The Fort Fisher Campaign: Part 2

After failing to capture Fort Fisher in December 1864, Federals prepared to launch another joint army-navy expedition from Bermuda Hundred and Fort Monroe on the Virginia coast. This time, Major General Alfred H. Terry replaced Benjamin F. Butler in army command, while naval forces remained under Rear Admiral David D. Porter.[1]

Interior of Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Interior of Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The massive Federal fleet of 60 vessels arrived off Beaufort, North Carolina on January 8, 1865. Guarding Fort Fisher, Colonel William Lamb appealed to both his district commander (Major General W.H.C. Whiting) and his department commander (General Braxton Bragg) for reinforcements. Although a fierce three-day storm delayed the Federal advance, no Confederates arrived to reinforce Fisher.[2]

As the storm subsided, the Federal fleet advanced and reached Confederate Point before sundown, January 12. Lamb prepared to defend the fort with just 800 Confederates against 8,000 Federal troops on naval transports among the warships. Fisher’s importance to the Confederacy was so great that General Robert E. Lee telegraphed the fort commander, “If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.”[3]

At 4 a.m. next morning, Porter began bombarding Fisher with 627 guns from 59 vessels, the largest concentration of naval firepower in history. Porter had refined his firing accuracy since last month’s failed attempt to capture Fisher, making this bombardment much deadlier.[4]

Federal troops began landing north of Fisher at 8 a.m., and all 8,000 had landed by 3 p.m. During this time, Whiting arrived at the fort with some reinforcements to join Lamb’s men, raising the total number of defenders to near 1,500. Whiting told his subordinate, “Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.” When Lamb disagreed, Whiting informed him that no reinforcements would be coming from Bragg.[5]

The relentless Federal bombardment resumed at dawn on January 14. Fort Fisher sustained a total of 1,652,638 pounds of artillery fire, the most ever in a single naval engagement. General Terry spent the day constructing defenses to fend off Bragg’s Confederates to the north, then probed southward toward Fisher.[6]

By now, only boats could reach the fort from the Cape Fear River side. Confederate casualties within Fisher exceeded 200, while survivors huddled in bombproofs to avoid the naval fire. Both Lamb and Whiting bitterly denounced Bragg’s failure to attack the Federals from the north.[7]

The naval bombardment resumed as the third day began. A Confederate brigade arrived by boat to reinforce the garrison, but only about 350 men managed to reach the land under the naval fire. Once inside the fort, all these reinforcements could do was join their comrades within the bombproofs and await the land assault. Then near 3 p.m., the naval guns stopped and Terry launched a two-pronged attack on the eastern and western sides of Fort Fisher. Confederates repulsed the eastern assault, but when Federals captured the western parapets along the Cape Fear River side of the fort, surrender became inevitable.[8]

Confederates lowered their flag from Fort Fisher at 10 p.m. Lamb and Whiting, both wounded, were taken prisoner along with all surviving defenders. In the three-day battle, the Federals suffered 1,341 casualties (266 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 57 missing), while the Confederates lost nearly 2,000, most of which were captured. Bragg wired Robert E. Lee, “I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher, with most of its garrison, at about 10 o’clock tonight. Particulars not known.”[9]

As Federals looted Fort Fisher on January 16, the main magazine exploded, killing 25 and wounding 66. Meanwhile, the outnumbered Confederates in the region soon abandoned nearby Fort Caswell, Smithville, and Reeves’ Point to advancing Federals. Bragg countered charges of failing to attack by arguing the Federal forces were too strong. Upon learning the news, President Jefferson Davis urged Bragg to retake Fisher if possible.[10]

The Federal capture of Fort Fisher closed Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last major seaport. This prevented the South from trading cotton overseas for badly needed food and supplies. It also ended a plan for southern women to cut and sell their hair to Europeans, estimated to generate $40 million for the war effort. Now with no way to ship the hair overseas, backers abandoned the plan.[11]

Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens described the significance of this defeat: “The fall of this Fort was one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our cause from the beginning of the war—not excepting the loss of Vicksburg or Atlanta. Forts Fisher and Caswell guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear River, and prevented the complete blockade of the port of Wilmington, through which a limited Foreign Commerce had been carried on during the whole time. It was by means of what cotton could thus be carried out, that we had been enabled to get along financially, as well as we had; and at this point also, a considerable number of arms and various munitions of war, as well as large supplies of subsistence, had been introduced. All other ports… had long since been closed.”[12]

—–

  • [1] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619
  • [2] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 621; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15469-15479
  • [3] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 623-24; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15498-15527; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1960), p. 203
  • [4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 623-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15498-15527
  • [5] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 623-24; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15498-15527; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164
  • [6] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15527-15537
  • [7] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15527-15537
  • [8] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624-25; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15547-15586; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 164
  • [9] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15547-15586
  • [10] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624-26
  • [11] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624-25; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011-01-26), Kindle Locations 15748-15758; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 685
  • [12] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 685
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3 thoughts on “The Fort Fisher Campaign: Part 2

  1. […] the massive Federal fleet of about 60 vessels and transports carrying 8,000 soldiers arrived off Fort Fisher, North Carolina after battling stormy seas for three days. Inside the fort, Confederate Colonel William Lamb led a […]

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  2. […] the massive Federal fleet of about 60 vessels and transports carrying 8,000 soldiers arrived off Fort Fisher, North Carolina after battling stormy seas for three days. Inside the fort, Confederate Colonel William Lamb led a […]

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  3. […] Francis P. Blair, Sr. conferred with President Davis in Richmond. […]

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