Longstreet's Tidewater Operations

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Longstreet's Tidewater Operations

North Carolina Civil War Map of Battles
North Carolina Civil War Map.jpg
Longstreet's Tidewater Operations

In the late winter of 1862-63, General Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis had some hard facts to face.  Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was short of rations and men; there were rumors of further Union amphibious moves on Richmond; there were threats from the Union garrisons scattered along the North Carolina coast.  (See Longstreet's Tidewater Operations: A Summary.)  Most obvious was General Hooker's Army of the Potomac, encamped opposite Fredericksburg.

It was the most obvious threat, but how serious was it?  Hooker was considered raw and green as a commanding general, the weather was bad, and Lee had strong positions in case Hooker desired to strike.  So the threat from Hooker could be discounted to a degree.

There were threats further south, however, on the exposed coastal flank.  What if Hooker pinned Lee's army while new and fresh Union forces landed to repeat last spring's Peninsula campaign?  If that was the new Union strategy they wouldn't send General McClellan back to do it slowly.  Also, the flexibility of seapower meant that the Union army could move troops to one of their North Carolina bases and advance or move inland to sever the vital and strategic Weldon Railroad (aka Wilmington and Weldon) - the line that fed the bulk of Lee's army.

Moreover, the Fredericksburg area had been picked over.  There wasn't enough food locally to feed the men - and especially the horses - of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Furthermore, the critical railroads were overloaded, so they couldn't forward enough supplies to keep Lee's men 'physically fit and able for war'.

These factors swirled around Confederate strategy sessions.  The result was the unexpected.  Lee agreed to weaken his army, partly because he couldn't feed all of it, partly because he felt he was strong enough to defend or repel, and partly because of the threats further south.  So in mid-February, most of General James Longstreet's corps was moved south by rail into North Carolina.  (It wasn't a problem to move men south by rail, because the cars were empty after bringing rations and fodder forward or to the front.)

North Carolina Coast
North Carolina Coast.gif
Longstreet's Tidewater Operations

They had three goals or objectives, as Jeff Davis made clear.  1) Longstreet was to keep himself in a position to cover Richmond in case the Union landed troops at Fort Monroe and moved up the James-York Peninsula again. 2) Be able to move back to Fredericksburg in case Hooker moved.  3) Push the Union troops back to their bases, capture any of those ports if possible, and gather all the provisions and volunteers possible in the area - which had been under Union occupation for almost a year.  Goals 1 and 2 conflicted with 3, which itself was not terribly aggressive - Longstreet had to be careful not to get drawn into pointlessly bloody battles in this little campaign.  This may be why Lee chose Longstreet instead of Jackson, who had more experience with independent operations.  Jackson tended to fix on one objective and lose perspective; he might have launched a major attack on one of the small coastal garrisons and lost too many men.

Virginia Civil War Battlefields of 1862
Longstreet's Tidewater Operations.jpg
Longstreet's Tidewater Operations

General Longstreet was appointed commander of all North Carolina (except around Wilmington) and south-side Virginia, with about 44,000 men under his command - the majority of his army was already in the region and was mainly from the area's scattered garrisons.  However, just more than half of the total force was available for mobile operations.  Against the experienced Longstreet were roughly 50,000 Union troops, but they were far more scattered, and were mainly in the garrisons and ports from Fort Monroe to Norfolk, Suffolk, Elizabeth City, Plymouth, Washington, New Bern, and Beaufort.  (See Longstreet's Tidewater Operations, by D. H. Hill, Jr..)

By early March it became clear that the Union troops that were detached from the Army of the Potomac were not moving by sea, but rather by land and to an area referred to as "East Tennessee." (A region Lincoln always wanted to protect, or liberate, for political reasons.)  Now, Longstreet's task was clearer: avoid casualties, but gather supplies and try and capture a garrison.  Longstreet quickly pushed his forces into coastal North Carolina, probing around New Bern (mid-March) at Fort Anderson.

Longstreet cleared that area of supplies, then moved northward, and east because there was still no strong threat to either Richmond or Fredericksburg.  He had General D. H. Hill besiege Washington, N.C. (late March to mid-April) with 12,000 men while he took the rest of the mobile troops (about 20,000) against Suffolk, VA. Major General John Peck had two divisions there (roughly 20,000 men) but believed Longstreet was much stronger, so he circled the wagons.  Longstreet initiated the "Siege of Suffolk" only to buy time for his commissary officers (the Confederate dollar was still worth something); he had no intention of taking Suffolk, and little chance.  Various minor actions took place during the siege, including one at the Norfleet House Battery, but with no effect on the outcome.

Longstreet successfully kept up the pretense.  Substantial quantities of supplies were obtained, and he began to wonder if he might gain some glory by capturing Suffolk.  Union defenders, however, had reinforced Suffolk, so the Confederate besiegers were now outnumbered.  But events around Fredericksburg intervened.  Hooker was moving; Longstreet was summoned back.  He dropped ideas of glory but still withdrew slowly enough to squeeze the last supplies out (and extract his wagons intact).  Even if he had abandoned everything, however, he still wouldn't have been back in time for Chancellorsville.

(Related reading below.)

Sources: Campaigns in the Eastern Theater, Ohio State University; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.

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Longstreet's Tidewater Operations [March-April 1863]

 

Battle of Fort Anderson (aka Deep Gully)
Battle of Washington (aka Siege of Washington)
Battle of Norfleet House (aka Suffolk) 
Battle of Hill's Point (aka Suffolk)
 

Recommended Reading: Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...
For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.
 
Recommended Reading: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife's sister. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...
During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
 
Recommended Reading: The Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Johnston and Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General Stoneman's Raid.
 
Recommended Reading: The Flags of Civil War North Carolina. Description: Compiled and written by educator and Civil War expert Glenn Dedmondt, The Flags Of Civil War North Carolina is a very straightforward reference presenting photographs, color illustrations, descriptions and history of the titular flags that flew over North Carolina when it seceded from the Union. Each page or two-page spread features the different flags of the various North Carolina regiments. A meticulously detailed resource offering very specific information for history and civil war buffs, The Flags Of Civil War North Carolina is a welcome contribution to the growing library of Civil War Studies and could well serve as a template for similar volumes for the other Confederate as well as Union states. Great photos and illustrations! Continued below...
Flags stir powerful emotions, and few objects evoke such a sense of duty and love for the homeland. In April 1861, the first flag of a new republic flew over North Carolina. The state had just seceded from the union, and its citizens would soon have to fight for their homes, their families, and their way of life. Each flag is meticulously detailed and scaled to perfection. The Flags of Civil War North Carolina is the history of this short-lived republic (which later joined the Confederacy), told through the banners that flew over its government, cavalry, and navy. From the hand-painted flag of the Guilford Greys to the flag of the Buncombe Riflemen--made from the dresses of the ladies of Asheville--this collection is an exceptional tribute to the valiant men who bore these banners and to their ill-fated crusade for independence. About the Author: Glenn Dedmondt, a lifelong resident of the Carolinas and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, shares his passion for the past as a teacher of South Carolina history. Dedmondt has also been published in Confederate Veteran magazine.
 
Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...
The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war.

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