The “Storm Over Suffolk” in Memory and History

One of the most interesting aspects of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is the critical intersection of history and memory.  History is transmitted through published works, often institutionalized, and subject to change as society and as scholarship change.

On the other hand, memory resides with people who lived through the experience,with those who passed it down to others, and in the case of Kermit Hobbs, with someone who joins historical accounts of the 1863 siege of Suffolk  to actual sites where the April 11-May 4 engagements took place.

Hobbs played in the Civil War trenches near his home as a child and for almost 50 years, he’s explored woods and areas along the nearby Nansemond River for forts, batteries, and fortifications.  In 2003, Hobbs’ continuing interest led him to create a popular annual tour of  Civil War sites in and around Suffolk.

Kermit Hobbs with tour at site of Fort Huger, overlooking the Nansemond River

In the opening years of the Civil War, Suffolk was a hub for railroad and river travel.  By October 1862, US Brig. Gen. John J. Peck and some 15,000 Federal troops had taken command of Suffolk and occupied it.  “General Peck had experience in laying out defenses,” Hobbs said. “That is one reason why he was chosen, to lay out defensive works and fortify the backdoor to Norfolk.”

According to John S. Salmon’s The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, Gen. Robert E. Lee sent Lt. Gen. James Longstreet with about 20,000 troops into southeastern Virginia in February 1863 to protect Richmond from the south and to assess the likelihood of capturing Suffolk.  Here’s where the narrative takes a turn:  Hobbs believes Longstreet’s primary purpose was to forage for food that the Confederates needed from southeastern Virginia.  “There’s not total harmony among historians,” Hobbs said. “From the Union perspective, Longstreet’s intention was to capture Suffolk.”

Hobbs helps tour participants to visualize how the April 11-May 4, 1863 campaign unfolded at fortifications along the Nansemond River, like Fort Huger. He tells how that Confederate position fell to a Union amphibious assault on April 19, but also how those Union gunboats could not withstand Confederate attack earlier in the siege.  That meant the Nansemond was left unprotected by troops when Peck pulled them back to complete the ring of earthworks he was constructing around  Suffolk. Afterwards, Peck was criticized for disastrously leaving the gunboats as targets for Confederate artillery and sharpshooters.

Just as historians disagree about Longstreet’s priorities, Hobbs said they don’t concur on why the Confederate general chose not to cross the Nansemond and capture Suffolk during a strategic 72-hour period when he and his Confederate troops had the chance.   Hobbs said, “Just before the siege, Longstreet had written to Lee that unless a great opportunity arose, he would not cross. So when the opportunity presented itself,  either Longstreet was totally inept, or it was not his intention in the first place.” Although they did not take Suffolk back from Union control, the Confederates did forage successfully and block the way to Richmond from the south.

Hobbs has shared his knowledge in a guidebook about Suffolk and gives a lecture entitled “Storm Over Suffolk” in which he describes how residents experienced the war, in their words.  Now a retired executive and engineer, Hobbs is using a personal GPS device to go around to the sites he knows so well,  to record their locations before they disappear or as he says, ” become a parking lot.”

To learn more about Suffolk’s upcoming Sesquicentennial events this May and beyond, go to the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society’s website at http://www.suffolkhistory.org/. Kermit Hobbs’ guidebook about Suffolk in the Civil War is available on the SNHS website, and at the Suffolk Station Railroad Museum and Riddick’s Folly, the restored Union headquarters of Gen. John J. Peck.

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