The Fall of Fort Anderson

February 19, 1865 – The Confederate garrison guarding Wilmington, North Carolina, became one of many to fall to overwhelming Federal numbers this month.

Federal Maj Gen John M. Schofield | Image Credit: Flickr.com

As February began, Major General John Schofield’s Federal XXIII Corps was moving from Tennessee to Washington. From there, the troops boarded transports that took them down the Potomac River, into Chesapeake Bay, and then down the Atlantic coast to Fort Fisher, North Carolina.

Schofield’s Federals were to join forces with Major General Alfred H. Terry’s X Corps, which had occupied Fisher ever since its capture in January. The combined force would then work with Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s massive Federal naval fleet to capture Wilmington, north of Fort Fisher. Wilmington was once a vital Confederate seaport, but the fall of Fisher closed it down. From Wilmington, the Federals hoped to open a supply line to Goldsboro, where they would join forces with Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals marching up from South Carolina.

To get to Wilmington from Fort Fisher, the Federals would have to move north up the Cape Fear River. A peninsula to the east featured the Sugar Loaf Line, which was a few miles north of Fisher and manned by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederates. One of Hoke’s brigades under Brigadier General Johnson Hagood held Fort Anderson, across the river to the west. The river was laden with hundreds of torpedoes to block Federal efforts to pass.

On the 8th, elements of XXIII Corps began joining Terry’s troops at Fort Fisher aboard transports escorted by Porter’s warships. Schofield arrived the next day and, as the ranking commander, assumed command of this new Department of North Carolina. Major General Jacob D. Cox took over Schofield’s XXIII Corps. The combined X and XXIII corps totaled about 12,000 men.

Schofield planned for XXIII Corps to outflank Hagood’s Confederates at Fort Anderson while Terry’s X Corps demonstrated against the Sugar Loaf Line to keep Hoke from reinforcing Hagood. Porter’s warships, led by the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk, would support XXIII Corps by neutralizing Fort Anderson’s guns. Porter instructed his officers:

“The object will be to get the gunboats in the rear of their intrenchments and cover the advance of our troops… As the army come up, your fire will have to be very rapid, taking care not to fire into our own men… Put yourself in full communication with the general commanding on the shore, and conform in all things to his wishes.”

The plan changed when Schofield received intelligence that Hoke’s left flank was weak. If true, then Schofield could shuttle Federal troops across Myrtle Sound and land them behind Hoke’s line, thus forcing him to retreat. This new operation began on the 11th when Federal gunboats on the Atlantic side of the Sugar Loaf Line began bombarding Hoke’s Confederates.

When the barrage ended a half-hour later, Terry’s Federals advanced. They broke the Confederate skirmish line, but the men on the left got bogged down in a swamp, and Terry concluded that the enemy’s defenses could not be taken by frontal assault. A nor’easter swept in to remove any doubt, and this plan was cancelled. As the storms raged for several days, Schofield reverted to his original plan, which was for Terry to hold Hoke in place while Cox captured Fort Anderson.

The movement began on the 16th as Cox’s men, reinforced by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division from X Corps, were ferried across the Cape Fear River to Smithville. From there, they began advancing north toward the fort. Meanwhile, Federal gunboats moved upriver and opened a massive bombardment on Hagood’s Confederates.

By the next day, the gunboats had silenced all 12 of the fort’s guns. Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing directed his sailors to tow a fake ironclad to the front of the gunboat line to draw Confederate fire. This hulk, called “Old Bogey,” was made from a scow, timber, and canvas. Porter had used this ploy successfully on the Mississippi River, and it drew heavy fire from the Confederates this time as well.

Meanwhile, Cox’s Federals continued moving up the west bank of the Cape Fear River. Cox reported, “About three miles from Smithville, we encountered the enemy’s cavalry outposts, which retired skirmishing. The country being an almost continuous swamp, the march was slow.”

As they came to a fork in the Wilmington Road, Cox sent part of his force up each prong, staying with the prong on the right–closest to the river–where he could maintain communications with Schofield and Porter. Ames’s men moved down the left prong. The Federals struggled to cover just 10 miles on the 17th.

The next day, Cox’s Federals approached the defenses outside Fort Anderson. Cox wrote, “The ground in front of the works was entirely open for 200 or 300 yards, and the breast-works themselves were well made, covered with abatis, and commanded by the artillery fire of the fort.”

Schofield arrived on the scene and concluded that the fort could not be taken by frontal assault. He therefore held two brigades in the fort’s front while sending two other brigades around to link with Ames and outflank the Confederates. The roundabout route they were supposed to take would presumably lead them into the Confederate rear.

The Federals drove a small Confederate force away from Governor’s Creek, built a bridge and crossed the waterway after 9 p.m. on the 18th. The next morning, the Federals in front of Fort Anderson reported that the fort had been abandoned. Colonel Thomas Henderson, commanding one of the Federal brigades facing Anderson, reported:

“During the night the fort was evacuated, and on the morning of the 19th, about 5 o’clock, the skirmishers entered the fort without opposition. The evacuation was no doubt induced by the movement of the column under the command of Major-General Cox, which otherwise would have got in rear of the fort and cut off the retreat of the garrison.”

Henderson and the rest of the Federals pursued, as did Cox’s Federals, all moving north toward Wilmington. Cox wrote:

“Pushing on rapidly, the enemy’s rear guard was reached about three miles above Fort Anderson, but it made no attempt to stand until it reached Town Creek, a very deep, unfordable stream, eight miles above the fort and where a heavy line of field fortifications had been prepared some time before the evacuation of Fort Anderson.”

Cox formed a plan of attack, set to begin the next morning.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 527, 529-31, 534-36; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 551-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 636-37, 641; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 831; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 444; Wikipedia: Battle of Wilmington

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