Battle of Smithfield

The Battle of Smithfield

The Battle of Smithfield, one of the many skirmishes in Virginia during the Civil War, took place in the middle of Main Street. Though not a major conflict, it made quite an impact on the inhabitants of Smithfield. On Sunday, Jan. 31, 1864, the Union gunboat Smith-Briggs approached the old abandoned shipyard at the bottom of Church Street - where Smithfield Station resides now. Locals were attending church services at Christ Episcopal Church at the corner of Main and Church Streets when the janitor burst in with the news. Everyone hurried for home. A unit of Confederate volunteers rushed to Smithfield from Ivor to engage the Union troops. After a small skirmish, the Confederates fell back to the west, and the Union soldiers returned to Smithfield - and found that their gunboat had not returned.

When Monday morning arrived cold and rainy and the gunboat still hadn't arrived, the Union soldiers placed their lone cannon at the top of Wharf Hill and waited. Maj. Sturdivant, discovering that the enemy troops were still in town, arrived at the west end of Main Street and set up two field pieces - a 12-pound Napoleon and a 6-pound Howitzer. The Union captain was fully prepared to surrender when he saw the gunboat coming up the Pagan River.

After ordering woman and children of the town into a basement for cover, Maj. Sturdivant opened fire straight down Main Street. Firing ensued for 45 minutes until Union forces scrambled to get aboard the Smith-Briggs. Capt. Norsworthy, a member of the Confederate calvary, pursued the troops and shot at them as they crossed the gangplank. The 12-pound Napoleon then fired from Main Street and shot through the steam chest of the vessel - causing the Smith-Briggs to run up the white flag of surrender and drift to the other side of the Pagan River where it lodged in the mud. The Union soldiers were taken prisoner. Dr. John R. Purdie and local women took care of the wounded temporarily, and only one Confederate soldier's life was lost. Set afire, the Smith-Briggs was blown to pieces when the flames hit the ammunition on board.

Before the explosion, Capt. Norsworthy pulled the gilded eagle figurehead from the ship. Mollie Chalmers, a local townsperson, recalled that Yankee coffee was enjoyed in Smithfield that night for the first time in many months. The gilded eagle is on display at the Old Courthouse of 1750, owned and maintained by Preservation Virginia.