Confederate Lieutenant-General James 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 primary mission was to gather foodstuffs for Lee’s army in the fertile region between Richmond and North Carolina. His main opposition was the Federal garrison at Suffolk, Virginia.
Longstreet’s force consisted of 20,000 men in two divisions led by Major-Generals George Pickett and John Bell Hood. Longstreet planned to demonstrate against Suffolk to distract the Federals from his true purpose. Suffolk was garrisoned by about 25,000 men from the Ninth Corps under Major-General John J. Peck. The town 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; the Mount Washington was grounded until the Stepping Stones rescued her.
Even so, 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.
This was not a siege in the traditional sense because Longstreet had no intention of risking his men to force a Federal surrender. It was only meant to keep the Federals behind their fortifications since, as he explained to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The principal object of the expedition was to draw out supplies for our army.”
Meanwhile, the silencing of the Confederate batteries at the Norfleet house meant that the Federals now had a clear 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 April 19, 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 dueled both aides 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, even though he was over 130 miles away from Lee’s army and the Federal Army of the Potomac was about to advance once more.
Finally, on the 27th, Lee wrote Longstreet, “Can you give me any idea when your operations will be completed and whether any of the troops you have in North Carolina can be spared from there?” But by that time, Longstreet had become more entangled in the siege than he would have liked, and it would take him longer to disengage and rejoin Lee than he would have hoped.
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