HEADQUARTERS UNITED STATES FORCES,
Suffolk, Va., May 5, 1863.
COLONEL: On September 22, 1862, I was ordered to Suffolk, with about 9,000 men, to repel the advance of Generals Pettigrew and French <ar26_275> from the Blackwater, with 15,000 men. No artificial defenses were found nor had any plan been prepared. Situated at the head of the Nansemond River, with the railways to Petersburg and Weldon, Suffolk is the key to all the approaches to the mouth of the James River on the north of the Dismal Swamp. Regarding the James as second only in importance to the Mississippi for the Confederates and believing that sooner or later they would withdraw their armies from the barren wastes of Northern Virginia to the line of the James and attempt the recovery of Portsmouth and Norfolk as ports for their iron-clads and contraband trade, I prepared a system, and on the 25th commenced Fort Dix. From that time until the present I spared no pains for placing the line of the river and swamp in a state of defense. My labors alarmed the authorities at Richmond, who believed I was preparing a base for a grand movement upon the rebel capital, and the whole of the Blackwater was fortified, as well as Cypress Swamp and Birchen and Chipoak Rivers. This line rests upon the James near Fort Powhatan.
About February 26 Lieutenant-General Longstreet was detached from Lee's army and placed in command of the Department of Virginia, with headquarters at Petersburg. Of his corps, 15,000 were on the Black-water and 15,000 between Petersburg and the river, near the railway. This distribution enabled him to concentrate in twenty four hours within a few miles of Suffolk and looked threatening. Reports were circulated and letters written to the effect that Longstreet was in South Carolina and Tennessee with all his forces with the view of throwing me off my guard.
My information was reliable, and I fully advised the department of the presence of this force, and on March 14 Getty's division (Ninth Corps) reported for duty. Early in April deserters reported troops moving to the Blackwater, that many bridges were being constructed, and that a pontoon train had arrived from Petersburg.
On the 6th I was advised that General Foster was in great need of troops and asked to send him 3,000. I replied that no soldiers ought to leave the department, but I would spare that number provided they could be supplied at short notice.
On the 10th, at 4.30 p.m., as the troop train was leaving, I was informed of the contents of a captured mail by General Viele to the effect that General Longstreet would attack me at once with from 40,000 to 60,000; that he had maps, plans, and a statement of my force, and that General Hill would co-operate.
On the 11th Hood's division followed up my cavalry, returning from Blackwater on the South Quay road, and about 4 p.m. captured, with out a shot, the cavalry outposts. Others followed on other roads and a surprise in open day was attempted. The signal officers, under Captain Tamblyn, rendered most signal service. Lieutenant Thayer held his station for a long time in spite of the riflemen about him.
On the 12th, about noon, Pickett's division advanced on the Somerton and Jenkins' on the Edenton road, and a large column on the river by the Providence Church road. Much fine skirmishing took place on all these roads, but the pickets were pressed back and the enemy was not checked until he came within artillery range. He sustained some loss and fell back a few miles to his line of battle.
On the 13th the enemy skirmished with our light troops on all the approaches. On the Somerton, Colonel Foster handled him very roughly, driving him back and restoring his picket line at sundown. On the river the contest was sharp and long, but the batteries and gunboats held the enemy at bay. <ar26_276>
On the 14th Lieutenant Cushing, U.S. Navy, was hotly engaged for several hours with a large force at the mouth of the West Branch. His loss was severe, but the enemy suffered much and had some artillery dismounted. The enemy opened a ten-gun battery near the Norfleet house for the purpose of destroying the gunboats and of covering a crossing. Lieutenant Lamson, with the Mount Washington, West End, and Stepping Stones, engaged the battery for some hours in the most gallant manner, but was compelled to drop down to the West Branch. The Mount Washington, completely fiddled and disabled, grounded, as did the West End, and both were towed off by the Stepping Stones. The rudder of the Alert was broken. Several batteries on the river were opened with fine effect and others were pushed with all dispatch toward completion. More or less skirmishing and artillery fire on all portions of the lines. In the night the Smith Briggs, lying near my headquarters, was attacked, but Captain Lee and the guns-of the draw-bridge repulsed the enemy.
On the 15th the force between Suffolk and West Branch was reported by the best authorities at 10,000, with a pontoon train under the immediate command of General French. About noon our batteries, under the direction of General Getty, below the mouth of Jericho Creek, were warmly engaged with the Norfleet battery. Four of the rebel 20-pounder rifles were dismounted and the battery was silenced. A party sent out on the Edenton road captured the camp equipage of one regiment. Fear of an ambuscade prevented taking of many prisoners.
On the 17th Major Stratton, with a force of cavalry, held South Mills, which is the key to nearly all the approaches from North Carolina on the south side of the Dismal Swamp. There was much skirmishing on all the avenues of approach with some field artillery. General Terry's front was much annoyed from the first day by the near approach of riflemen. Under his orders the enemy was signally punished.(*) General French's engineer was taken prisoner by Lieutenant Cushing's pickets. He was laying out works and had a map of Suffolk, which he tore to pieces.
On the 18th the enemy was very active in throwing up new batteries and rifle-pits along the river. A heavy one was in progress near the mouth of West Branch on Hill's Point. Admiral Lee, U.S. Navy, ordered all the boats out of the Upper Nansemond, lest they should be destroyed, leaving the whole defense of the river to the land forces. The admiral was urged to reconsider his orders. Upon my representation the order was temporarily suspended.
On the 19th, about dusk, General Getty and Lieutenant Lamson executed most successfully a plan which had been agreed upon for crossing the river and capturing Battery Huger at the mouth of the West Branch. The Eighty-ninth New York and Eighth Connecticut were taken over on the Stepping Stones. Five pieces of artillery, 9 officers, and 120 soldiers were captured. It was well conceived and ably conducted, and reflects great honor on the combined arms. Lieutenant Lamson suggested the enterprise, landed with four of his howitzers, and played a brilliant part. Captain Stevens was conspicuous for his gallant conduct in this affair and deserves mention; also Lieutenants McKechnie and Faxon, aides of General Getty.
On the 20th Major Stratton visited Elizabeth City, N.C., and found <ar26_277> it abandoned by our troops. He found General Longstreet's pickets in the vicinity of Sandy Cross.
On the 21st the command was highly honored by a visit from Major-General Halleck, Commander-in-Chief, accompanied by Major-General Dix.
On the 22d a heavy rain-storm commenced, suspending all fatigue labors, but adding materially to the strength of the swamp on the left flank.
On the 24th a demonstration was made upon the enemy's right flank, on the Edenton road, under General Corcoran and Colonels Foster and Spear, while a feint was made on the Somerton by Colonel Buehler. The enemy was driven in confusion from all his advance points and rifle-pits back upon his main line of defense behind the dam and swamp at Darden's Mill. A force estimated at about 1,500 was believed to be massed on that front. The object of the move was attained and the command withdrawn. Colonels Beach, Drake, and Murphy had provisional brigades, and handled them extremely well; Captain Simpson commanded the artillery.
On the 25th information was received of the arrival of heavy artillery from Petersburg. Troops were reported on this side of the Chowan, on the way from General Hill, under General Garnett.
On the 27th Major Stratton occupied Camden Court-House and burned a ferry-boat of the enemy's. Rebels were very active at night chopping, moving troops, and signaling. A new battery of three guns was opened by them below the Norfleet Battery. Chopping parties were broken up by the Redan and Mansfield Battery. They reoccupied the Hill's Point Battery in the night. The steamers Commerce and Swan, under the volunteer pilotage of Lieutenants Rowe and Horton, of the Ninety-ninth New York Volunteers, ran down past the batteries in the night, but not without many shots. These officers are entitled to much credit for this service.
On the 28th Suffolk was visited by a heavy storm. A rebel work for several guns was discovered on the river.
On the 29th the Hon. Secretary of State, W. H. Seward, paid a visit, in company with Major-General Dix, to this command.
On the 30th, early in the morning, the enemy opened with one Whit-worth, one 30 and one 35 pounder Parrott. Toward night they opened fire upon the Commodore Barney, and the battery was silenced by the Barney (Lieutenant Cushing, U.S. Navy) and Captain Morris, battery in Fort Stevens.
May 1.--There was a sharp skirmish on General Terry's front about 5 p.m.(*) The enemy, re-enforced largely, was held in check from the guns of Nansemond, South Quay, and Rosecrans with considerable loss. Another brigade from North Carolina was reported to have joined Longstreet.
May 3.--A reconnaissance in force was made by Generals Getty and Harland on the enemy's left flank. The troops crossed at 9 a.m., at the draw-bridge, under the fire of Battery Mansfield, the Onondaga, and the Smith Briggs, and seized the plateau near Pruden's house in spite of sharpshooters in the rifle-pits, orchards, and woods. The advance was slow, every inch being hotly contested. The movement re-suited in bringing heavy re-enforcements for the enemy. His numbers and artillery tailed to check the troops. By night the enemy was massed <ar26_278> on his strong line of intrenchments and under the fire of a numerous artillery. The purpose of the movement having been attained, the troops were directed to remain on the ground awaiting events.
In conjunction with the above, Major Crosby crossed the Nansemond near Sleepy Hole with the Twenty-first Connecticut, a section of the Fourth Wisconsin Battery, and eleven mounted rifles. At 4 a.m. pushed on and occupied Chuckatuck, driving out 300 rebel cavalry. He skirmished all the way to Reed's Ferry, capturing 16 prisoners, and then returned to the river under cover of the gunboats. At the same time Colonel Dutton crossed in boats and occupied Hill's Point with the Fourth Rhode Island, a portion of the One hundred and seventeenth New York, and a detachment from the Commodore Barney. He advanced some distance, but was met by a superior force posted strongly in the woods, and after much skirmishing returned upon Hill's Point, from which the enemy could not dislodge him.
I again take pleasure in acknowledging the valuable services of Lieutenants Cushing, Lamson, and Harris, U.S. Navy. These officers rendered every assistance in their power in crossing the river. Lieutenant Cushing sent a boat howitzer and detachment with the Fourth Rhode Island, under Colonel Dutton.
I regret to state that Colonel Ringold, of the One hundred and third New York, lost his life from two wounds while leading on his men in the most gallant manner. He was a meritorious officer.
May 4.--About 9 p.m. on the 3d the enemy commenced retiring upon the Blackwater. His strong line of pickets prevented deserters and contrabands from getting through with the information until he had several hours the start. Generals Corcoran and Dodge were promptly in pursuit on the Edenton road while Colonel Foster followed upon the Somerton. By 6 a.m. Colonel Foster was pressing the rear of a formidable column on the old road near Leesville. He was compelled, from the smallness of his force, to wait for the command under General Corcoran and could not again strike the column before it reached the river. The cavalry of Colonels Spear and Onderdonk were pushed on numerous roads, and rendered valuable services in procuring information and capturing prisoners.
Thus ends the present investment or siege of Suffolk, which had for its objects the recovery of the whole country south of the James extending to the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, the ports of Norfolk and Portsmouth, 80 miles of new railroad iron, the equipments of two roads, and the capture of all the United States forces and property with some thousands of contrabands.
General Longstreet finding that an assault at the outside upon works defended by one-half his own force would be expensive and uncertain, and having failed in turning either flank, decided to besiege the place and asked for re-enforcements; probably not less than two divisions joined from General Hill. The works constructed are on the most extensive scale and in the most approved manner.
The rules and regulations prescribed by military authorities for the conduct of siege operations have been observed. Some idea may be formed of this so-styled foraging expedition when I state that not less than 10 miles of batteries, covered-ways, and rifle-pits have been thrown up; most of the artillery was protected by embrasures; the parapets were from 12 to 15 feet in thickness and well revetted, while the covered ways were from 8 to 10 feet. Longstreet had a wire laid from the Blackwater, and telegraphed arrangements throughout his lines. <ar26_279>
We have taken five pieces of the famous Fauquier Artillery, about 400 prisoners, some rifles, and camp equipage. Probably 500 or 600 have been killed and wounded and 500 have deserted, making a total loss of at least 1,500.
Our own killed is 44; wounded, 202, and missing, 14. Total, 260.(*)
All the morale, prestige, and glory belong to the patient and brave officers and men of the Federal Army.
Besides these brilliant results, this command has held the masses of the enemy around Suffolk in order that General Hooker might secure the crowning victory of the war, and it is entitled to a share of the glory that may accrue to his arms. My thanks are due all officers and soldiers who have worked cheerfully and patriotically on these fortifications. They now see that their labors are not in vain.
The truth of history requires that I should state that a small portion of the One hundred and twelfth New York became homesick and discontented, and said that they came to fight and not to dig. This feeling was seized upon by politicians, and since the adjournment of the Senate I have been advised that efforts were made to defeat my confirmation in consequence thereof. Soldiers who love their country will cheerfully perform any duty assigned them; men who know how to build fortifications will know how to defend or assault them. It should not be forgotten that the principal rebel successes have been behind intrenchments, as at Manassas, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Vicksburg, Charleston, &c.
It is an unpleasant duty to state that most of the Ninth New York, Colonel Hawkins, left this command on the 3d, by expiration of their term of service, while their comrades were actively engaged with the enemy. It can be regarded only as an unfortunate termination of a hitherto brilliant career of service.
To Generals Corcoran, Terry, Dodge, and Harland, and Colonels Dutton and Gibbs, commanding fronts or lines; Colonels Spear and Onderdonk, of the cavalry; Colonels Gurney and Wardrop, commanding reserves, and Captain Follett, chief of artillery, I am under very great obligations for the able, faithful, judicious, and cheerful discharge of every duty incident to their important positions.
General Getty was intrusted with the river line below the Onondaga Battery, the key of the position and about 8 miles in length--a very difficult line to defend against an enterprising enemy acquainted with every by-path and guided by owners of the soil. His responsibilities were of the highest order, and the labors of his troops were incessant. Under his vigilant supervision everything was done that could be for the security of the right flank, and the enemy was foiled in all plans for crossing.
Col. R. S. Foster, of Indiana, commanding brigade and a portion of the front, added fresh laurels to the high reputation which he established in West Virginia and on the Peninsula. He was at home in grand skirmishes, and the enemy always recoiled before him.
General Gordon reported three days before the conclusion of the siege and was assigned to the command of the Reserve Division. His long and varied experience rendered his judgment of great value, and I regret that he has been called to another field.
My thanks are due General Viele, of Norfolk, for the prompt transmission of important intelligence and for the alacrity with which my calls were responded. <ar26_280>
Captain Ludlow, quartermaster at Norfolk, deserves mention for his untiring efforts in forwarding the main bulk of supplies for the army.
The medical department, under the able management of Dr. Hand, was in excellent working order and equal to every emergency. The wounded were promptly cared for and spared all unnecessary suffering. The commissary department was admirably managed by the late Captain Bowdish, and since his death by Captain Felt.
Colonel Murphy commanded brigade; Colonel Drake, Fort Union; Colonel Hawkins, Fort Nansemond; Captain Sullivan, Fort Halleck; Colonel Davis, the Draw-Bridge Battery; Colonel Worth, Battery Mansfield; Colonel Thorp, the Redan and Rosecrans; Captain Johnson, Battery Monday; Colonel England, Battery Montgomery; Colonel Pease, Battery Stevens, and Colonel McEvily, Fort Dix, with ability, and their troops were always ready for the enemy.
Major Stratton, Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry, was at South Mills watching the operations of the troops from Carolina. By his discretion and energy the rebels were prevented from penetrating the Dismal Swamp.
Captain Tamblyn, Lieutenants Seabury, Young, Thayer, Strong, and Murray, of the Signal Corps, have been indefatigable day and night and of the greatest service in their department. Captain Davis shares the above commendation for the few days he was here.
The conduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Nixon, Ninety-ninth New York; of Captain Morris, Lieutenants Hasbrouck, Hunt, Whitney, and Beecher, of the artillery; Lieutenants James, Grant, Macardle, Soederquist, and Burleson, on engineer duty; of Lieutenant Buttz, assistant provost-marshal, and of Major Wetherill, was conspicuous. Major Stewart, of the Engineer Corps, joined for a few days, evincing the same lively interest which characterized his valuable services on the Peninsula.
The command is mainly indebted to the provost-marshal, Major Smith, of the One hundred and twelfth New York, for the good order and cleanliness which has prevailed in town and camp.
The co-operation of the gunboats, under Lieutenants Cushing, Lamson, and Harris, U. S. Navy, sent by Admiral Lee, has been very effective, and I take great pleasure in acknowledging the gallant services of their officers and crews. The army gunboats Smith Briggs and West End, commanded by Captain Lee and Lieutenant Rowe, proved invaluable. The Smith Briggs was for many days the only boat above the West Branch, in consequence of the order of Admiral Lee.
My personal staff have all earned a place in this record by their zeal, fidelity, and unremitting labors day and night, increased by injuries which I sustained from the fall of my horse. Their claims to promotion were established long before the siege of Suffolk. Maj. B. B. Foster, assistant adjutant-general; Capt. George S. Dodge, quartermaster; Lieuts. Charles R. Stirling and James D. Outwater, aides-de-camp; Lieut. A. B. Johnson, ordnance officer, and Lieut. James D. Mahon, judge advocate.
Doubtless many names have been omitted, but discrimination is impossible where all have done so well.
For the conclusion is reserved the agreeable duty of testifying to the cordial and efficient support I have ever received from Major-General Dix. No request or suggestion has ever escaped his attention, and most of my requirements have been anticipated by his liberal and comprehensive policy.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JOHN J. PECK,
Col. D. T. VAN BUREN,
A. A. G., Dept. of Va.