In early 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee dispatched Gen. James Longstreet and 2 divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia to the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, an area that stretched between the James and Cape Fear Rivers. The initial purpose was to protect Richmond from an anticipated Union advance from the southeast. But when no such advance occurred, Longstreet changed the mission into a great foraging expedition.
On April 11, 1863, Longstreet's 2 divisions marched to Suffolk, Virginia, where Gen. John J. Peck commanded a Union garrison of 25,000 men.
While part of Longstreet's 20,000 man force scoured the countryside, filling their wagons with foodstuffs for Lee's army, the rest began building fortifications and laying Suffolk under siege. The Confederates reoccupied Fort Huger, an old earthwork fort on the Nansemond River that the Confederacy had abandoned when the Union captured Suffolk in 1862. Attempting to cut off Union river communications with Suffolk, they established other batteries along the Nansemond River, some of them positioned near the Norfleet house just upriver from Fort Huger.
On April 24, the Union ships Mount Washington , West End , and Stepping Stones , under the command of Lt. William B. Cushing, attempted to run past the Norfleet batteries to Suffolk. Confederate artillerists showered the ships, crippling the Mount Washington and forcing all the ships to retreat. The Union suffered 15 men killed and wounded and lost a crucial stretch of the Nansemond River. One Confederate battery was severely damaged.
Throughout the next morning, Union artillery across the river from the Norfleet house battered the Confederate position. Four more Confederate guns were silenced before the contest ended.
Several days later, Union raiders captured Fort Huger, but then abandoned it, and Confederate regained possession of the important position. Neither side attempted a major offensive for the rest of the month