December 23, 1864 – A joint Federal army-navy force assembled to attack Fort Fisher, which guarded the last viable Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had begun planning for an amphibious attack on Fort Fisher in October. This fort guarded Wilmington, the last major seaport open to Confederate blockade-runners. It also protected the flow of supplies from that city to the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg.
Grant shelved the plan when he received word that the Confederates were reinforcing Fort Fisher. But when troops were pulled from Fisher to stop William T. Sherman’s march to the sea, the plan was revived. Grant directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, to head the expedition from his headquarters while Major General Godfrey Weitzel led Butler’s 6,500-man army force. Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, would lead the naval fleet.
Butler’s chief engineer came up with an idea to send a boat filled with gunpowder up to Fort Fisher and blow her up. This explosion would damage or destroy the fort’s sea-facing wall and might even detonate the fort’s magazine. The garrison would then be easy prey for the Federal landing force. The Lincoln administration was skeptical but eventually endorsed the plan. Porter offered his own idea on how the operation should be carried out:
“I propose running a vessel drawing 8 1/2 feet (as near to Fort Fisher as possible) with 350 tons of powder, and exploding her by running her upon the outside and opposite Fort Fisher. My calculations are that the explosion will wind up Fort Fisher and the works along the beach, and that we can open fire with the vessels without damage.”
Grant wanted the expedition to start as quickly as possible because Sherman was closing in on Savannah, and once that city was taken, the Confederates who had left Fort Fisher would be coming back. On the 4th, Grant ordered Butler to send his force out immediately, “with or without your powder boat.” However, Butler spent the next week assembling his two divisions and transporting them down the James River to his headquarters at Fort Monroe.
The army part of the expedition finally began on the 13th, by which time Butler had decided to ignore Grant’s orders and lead the force in person. The transports cleared Hampton Roads and arrived at a point about 25 miles off New Inlet two days later. There Butler waited for Porter’s squadron, but he had failed to notify Porter as to the exact time and place where they should meet.
The weather was suitable for a landing, but Butler could do nothing without Porter’s warships supporting him. Porter was at Beaufort, 90 miles up the coast from Fort Fisher, gathering fuel and supplies. He also had the U.S.S. Louisiana, an out-of-service hulk, filled with over 200 pounds of explosive powder. Porter notified Commander Alexander Rhind of the Louisiana:
“Great risks have to be run, and there are chances that you may lose your life in this adventure; but the risk is worth the running, and when the importance of the object is to be considered and the fame to be gained by this novel undertaking, which is either to prove that forts on the water are useless or that rebels are proof against gunpowder… I expect more good to our cause from a success in this instance than from an advance of all the armies in the field.”
Meanwhile, the army transports waited so long for Porter that they too had to go to Beaufort for refuel and resupply. The entire force finally assembled off New Inlet on the 18th. It consisted of 150 ships, including five ironclads and 52 frigates and gunboats that bore 627 guns. They prepared to advance on Fort Fisher, but heavy storms caused rough seas, and Porter advised Butler to return to Beaufort until conditions improved. Five days later, the fleet reassembled, finally ready to attack.
The fort was defended by only 500 Confederates under the immediate command of Colonel William Lamb. They had 44 guns with just 3,000 rounds of ammunition to stave off one of the largest Federal armadas ever assembled. Lamb’s superior, Major General W.H.C. Whiting, commanding the Cape Fear district at Wilmington, reported on the Federal fleet as it approached:
“Wabash and Colorado in advance, painted white, with Confederate flag. Troops concealed under deck. Two double-enders, 11 iron-clads, five torpedo raisers, 12 mortar-boats, the remainder transports, there being 85 in all, and all steamers. The land forces to consist of 20,000 men under Butler, the naval forces under Admirals Lee…”
Whiting then sent a more anxious message: “The troops ordered away cannot return, if not helped, the forts may be turned and the city goes. The reduced garrisons are not able to hold this extended position without support.” General Robert E. Lee agreed to detach Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division to reinforce Fort Fisher, but Whiting feared that Hoke might come too late. He warned:
“I think the citizens should be notified of the imminence of attack, and all business should be suspended except that of transportation and that purely connected with the defense. It should be decided what is preferable to save and that at once, for stripped as we are of forces, we shall have little time before the enemy will be upon the city.”
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, one of Lee’s corps commanders, advised that Whiting should be instructed “to hold his position as long as he has a man. If his guns are knocked down, to hold on with his infantry and field batteries… If they are prepared for such an emergency beforehand, they will meet it as they should.”
General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate department overseeing Wilmington and Fort Fisher, reported on the 23rd, “The fleet which drew off in the rough weather is again assembled.” Whiting wrote to Richmond:
“We seem to be in the midst of disasters all around. Our position here is very precarious, and as the enemy’s fleet are off New Inlet in heavy force, in our present depleted condition it may be carried at any moment unless the enemy delay until Hoke shall have arrived.”
Whiting noted that the Federals were merely waiting for calm waters, and once they attacked, “the best course would be to save the troops.” He guessed that the Federals were targeting Fort Fisher due to its lack of troops and lighthouses:
“Many indications lead me to think the enemy have hit upon this plan, so fraught with danger to us and so promising to them, with small risk… A successful coup de main would give them at an expense of no very large number of troops a position most formidably secure against any effort of ours to repossess it should we be re-enforced after the event.”
In another message, Whiting postulated, “Heavy weather may save us, but every night fills me with anxiety.”
Meanwhile, Butler notified Porter, whose fleet was off Fort Fisher, that “on the evening of the 24th I would again be at the rendezvous with the transport fleet for the purpose of commencing the attack, the weather permitting.” On the night of the 23rd, Porter directed the U.S.S. Wilderness to tow the Louisiana to her launching point, some 300 yards from the fort. She was actually anchored closer to 600 yards away. The crew set all the timers and backup fuses, escaped aboard the Wilderness, and awaited the incredible explosion that was sure to come.
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