Suffolk: An unbearable place in 1864
Published 12:41 am Sunday, May 25, 2014
By Kermit Hobbs
Special to the News-Herald
Editor’s Note: To mark the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Suffolk last year, the Suffolk News-Herald featured a multi-part series by Suffolk historian Kermit Hobbs detailing the 23-day ordeal. But year after the siege was over, the city was still suffering. Today, Hobbs explores Suffolk one year after the siege.
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A year had passed since nearly 50,000 Union and Confederate troops faced off in what had become known as the “Siege of Suffolk.”
Union forces had occupied the town for more than a year, from the spring of 1862 until the summer of 1863. For 23 days in April and May of 1863, the Confederates had partially surrounded the town and engaged the Yankees at various points on the roads and along the Nansemond River.
Their primary purpose had been to gather forage for the southern Army of the Northern Virginia. Their mission had been generally successful, but their engagements with the enemy had come at a high cost in men and materiel that could not be easily replaced.
To the 300 or so people who remained in Suffolk in the spring of 1864, life had become all but unbearable. Most had breathed a sigh of relief as the occupying force of Yankees had withdrawn the previous summer, but with them had gone any semblance of civil government.
The town of Suffolk had become a no-man’s land, just as the country west of the Nansemond River and the Dismal Swamp had been since the arrival of the Union Forces two years earlier.
Even though the majority of the Union troops had been withdrawn, an outpost was set up east of Suffolk to keep an eye on things in the town and surrounding country. They frequently sent patrols through the area, searching for food supplies such as coffee or sugar, or anything that sustained life or would allow the farmers to be able to raise a crop.
This was true particularly among the citizens who had refused to take the oath of allegiance to the United States government. The Hillsboro Recorder reported on June 22 that “a party (of Union troops) came into Suffolk last Friday with 114 horses and mules taken from their owners.”
The townspeople were nearly helpless to resist these raids, and in late 1863, they appealed to the Confederate authorities to do something about the situation. The opportunity came three months later, when a brigade of Confederate infantry commanded by Gen. Matthew Ransom was making a sweep through the areas of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina just outside the zone controlled by the Union forces.
On March 9, 1864, the Confederate brigade was camped near Bethlehem Church, on the South Quay Road (now Holland Road), about three miles west of Suffolk. That morning they received a report that the Second U.S. Colored Cavalry was making a raid in Suffolk at that very moment.
The Rebel foot soldiers, fearing that their enemy would escape before they could reach them, ran the three miles to town. As they entered the town, the exhausted soldiers were cheered by the Suffolk ladies, and many received ladles of water to drink as they passed.
When the Confederates got their first distant glimpses of the blue uniforms of Union cavalry, they unlimbered their cannon and fired several shots into their midst before continuing their charge.
The surprised and outnumbered cavalrymen resisted the advancing Rebels, firing back as they themselves slowly withdrew. The fighting was intense and bitter; at times it was house to house.
The Union cavalry made good its escape, leaving many Confederate foot soldiers disappointed they had been unable to capture or destroy their enemy. Still, they had captured supplies and equipment left behind the retreating enemy.
Better yet, to their eyes, they took great satisfaction in the feeling that they had struck a blow on behalf of the civilians of Suffolk.
Kermit Hobbs Jr. is an accomplished Suffolk historian and businessman. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.