Siege of Suffolk envelops Hampton Roads

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."