SIEGE OF SUFFOLK
Table of Contents
FOLLOWING the battle of Deserted House, the regiment, aside from various skirmishes along the picket line, was not again under file until the siege of Suffolk, which continued from April 11 to May 3, 1863, a period of twenty three days. The two intervening months, February and March, were, however, far from being a period of inactivity, as our alert General Peck was pushing work on the fortifications with the utmost vigor, and large drafts were continually made upon the regiment for fatigue and extra picket duty. No sooner was one fort completed than another was begun.
Our formidable line of fortifications around Suffolk, extending about fifteen miles, was somewhat in the shape of a horseshoe with the open end toward Norfolk and the Great Dismal Swamp. The Nansemond River crooked around so as to form our north and west line of fortifications, while the swamp protected in part the approaches from the south.
From official Confederate reports, we ascertain that at this time the recapture of Norfolk and Portsmouth was regarded of such vital importance that a determined effort must be made to secure those cities as ports for their ironclads and contraband trade, as well as to give them control of the James River. To this end, late in February, their pet commander, Lieutenant-General Long street, was detached from Lee’s army and put in charge of this important movement, with headquarters at Petersburg.
Suffolk being the key to the situation, its recovery to the Confederacy was first in order. As a strategetical movement for the purpose of drawing off troops, Long street, a few days previous to his advance upon Suffolk, ordered an attack upon Washington, N. C. The strata gem nearly succeeded, as on April 9 General Terry’s brig ade, the One Hundred and Thirtieth included, received orders to pack and be ready to move at a moment’s notice. The next day we were hustled to the cars double-quick, bat was scarce aboard the train when another order sent us back to camp at the same gait. Information had reached General Peck that Longstreet had crossed the Blackwater with an army of forty thousand men and one hundred and fifty pieces of artillery, and was pushing rapidly for Suffolk.
To those of us who ·participated in those stirring scenes, in which the movements of the enemy were shrouded in mystery, the rebel official reports and correspondence become interesting reading. It is like a peep behind the curtains. From Longstreet’s correspondence with General Lee and others, we learn that he confidently expected that a sudden dash upon the place would assure its capture. In General Lee’s letter of reply, he says, “A sudden and vigorous attack on Suffolk will doubt ess give you that place.”
Longstreet moved his forces upon us in three heavy columns, expecting but feeble resistance. His plan was to make demonstrations against the more western portions of our lines, while his real attack was to be made by crossing the Nanseroond River some six miles below Suf folk, on our right flank. Another strong force was to be thrown against the Norfolk railroad on our left flank and rear and thus surrounded, General Peck’s entire army and the city of Norfolk were to fall an easy prize into his hands.
That the citizens expected this was evident from their every act and expression. They were unusually jubilant, and in several instances, chicken-pie dinners were prepared for the expected Confederate visitors. However, finding Peck prepared at every point, forts and rifle pits all around, with gunboats in the Nansemond River, the rebel commander abandoned the attempt to take the place by surprise and settled down to a regular siege. Batteries were planted along the river in an endeavor to drive away or sink the gunboat11, and artillery duels were of frequent occurrence. In fact, for nearly three weeks the roar of cannon and rattle of small arms was almost incessant.
All who had heretofore complained because of the severe fatigue duty demanded by General Peck in constructing fortifications, now commended his wisdom and vigilance, realizing that their hard labor was not in vain and the old general’s head was level. The wily Confederate maneuvered to overwhelm us here and flank us there, and in every way endeavored to penetrate our lines, but was baffled in his every attempt by the watchfulness and activity of our forces.
Although sharp engagements with the enemy occurred daily on some portions of our lines, this record must be mainly confined to the part enacted by the One Hundred and Thirtieth New York.
On the afternoon of April 11, our pickets were rapidly driven in or captured, and from Terry’s front, on the west, where our camp was located, we beheld the long lines of rebel infantry as they came up and filed off to the right and the left of the South Quay road. At the same time, two other columns were marching on other roads to strike us from both the north and the south, and matters began to assume a serious aspect.
The whir of the long roll was heard in every camp, and in all directions, troops were seen scurrying to the forts and rifle pits. Our brigade, under General Terry, immediately took a position in the trenches, where we remained during the siege. All through the first night, our ears caught the sound of picks and shovels, and what was our surprise in the morning to see before we, just across the river, a long line of rifle pits full of rebel sharpshoot ers. Between these and our skilled marksmen, a constant fusillade was kept up on the “Donnybrook” principle ” Wherever you see a head, hit it.” The popping up of heads and dodging down when we saw a puff of smoke reminded one of woodchuck hunting.
To the One Hundred and Thirtieth, April 17 was an eventful day. For the first time, the rebels in the rifle pits remained quiet, and to all appearances, their trenches were deserted. General Terry, desiring to learn the condition of things, sent out a reconnoitering force consisting of six companies of the One Hundred and Thirtieth, two of the Ninety-ninth New York, and one of the New York State Sharpshooters, all under command of Lieutenant Colonel Thorp and Major Scott. The drum corps was also along, with one drum and several stretchers, and we had plenty to do. As the line advanced, an occasional shot came from the Johnnies; but when nearer, they suddenly rose up by the hundred and poured a galling fire upon us, which was returned. A large force of re serves was seen advancing at a double-quick, upon whom the forts opened a terrific fire, the shells passing over our heads and bursting in the ranks of the enemy. As we were bringing off a wounded man, a rebel bullet struck and cut off a stretcher handle.
Having accomplished our object, we retired within our lines, suffering a loss in our regiment of one killed and five wounded. A comrade informs me that the man killed was Lyman Mead, of Co. C, who was wounded as we fell back, and could not be brought off. The infuriated rebs were seen to rush over their work and repeatedly shoot him. Another barbarity was enacted upon this occasion. A man of the Ninety-ninth New York, left on the field, was stripped of his clothing, and his body braced up in plain sight of our lines.
That there were among our enemies men of noble natures, very different from those just described, was demonstrated on the same ground two weeks later, when the Ninety-ninth New York crossed and had an experience similar to that of the I ‘7th inst., only with a greater loss. That night as some of our men visited the battlefield in search of dead and wounded, they were confronted by a large, powerful Southerner, who rose up from behind a bush, but who proved to be a noble fellow, and kindly assisted our boys in finding three of the wounded. In parting he gave each a hearty handshake, exclaiming, ” God bless you. I ‘trust we may sometime meet under different circumstances.”
During the siege, numerous interesting incidents occurred along our front. Usually every morning, with the first streak of daylight, the rebel sharpshooters commenced blazing away at us, and the duel continued until dark. Sometimes, however, the monotony was broken by an armistice between the two hostile lines, when the men on both sides would swarm out of the entrenchments and enjoy a season of friendly intercourse, telling stories, cracking jokes, or singing for each other’s entertainment. Occasionally they would cross over and exchange- hard tack, coffee, salt, and other things for tobacco. It was also quite a fashion to exchange coat buttons. After visiting ·them and seeing their condition destination, we were greatly impressed with their devotion, as most of them were ragged and barefooted. Their rations were one pound of pork and three-quarters of a pound of poor flour per day – no sugar, coffee, or any such things. They regarded our hardtack and coffee as delicacies fit for a king.
When the truce had expired, some of them would sing out:-
” Hunt your holes, Yauks! “
“All right. Good-by. Johnnies,” would be the reply. “Good-by, Yanks; keep yer heads down.”
A minute later the whang, bang of muskets, and whizzing of bullets was proceeding as before.
On one occasion, during a truce of this kind, some treacherous rebs in one of the pits opened fire upon our confiding boys in a regiment near us, killing one or more. In an instant, the guns of the nearest fort were trained upon them, and their pit was quickly demolished. As the shells exploded, we could see their bodies hurled in the air, and a yell of satisfaction went up. Even the Johnnies called to us: –
” Yo’uns sarved ’em jnst right.”
Almost every pleasant evening the Federal and Con federate bands would gather on opposite sides of the river and discourse sweet music for the entertainment of their thousands of listeners. Once after the bands had alternated with their favorite airs, “Hail Columbia,” “Dixie,” “Rallu ’round the flag,” and ” Maryland, My Maryland,” in closing the two united in “Home, Sweet Home.” 1
One evening our drum corps was requested to go over to Fort Rosecrans, as Longstreet’s crack martial band had come down to serenade our boys. After playing alternately a number of tunes with them, their leader shouted, “Purty well done for Yanks,” and wished to know if we would exchange music with them. We agreed to do so the following evening, but that night Longstreet abandoned the siege, and his army was retreating toward the Blackwater.
Considerable bandying was indulged in. As the rebel lead would splinter the logs about us, someone would call out:-
” Why don’t you fellers learn to shoot 1 You can’t hit the aide of a barn.”
“Well, yo’uns can’t hit a mountain! “
” When’r you rag-tags coming over to Suffolk to get that chicken-pie supper I “
“Long afore you blue-bellied mud suckers take Richmond.”
And so it would go on ad Infinitum.
Some strange things occur in war. On the morning of May 3, an agreement was made with the enemy that no shooting should be done that day on our front, yet at that very moment, while we were sitting out upon our breastwork chatting with our grayback neighbors, a heavy fight was in progress, and in plain sight, on our north front, between Getty’s division of the Ninth Corps and Hood’s forces.
(Footnote from Bowen) 1 I have seen accounts of this circumstance as occurring elsewhere In the army, but have In my possession an old army letter dated Suffolk, April 211, 1853, from which this account Is taken,
Late in the evening of May 3, Longstreet, after throw ing out a strong picket line, began his retreat, getting several hours’ start; nevertheless, he was closely pursued and ‘t1everely punished, losing a large number by capture. His total loss during the siege in prisoners, deserters, and killed, reached nearly two thousand. He also lost one of his best batteries, captured in a gallant assault by the Eighty-ninth New York and Eighth Connecticut, assisted by the gunboats.
An unfortunate and dastardly affair occurred the first night of the siege, in the killing of Lieutenant-Colonel Kimball, of Hawkins’s Zouaves, by that upstart, General Corcoran. The night was exceedingly dark, and Kim ball’s men were on guard. Corcoran refused to be halted or give the countersign, or even tell who he was. Kim ball refused to pass him without the countersign. Instead of doing as he should have done, or what any other general would have done, he drew his revolver and deliberately killed a most excellent officer. The affair was generally regarded as nothing less than down-right murder. No officer at Suffolk was so heartily despised as Corcoran. Later on, in the cavalry service, we found his counterpart in the haughty and tyrannical Torbet.
An amusing incident, occurring just after the siege, will be recalled. For nearly a month we had been kept too busy to bathe and were in need of bodily cleansing. I copy from an old letter: ” We were ordered to fall in, with towels and soap, and march down to the big pond. There were over five hundred officers and men, of whom Colonel Thorp was the· biggest boy of the lot; but he deemed it necessary that a certain degree of military discipline should be observed. Here are his commands: ‘Battalion, attention! Undress feet! Undress head!
Unbutton coats! Lay off coats! Unbutton breeches! Jerk breeches I Strip off shirts! Right face! Front! Column forward, guide center, double-quick, dive! In the water, we had dress parade and other military performances, besides others not very military. After a jolly time, we returned to camp a cleaner and happier set.”
In this connection, a brief reference to the One Hundred and Thirtieth drum corps will be in place. Not only did Colonel Gibbs and the regiment generally regard it as most efficient, but General Terry, himself an excellent drummer, assured me it was one of the best martial bands he ever saw. After our sharp engagement of April 17, the General rode over to our quarters and expressed his satisfaction as to the part we performed in bringing off the dead and wounded.
An interesting circumstance occurred in connection with General Terry that excited some attention. Accompanied by his staff he halted at our camp to witness a guard mounting. The bass drummer not playing to suit him, he dismounted and took the dram to show how the time should be played. Just then the command was given, “Troop beat off! ” As I looked hesitatingly at him to know what to do, he said, ” Go ahead.” He was in for it and went down and up the line, using both sticks, and in splendid time, making the old drum rattle with a vigor we had not heard before. The spectators set up a cheer, and before we wheeled into place at the right, a good-sized crowd had gathered to witness the novel spectacle of a brigadier-general playing the bass drum at guard mounting. My personal recollections of General Terry are pleasant indeed. He was one of the most social and approachable officers of high rank I ever knew, and from him I received many valuable suggestions relative to training the drum corps.
Before passing from the siege of Suffolk, it is proper to note that Longstreet, in his autobiography, seeks to belittle the affair, claiming he only went into that portion of Virginia to gather provisions, not to capture Suffolk. All the evidence is to the contrary. He came strong in the conviction of an easy victory and went away chagrined and disappointed. The official reports, both Union and Confederate show that his special work was the capture of Suffolk; and the Richmond Examiner of Nov. 27, 1863, bewails “Longstreet’s failure at Suffolk.” Nearly all the prisoners and deserters stated that they expected to capture the place. Then the vast and formidable lines of the enemy’s works on the three sides, all constructed during three weeks, show he had a large army and was not simply on a foraging expedition. It is now known that his forces were over 34,000 strong, exclusive of Hill’s re-enforcements rushed up there from North Carolina, making a vast army of over 50,000 men. No doubt_ as a secondary consideration they sought to gather in all the provisions possible for use of the Confederate government.
During the forty-seven days we remained at Suffolk after the close of the siege, nothing of special importance occurred except a six-days reconnaissance on the Black water, where we participated in several lively skirmishes, suffering a loss of two killed and three wounded. This expedition marched from Suffolk, on June 12, via Holland’s Corners, reaching South Quay the next morning. The One Hundred and Thirtieth was put in advance, deployed, and drove the enemy across the river. Near the bank were two large residences owned by rebel officers, where we captured a large rebel mail. Many letters from Suffolk were found which had been carried through our picket lines by innocent-appearing old farmers. After confiscating everything we ·desired, the houses, together with several thousand pounds of pork, were burned.
Next, we marched via Carsville for Franklin, where we had more skirmishing, and captured some rebel works, the occupants skipping out as we approached. Comrade A. F. Robinson relates that as we entered the captured pits, one of our regiment found a violin, and while the fight was in progress, commenced playing and dancing. After much marching and countermarching via Carsville and Blackwater Bridge, ·we were again at Franklin, wherein a sharp engagement, June 17, the sharpshooters, from treetops and behind breastworks, did the killing referred to.
The weather was intensely hot, especially so on our home march of twenty miles; yet during the whole distance not a man of the One Hundred and Thirtieth fell out, while half of some regiments were by the roadside, and were brought in by a rearguard later. General Corcoran, commanding, admitted the superiority of the One Hundred and Thirtieth over his much-bragged-up “Legion” – usually pronounced “Lagion.”
Arriving at Suffolk we found orders awaiting us to strike tents, pack up, and be in readiness to move. The next day, June 19, we bade farewell to our camps, and to the tune of ” The Girl I Left behind Me,” we marched to the cars. Reaching Norfolk, we took the boat for York town, at which place we arrived at five o’clock the next morning.