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Doc. 64.-the siege of Suffolk, Va.

April and May, 1863.

the siege of Suffolk was raised on the third of May, 1863, almost simultaneously with the mortifying disaster at Chancellorsville.

The latter event in its absorbing influence upon the public mind drew away all thought from the minor operations about Suffolk, and in the absence of any apparent important results, the stubborn and successful defence of that town has never received a tithe of the public recognition its merit warranted. Close examination of the facts, however, will reveal that in two points of view it presents one of the most interesting chapters of the war.

1st. In its bearing upon the general progress of our arms, and secondly, as presenting to the military student an example of the defence of a fortified place against an enormous investing force, in which the entire success of the garrison was unblemished by a single reverse. Its fortifications were hastily constructed by the troops with incredible labor, they were guarded with a sleepless vigilance and defended with unflinching bravery and tireless energy.

Longstreet designed to make a sudden descent in overwhelming force; to cross the Nansemond, a narrow and crooked stream, and overwhelm the garrison, or at least seize the roads to Norfolk and cut off the supplies. In either event there would have been no earthly obstacle to his marching unchecked into Norfolk and Portsmouth, as two small and raw regiments alone constituted the garrison of those places. His designs were. brought to naught by the watchfulness and skill of the Federal commander, and the obstinate resistance of the Federal troops when conscious of their danger.

Longstreet's plans were laid with a completeness, forethought, and subtlety, that at once stamp him as the able leader he is known to be. Had General Peck permitted his army to be surprised, beaten or captured by his wily and daring foe, it would have only been in imitation of a precedent that has unfortunately been too often established by some of our officers, and his reputation as a soldier might have been blasted for ever, despite his previously long and honorable career. But in him the rebel general found an adversary whose watchfulness was more than a match for his own skill and daring. Justice to General Peck requires that even at this late day the true history of the Suffolk campaign should be made public.

Suffolk lies at the head of the Nansemond, twelve miles from its confluence with the James. Two railroads unite at this town, one from Norfolk to Petersburgh, the other from Portsmouth to Weldon, etc., N. C. By means of them General Peck's supplies were forwarded from Norfolk, a distance of twenty miles, and on the other hand the rebel stores and reenforcements were forwarded from the opposite extremities almost to the very lines of investment. [291]

The objects of Longstreet's attack were important and manifold. By crossing the narrow Nansemond and occupying the railroads in rear, the city would fall an easy prey together with its thirteen thousand defenders, its vast commissary, quartermaster, medical, and ordnance stores, and sixty miles of railroad iron. Thence the occupation of Norfolk would be but a holiday march. It is also assumed that the éclat attaching to the name of a General who should accomplish these objects, may have had some influence on a mind notoriously eager for military renown.

To crown his undertaking with success three preliminary movements were carefully planned and put into execution.

1st. The Suffolk garrison must be weakened. To accomplish this, Hill was sent with a considerable force to attack Little Washington, N. C., whence he could in three or four days rejoin the main army in Virginia.

2d. Pontoon and siege trains were collected at proper points and held in readiness for an instant move.

3d. The troops were also conveniently stationed in such manner that they might be literally precipitated upon the doomed town, sixteen thousand being posted on the Blackwater, the remainder along the railway to Petersburgh. As was anticipated, Hill's movement resulted in an order directing General Peck to forward three thousand troops to General Foster. It will now be seen in what manner was sprung the trap thus skilfully prepared.

Longstreet's spies advised him promptly of the order removing the three thousand troops, and he instantly put his army in march, crossed the Blackwater on several bridges, with four divisions,1 in all thirty thousand men, moving in three columns, and by a forced march arrived in a few hours before the Federal camps, surprising and capturing the cavalry pickets as they advanced.

The Federal General, from information given by spies, deserters, contrabands, and the contents of a captured rebel mail, fathomed the plans of the rebel commander, and was in readiness to receive him. Admiral Lee having been telegraphed, gunboats were sent up the Nansemond, in readiness to resist and delay, though it was impossible for them to prevent a crossing. Seeing this, Longstreet apparently made a sudden change of plan, and resolved to carry the place by storm. His columns advanced on our works, capturing pickets as above stated, just as the reenforcements for General Foster were leaving on the train. As a matter of course these troops were retained.

The enemy, upon coming within range of our works, found them firmly garrisoned and bristling with steel. An interchange of a few shots convinced them that the surprise was a total failure, and there remained only their numerical superiority as a guarantee for final success. Leaving a considerable force in front of the main defences of the town, who from time to time en gaged our troops to divert attention from his real designs, he then directed his attention to the Nansemond.

The first object to be attained was of course to destroy or expel the army and navy gunboats from the river. As the gunboats consisted only of a half-dozen armed tugs and ferry-boats, (of these the Smith Briggs and West End being army boats,) with machinery and magazines unprotected, almost unable to manoeuvre in the narrow, shallow, and crooked stream, this was apparently an easy task. In the silence of the night, battery after battery was constructed and powerful guns placed in position at points favorable to command the stream and protect a bridge. These batteries, as soon as unmasked, engaged the gunboats. Fortunately the river fleet was commanded by two officers, young in years, but of unconquerable bravery skill, and pertinacity. And though the frail steamers were riddled with countless shot-holes, and a long list of casualties attested the severity of their trials, they were never driven from the river, and but for a few days from the close vicinity of the town. The army gunboats, under Captains Lee and Rowe, never left the Upper Nansemond.

To Brigadier-General Getty, commanding Third division Ninth army corps, was intrusted the defences of the Nansemond River. A more capable officer or more efficient troops could not have been selected for this arduous and responsible duty. The nature of the duty is comprehended in the statement that five thousand men were to hold a line eight miles long, and prevent forty thousand from crossing a stream too small to permit a large steamer from turning round. Moreover, the banks of the Nansemond were of such a character that troops could not, without making long marches around ravines, creeks, and swamps, pass as reenforcements from one point to another. To remedy this feature in the topography, General Getty instantly commenced the construction of a military road several miles long, including several bridges and long spaces of corduroy, following the general course of the river-bank. By means of the most unheard of exertions the troops completed this road in three days, making it passable for artillery.

As soon as the rebel batteries on the opposite bank were unmasked, General Getty's skill as an artillerist was brought into play with remarkable effect. In company with Colonel Dutton, commanding his Third brigade, (an officer of engineers,) he selected positions for rifle-pits and batteries. The ground was traced out at nightfall, and the next morning the astonished rebels would be saluted in their works by a storm of rifled shells, fired by invisible gunners. This system of warfare continued for several days, the rebels continually striving to gain a permanent foothold on some point of the shore, and being as continually baffled by the resistless gunnery of our land batteries and the gunboats.

On the eighteenth of April, however, it seemed that their object was finally accomplished. An [292] earth-work, mounting five heavy rifled guns, was established at Hill's Point, about six miles from Suffolk, and of such strong profile and skilful construction that our missiles could only bury themselves harmlessly in the parapet, while from their protected position they maintained a destructive fight with the gunboats. The Mount Washington, already disabled in an unequal contest with a battery higher up, grounded off Hill's Point, directly under the rebel guns. Her companions refused to leave her in this emergency, and then for six long hours raged one of the most desperate and unequal contests of the war. The gallant Lamson, on his crippled-vessel, and the equally gallant Cushing, stood over their smoking guns and bleeding gunners till the rising tide at last floated them off in safety. The Commodore Barney showed one hundred and fifty-eight ball and bullet-holes in her hull and machinery; the Mount Washington was even worse riddled.

Admiral Lee having now ordered the gunboats out of the Upper Nansemond, matters wore a desperate aspect. At this crisis the fertile genius of Lieutenant Lamson devised a plan which was approved by General Peck, the conception of which was only less brilliant than its subsequent execution. He proposed to General Getty the capture of the Hill's Point battery. The following extract, from an eye-witness, describes this brilliant feat:

Shortly before sunset, on the nineteenth of April, the gunboats on the river, and the four rifled guns at and near battery Stevens, opened a terrific fire upon the rebel battery. Meantime, detachments from the Eighty-ninth New-York volunteers, Lieutenant-Colonel England, and Eighth Connecticut, Colonel Ward, in all two hundred and eighty men, embarked on board the gunboat Stepping Stones, Lieutenant Lamson, at a point about a mile above the battery. Protected by the artillery fire, the gunboat boldly steamed down the river, and ran close to the shore about two hundred yards above the rebel works, the shore at that point being an abrupt bluff. Immediately the troops disembarked, wading to their waists in water, ascended the bluff, and with loud cheers charged on the rear of the fort. Meantime, the gunboat's crew had landed four boat howitzers, placed them in position, and opened on the fort. The enemy, taken completely by surprise, were able to discharge but two or three volleys of musketry, and one gun, when our troops entered the work and captured the entire party of seven officers and one hundred and thirty men, with five brass guns and a large supply of ammunition.

The capture of the Hill's Point battery alarmed the rebels to such an extent that they instantly turned their attention to securing their own position. Defensive lines of vast length and considerable strength protected their front for a distance of several miles, trees were felled and abattis planted in front, and every measure which the resources of skilful engineering could devise were adopted to resist the terrible artillery fire of our batteries, and to foil sorties should any be made.

General Peck, continually vigilant to observe any change in the location, strength, or plans of the enemy, repeatedly sent out columns of moderate strength to attack the enemy. A reconnoissance, made on the twenty-fourth, by General Corcoran on the Edenton, and another by Colonel Foster on the Somerton road resulted in lively skirmishes, in which the enemy's outposts were driven back to their main lines, before whose formidable strength our weak columns were in turn compelled to retire.

General Peck had divided his entire circle of defence (including the Nansemond) into sections of convenient length, to the direct responsibility of which he assigned his principal subordinates. That of General Getty, which was by far the longest and weakest, was subsequently subdivided into the line of the Jericho, under General Harland, and that of the Nansemond, under Colonel Dutton.

The vast labors performed by Getty's division during the three weeks of the siege, consisting of forts, rifle-pits, batteries, roads, bridges, and timber-cutting, must be seen to be appreciated. Nevertheless, these troops exhibited to the last no other feeling than that of the most praiseworthy patience, courage, and devotion to duty.

Every able-bodied man in this division was employed every day, and not unfrequently at night either on picket or fatigue duty. Repeatedly also, the pickets themselves were compelled to handle the pick and shovel.

An amusing incident is related in this connection. A soldier in a New-Hampshire regiment, while wearily digging during the small hours of the morning, was heard to remark to his neighbor: “I say, Bill! I hope ‘Old Peck’ will die two weeks before I do.”

“Why so?” queried his friend.

“Because he'll have hell so strongly fortified that I can't get in,” was the irreverent reply.

An inspection of the defences of the Nansemond at the close of the siege, would have convinced an observer that if the river Styx is ever made equally difficult to cross, the soldier's remark was not void of reason.

On the twentieth of April, rebel reenforcements commenced arriving, fresh from the fruitless siege of Little Washington. Before the thirtieth, more than ten thousand troops under General D. H. Hill had joined Longstreet. Fortunately, however, reenforcements from Washington had commenced arriving at Suffolk, and the enemy having lost the golden moments afforded by its originally weak condition, it was now regarded as almost impregnable.

Longstreet manifestly entertained a similar opinion, but was loth to relinquish his attempt, and with his accustomed pertinacity made new but futile efforts for final success. New batteries were secretly constructed and unmasked only to be silenced by the deadly fire of our gunboats and the Parrotts from our own works. Meantime instances of individual daring and skill, on the [293] part of both soldiers and sailors, were frequent, and prevented the siege from assuming a monotonous character. Many of these actions would adorn the pages of a romance, but the limited space of this sketch must exclude them.

By the second of May, the approaching terrible conflict between the armies of Hooker and Lee, compelled Longstreet to raise the siege. Continually on the alert, General Peck did not intend that his enemy should steal off secretly and unmolested, and no sooner had the retreat fairly commenced than he resolved to test its reality. On the third of May, therefore, a column about seven thousand strong, under Generals Getty and Harland, crossed the drawbridge and advanced up the Providence Church road. Simultaneously Colonel Dutton was directed to cross two small columns six or eight miles lower down, and attack the enemy in flank. General Getty encountered a powerful rear-guard of the enemy in a position of immense strength. From a cover of rifle-pits and abattis, and protected by impassable ground on either side, they poured a terrible fire of musketry and artillery across the plain over which our troops advanced. With undaunted bravery, however, they moved onward preceded by skirmishers and from noon till night maintained an unequal contest. The rebels were forced from all their advanced and some of their retired positions, but at nightfall still held their principal lines. During the night (which was excessively dark) they stole away while our weary troops rested on the field. Meantime Colonel Dutton had sent the Twenty-first Connecticut with a section of artillery and a dozen cavalrymen, in all less than four hundred men, across the Nansemond eight miles below. Advancing toward the village of Chuckatuck, they encountered the rebel cavalry about four hundred strong, who charged the column. Major Crosby commanding, instantly formed line and opened fire with musketry and artillery, promptly routing the enemy. Continuing his march, he was perpetually harassed by the enemy, who with skirmishers disputed his advance. But driving all before him, he arrived after a march of eight miles at the west branch of the Nansemond, which he had hoped to cross and feel the enemy's main force, but the bridge was burned, there was no means of crossing, and both banks of the stream were lined with the enemy. However, he advanced at double-quick, driving all those on his own side into the stream except eighteen whom he captured. Thus finding his further progress at an end, he marched down the West Branch to the Nansemond, where he bivouacked under cover of the gunboats.

Colonel Dutton with a small force crossed in row-boats at “Hill's point.” After advancing a short distance he found the enemy in largely superior numbers and strongly intrenched. Nevertheless, the attack commenced, and resulted of course in a repulse. The troops were then deployed as skirmishers and as such engaged the enemy the greater part of the day without important results. Colonel Dutton thus continued the action with the expectation that he would soon be joined by General Getty's advancing column.

About midnight on the third, our troops under Corcoran, Dodge, and Foster started in pursuit of the retreating foe, but only succeeded in capturing a few hundred stragglers before the enemy crossed the Blackwater.

Thus ended the memorable siege of Suffolk, resulting to the rebels in a gain of nothing and a loss of one thousand five hundred men, five guns, and a considerable quantity of small arms and stores.

The writer cannot relinquish his theme without allusion to contemporary events. As late as the second of May, Lieutenant-General Hill confronted Suffolk with some thirty thousand men, Longtreet having gone by rail with one division, to aid Lee at Chancellorsville. Of this fact, the writer who has every facility for information, speaks without fear of truthful contradiction. On the same day Hooker and Lee fought their desperate engagement in the “Wilderness.” Lee's army, thus depleted by Longstreet's diversion, numbered not far from fifty thousand, and Hooker knew that General Stoneman's operations would delay if not prevent reenforcements from Suffolk. The returns of the army of the Potomac for that date exhibit about one hundred and twenty-five thousand men present for duty, yet notwithstanding this disparity in numbers, our magnificent army, the boast of the North, was ignominiously defeated, despite the high-sounding proclamation that heralded its advance. This truth is mournful, yet it is no less a truth. Nor is it possible to review in connection the events of the last of April and first of May on the Rappahannock and on the Nansemond, without reflecting that had both Federal armies been commanded with equal ability, the united results might and could have been one of the most glorious triumphs to our arms that history has yet recorded.

The Richmond Examiner of the twenty-seventh November, 1863, has the following in its leading editorial upon Lieutenant-General Longstreet and his Knoxville and Suffolk campaigns, which are pronounced as parallel failures:

Perhaps the result might have been different if Longstreet and his corps of the Virginia army had been in line. His operations in East-Tennessee afford little compensation for the reverse at Chattanooga, nor have the late bare and scanty news from that quarter sustained the high hope which the public justly based on the first intelligence briskly forwarded by General Bragg. His telegram declared that Longstreet's cavalry had pursued the enemy into Knoxville; that the infantry was ‘close up,’ and it was natural to suppose that the next news would be that of Knoxville's recapture. But the next news from Longstreet contained a mention of intrenching, which suggested disagreeable reminiscences of Suffolk. Since then, little or nothing has been heard from Longstreet, unless we are to receive the ‘unofficial’ story of the telegraph this morning to be trustworthy. Oh! that it may be so! [294] His pressure on Burnside has, undoubtedly, quickened Grant's attack on Bragg; while the absence of his whole corps from the confederate line at the time of Sherman's arrival in the Federal host has given the enemy a great opportunity. It was during the parallel campaign of Longstreet against Suffolk that Hooker made his coup at Chancellorsville; but he found there Jackson, while Grant had to do with Bragg alone.

Honor to whom honor is due!

1 Those of Hood, French, Pickett, and Anderson.

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