Assault on Battery Huger
The Capture of Captain Robert Stribling's Battery

     In the spring of 1863, while the Confederates waited the active operations of yet another federal commander in the eastern theatre, the First Corps Commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet was ordered to the southeastern corner of the state to assume command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. The success of the supply and foraging operation, he was sent there to accomplish depended entirely on control of the Nansemond River and to effectually prevent the Naval forces upon it to interfere, with Confederate affairs about Suffolk.

     Artillery was placed above the river at Hill's Point on the 16th of April 1863 with orders to fire down on any ship attempting to pass up or down the river. Captain Robert M. Stribling's Fauquier Artillery battery had been selected by Major Lindsay M. Shumaker to occupy the old fortifications where engineer improvising in cutting embrasures and raising the floors with torn up corn cribs began.

     Three days later, the USS Stepping Stone, commanded by Lieutenant R. H. Lamson transported, to the west branch of the river, the soldiers of the 89th New York and 8th Connecticut Infantries successfully capturing Battery Huger with fifty nine officers, men, fives guns and carriages, horses and chests. It was an affair that no battery commander, North or South desired to report and be held accountable without dishonoring name and reputation.

     The operation of keeping the Navy occupied was given to the Commander of the Department of Southern Virginia, Major General Samuel G. French; who fell ill the morning the batteries were lost and had not been on the field. From the placement of Stribling's battery that day, the Navy poised four gunboats above the works and three more below them. The land batteries across the river as well gunboats above opened at 10 am, when the 32 pound guns engaged and drove the ships back. The fire upon the battery continued another six hours before all became quiet.

     Major Shumaker reported to the battery commander that the gunboats did have infantry personnel aboard, but indicated no impression that an attempt would be made to land the troops for the purpose of an assault. The 55th North Carolina Infantry had been ordered in to Huger's support late in the afternoon, but the barrage that had been pounding the area; in General French's opinion, rendered doubts that they could have successfully crossed the open ground to get there without themselves being torn apart by shot and shell. Another battalion commander, Major Francis J. Boggs concurred that although the order was given to Colonel John Connally, the artillery fire surrounding the area would have resulted in nothing more than loss of life without significance to protecting the pieces.

     The manner of the attack appeared to the Confederates the Federal Navy had used one boat as a diversion to pass the fortifications down river, which attracted the attention of the battery above while the other landed a force of five hundred soldiers. The garrison appeared surprised and acted with negligence; yet had it not been surprised it offered insufficient resistance towards the attack.

     General French's personal inspection of the area during the first hour of the following morning proved to him, that to retake the works more men would be lost in recapturing them than the fortification had actually been valued by the Confederates.

     Listening to the assault that evening, the Lieutenant General commanding pulled a pocket watch from his fob had personally timed the federal artillery shelling Hill's Point. In his opinion, the shot and shell was landing no more than thirteen rounds per minute. It had already been after sun set and in consideration perhaps four of those shots would have found their mark on an advancing regiment. General Longstreet did not share the same conclusion as his subordinate. He felt the fortifications could have been retaken with the loss of roughly seventy five men. The command at the fort itself, he expressed was indeed completely surprised and found to be less excusable than the other commands engaged in the unfortunate affair.

     The loss of the battery had not lacked embarrassment due to the absence of vigilance and prompt attention to detail. Major General Samuel French had been under the impression that Major General John Bell Hood's command was expected to protect the battery; but such was not the case nor had that belief possessed the common sense the commanding general expected of his officers. The guns themselves had been under the exclusive control of the former, while the latter naturally considered himself relieved from the responsibilities with the river batteries when they were assigned to the charge of General French.

     The affair had not been charged to the battery itself, but rather the improper coordination of its support. Captain Robert Stribling had gone on to command artillery in the field once again. It was a lesson learned that required no censure of the officers involved, but a reminder of how precious the watchful eye of the soldier is, and just how costly the absence of vigilance would become.

Aldie Daniel Moran
© 2006

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