December 24, 1864 – The powder ship U.S.S. Louisiana exploded, signaling the beginning of the Federal assault on Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, headed a fleet of warships ready to bombard Fort Fisher, a Confederate stronghold guarding Wilmington, the last major seaport open to blockade running. An army force of 6,500 men, led by Major General Benjamin F. Butler, was on its way to meet up with Porter’s fleet on the 23rd.
The Federals anchored the U.S.S. Louisiana, a scuttled steamer, off Fort Fisher with the intent to detonate the 215 tons of gunpowder packed aboard and thereby destroy the fort wall and possibly the magazine. This would make it much easier for a landing force to come in and capture the garrison. The Louisiana was put in position on the night of the 23rd, with the explosion set for 1:18 a.m. It did not happen until 1:46, but when it finally came Major Thomas L. Casey of the Federal engineer corps described the sight:
“As viewed from the decks of the U.S. steamer Rhode Island at a distance of some 12 miles, the first thing observed was a bright flame, which suddenly leaped into the air at a height that would subtend some 6 or 8 degrees of arc. This flame was filled with bright points or coruscations that made its appearance very beautiful. Some 10 seconds after the appearance of the flame two sharp and ringing reports, about as loud as those from a 6-pounder brass gun, and following each other in rapid succession, were heard directly over the point of observation. At the same instant the vessel was sensibly jarred and shaken, and upon one of the vessels of the squadron some window glass was broken by the concussion. Immediately following this, a low, rumbling noise like distant thunder was heard in the direction of the explosion, and all was then quiet. The jar and noise of the explosion were apparent at points from 60 to 100 miles removed from it–namely, at Beaufort and New Berne, N.C.”
Some of the timers did not work properly, so what was supposed to have been one major explosion became four minor ones. Also, the water current had pulled the ship away from the fort, which further minimized the impact.
The Confederates did not know what happened. Major General W.H.C. Whiting, the Cape Fear district commander at Wilmington, telegraphed Colonel William Lamb, commanding the 500-man garrison at Fort Fisher, “Enemy’s gunboat blown up.” Whiting later reported that the Louisiana did not come to within 1,200 yards of the fort. Major Casey reported:
“Upon an examination of the fort the next morning, no perceptible effects could be seen to have been produced upon the works. The edges and crests of the parapets and traverses remained as sharp and well-defined as ever. The grass covering their surfaces had not been stripped from them. No slides or craters in the parapet could be observed. The stockade from the north-east bastion was intact, and the wooden barracks and other buildings about the fort were still standing.”
If Fort Fisher was to be softened up for a Federal army landing, the warships would have to do it. Porter assembled his 37 ironclads, frigates, and gunboats, led by the U.S.S. Ironsides. Porter stated:
“The Ironsides took her position in the most beautiful and seamanlike manner, got her spring out, and opened deliberate fire on the fort, which was firing at her with all its guns, which did not seem numerous in the N.E. face, though we counted what appeared to be 17 guns; but 4 or 5 of these were fired from that direction, and they were silenced almost as soon as the Ironsides opened her terrific battery.”
The other vessels soon came up, formed a semicircle and joined the attack. With 627 guns firing 10,000 rounds within five hours, this became the most intense bombardment of the war to date. Porter reported:
“In one hour and 15 minutes after the first shot was fired, not a shot came from the fort; two magazines had been blown up by our shells and the fort set fire in several places, and such a torrent of missiles were falling into and bursting over it that it was impossible for anything human to stand it.”
Some shots caused damage, while others burrowed harmlessly in the sand. Colonel Lamb reported:
“They destroyed about one-half our quarters, including headquarters. They damaged, more or less, some of our parapets and traverses, but no part of the work was greatly injured, except in front of Blakely gun, on right of northeast salient. They disabled one 10-inch carriage, one 8-inch carriage, and two 32-pounder carriages. The 10-inch in the pulpit and the 8-inch in the left of the northeast salient were dismounted by recoil; they will be mounted tonight.”
Lamb added that the bombardment “tore up large quantities of the earthworks, splintered some of the revetments, but did not injure a single bombproof or endanger any magazine.” The Confederates returned fire sparingly because they only had 3,000 rounds for their 44 guns, and Lamb wanted to conserve as much ammunition as possible for the expected infantry landing. He reported one man killed and 22 wounded, while Porter lost 45 killed or wounded, all due to malfunctioning guns.
Butler arrived that night with some of his army transports. He was furious that Porter had detonated the Louisiana and begun the bombardment without him, believing that he ruined the infantry’s element of surprise. Plus the “powder boat” had been Butler’s idea, and he wanted to watch it explode.
According to Butler, Porter assured him that the Confederate guns had been silenced, allowing for an easy infantry landing. Butler stated that if a landing was so easy, then Porter’s warships should be able to sail up the Cape Fear River and land the troops away from the Confederate gunboats. Porter countered that such a move would be dangerous for his ships because the waterway was mined with torpedoes. Porter later wrote that Butler’s report was “false from beginning to end. I never had any conversation of the kind with anyone; indeed, the whole report is a tissue of misrepresentations…”
At any rate, it was decided that Butler’s troops, with Major General Godfrey Weitzel in direct command, would land about three miles above Fort Fisher on Christmas Day.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160-61; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22259; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15072-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 614-15; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 819; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 214-15; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 439