April 11, 1863 – Confederate forces under Lieutenant General James Longstreet attacked the Federal garrison at Suffolk, Virginia, south of the James River.
Longstreet had been assigned to command a new department consisting of part of his First Corps pulled from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet’s mission was to guard the region south of Richmond into North Carolina, gather foodstuffs for Lee’s army since war-torn northern Virginia lacked sufficient forage, and eliminate the Federal threat at Suffolk.
Longstreet’s force included 20,000 men in two divisions led by Major Generals George Pickett and John Bell Hood. Since the main objective was to supply Lee, Longstreet merely planned to demonstrate against Suffolk to distract the Federals from his main purpose. A division of IX Corps consisting of about 25,000 Federals under Major General John J. Peck garrisoned Suffolk, which was part of Major General John A. Dix’s Federal military department. Suffolk was heavily fortified.
Confederates and Federals traded shots from across the Nansemond River, as Longstreet extended his right flank southward to Dismal Swamp. Fighting intensified over the next few days as Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, dispatched a fleet of gunboats under Lieutenant William B. Cushing to support Peck. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “If Suffolk falls, Norfolk follows.”
The gunboats U.S.S. Mount Washington, Stepping Stones, and Commodore Barney came up the crooked, narrow Nansemond and traded fire with the Confederate guns near the Norfleet house, at the confluence of a western branch of the Nansemond and the main river. The vessels were converted ferryboats and tugs, and were not meant for such heavy combat. The Confederates inflicted heavy losses as a result, including grounding the Mount Washington until the Stepping Stones rescued her.
However, the gunboats responded with accurate fire of their own, joined by Federal land batteries and troops behind their fortifications. The artillery duel continued the next day, when the Federal gunboats and artillerists silenced several Confederate batteries at the Norfleet house and along the Nansemond. The duel ended and a standoff began, as Longstreet initiated a siege of Suffolk.
Silencing the Confederate batteries opened a path up the Nansemond to the Confederate garrison at Fort Huger on Hill’s Point. Longstreet directed Major General Samuel G. French to station five cannon and three infantry companies in the empty fort to oppose the approaching Federal gunboats.
On the morning of the 19th, the Stepping Stones suddenly appeared about 400 yards from the fort, commanded by Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson. The ship’s guns sent the defenders running for cover, and then 270 soldiers of the 8th Connecticut and the 89th New York landed, along with four boat howitzers. The Federals charged into the fort before the Confederates could react, capturing 137 men and all five guns, some of which had been taken from Harpers Ferry last September.
The Federals initially strengthened the fort but then evacuated two days later, allowing the Confederates to take it back. However, the fort no longer posed a threat to the Federal ships on the Nansemond. Longstreet called the defeat at Fort Huger “a serious disaster. The enemy succeeded in making a complete surprise.”
Two aides under Colonel Evander M. Law accused men of the 55th North Carolina, assigned to defend the fort, of cowardice. Colonel John K. Connally, the regiment’s commander, furiously denied the charge, and a double duel took place to clear the men’s name. Shots were fired, but nobody was hurt.
These minor operations kept the Federals occupied while Longstreet achieved two of his main objectives–protecting Richmond and foraging for the Army of Northern Virginia. Peck also achieved his main goal, which was to prevent the Confederates from capturing Suffolk. Longstreet continued his tentative siege on the town while his men continued foraging in the surrounding countryside.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 274; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 256-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 279-82; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 337; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 638-39; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 197; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275, 534