Following his acceptance as Major General of Virginia Forces on April 23, 1861, Robert E. Eee appointed Colonel Andrew Talcott, Engineer of Virginia Forces, to the job of setting up a system of defensive fortifications around the Confederate capital. On May 9, a "Committee on Defense" was selected amongst the City Council to assist in providing a work force and materials. Councillor Richard Reins had been appointed as Superintendent of City Defenses by the beginning of July.
Problems arose in construction due to tardiness in selecting a sufficient number of experienced military engineers within the Provisional Confederate Army to supervise the works. Despite various efforts to throw up redoubts and entrenchments using both slave and free-colored labor during the summer of 1861, satisfactory defenses were incomplete by the end of the year. On December 9, Colonel Charles Dimmock, colonel of the Ordnance Department of Virginia, appealed to the City Council to consolidate the work. Although "embankments" and "batteries" had been erected by that time, cannon had still to be mounted, and Dimmock argued that if "any smash up should occur to General Magruder's or Johnston's army, the approach to Richmond by the
A detail from Plate 92 of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, this map shows the inner and intermediate defenses of Richmond, Virginia. Based on surveys made by Captain A. H. Campbell, Provisional Engineers, CSA, which were approved on April 26, 1864, it shows the 17 inner batteries constructed by February 1862, and the intermediate line built between 1862 and 1864. (Author's collection)
enemy would follow quickly." He added he was concerned that the Council should not wait for the Confederate authorities to take action, but should immediately take the matter in hand.
On February 28, 1862 a report produced by Captain Dimmock stated that the fortifications and defenses of Richmond ran from "the north side of James River, commencing on the river below the city and training around to the river above the city [the Chickahominy and its tributaries]," along which there were 17 separate batteries and two more under construction. On the south side of the river, enclosing the town of Manchester, commencing on the river below and running around to the river above that town, there were four separate batteries, besides two more "about to be thrown up." Dimmock stated that the length of line of works on the north side of the river was 7lA miles and on the south side 4M miles—in all about 12 miles.
In a medical inspection report dated November 20, 1862, William A. Carrington, Surgeon and Inspector of Hospitals, revealed how undermanned the Richmond fortifications were at this stage in the war. "The defenses consist of an immense line of embankments & heavy artillery in a circle of about 2 miles from the city being numbered from Battery 1 on the north side of the James River to No. 17 on the south side - Batteries no. 1 to 10 are on the north side ... Batteries no. 11 to 17 are on the South side [batteries 11 and 12 were actually on the north side|, of these no. 15 only has one Co. of light artillery in 4 houses used as Barracks... The other batteries have each one sentinel who guards them. The outer line consists of 7 Cos. of light artillery all static and in and about the Charles City road ... The whole command numbers 2,509 and 192 are sick & off duty."
Built between 1862 and 1864, the intermediate line of Richmond defenses consisted of 25 inner forts and batteries, including forts Johnson, Gregg, and Gilmer. By 1864, the Confederates had created an exterior system of fortifications anchored south of the capital on the James River at Chaffin's Bluff. Fortifications at this end of the line included Fort Harrison, named for Confederate engineer Lieutenant William Harrison; and Fort Hoke, named for Major General Robert F. Hoke of North Carolina. Battery Alexander was built on an extension of this line begun in 1864, and was named for General E. Porter Alexander, who designed it and supervised its construction. At a point farther north where the exterior line dissected the Charles City Road stood Fort Lee, named after General Robert E. Lee. Fort Drewry, a three-bastioned fort, dominated Drewry's Bluff protecting the approaches along the James River. Fort Stevens also formed part of the earthworks around Drewry's Bluff. Also south of the James was Parker's Battery and Battery Dantzler. Forming part of the Howlett Line, these fortifications bottled up the forces of Union General Benjamin Butler at Bermuda Hundred. Fort Wead was part of the secondary Union line built opposite the Howlett Line.
The strength of the Confederate defenses remained largely untested until September 1864 when Grant tried to capture Richmond or Petersburg by attacking simultaneously north and south of the James. The attack north of the river occurred on September 29. General Butler commanded an assault force of 2,500 that captured the strategically important New Market Heights in the early morning. Other elements of Butler's forces, including African-American troops, then overwhelmed the Confederate defenders inside Fort Harrison, which was renamed Fort Burnham. 14 colored soldiers were subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery during the capture of this fort. However, uncoordinated attacks against Forts Johnson, Gregg, and Gilmer all encountered dismal failure, leaving Butler and Grant with only partial success. A Confederate counter-attack on Fort Harrison on September 30 proved equally futile, and the two armies settled into trench warfare that continued until the end of the war. During this phase, the Federals established extensive siege lines, including Fort Brady, which anchored their lines on the James River.
Siege of Suffolk, April I l-May 4, 1863
During the winter and early spring of 1863, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of the Confederate Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia, began siege operations against Union forces under Major General John J. Peck in the city of Suffolk, Virginia. Although considered a minor campaign because Suffolk was of little strategic significance, this action was important to Lee's army, which wTas still stationed in devastated central Virginia. While conducting the siege of Suffolk, Confederate forces under Longstreet were able to collect huge amounts of food that had been under Union control, and send it to Lee's hungry soldiers. Nonetheless, this operation failed to capture Suffolk, and resulted in Longstreet and 15,000 men of his Corps being absent from the Battle of Chancellorsville fought in May of that year.
The main Federal defenses around Suffolk consisted of forts Seward, McClellan, Nansemond, Union, Connecticut, Dix, and Halleck. Among the smaller works were batteries Mansfield, Monday, Stevens, Onondaga, Montgomery, and the Draw-Bridge Battery. Longstreet advanced upon Suffolk on April 11, 1863, and probed the defenses for several weeks, after which he settled down to a prolonged siege. According to General Peck, the Confederates "commenced an investment according to the most improved principles of military science." Longstreet reported that Suffolk could have been captured in a few days, but concluded that he could not "afford to spend the powder and ball." He finally ended siege operations on May 4, 1863.
A principal engagement during this siege was the Federal surprise and capture of Battery LIuger, a Confederate strongpoint at Hill's Point on the Nansemond River, by combined army and navy forces on April 19, 1863. Masterminded by Navy Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, commanding the Flotilla off Suffolk, and conducted by elements of the 89th New York and 8th Connecticut, the Federal force landed upstream from the battery, and approached it through dense woodland. Unable to defend themselves from the landward side, the Confederate garrison consisting of the Fauquier Artillery, commanded by Captain Robert M. Stribling, and the 44th Alabama, under Lieutenant Colonel John A. Jones, was captured without firing a shot.
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