.
Distinguished by his performances in the battles of Williamsburg, Seven Days and Malvern Hill, the West Point classmate of Ulysses S. Grant had recently revamped the Union defenses at Yorktown, improving them so thoroughly and so well that he was sent to do the same thing at Suffolk.
There he began constructing a formidable chain of earthworks and connecting trenches that ringed the town from the Nansemond River to the Great Dismal Swamp.
Designed to command the roads and railways leading into the Suffolk, the New Yorker's elaborate system of 10 forts gave his artillery and infantry converging fields of fire that extended at least half a mile to the nearest cover. It also provided his cavalry with easy access into the surrounding countryside, where they probed as far as the Blackwater River.
So diligently did Peck pursue his task that one Union general declared Suffolk "impregnable." But to the men who did the digging, their commander's obsession was a joke.
"I hope Old Peck will die two weeks before I do," one tired soldier quipped. "Because he will have Hell so strongly fortified…that I can't get in."
No one was laughing, however, after the initial Confederate tide of April 11 rolled back rather than face the withering fire of Peck's well-placed guns.
Least happy of all was Lt. Gen. James A. Longstreet, whose first command independent of Gen. Robert E. Lee was burdened by contradictory expectations.
Ordered south to find food for Lee's famished army, Longstreet also had to keep his men ready to return north at a moment's notice. And now the enemy he'd been told to attack if the chance arose was holed up behind a daunting wall of entrenchments.
Complicating his task still further was the flotilla of Navy gunboats sent from Fort Monroe and Newport News Point by Rear Adm. Samuel P. Lee, the general's third cousin, to patrol the vulnerable Union flank along the Nansemond River.
Commanded by 20-year-old Lt. William B. Cushing — whose heroism, luck and coolness under fire would become legend by the war's end — these converted ferries gave the Union a potent if vulnerable weapon.
"The gunboats added a whole new element to the equation," says Newport News historian J. Michael Moore, describing their firepower and mobility.
"Nobody in the Army of Northern Virginia had ever dealt with them before."
Fight for the Nansemond
That didn't stop the Confederates from digging in along the opposite bank and probing their foe's defenses.
Working through the night in shifts, they threw up 30 miles of earthworks and rifle pits in a few days, including several positions calculated to challenge the Union's grip on the river.
They struck first on April 14, opening fire from seven masked guns as a trio of vessels led by Lt. R.H. Lamson attempted to steam past a newly dug strongpoint at Norfleet's Point.
Within minutes, one gunboat was disabled by a shot through its boilers. Sharpshooters poured murderous fire into the fray as Lamson and the USS Stepping Stones struggled to tow the stricken ship to safety.
Not until Cushing and the USS Commodore Barney arrived did the Federal sailors fight their way out — and then only after suffering five killed and 14 wounded as well as heavy damage to their vessels.
"Lee didn't think the Nansemond was safe — and it wasn't. The Stepping Stones was hit 189 times," says historian Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"But when he orders the gunboats to leave, President Lincoln orders him to send them back."
Getty takes charge
Still, the Confederates held the advantage for two days, during which the river was virtually undefended.
But rather than pushing across, Longstreet paused while Brig. Gen. George Washington Getty — who had just arrived with reinforcements from Camp Butler at Newport News Point — labored around the clock to improve the Union's defenses.
Posting sharpshooters to blunt any crossing attempt, he led artillerymen, support troops and contraband workmen through the night, erecting two masked counter batteries aimed at Norfleet Point. At dawn, he ordered the screen of underbrush and tree limbs cut away from one, unleashing a storm of fire.
Almost instantly, the Southerners responded, exposing their position to the Union artillerists waiting in the other hidden battery.
"It was simple but effective," says Wills, now a historian at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, describing how fast the Confederates were silenced.
"Getty was sharp. He was active. He worked with the gunboats. He was a big reason the defense of Suffolk was successful."
Four days later — after sizing up his target from a tree — Getty staged his own attack with the Stepping Stones and 270 infantry.
Screening the soldiers with canvas, the gunboat approached the Confederate works at Hill's Point just after dark, blowing its whistle as if it intended to run past the guns. But 300 yards away Lamson turned and drove toward shore.
Grounding 30 feet from land, the expedition stalled perilously until Capt. Hazard Stevens of the 79th New York leapt into the waist-deep water and urged his men to follow. Fixing their bayonets, they raced to the undefended rear of the fort, followed by Lamson and four wheeled boat guns.
"They caught the Confederates completely off-guard," Suffolk historian O. Kermit Hobbs says, describing the lightning assault that earned Stevens the Medal of Honor.
"And that became the turning point of the siege."
Bringing home the bacon
So stunned and embarrassed were the Confederates that two officers staged a duel over who was more to blame for the debacle.
Newspapers across the South printed outraged editorials, heaping their ire on a rebel general who had been born in New Jersey.
After that stunning setback, however, the men in gray lost their fighting spirit.
Longstreet remained content to hold his lines and shield his massive foraging effort, leaving Suffolk only after sending millions of pounds of bacon, corn and feed north in a seemingly endless train of wagons.
That made him late for the early May Battle of Chancellorsville, where a badly outnumbered Lee had to rely upon lesser troops in a brilliant if unlikely triumph over the Army of the Potomac.
But when Longstreet finally arrived, he brought the provisions Lee so badly needed to take the war north to Pennsylvania.
"The food from Suffolk is what Lee and his army took to Gettysburg," former Virginia War Museum director John V. Quarstein says.
"Without it Gettysburg may never have happened."
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