SMITHFIELD — Harassing fire was nothing new for the Union gunboats that patrolled Hampton Roads during the Civil War.
More than one Yankee sailor felt the sting of a rebel rifle fired from the shore, and — despite armor shields that rivaled anything seen on the Humvees of Iraq or the gun trucks of Vietnam — some of those wounds proved fatal.
Not until late January 1864, however, did a near-disastrous grounding sparked by shots from the James River’s banks give Federal commanders reason to respond with unprecedented muscle.
Assembling four gunboats, an armed transport, two armed Navy launches and a detachment of infantry, cavalry and artillery, the Union landed at Smithfield and near Chuckatuck on Jan. 31 in a two-pronged sweep for the shooters.
But after some early success, the Smithfield contingent retreated back to town, where their exposed position on Main Street invited a Confederate attack so fiery and fortunate that — by the end of Feb. 1— more than 100 Yankees had been captured.
Left burning in the Pagan River was the battered wreck of the gunboat Smith Briggs, which was stripped and looted before exploding so violently that it shattered windows all over town.
“The Battle of Smithfield will not be found in any of our history books,” wrote Smithfield doctor Herbert S. Southgate, whose grandfather took a gilded eagle figurehead as a trophy.
“But it surely must have been the most exciting and memorable (day) in the whole 200-odd years of our town’s history.”