January 16, 1865 – Federal troops occupied Fort Fisher, the gateway to the last Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.
The Confederate garrison defending Fisher had surrendered after enduring the heaviest naval bombardment in history. Colonel William Lamb, the Confederate fort commander who had been wounded and captured, later wrote:
“For the first time in the history of sieges the land defenses of the works were destroyed, not by any act of the besieging army, but by the concentrated fire, direct and enfilading, of an immense fleet poured into them without intermission, until torpedo wires were cut, palisades breached so they actually offered cover for assailants, and the slopes of the work were rendered practicable for assault.”
General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate department commander, remained with his troops at Sugar Loaf, a few miles north of Fort Fisher. Despite pleas from Lamb and his superior (Major General W.H.C. Whiting), Bragg did not send his men in until it was too late. After midnight on the 16th, Bragg wired General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, “I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher, with most of its garrison, at about 10 o’clock tonight. Particulars not known.”
Bragg complimented the “the courage and devotion of Major-General Whiting and Colonel Lamb,” but Whiting bitterly denounced Bragg for failing to try to rescue the Fisher garrison. Whiting stated, “I charge him with this loss; with neglect of duty in this, that he either refused or neglected to carry out every suggestion made to him in official communications by me for the disposition of the troops…” Whiting later added, “In all (Bragg’s) career of failure and defeat from Pensacola out, there has been no such chance missed, and no such stupendous disaster.”
President Jefferson Davis read Bragg’s dispatch and responded: “Yours of this morning received. The intelligence is sad as it was unexpected. Can you retake the fort? If anything is to be done you will appreciate the necessity of its being attempted without a moment’s delay.” Bragg wrote, “The enemy’s enormous fleet alone would destroy us in such an attempt were we unopposed by the land force. The most we can hope to do will be to hold this line. We are accordingly concentrating for that purpose.”
In the three-day battle, the Federals suffered 1,341 casualties (266 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 57 missing), while the Confederates lost nearly 2,000, most of which were captured. The Federals seized 169 guns, some 2,000 stands of arms, and large quantities of supplies and ammunition.
As Federals looted Fort Fisher, the main magazine exploded. Major General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Federal army forces, informed his superiors: “I regret to report that shortly after sunrise on the 16th instant, the day following the assault, the magazine of reserve ammunition in the fort exploded, killing and wounding 130 men. The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained.”
Terry formed a commission to investigate the cause of the blast, but the stories among the witnesses varied so much that the true cause was never found. Those killed or wounded in the explosion included not only Federal troops but also Confederate prisoners not yet taken out of the fort.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval fleet, came ashore to survey Fort Fisher. He reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:
“I have since visited Fort Fisher and the adjoining works, and find their strength greatly beyond what I had conceived; an engineer might be excusable in saying they could not be captured except by regular siege. I wonder even now how it was done. The work… is really stronger than the Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England, and yet it is captured by a handful of men under the fire of the guns of the fleet, and in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest… And no Alabamas, Floridas, Chickamaugas or Tallahassees will ever fit out again from this port, and our merchant vessels very soon, I hope, will be enabled to pursue in safety their avocation.”
At Sugar Loaf, Bragg informed his superiors of his next move: “The fall of Fisher renders useless our forts below. I am accordingly concentrating on this point and at Fort Anderson, directly opposite, and will endeavor to hold this line. May not be able to save heavy guns from below; in which even a supply will be necessary.”
Bragg ordered the Confederates garrisoning Fort Caswell to destroy that fort and retreat to Fort Anderson. The troops complied as Porter’s fleet moved through New Inlet and up the Cape Fear River to pound them into submission. Porter noted, “… the death knell of another fort is booming in the distance. Ft. Caswell with its powerful batteries is in flames and being broken up, and thus is sealed the door through which this rebellion is fed.”
Porter assigned a squadron under Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing to man the Confederate signal lights on the Mound, a hill on which the Confederates signaled to blockade runners that it was safe to enter the inlet. Porter directed them to keep the lights “… properly trimmed and lighted, as has been the custom with the rebels during the blockade. Have the lights lighted to-night and see that no vessel inside displays a light, and be ready to grab anyone that enters.”
Three blockade runners followed the signal lights, unaware that Fort Fisher had fallen, and were instantly captured. Porter happily reported to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox:
“We are having a jolly time with the blockade runners, which come into our trap. We almost kill ourselves laughing at the discomfiture, when they find they have set out their champagne to no purpose, and they say it is ‘a damned Yankee trick’… This is the greatest lark I ever was on.”
The Federals had not yet captured Wilmington, but the fall of Fort Fisher closed that city to Confederate commerce. A plan to raise $40 million for the southern war effort from women selling their hair to European markets was canceled, and the Confederates could no longer trade cotton overseas for badly needed food and supplies. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens described the significance of this defeat:
“The fall of this Fort was one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our cause from the beginning of the war–not excepting the loss of Vicksburg or Atlanta. Forts Fisher and Caswell guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear River, and prevented the complete blockade of the port of Wilmington, through which a limited Foreign Commerce had been carried on during the whole time. It was by means of what cotton could thus be carried out, that we had been enabled to get along financially, as well as we had; and at this point also, a considerable number of arms and various munitions of war, as well as large supplies of subsistence, had been introduced. All other ports… had long since been closed.”
General Terry turned his attention to the Confederates at Sugar Loaf and Fort Anderson, but he discovered that he could not defeat them without help. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, toured the area in late January and convinced Porter to cooperate with the army once more in a thrust up the Cape Fear River, with reinforcements on the way.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 518-19; 524; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15748-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 544-45, 548; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 625-26; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 831; 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. 219