December 25, 1864 – Federal naval forces bombarded Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast, but the Federal commander decided not to land his troops for an assault.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had assembled warships to bombard Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington. The vessels were to soften up the Confederates in the fort so that Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s 6,500-man infantry force could come ashore and capture the stronghold.
Porter renewed his artillery barrage at 10:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. He reported:
“The order of attack was given, and the Ironsides took position in her usual handsome style, the monitors following close after her. All the vessels followed according to order, and took position without a shot being fired at them, excepting a few shots fired at the four last vessels that got into line. The firing this day was slow, only sufficient to amuse the enemy while the army landed, which they were doing five miles to the eastward of the fleet.”
Meanwhile, 18 gunboats escorted Butler’s army transports to their landing point at Flag Pond Hill, three miles above Fort Fisher. Confederates had placed a battery there, but according to Butler, Porter assured him that the navy had silenced it. The Federals landed with Major General Godfrey Weitzel in command. Butler stayed on his ship, later writing:
“We stood in, the transport fleet lying each side of me. I lay within 800 yards of the shore when we commenced debarking the troops. The moment we got on shore skirmishers were to advance and take possession of some woods. This they did, and then the small party moved down upon Flag Pond Hill battery. The enemy held out a white flag as our skirmishers came up, and the navy sent in boats and took the prisoners off.”
The prisoners told their captors that reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia were coming to block the landing. Confederate Major General W.H.C. Whiting, who had come from Wilmington to take command of Fort Fisher and its surroundings, reported to his department commander, General Braxton Bragg, “A large body of the enemy have landed near the fort, deploying as skirmishers. May be able to carry me by storm. Do the best I can. All behaving well. Order supports to attack.”
Butler landed about half his force and pushed back enemy skirmishers as the sun began setting and the sea began getting choppier. The Federals approaching the fort quickly came under fire from the enemy guns that Butler claimed Porter assured him were disabled. Butler wrote:
“I then determined upon my course of action, bearing in mind the fact that a storm was coming on, and knowing that, if it became necessary to effect a landing again, we could do it any day, in a smooth sea, in two hours without the loss of a man. I thought it a greatly less risk waiting with the men on board the transports than to attempt to get them on shore and have them intrench there during the night in the coming storm.”
Butler informed Porter that he was pulling his men out because the fort–
“–was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the navy fire. Finding that nothing but the operations of a regular siege, which did not come within my instructions, would reduce the fort, and in view of the threatening aspect of the weather, wind arising from the southeast, rendering it impossible to make further landing through the surf, I caused the troops with their prisoners to reembark, and see nothing further that can be done by the land forces. I shall therefore sail for Hampton Roads as soon as the transport fleet can get in order.”
Thus, Butler landed part of his force, received word that enemy reinforcements and a storm were coming, and then ordered his troops back onto their transports. About 700 Federals were stranded on shore as the tide worsened; the U.S.S. Santiago de Cuba provided a covering fire to keep the Confederates from capturing them. Sailors from Porter’s fleet eventually rescued the troops.
Porter was outraged by Butler’s unwillingness to storm the fort. He contended that after only an hour and a half, his fleet had crippled the fort to the point where its batteries “are nearly demolished… We have set them on fire, blown some of them up, and all that is wanted now is the troops to land and go into them.”
When Butler reported that some of his Federals managed to take a Confederate flag from Fort Fisher’s parapet and steal a horse, Porter sarcastically replied, “I wish some more of your gallant fellows had followed the officer who took the flag from the parapet, and the brave fellow who brought the horse out from the fort. I think they would have found it an easier conquest than is supposed.”
Federal naval guns fired another 10,000 rounds into Fort Fisher over seven hours. A total of over 20,000 rounds were fired in two days, making this the heaviest bombardment of the war. But it did not do the damage the Federals expected, mainly because the ships had to stay back out of the range of the Confederate guns and therefore lacked effective accuracy.
Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederates in Fort Fisher, reported that on this second day of bombardment, “a few more quarters were burned, more of the earthworks were displaced, but none seriously damaged, and (only) five guns were disabled by the enemy.” Whiting stated that the barrage was focused on the fort’s sea face, so the guns closer to the land face were out of harm’s way. And when Lamb noticed that the Federals were aiming at the fort’s flag, he had it placed back toward the Cape Fear River, causing the gunners to overshoot.
Nevertheless, Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I shall remain here and keep shelling the enemy’s works on every occasion, whenever the weather will permit.” But without infantry support, Porter had to withdraw. This was a major defeat at a time when the Federals were enjoying unprecedented success in nearly every other theater of operations.
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