Siege of Suffolk envelops Hampton Roads

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."

Longstreet's dilemma

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.