‘Expecting an attack’

Published 9:57 pm Thursday, April 11, 2013

By Kermit Hobbs

Special to the News-Herald

Part 3: The Siege of Suffolk

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Sunday, April 12, 1863

Private Henry Ingalls of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry wrote in his diary, “Last night was an anxious night for me. We were called up at an early hour expecting an attack. Rebs are in force on our right. Quite still today. Am on picket tonight.”

Ingalls’ regiment was posted within the Union defenses, somewhere in what is today the Saratoga neighborhood of Suffolk. From his position he would have been facing south along the Somerton Road, today’s Carolina Road.

During this day, Gen. James Longstreet’s Confederates fanned out into positions halfway around Suffolk. The left end of the line anchored at Hill’s Point, at the site of the present Nansemond River Golf Course. From there it extended along Godwin Boulevard to Elephant’s Fork, along Murphy’s Mill Road, to Kenyon Road, along Turlington Road, across Carolina Road (then called Somerton Road), eventually to Badger Road, ending at the edge of the Dismal Swamp on White Marsh Road, which was then known as Edenton Road.

In the next few weeks, the 23,000 troops of Longstreet’s force would erect nearly 30 miles of earthwork defenses along this line.

Among the Confederate generals involved in the Suffolk Campaign were two who would become famous later in the war. Gen. John Bell Hood commanded the line along the north side of Suffolk. He would gain fame later as the commander of the Confederate forces in Atlanta, facing Union General Sherman. This confrontation was portrayed in the movie “Gone With The Wind.”

Gen. George Pickett commanded the southern portion of the Rebel line, and he would gain fame just a few months later for his brigade’s famous charge at Gettysburg. In Suffolk, he became somewhat infamous for his nighttime rides all the way around Suffolk to Chuckatuck to visit his sweetheart, Miss Sally Corbell, whom he later married.

During the previous months, Union Gen. John J. Peck had endured quite a bit of criticism from the men in his command. He had busied his troops, along with former slaves who had come to Suffolk for protection, in building a massive ring of earthwork defenses around the town.

Soldiers had often complained that they had “joined the army to fight, not to dig.” But now Peck had been vindicated. The men under his command could feel relatively secure within their formidable defensive lines.

Still, there was the general belief that Longstreet would attack soon. Peck, always the cautious one, was still concerned about the two unfinished forts on the east side of Suffolk. He feared that Longstreet’s army would cross the Nansemond River and attack him from those positions.

Just days previously, he had sent several Union regiments to erect defenses on the east side of the Nansemond River to resist a crossing attempt. But now that Rebels were facing him on three sides, he got cold feet. He recalled most of those regiments and set them to work finishing Forts Jericho and Halleck on the east side of Suffolk. So far, he had not been threatened from that direction.

Even though the Confederate line did not completely encircle the town of Suffolk, the Federals called their situation “The Siege of Suffolk.”

Tomorrow — Part 4: A day of tragedy