Category Archives: Military

The Fort Fisher Aftermath

January 16, 1865 – Federal troops occupied Fort Fisher, the gateway to the last Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.

Interior of Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Flickr.com

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.

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References

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

Special Field Orders Number 15

January 16, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman issued directives for Federal troops to seize abandoned land along the Atlantic coast and redistribute it to newly freed slaves.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

As Sherman’s armies conducted their march from Atlanta to Savannah, they were inundated by thousands of slaves fleeing from nearby plantations. Sherman had complained that his men should not be responsible for taking care of these refugees because they impeded his military progress. Sherman wrote to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “The South deserves all she has got for her injustice to the negro, but that is no reason why we should go to the other extreme.”

Sherman’s troops routinely mistreated the refugees, and in Washington rumors spread that Sherman “manifested an almost criminal dislike to the Negro.” Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton headed south, ostensibly for health reasons, but really to discuss the matter with Sherman. (President Abraham Lincoln also asked Stanton to urge Sherman to hurry and launch a new campaign, explaining that “time, now that the enemy is wavering, is more important than ever before. Being on the downhill, and somewhat confused, keep him going.”)

Stanton met with Sherman and a delegation of black preachers who testified that the general was a “friend and a gentleman.” The delegation’s spokesman said, “We have confidence in General Sherman, and think that what concerns us could not be in better hands.” When Stanton asked how best to transition from slavery to freedom, he said, “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn in and till it by our labor… We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own.”

The preachers stated that recruiting black men for the army did not actually grow the army as much as it allowed white men to let the blacks take their place. The leader also opined that if the Confederates recruited blacks into their armies, “I think they would fight as long as they were before the ‘bayonet’, and just as soon as they could get away they would desert, in my opinion.”

Sherman later wrote that Stanton was skeptical about his handling of fugitive slaves, “but luckily the negroes themselves convinced him that he was in error, and that they understood their own interests far better than did the men in Washington, who tried to make political capital out of this negro question.”

After Stanton left, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, which authorized the redistribution of confiscated land to former slaves. The land included a strip of coastline from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast. Approved by both Stanton and Lincoln, this was the most radical military order of the war.

The order served two military purposes:

  1. It gave the refugees their own land so they would no longer rely on Sherman’s army for protection and subsistence
  2. It encouraged freed slaves to join the Federal army as soldiers so they could fight to maintain their new liberty

The order also served two political purposes:

  1. It offered Washington politicians a solution to the problem of what to do with the millions of new free southern laborers
  2. It blunted the perception in Washington that Sherman and his armies were callous toward blacks

Each slave family was to receive “a plot of not more than forty acres of tillable ground.” This order became the basis for the slogan “forty acres and a mule,” or the notion that Federal authorities should forcibly seize land from southern planters and redistribute it to former slaves. Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, a Massachusetts abolitionist who had previously overseen black recruitment into the army, was assigned to enforce Sherman’s order.

Under this directive, some 40,000 former slaves and black refugees temporarily received “possessory title” of land until Congress “shall regulate the title.” Once on their land, “the blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations” and “no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress.”

Like Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, this measure was imposed based on the executive’s supposed “war powers.” Sherman also issued a proclamation regarding the treatment of former slaves:

“By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro is free, and must be dealt with as such. He cannot be subjected to conscription, or forced military service, save by the written orders of the highest military authority of the department, under such regulations as the President or Congress may prescribe. Domestic servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, and other mechanics, will be free to select their own work and residence, but the young and able-bodied negroes must be encouraged to enlist as soldiers in the service of the United States, to contribute their share toward maintaining their own freedom, and securing their rights as citizens of the United States.”

Later this year, President Andrew Johnson revoked Special Field Orders No. 15, citing the constitutional ban on confiscating private property without due process.

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References

BlackPast.org-Special Field Orders No. 15; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 406; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15336-46, 15684-704; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-41, 544; GeorgiaEncyclopedia.org-Sherman’s Field Order No. 15; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 237; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 683; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 841; Wikipedia.org-Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15

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: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22267; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 517-18; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; 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 15547-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 542-44; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 685; Hoffsommer, Richard D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 748-49; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 107; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624-25; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 273, 831; 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., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 820-21; 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. 218-19; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 443-44; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 393

Fort Fisher: The Bombardment Begins

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.

Naval attack on Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 475; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 513-16; 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 15469-537; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 621, 623-24; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 273; 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., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 820; 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. 217-18; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 442

Sherman Looks to South Carolina

January 10, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman prepared for what promised to be another devastating Federal march through the southern heartland.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

After capturing Savannah late last year, Sherman began developing a plan to move his 60,000 men northward into South Carolina. The Federals were especially eager to lay waste to that state because both secession and the war had begun there.

Sherman planned to leave Major General John G. Foster’s Federals from the Department of the South to hold Savannah. Sherman’s Federals would feint toward the coveted port city of Charleston while truly heading for the South Carolina capital of Columbia. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren’s South Atlantic Blockading Squadron would divert Confederate attention by operating around Charleston. Sherman wrote Dahlgren:

“When we are known to be in the rear of Charleston, about Branchville and Orangeburg, it will be well to watch if the enemy lets go of Charleston, in which case Foster will occupy it, otherwise the feint should be about Bull’s Bay… I will instruct Foster, when he knows I have got near Branchville, to make a landing of a small force at Bull’s Bay, to threaten, and it may be occupy, the road from Mount Pleasant to Georgetown. This will make the enemy believe I design to turn down against Charleston and give me a good offing for Wilmington.”

As some of Dahlgren’s vessels cleared obstructions in Charleston harbor, the U.S.S. Patapsco struck a torpedo (i.e., a floating mine) and sank within 15 seconds. The blast killed 62 officers and men.

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

In South Carolina, the only real resistance in Sherman’s path was a small, makeshift Confederate force led by Lieutenant General William Hardee. The force included Major General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry, which tried to find out where Sherman would go. Wheeler reported that some Federal prisoners said Sherman had “received some recruits at Savannah and some at Beaufort,” and “the talk in camp is that Charleston is their destination.”

Falling for Sherman’s ruse, Hardee posted the bulk of his force in and around Charleston. He notified President Jefferson Davis that he would post Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division near the Combahee River to try slowing Sherman down.

Hardee reported that he had about 7,600 infantry troops (3,500 regulars, 3,000 reserves, and 1,100 militia), 6,100 cavalry troopers, and 5,000 garrison troops. He wrote, “Of the force above mentioned, McLaws’ is the only command I regard as movable. The remainder is needed for the defense of Charleston. I am acting on the defensive, and unless heavily re-enforced must continue to do so.” Hardee requested 15,000 troops, but, “If this force cannot be furnished, 5,000 regular troops will still be required for the present defensive line.”

Besides Hardee’s force, the only other substantial force consisted of Major General Gustavus W. Smith’s militia. General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee barely numbered 18,000 effectives after being decimated at Franklin and Nashville late last year. Lieutenant General Richard Taylor had just a token force in his Department of Alabama, Mississippi and East Louisiana. And General Robert E. Lee could spare nobody as his Army of Northern Virginia remained under siege at Petersburg and Richmond.

Hardee wrote, “I have no reason to expect re-enforcements from Georgia other than Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith’s force of militia, now at Augusta, which is rapidly diminishing by desertion, and numbers less than 1,500 muskets. I have no information whatever from Hood, and have no reason to expect re-enforcements from that quarter.”

Hardee pinned high hopes on Wheeler’s cavalry, which had been the only force opposing Sherman’s march to the sea. He wrote:

“It is a well organized and efficient body. The reports of its disorganization and demoralization are without foundation, and the depredations ascribed to his command can generally be traced to bands of marauders claiming to belong to it.”

Davis replied, “Your plan seems to me judicious and I hope may, with Divine favor, prove successful… (I will) make every exertion to re-enforce you from that army as rapidly as possible.” Davis then contacted General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Western Theater, and directed him to send as much of the Army of Tennessee as he could to South Carolina. Despite reports that those men needed rest, Beauregard wrote, “President orders that whatever troops you can spare be sent forthwith to General Hardee’s assistance.”

Davis wrote to Taylor:

“Sherman’s campaign has produced bad effect on our people, success against his future operations is needful to reanimate public confidence. Hardee requires more aid… and Hood’s army is the only source to which we can now look.”

Davis suggested that Taylor keep some troops to defend the western states, while the main part of Hood’s army should be sent “to look after Sherman.”

Davis then wrote to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown asking for all possible troops for defense. When South Carolina Governor A.G. Magrath wrote the president explaining the dire situation in his state, Davis replied, “I am fully alive to the importance of successful resistance to Sherman’s advance, and have called on the governor of Georgia to give all the aid he can furnish.”

But the Confederacy no longer had the manpower to stop Sherman’s onslaught, which promised to be even more relentless than it had been in Georgia.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 515, 518; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 541, 544; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 622-23; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703

Butler Finally Removed

January 7, 1865 – The controversial military career of Federal Major General Benjamin F. Butler finally came to an end.

Major General Benjamin F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Butler commanded the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. This included the Army of the James, which was working with the Army of the Potomac to lay siege to Richmond and Petersburg. He had recently commanded army troops in the failed assault on Fort Fisher, off the North Carolina coast. Two days later, another Butler-led project ended ignominiously when explosives failed to open the Dutch Gap Canal.

President Abraham Lincoln had employed Butler because, as a former Democrat, he held significant influence over fellow Democrats to support Lincoln’s Republican policies. But Lincoln had been recently reelected, so Butler’s usefulness was finished. When a group of Kentucky Unionists lobbied Lincoln to put the politician-turned-general in charge of their state, Lincoln told them:

“You howled when Butler went to New Orleans. Others howled when he was removed from that command. Somebody has been howling ever since at his assignment to military command. How long will it be before you, who are howling for his assignment to rule Kentucky, will be howling to me to remove him?”

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, thought little of Butler’s military ability. It especially concerned Grant that Butler was next in line to command both the Armies of the Potomac and the James if Grant left the Richmond-Petersburg theater. From a practical standpoint, Grant needed someone more trustworthy for such an important assignment. Therefore, Grant wrote to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton on the 4th:

“I am constrained to request the removal of Maj. Gen. B. F. Butler from the command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. I do this with reluctance, but the good of the service requires it. In my absence General Butler necessarily commands, and there is a lack of confidence felt in his military ability, making him an unsafe commander for a large army. His administration of the affairs of his department is also objectionable.”

Grant mailed the letter on the 5th but found out the next day that Stanton had left for Savannah to meet with Major General William T. Sherman. So Grant moved the request up to Lincoln: “I wrote a letter to the Secretary of War, which was mailed yesterday, asking to have General Butler removed from command. Learning that the Secretary left Washington yesterday, I telegraph you asking that prompt action may be taken in the matter.” Lincoln obliged by quickly issuing General Order Number 1 on the morning of the 7th:

“By direction of the President of the United States, Maj. Gen B.F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia. Lieutenant-General Grant will designate an officer to take this command temporarily. Major-General Butler, on being relieved, will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant-General of the Army.”

Butler claimed that he had no idea he was being ousted. He later wrote:

“Everything of the official correspondence in relation to the current movements of the Army of the James went on without any intimation to me of any change of our official relations, and without any information as to any comment by Grant upon my report of the operations against Fort Fisher. I noticed nothing except, perhaps, a want of cordiality in his manner.”

But around noon on the 8th, Butler “received, through the hands of Colonel (Orville) Babcock, a crony of W.F. (“Baldy”) Smith, and a member of Grant’s staff, who I had always known was bitterly opposed to me, a sealed envelope” containing Lincoln’s directive. This ended the military career of the most controversial Federal commander in the war.

In 1861, Butler had refused to return fugitive slaves to their masters, calling them “contraband of war” and creating the first major controversy within the Lincoln administration over slave policy. In 1862, Butler earned the scorn of southerners for his dictatorial rule over New Orleans. Confederates called him “Beast” Butler in reference to the biblical Antichrist, and President Jefferson Davis had charged Butler with war crimes and authorized his immediate execution if captured (ironically, Butler had backed Davis for president at the contentious Democratic National Convention of 1860).

The Lincoln administration had used the Confederates’ hatred of Butler to their advantage by appointing him top Federal prisoner exchange agent in 1863. Since the Confederacy had branded Butler an “outlaw,” they refused to deal with him, giving the Federals a propaganda edge by declaring that the Confederates refused to exchange prisoners.

Some in the Federal high command feared that Grant had blundered by pushing Butler’s removal at a time when he was becoming increasingly scrutinized because he still had not captured Richmond. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife:

“Grant undoubtedly has lost prestige, owing to his failure to accomplish more, but as I know it has not been in his power to do more I cannot approve of unmerited censure, any more than I approved of the fulsome praise showered on him before the campaign commenced.”

Meade believed that removing Butler could be the final insult to Butler’s allies in Congress, especially those on the powerful Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Meade told his wife that the committee would hold hearings on the Fort Fisher debacle and Butler’s removal, and they would probably take Butler’s side. Meade predicted, “This is the beginning of a war on Grant.”

But the ousting of Butler did not cause as much of a stir in Washington as expected, mainly because by this time it was clear that the Federals were winning the war, and the Fort Fisher defeat would soon be avenged by a new expedition that finally captured it. And since Butler was not well liked among the rank and file, none raised a fuss when he left.

Major General E.O.C. Ord became the new commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, which included the Army of the James and the new expedition being fitted out to try capturing Fort Fisher again. And Butler went on to resume a political career that would become just as controversial as his military one.

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References

Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 402, 408; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 512; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 533; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15439-59; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 539-40; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln  (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 368-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 55-56; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 77-78, 206, 210, 211-12, 300, 616, 618, 620-21; McFeely, William S., Grant (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 197-98; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 820; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 393; Wagner, Margaret E., The American Civil War in 365 Days (Abrams, NY: Library of Congress); Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 59-60; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition, 2012) Q165

The Second Fort Fisher Campaign Begins

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.

Maj-Gen A.H. Terry | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

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References

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