The Fall of Fort Fisher

January 15, 1865 – The Federal naval bombardment of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast entered its third day as Federal land forces prepared a two-pronged attack to capture the stronghold once and for all.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal warships, resumed his devastating artillery barrage on Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington. The ironclads U.S.S. New Ironsides, Canonicus, Mahopac, Monadnock, and Saugus fired point-blank into the fort from 1,000 yards, disabling nearly every Confederate cannon. Major General W.H.C. Whiting, the ranking Confederate commander in the fort, wrote:

“On Sunday (the 15th) the fire of the fleet reached a pitch of fury to which no language can do justice. It was concentrated on the land front and fort. In a short time nearly every gun was dismounted or disabled, and the garrison suffered severely from the fire.”

General Braxton Bragg, the ranking Confederate commander in the region, kept Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 6,000 Confederates at Sugar Loaf, north of Fort Fisher. Whiting hoped that Bragg would try relieving the fort, but Major General Alfred H. Terry’s Federal army forces had formed a strong line between Bragg and Whiting. Bragg tried calling a council of war, but Whiting replied, “I will try to confer today, but the chances are against it. Enemy still keeping heavy fire. They will try their passing this morning, unless you whip them off the land.”

Later in the day, Whiting asked, “Is Fort Fisher to be besieged, or you to attack? Should like to know.” Bragg sent a brigade by boat to reinforce the fort, but only about 350 men managed to get there under naval fire. Once inside the fort, all these reinforcements could do was join their comrades waiting in the bombproofs for the impending land assault.

Terry’s Federals were positioned north of the fort, ready to attack the landward (i.e., west) side. A squadron of sailors and Marines under Commander K. Randolph Breese prepared to simultaneously attack the seaward (i.e., east) side. Near 3 p.m., the naval guns stopped and the assaults on the eastern and western sides of Fort Fisher began.

The naval contingent reached the fort first, so the Confederates concentrated the bulk of their force on them. The Federals made three ferocious charges but were repulsed each time; Ensign Robley D. Evans explained why: “All the officers, in their anxiety to be the first into the fort, had advanced to the heads of the columns, leaving no one to steady the men in behind; and it was in this way we were defeated, by the men breaking from the rear.” Porter later reported, “The marines could have cleared the parapet by keeping up a steady fire, but they failed to do so…”

The Confederates cheered their success but soon discovered that Terry’s Federals were attacking them from the northwest. Three infantry brigades charged the fort’s parapets, and as a Confederate officer recalled, “On this force we brought to bear our one available gun and three mortars, which had been mounted during the night, and these repeatedly broke their line and temporarily checked the advance.”

Federal assault on Fort Fisher | Image Credit:

All three Federal brigade commanders were wounded. But the survivors continued moving forward, and vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Whiting reported:

“As the enemy here slackened his fire to allow the assault to take place, the men hastily manned the ramparts and gallantly repulsed the right column of assault. Portion of the troops on the left had also repelled the first rush to the left of the work. The greater portion of the garrison being, however, engaged on the right, and not being (able) to man the entire work, the enemy succeeded in making a lodgment on the left flank, planting two of his regimental flags in the traverses.”

Federal naval gunners demonstrated extraordinary accuracy by pouring fire into each of the fort’s 13 traverses just before the Federal attackers came up to capture them. Even so, Terry had to commit his reserve brigade to keep the Federal line from breaking. As the reserves came up, the Confederates started wavering.

Both Whiting and the fort commander, Colonel William Lamb, were wounded; Lamb was replaced by Major James Reilly. Whiting sent a message to Bragg, “Their infantry outnumbers us. Can’t you help us? I am slightly wounded.” Whiting sent another: “We still hold the fort, but as sorely pressed. Can’t you assist us from the outside?” But Bragg would not commit any of the men at Sugar Loaf.

The Federals soon overwhelmed the Confederates by force of numbers. White flags went up, and the fighting gradually stopped. Whiting wrote, “We were overpowered, and no skill or gallantry could have saved the place, after he effected a lodgment, except attack in the rear.” He later added:

“Then was the time for the supporting force (i.e., Bragg), which was idly looking on only three miles off, which could see the columns on the beach, to have made an attack upon the rear of the assaulting columns; at any rate, to have tried to save Fort Fisher, while the garrison had hurled one assaulting column, crippled, back, and were engaged for six hours with 5,000 men vigorously assaulting it.”

Bragg finally sent a small force under Brigadier General Alexander Colquitt, but by the time it arrived, the Federals had taken over the fort and there was nothing left to do but retreat. Colquitt wired Bragg, “Fort Fisher evacuated. There is no mistake in this information.”

Confederates lowered their flag over Fort Fisher at 10 p.m. Whiting and Lamb were taken prisoner with all other surviving defenders. Terry found Whiting, who told him, “I surrender, sir, to you the forces under my command. I care not what becomes of myself.” Porter telegraphed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Fort Fisher is ours.”



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