January 13, 1865 – The largest naval fleet ever assembled by the U.S. arrived off Beaufort, North Carolina, in preparation for a second assault on Fort Fisher.
The Confederates attached great importance to holding Fort Fisher because it guarded Wilmington, the last major seaport still open to blockade runners. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, under siege at Petersburg and Richmond, drew most of its supplies from Wilmington, and if that city was conquered, Lee’s Confederates could be starved into submission. Lee therefore telegraphed the fort commander, “If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.”
The Federals dedicated a fleet of 59 warships bearing 627 guns to capture Fort Fisher, as well as transports conveying some 8,000 army troops. This joint expedition was led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter for the navy and Major General Alfred H. Terry for the army, and they were expected to work in close cooperation.
As Porter and Terry planned their attack, a three-day storm postponed offensive operations. During this time, Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Fisher, appealed to both his district commander (Major General W.H.C. Whiting) and his department commander (General Braxton Bragg) for reinforcements. Lamb had just 800 men in the fort.
When the weather cleared, Porter moved his warships up to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The U.S.S. New Ironsides led the ironclad monitors, which included the Canonicus, Mahopac, Monadnock, and Saugus. The U.S.S. Brooklyn led the wooden vessels in a line behind the ironclads. They came to within 1,000 yards of Fort Fisher and began the largest concentration of naval firepower in history.
Porter had worked with his gunners to adjust their targets and instructed them that “the object is to lodge the shell in the parapets, and tear away the traverses under which the bombproofs are located… Commanders are directed to strictly enjoin their officers and men never to fire at the flag or pole, but to pick out the guns…” Consequently, this bombardment was much more accurate than the one in late December.
Terry’s army troops began debarking their landing boats and wading ashore at 8 a.m. They drove off Confederate skirmishers and took up positions on the narrow peninsula a few miles north of Fort Fisher. As the relentless naval bombardment continued, the troops completed their landing around 3 p.m. They worked through the afternoon and evening to set up defensive lines from which to launch their assault on the fort.
The Federals wedged themselves between Fort Fisher to the south and about 6,000 Confederate reinforcements at Sugar Loaf to the north. Whiting asked Bragg to with the Sugar Loaf contingent, but by the time Bragg’s scouts reconnoitered the enemy positions, his Confederates were effectively cut off from the Fort Fisher garrison.
Federals from the black division formed a defense line facing north across the peninsula’s neck to keep Bragg from trying to break through and rescue the Confederates at Fisher. The white divisions faced south, ready to attack the fort’s landward side, which was rendered virtually defenseless by Porter’s naval artillery.
The Confederates struggled to keep covered as the shells exploded all around them. Whiting came to the fort with some reinforcements to join Lamb’s men, raising the total number of defenders to nearly 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 told him that Bragg would not be sending reinforcements.
By day’s end, Porter’s warships had fired over 800 tons of shot and shell on Fort Fisher. They silenced all but one gun on the landward face and disabled over half the guns on the seaward side. They also destroyed many land mines and their trip wires, which would help Terry’s impending attack. Porter reported, “It was soon quite apparent that the iron vessels had the best of it; traverses began to disappear and the southern angle of Fort Fisher commenced to look very dilapidated.”
The unrelenting Federal bombardment resumed at dawn on the 14th. Fort Fisher sustained a total of 1,652,638 pounds of artillery fire, the most ever in a single naval engagement. Terry spent the day constructing defenses to fend off Bragg’s Confederates to the north, then probed southward toward Fisher.
Confederate casualties within Fisher soon exceeded 200, and reinforcements could only hope to get to the fort on boats from the Cape Fear River side. As the men huddled in bombproofs, Whiting reported to Bragg: “I will hold this place till the last extremities, but unless you drive that land force from its position I cannot answer for the security of this harbor. The fire has been and continues to be exceedingly heavy, surpassing not so much in its volume as in its extraordinary condition even the fire of Christmas. The garrison is in good spirits and condition.”
Bragg later reported his assessment of the situation:
“To have assaulted the enemy behind his intrenchments, covered by his fleet, with inferior numbers, would have exhausted our means to aid the fort, and thereby not only have insured its ultimate fall, but have opened the country behind it. To make him the assaulting party, considering our means for attack and defense, seemed to me the only policy, and it promised his early and complete discomfiture, as the first change of weather would drive off the fleet and leave him unsupported and cut off from supplies.”
Bragg assured Whiting that he would send him 1,000 troops, which would make Fort Fisher “impregnable against assault.” Bragg would also “make a corresponding movement and, if opportunity occurs, attack.” While waiting for the reinforcements, Lamb ordered his artillerists to slow their firing to once every half-hour to conserve ammunition for the coming land assault.
Terry met with Porter aboard the flagship U.S.S. Malvern to plan the attack. Half of Terry’s 8,000-man attack force would hold the northern line against the potential Confederate reinforcements while the other half attacked the fort’s landward side. At the same time, a squadron of sailors and Marines would attack the seaward side, with 1,600 sailors using cutlasses and pistols to “board the fort in a seaman-like way,” and 400 Marines backing them with rifles. The assault was scheduled for 3 p.m. the next day.
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