previous next

Yankee gunboat Smith Briggs. from the Times-dispatch, March 18, 1906, and July 15, 1906.

Survivor, in search of information, learns how it was captured by Rebels.

Some interesting war history, with additional particulars in a letter of Mr. B. A. Sowell.

The correspondence below would be interesting merely as an exchange of letters. It is doubly interesting in that it brings out some war history that otherwise might be forever lost.

This letter is given just as it was received by the head citizen of the town of Smithfield, Va.

Philadelphia, Pa., February 22nd, 1906.
To the Mayor or Head Citizen of the Town of Smithfield, Isle of Wight County, Virginia:
Dear Sir,—i am Seeking Information on Something occurred Some 42 years ago if you were not then a Resident of the Town Perhaps Some one to whom you Show this Letter Can help you out with the information That i Desire on the first Day of February 1864 i was taken a Prisoner of War in the town of Smithfield along with 12 New york Calvary and a Detachment of the 99th New york Infantry and Some of my Battery A 3rd Pa. Heavy artillery and some of Battery B 3rd Pa. artillery making some 110 all told and one of our Light Draught Gunboats Named Smith Briggs was Blown up By the Soldiers opposing us. our Commander By the Name of Captain Lee a Newyork man was a Coward and he Drew us up in Line on the first road Next to the Little River which i think was Called Pagan Creek told the Boys all who were in favor of Surrender Hold up their Right Hand the New yorkers Hands went up almost to a man only one Pennsylvanian Sent up his hand the New yorkers had the Strongest Side So Captain Lee Signed the Surrender Looking [163] as white as this Paper i am writing upon Now Thought i would be among you in December Last and Could ask the Questions for myself on my Return from the Dedication of a Monument at Andersonville, Ga. to all who Died Down there in 1864 and 1865 But on account of a Bad Spell of Rheumatism i could not go to Georgia to the Dedication So i am Now Confined to the House with the Same Trouble So i Thought i would write to See if i Could get Some Information to Gladden the Heart of the only one besides myself who is living out of 110 who was taken at Smithfield the Information i would Like to get is what the Name of the Battery opposed us and the Name of the Cavalrymen and the Regiment of Infantry. Perhaps Some one may be in your Town to Day who was in the fight who Could tell you all about it i am only 63 years old and Surely Some one is a Living at this Day who Saw That Little fight.

What Become of the Remnents of the Gun Boat and how far was it to That Peice of Woods where the fight opened on Saturday how far is it to Ivor Station where one of our Wounded was Burried if it isn't to tiresome Give me a Good Long Letter how things went on in Smithfield until after the Close of one of the Most Unjust Wars That History Ever Recorded and my Prayers are That Such a War will never Take Place again in this Great Country of ours to mar the peace and Happiness of the Greatest Country on the Face of God's Earth.

We were Taken to Belle Isle Near Richmond and on the 10 Day of March we were Taken to Andersonville Georgia marched in the Stockade Down there on St. Patrick's Night March 17th Released October 18th 1864 and 5 came home and only two now left if you can't find time to answer give this to Some Good and Kind Hearted Lady to answer. Enclosed Please find Stamps for answer, my Name and address William W. Rodgers, 2553 North Colorado Street, Philadelphia, Pa.

Fraternally yours,

Mayor Joyner, of Smithfield, referred the above letter to Mr. R. S. Thomas, who, in making the following full reply, added to the store of very interesting Confederate history.


Mr. Thomas' reply.

Smithfield, Va., Feb. 27, 1906.
William W. Rogers, Esq., No. 2553 North Colorado Street, Philadelphia, Pa.
My Dear Sir,—Yours of February 22d, to the Mayor or head citizen of the town of Smithfield, relative to the destruction of the Federal gunboat Smith Briggs and the capture of the Federal forces under Captain Lee, on the 1st day of February, 1864, was received by V. C. Joyner, Mayor of the town, on the 24th of this month, and he, on the same day, delivered the letter to me for reply. I will give you the information you desire, so far as I can, with a great deal of pleasure.

My brother, J. O. Thomas, of Four Square, now in his seventy-third year, was an active participant in the engagement of February I, 1864. I have frequently heard him narrate the circumstances with great circumstantiality, and on Saturday night last I went up to his house and got him to repeat the story so that I might give it to you with freshness and accuracy.

Captain Sturdivant, of Richmond, Va., with two pieces of artillery, with two small companies of North Carolina infantry, and with a few cavalrymen of that State, went down to Cherry Grove, about ten miles from Smithfield, where he had a splendid and unobstructed view of the whole river front from that point to Norfolk, so that he might see and report anything and everything that was going on.

While he was going to Cherry Grove the Smith Briggs was bringing Captain Lee and his men to Smithfield for a similar purpose. They were unobserved by Captain Sturdivant, and were entirely unsuspected by him.

On Sturdivant's return from Cherry Grove, he suddenly, and to his amazement, ran into the forces under Captain Lee, at Six Oaks, near Scott's Factory, about four miles from Smithfield.

A slight engagement ensued. The result of it was, Lee fell back to Smithfield, and Sturdivant went on his way, westwardly, to Ivor.

In going to Ivor he passed right by my brother's farm—Four Square—an estate of about three thousand acres, about four miles from Smithfield, and about seven miles from Six Oaks. [165]

My brother, on learning the strength of Captain Lee's forces, and that they were ‘ bottled up’ in Smithfield, without the protection of their gunboat, sent a note to Captain Sturdivant, at Ivor, soliciting his return, saying the capture of Lee's forces in Smithfield was an easy thing to do.

Sturdivant returned promptly.

My brother joined his command at Jones' store, (two miles from Smithfield), and conducted them to Steven's store (less than half a mile from the town).

At Steven's store—Lee's forces in Smithfield—posted right on the top of Todd's Hill, at the junction of Church and Main streets, could easily be seen by Captain Sturdivant. Captain Sturdivant sent a note to Captain Lee, demanding instant surrender, and signed that note as Brigadier-General.

Captain Lee replied, asking an interview with the officer in command of the Confederate forces.

My brother told Sturdivant that Lee was expecting his gunboat, and was playing for time. He asked Captain Cheshire, a boatman, who was present, what tide was it? Cheshire replied that it was flood tide.

My brother then informed Captain Sturdivant that this was the tide that would bring the Smith Briggs up to take on and rescue Captain Lee's forces. He urged immediate action.

The demand for instant surrender was renewed. It was refused.

The officer bearing the refusal (Sergeant Hennis) returned with his horse in a run all the animating influences of whip and spur, saying before he alighted, that the expected gun-boat was in sight.

During these negotiations, Captain Sturdivant, at the suggestion of my brother, moved up his forces, a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards to Spratley's Hill, on the same road, just out of the corporate limits of the town.

When the demand for surrender was refused—my brother, who was perfectly familiar with every foot of the ground—suggested to Captain Sturdivant, that he divide his infantry forces into two columns — the one on the right to be led by him down and through ravines and behind houses to the Presbyterian church on Church street; the other on the left to be led by Junius Wilson [166] and Captain Cheshire, through other ravines and behind other houses to and through the lot of William Henry Jordan, at the top of Todd's Hill—thus assailing, unobserved, Captain Lee's forces on both flanks. Whilst the artillery was all the while engaging them in front.

When the columns led by my brother emerged through the ravines into Church street, at the Presbyterian church, less than one hundred yards distant from Captain Lee, it was immediately observed by him and his men; and they broke and ran down Todd's Hill to the county wharf, where they threw the artillery overboard, and then ran down and along the creek to the lot of William H. Day, and to Hodge's Shipyard adjoining, seeking the shelter and protection of the Smith Briggs.

Sturdivant, observing the panic, instantly pursued, quickly placed one of his guns on the county wharf and sent the other to the hill at Hodge's Shipyard, and thus at both places had the gunboat in full sight and in easy range. The gun on the county wharf sent a shot through her and right into her steam chest. She instantly surrendered.

A part of Captain Lee's force was captured in the garden of William Henry Day, in a large vacant house in the shipyard, and at other places on the creek front.

Captain Lee and some six or seven men swam the creek to the mainland and thus reached Old Town (now Battery Park), at the mouth of Pagan Creek, where they signalled passing boats, and thus escaped.

Six Oaks is four miles from Smithfield in the southeast. Ivor is eighteen miles from Smithfield to the west. Four Square is four miles from Smithfield on the road to Ivor.

The North Carolina Cavalry with Sturdivant's Battery, was under the command of Captain Pipkin. I do not know the names of the captains of the two small infantry companies.

A red-hot Rebel.

In going to Ivor you stopped at ‘Four Square’ for water. You may remember the lady of the house as a red-hot Rebel. Captain Pipkin had on his horse behind him, a boy of your command, some twelve or thirteen years of age, who was a little ‘sassy’ to her. She recognized him after the war, in the Green [167] House of the Soldier's Home, at Hampton, Va. She was admiring his flowers when there was a mutual recognition.

After the surrender of the Smith Briggs she was set on fire, and when the flames reached her magazine, with two tons of powder, she was blown all to pieces. The wreck remained until 1867 or 1868, when it was removed by the general government, or some of its agents.

I own and have lived at the lot formerly known as the William Henry Jordan lot, right at the top of Todd's Hill, ever since January I, 1868.

I have a memento of the fight of February 1, 1864, in my yard, a cannon-ball right at the front-door step. I found it here, and here it has been ever since. There were some other cannon balls, in the trees and houses about town, but they have all disappeared.

Smithfield has grown greatly since those days. It is now a prosperous and flourishing town, with paved streets, and sidewalks, with water, gas, public and private schools, with many churches; with two banks, with several peanut factories, and with many curers of the celebrated Smithfield hams. Of course, that industry flourishes on my brother's estate. He has been a curer of these hams ever since 1855. He is now in his seventy-third year of his age, and he and his wife, still a Rebel, celebrated their golden wedding last November.

We are very sorry to know that you have been such a sufferer from rheumatism. If it ever allows you to travel, we would be glad to see you. If you would like to have the full name of Captain Sturdivant, I will endeavor to get it. If there be any other information that you would like to have relative to the engagements alluded to, or to the town and its people, I will be pleased to furnish it.

Yours truly,

Dear Sir,—I was very much pleased to see your description of the capture of the gunboat Smith Briggs at Smithfield in the [168] Times-Dispatch of recent date. I was a member of Captain Nat. A. Sturdivant's battery of Artillery, but was not present at Smithfield; was with those who went to Cherry Grove the day before, and as Mr. Rodgers expressed the wish that some one would give an account of the engagement at Scott's Factory, and as all of our commissioned officers are now dead, this account if given at all must be by some other of those present.

I cannot give the names of other captains of companies engaged, nor the number of the North Carolina Regiment at that time stationed at Ivor, but it was from Clingman's Brigade, and Colonel Jordan was its commander. He (Colonel J.) was in command of the line of the Blackwater.

Our battery was in winter quarters about a mile from Ivor and nearer the river. In some way Col. J. was informed that a gunboat was expected up the Nansemond River, and that it would be possible for artillery to either capture or destroy it. The force despatched for that purpose consisted of the first section of our artillery and one small company of infantry (its actual number was forty-seven); also about one dozen cavalrymen, who were to act as pickets.

We remained at Cherry Grove until after high tide, and on our return were met by a cavalryman on top of the hill before reaching the Factory. Had stopped to wait for the pickets to come in. The courier told Captain Sturdivant that the Yankees had landed at Smithfield, and thought there were some two or three hundred of them.

The Yankees were evidently close behind the courier, for he was taken prisoner on reaching the woods on top of the opposite hill.

Mr. Whitfield, the Confederate Congressman from your district, was passing along, and was made prisoner, also.

Having that information, Captain Sturdivant started to go to the junction with the Smithfield Road to prevent being cut off, and wait there for the pickets. With no thought of the enemy being so near, we marched in column, and very soon after the head of the column passed the dwelling houses, we were fired upon from ambush at a distance of less than two hundred yards.

It was the first time Captain Sturdivant was under fire, and no veteran could have displayed greater coolness. He sat his horse and gave his commands with apparent calmness. It was his demeanor that put confidence in his men, and all stood at their posts, [169]

We remained at least an hour after firing had ceased, searching for Lieutenant Perkins, of the infantry, but did not find him at the time. He died of his wound.

Under the circumstances, the captain did not think it prudent to keep the direct road, but went back some distance and took another road to camp.

We had not gone to sleep before a messenger came with an order to proceed at once to Smithfield, as the Yankees had gone back to that place. It was then that two companies of infantry were sent.

I think a company of cavalry was already near Smithfield.

There was an intermission in the firing which perhaps Mr. Rodgers could explain.

I have always thought strange of the fact that they did not charge us, for we marched in plain view for about three-fourths of a mile, and they could have counted every man of us, and must certainly have known our weakness. The pickets came up during the engagement.

If Mr. Rodgers should desire to ask for further information concerning the Scott's Factory fight, I would take pleasure in replying if able to give what he wanted.

I have taken the liberty of addressing this to you, so that all parties connected with this correspondence might have some knowledge of the facts, and will leave it for you to communicate to Mr. Rodgers-and should the facts given be thought worthy of a place in history, would not object to seeing them in the Times-Dispatch.

Yours very truly,

Note.—Sturdivant's Battery continued with its effective work on many bloody fields throughout the war, and its commander was promoted to the rank of Major. He was a popular and prominent lawyer of Richmond.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: