January 5, 1865 – After failing to capture Fort Fisher in December, Federals prepared to launch another army-navy expedition from Bermuda Hundred and Fort Monroe on the Virginia coast.
The Federal high command had made capturing Fort Fisher a top priority because it guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina. An attempt led by Major General Benjamin F. Butler and Rear Admiral David D. Porter failed in late December, but the Federals resolved to try again, this time without Butler running the army part of the operation.
Porter issued orders for 66 warships to assemble off the North Carolina coast, stocked with “every shell than can be carried” to blast the fort into submission. Porter had reported that his ships nearly destroyed Fort Fisher in December, but now he realized that the gunners overshot most of their marks by aiming at the Confederates’ flag, which was strategically placed at the fort’s rear. This time, Porter directed the gunners to target the enemy cannon, not the flag.
Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles impressed upon Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the importance of capturing Fort Fisher and sealing off Wilmington, “the only port by which any supplies whatever reach the rebels.” Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal army commander, scrambled to find boats to transport the troops down the coast from Virginia. He also replaced Butler with Major General Alfred H. Terry, who commanded XXIV Corps in Butler’s Army of the James.
From his City Point headquarters, Grant wrote Butler on the 2nd, “Please send Major-general Terry to City Point to see me this morning.” Grant did not explain why he wanted Terry to either man to keep the mission as secret as possible. Grant merely told Terry that he was being put in charge of a force to be transferred by sea to an undisclosed site. Terry thought he was being sent to reinforce William T. Sherman’s army at Savannah.
The same provisional corps that Butler had led in the first Fort Fisher expedition would now be led by Terry: Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division and a brigade from Terry’s corps, and Brigadier General Charles Paine’s division from Butler’s XXV Corps. As Terry reported:
“I was instructed to move them from their positions in the lines on the north side of the James River to Bermuda Landing in time to commence their embarkation on transport vessels at sunrise on the 4th instant. In obedience to these orders the movement commenced at noon of the 3rd instant. The troops arrived at the landing at sunset, and there bivouacked for the night.”
Grant notified Porter:
“General Terry will consult with you fully, and will be governed by your suggestions as far as his responsibility for the safety of his command will admit of. My views are that Fort Fisher can be taken from the water front only in two ways, one is to surprise the enemy when they have an insufficient force; then the other is for the navy to run into Cape Fear River with vessels enough to contend against anything the enemy may have there. If the landing can be effected before this is done, well and good; but if the enemy are in a very strong force, a landing may not be practicable until we have possession of the river.”
Porter wrote Grant, “I shall be ready, and thank God we are not to leave here with so easy a victory at hand.” He recommended that Terry’s men “should have provisions to last them on shore in case we are driven off by gales, but I can cover any number of troops if it blows ever so hard. I have held on here through all and the heaviest gales ever seen here. They seem to blow that I might show the commanders that we could ride it out at anchor.”
Regarding the Confederates in the fort itself, Porter wrote, “We destroyed all their abatis, and made a beautiful bridge for the troops to cross on. They think they have whipped us. I made the ships go off as if they were crippled, some in tow. We will have Wilmington in a week, weather permitting.”
Grant met with Terry on the James River, and they both took a steamer down to the operation’s launching point at Fortress Monroe. Grant finally disclosed the details of this secret mission:
“The object is to renew the attempt to capture Fort Fisher, and in case of success to take possession of Wilmington. It is of the greatest importance that there should be a complete understanding and harmony of action between you and Admiral Porter. I want you to consult the admiral fully, and let there be no misunderstanding in regard to the plan of cooperation in all its details. I served with Admiral Porter on the Mississippi, and have a high appreciation of his courage and judgment. I want to urge upon you to land with all dispatch, and intrench yourself in a position from which you can operate against Fort Fisher, and not to abandon it until the fort is captured or you receive further instructions from me.”
To ensure that the army would not withdraw again, Terry was to bypass his immediate superior (Butler) and report directly to Grant. Porter instructed sailors and Marines to form squadrons that would land on the seaward side of Fort Fisher. Terry’s men were to attack the landward side.
Terry’s provisional corps left Fortress Monroe on transports and started heading down the coast on the 5th. There would be no stopping this expedition now.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 184; 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. 217