Thursday, September 15, 2022

Replaced Civil War marker in Smithfield, Va., recalls a ham-fisted Federal foray in 1864 that was all sizzle, but no steak

If you’re a believer in the adage “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” look no farther for an example than a Civil War skirmish that occurred in Smithfield, Va., best known for its famous hams.

But this debacle has nothing to do with pork. Rather, it was a foray of Union troops trying to stop Confederate harassment of naval ships. The brief mission failed, resulting in the capture of about 100 men, the loss of a Federal gunboat and the taking of a war trophy that rubbed salt in the wound.

Visitors to the Isle of Wight County Museum can learn about the Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 1864, clash. Just outside is a new Civil War Trails sign replacing a marker damaged several years ago by a truck.

The text was revised for the new sign (above, courtesy of Isle of Wight County Museum), officials told the Picket.

“Relocated from its former spot on Church Street, this sign brings more attention to the events which happened right here on Main Street in 1864,” museum director Jennifer England said in a press release.

The museum displays a model of the doomed Federal army gunboat Smith Briggs and a distinguished gilded eagle wrested from the vessel after capture and before its destruction.

Guilded eagle plundered from the Smith Briggs (Isle of Wight County Museum)
For months, federal transports and war vessels had been operating with impunity in the James and Nansemond  rivers despite Rebel harassment. The Yanks wanted to put an end to the firing on shipping and decided to land troops in Smithfield and have a separate detachment join the attack from Chuckatuck (Suffolk), to the southeast.

On Jan. 31, 1864, about 90 troops from the 99th New York Infantry and other regiments were transported via Pagan River to the unoccupied Smithfield, across from Newport News.

Union Capt. James Lee led his men south from Smithfield toward Chuckatuck, but ran into stiff opposition from local Confederate troops. The troops who landed at Chuckatuck heard distant firing, saw no enemy and decided to return to where they landed.

Things weren’t going well for their comrades in blue near Smithfield.

Model of the federal gunboat Smith Briggs at Isle of Wight County Museum
“Outmatched, Lee fell back on Smithfield, pulling items from stores along this street to throw up barricades in the hopes of stalling the Confederates,” the sign says. The Union troops were desperate for rescue.

The Smith Briggs returned the next day to save the harried Federal troops, but things went south, so to speak.

Confederate artillery caused the vessel to run aground, leading to its capture and looting. The trapped New Yorkers and others were forced to surrender. (Most were shipped to Andersonville prison in Georgia.)

The late local historian Segar “Sig” Dashiell, who wrote numerous newspaper articles about the history of Smithfield and other towns, wrote of the demise of the Smith-Briggs:

“When the Yankees had been removed, the citizens who had congregated on the wharf were allowed to come aboard the Smith Briggs and carry off anything they wanted. She was equipped with fine-cut glass with the name of the vessel cut on each piece and considerable supplies of tea, coffee and other goods… (Sgt. Joseph) Norsworthy climbed to the top of the pilot house and wrung and twisted from its bracket the handsome carved and gilded eagle that adorned the vessel and brought it ashore…A boy was sent around town to warn every householder to open all windows, as the gunboat was about to be blown up.”   

The Smithfield marker is one of four Civil War Trails markers in the county used to boost tourism. The nonprofit Civil War Trails is based in Virginia and has markers in six states.

By the way, there's a webcam in the museum for what's called the "world's oldest ham."

The Isle of Wight County Museum will host its next lecture and guided tour about the 1864 Battle of Smithfield at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22. A short ribbon-cutting event will take place during that lecture.

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