Monday, April 22, 2013

The Siege of Suffolk

On April 1, 1863, Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee sent his standard monthly status report on the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  He provided a list of ships that included two ironclads, one steam sloop, and a few dozen wooden gunboats and armed ferryboats.  He reported on a few blockade runners, some captured and others that slipped through Union lines.  He also lamented the fact that oyster season would soon be over. With the Navy's main focus on Charleston, things were generally quiet in Hampton Roads and the North Carolina sounds.  That all changed on April 11.

Lee received an urgent note from Major General Erasums Keyes requesting the Navy conduct reconnaissance missions on the James and York Rivers to confirm rumors of a large body of Confederate troops heading south towards Suffolk.  Lee balked at the suggestion, as he believed his forces were stretched too thin.  Additionally, the ironclad CSS Richmond positioned herself seven miles below Richmond at Drewry's Bluff.

Fortunately for the U.S. Army, a lieutenant-colonel took the initiative and bypassed the chain of command to personally implore the admiral to help.  He informed him that he already had three ships at the mouth of the Nansemond River (a river that leads directly to Suffolk).  Lee agreed to cooperate.  He ordered USS  Mount Washington, Stepping Stones, and Cohasset out to prevent Confederate ground forces from crossing the Nanesmond.  Reinforcements were ordered with the armed ferryboat USS Commodore Barney.  Famed Lieutenant William Cushing even made it to the scene.

Rosewell Lamson
Seeing Navy gunboats obstruct its attempt to encircle Suffolk, Confederate artillery batteries used an old fort at Hill's Point and set up positions overlooking the river.  Mount Washington (under the command of the very capable Lieutenant Roswell Lamson) and the rest of the squadron came in range while steaming south towards Suffolk.  During the ensuing fight, Mount Washington ran aground and was hit several times, as was Commodore Barney

Hearing about the exchange of gunfire, Lee ordered his ships to retreat back to Hampton Roads.  He believed it was too dangerous to stay.  At the moment Lee wrote the order, Lamson and Cushing decided on their own to attack, avoiding any notion of withdrawal.  They organized an assault group with sailors under their command with Union soldiers from the 38th Indiana and 89th New York.  The joint force charged Hill's Point under the cover of fire from the gunboats.

Lee and his Army counterparts continued to argue about the merits of leaving wooden gunboats in such a vulnerable position.  During this exchange of views, Lee's aide, Captain Peirce Crosby,  informed his admiral that Lamson's assault resulted in capturing "five pieces of artillery and 161 rebel prisoners from the 44th Alabama."  The upper Nansemond was now open.

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