Tag Archives: Benjamin F. Butler

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 Dutch Gap Canal Flop

January 1, 1865 – A project on the James River intended to allow Federal naval vessels to get to Richmond ended in failure.

After returning from his failed effort to capture Fort Fisher, Major General Benjamin F. Butler resumed supervision over the digging of a canal across Trent’s Reach on the James. The purpose of this canal was to bypass a bend in the river at Dutch Gap, thereby enabling Federal warships to avoid Confederate batteries protecting their capital of Richmond.

Digging the Dutch Gap Canal | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 421, 21 Jan 1865

Black Federal troops had been assigned to this backbreaking project, which had been going on since last summer. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had little faith that the canal would make much difference, but he allowed it to be dug so he could keep the troublesome Butler busy.

On New Year’s Day, Federal engineers brought up 12,000 pounds of gunpowder to destroy the final obstacle in the Federals’ path and open the canal. The explosion hurled dirt about 50 feet in the air, but most of it came back down exactly where it came from, and the canal was a bust. It became a viable water trade route after the war, but for now the canal was useless as a military waterway.

This failure, combined with that at Fort Fisher just a few days before, seemed to symbolize Butler’s military career. Not long after, Grant looked to remove him as commander of the Army of the James.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 618; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 231-32

Fort Fisher: Who to Blame

December 30, 1864 – The Federal high command prepared for a second effort to capture Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast and tried to determine why the first effort failed.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, spent two days bombarding Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina. Porter was softening the fort for an infantry landing, but when the infantry commander, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, decided to withdraw rather than risk an attack, an enraged Porter had no choice but to follow.

The Federal warships withdrew very slowly to avoid appearing defeated; along the way they picked up the Federal soldiers stranded on the shore when their transports left without them. The final insult to the Federals came when they failed to notice the C.S.S. Chameleon (formerly the Tallahassee) slipping out of Wilmington and running the blockade. Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Fisher, reported, “This morning, December 27, the foiled and frightened enemy left our shore.”

Butler returned to his headquarters at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and reported the details of the operation to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant, who had ordered Butler to lay siege to Fort Fisher if it could not be captured by assault, was appalled that Butler had withdrawn without a fight. Porter was appalled as well, and he vented his frustration to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“My dispatch of yesterday… will scarcely give you an idea of my disappointment at the conduct of the army authorities in not attempting to take possession of the forts, which had been so completely silenced by our guns… There never was a fort that invited soldiers to walk in and take possession more plainly than Fort Fisher, and an officer got on the parapet even, saw no one inside, and brought away the flag we had cut down… If General (Winfield Scott) Hancock, with 10,000 men, was sent down here, we could walk right into the fort.”

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

After reading this letter, Welles noted in his diary:

“The information is not altogether satisfactory. The troops are said to have disembarked above Fort Fisher, to have taken some earthworks and prisoners, and then to have reembarked. This reads of and like Butler.”

When Major General William T. Sherman learned about this expedition, he told Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I take it for granted the present movement on Wilmington will fail, because I know that gun-boats cannot take a fort, and Butler has not the force or the ability to take it.” Halleck replied, “Your anticipations in regard to the Wilmington expedition have proved so correct that your reputation as a prophet may soon equal that as a general.” Actually Sherman underestimated the power of gunboats, but he was quite accurate in his assessment of Butler.

Word of the fiasco quickly reached President Abraham Lincoln, who turned to Grant for an explanation: “If there be no objection, please tell me what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present and prospective.” Not having gathered all the facts yet, Grant replied:

“The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Many of the troops are now back here. Delays and free talk of the object of the expedition enabled the enemy to move troops to Wilmington to defeat it. After the expedition sailed from Fort Monroe three days of fine weather was squandered, during which the enemy was without a force to protect himself. Who is to blame I hope will be known.”

Porter went to Beaufort to refuel his ships and replenish his ammunition. He wrote Grant, whom he respected from working with him on the Vicksburg campaign, to send another army force with a different commander to try taking Fort Fisher again. Grant replied on the 30th: “Please hold on where you are for a few days and I will endeavor to be back again with an increased force and without the former commander.” Even without collecting all the facts, Grant could already see that Butler was to blame.

Welles shared Porter’s assessment of the operation with Lincoln, who advised Welles to ask Grant to try a second attack. Welles wrote, “The largest naval force ever assembled is ready to lend its co-operation,” but if Grant did not send Porter an army force soon, “the fleet will have to disperse, whence it cannot again be brought to this coast.”

Grant forwarded Welles’s message to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, adding, “I do not propose to correspond with the Navy Department about military operations except through you.” Grant explained that he was already fitting out another force, but he wanted it done in complete secrecy. He wrote:

“When all is ready, I will send the troops and commander selected to Fortress Monroe and out to sea with sealed instructions not to be opened until they pass the Heads. I am in hopes by secrecy the enemy may be lulled into such security as to induce him to send his Wilmington forces against Sherman, or bring them back here by the time we are ready to start.”

Stanton advised Grant to share his plans with Porter only, and he warned Grant that his request for transports “will, of course, set… all the thousand and one guessers at work to nose out the object.” Moreover, Stanton wrote, “You cannot count upon any secrecy in the Navy. Newspaper reporters have the run of that Department.” Grant then wrote Porter:

“I took immediate steps to have transports collected, and am assured they will be ready with the coal and water on board by noon of the 2nd of January. There will be no delay in embarking and sending off the troops. The commander of the expedition will probably be Major-General (Alfred) Terry. He will not know of it until he gets out to sea. He will go with sealed orders. It will not be necessary for me to let troops or commander know even that they are going any place until the steamers intended to carry them reach Fortress Monroe, as I will have all rations and other stores loaded beforehand.”

Terry had worked with Porter in conducting amphibious operations before; together they had captured Hilton Head and Fort Pulaski. Terry was also a volunteer officer like Butler, therefore Grant thought one volunteer should have the chance to redeem another’s failure. Thus, a second effort would be made in the coming new year.

Meanwhile, bickering over the failed first effort continued in Washington. Welles argued that Grant should bear some responsibility for entrusting the army part of the expedition to someone as incompetent as Butler. Stanton did not defend Butler, but he asserted that Porter had ruined the element of surprise before Butler arrived. Lincoln outlined the pros and cons of both Butler and Porter, and he indicated that Butler would most likely be removed from command. Butler had been given a top command because of he was an influential politician, but now that Lincoln had been reelected, Butler’s political usefulness had run out.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 162; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 509-10; 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 15102-32; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 616; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; 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. 216; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 441

Fort Fisher: The Federal Army Withdraws

December 25, 1864 – Federal naval forces bombarded Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast, but the Federal commander decided not to land his troops for an assault.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had assembled warships to bombard Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington. The vessels were to soften up the Confederates in the fort so that Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s 6,500-man infantry force could come ashore and capture the stronghold.

Porter renewed his artillery barrage at 10:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. He reported:

“The order of attack was given, and the Ironsides took position in her usual handsome style, the monitors following close after her. All the vessels followed according to order, and took position without a shot being fired at them, excepting a few shots fired at the four last vessels that got into line. The firing this day was slow, only sufficient to amuse the enemy while the army landed, which they were doing five miles to the eastward of the fleet.”

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

Meanwhile, 18 gunboats escorted Butler’s army transports to their landing point at Flag Pond Hill, three miles above Fort Fisher. Confederates had placed a battery there, but according to Butler, Porter assured him that the navy had silenced it. The Federals landed with Major General Godfrey Weitzel in command. Butler stayed on his ship, later writing:

“We stood in, the transport fleet lying each side of me. I lay within 800 yards of the shore when we commenced debarking the troops. The moment we got on shore skirmishers were to advance and take possession of some woods. This they did, and then the small party moved down upon Flag Pond Hill battery. The enemy held out a white flag as our skirmishers came up, and the navy sent in boats and took the prisoners off.”

The prisoners told their captors that reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia were coming to block the landing. Confederate Major General W.H.C. Whiting, who had come from Wilmington to take command of Fort Fisher and its surroundings, reported to his department commander, General Braxton Bragg, “A large body of the enemy have landed near the fort, deploying as skirmishers. May be able to carry me by storm. Do the best I can. All behaving well. Order supports to attack.”

Butler landed about half his force and pushed back enemy skirmishers as the sun began setting and the sea began getting choppier. The Federals approaching the fort quickly came under fire from the enemy guns that Butler claimed Porter assured him were disabled. Butler wrote:

“I then determined upon my course of action, bearing in mind the fact that a storm was coming on, and knowing that, if it became necessary to effect a landing again, we could do it any day, in a smooth sea, in two hours without the loss of a man. I thought it a greatly less risk waiting with the men on board the transports than to attempt to get them on shore and have them intrench there during the night in the coming storm.”

Butler informed Porter that he was pulling his men out because the fort–

“–was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the navy fire. Finding that nothing but the operations of a regular siege, which did not come within my instructions, would reduce the fort, and in view of the threatening aspect of the weather, wind arising from the southeast, rendering it impossible to make further landing through the surf, I caused the troops with their prisoners to reembark, and see nothing further that can be done by the land forces. I shall therefore sail for Hampton Roads as soon as the transport fleet can get in order.”

Thus, Butler landed part of his force, received word that enemy reinforcements and a storm were coming, and then ordered his troops back onto their transports. About 700 Federals were stranded on shore as the tide worsened; the U.S.S. Santiago de Cuba provided a covering fire to keep the Confederates from capturing them. Sailors from Porter’s fleet eventually rescued the troops.

Porter was outraged by Butler’s unwillingness to storm the fort. He contended that after only an hour and a half, his fleet had crippled the fort to the point where its batteries “are nearly demolished… We have set them on fire, blown some of them up, and all that is wanted now is the troops to land and go into them.”

When Butler reported that some of his Federals managed to take a Confederate flag from Fort Fisher’s parapet and steal a horse, Porter sarcastically replied, “I wish some more of your gallant fellows had followed the officer who took the flag from the parapet, and the brave fellow who brought the horse out from the fort. I think they would have found it an easier conquest than is supposed.”

Federal naval guns fired another 10,000 rounds into Fort Fisher over seven hours. A total of over 20,000 rounds were fired in two days, making this the heaviest bombardment of the war. But it did not do the damage the Federals expected, mainly because the ships had to stay back out of the range of the Confederate guns and therefore lacked effective accuracy.

Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederates in Fort Fisher, reported that on this second day of bombardment, “a few more quarters were burned, more of the earthworks were displaced, but none seriously damaged, and (only) five guns were disabled by the enemy.” Whiting stated that the barrage was focused on the fort’s sea face, so the guns closer to the land face were out of harm’s way. And when Lamb noticed that the Federals were aiming at the fort’s flag, he had it placed back toward the Cape Fear River, causing the gunners to overshoot.

Nevertheless, Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I shall remain here and keep shelling the enemy’s works on every occasion, whenever the weather will permit.” But without infantry support, Porter had to withdraw. This was a major defeat at a time when the Federals were enjoying unprecedented success in nearly every other theater of operations.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 161-62; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22258; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 508; 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 15082-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 615; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; 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. 215-16; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 440-41

Fort Fisher: The Federal Fleet Attacks

December 24, 1864 – The powder ship U.S.S. Louisiana exploded, signaling the beginning of the Federal assault on Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast.

Rear Adm D.D. Porter | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, headed a fleet of warships ready to bombard Fort Fisher, a Confederate stronghold guarding Wilmington, the last major seaport open to blockade running. An army force of 6,500 men, led by Major General Benjamin F. Butler, was on its way to meet up with Porter’s fleet on the 23rd.

The Federals anchored the U.S.S. Louisiana, a scuttled steamer, off Fort Fisher with the intent to detonate the 215 tons of gunpowder packed aboard and thereby destroy the fort wall and possibly the magazine. This would make it much easier for a landing force to come in and capture the garrison. The Louisiana was put in position on the night of the 23rd, with the explosion set for 1:18 a.m. It did not happen until 1:46, but when it finally came Major Thomas L. Casey of the Federal engineer corps described the sight:

“As viewed from the decks of the U.S. steamer Rhode Island at a distance of some 12 miles, the first thing observed was a bright flame, which suddenly leaped into the air at a height that would subtend some 6 or 8 degrees of arc. This flame was filled with bright points or coruscations that made its appearance very beautiful. Some 10 seconds after the appearance of the flame two sharp and ringing reports, about as loud as those from a 6-pounder brass gun, and following each other in rapid succession, were heard directly over the point of observation. At the same instant the vessel was sensibly jarred and shaken, and upon one of the vessels of the squadron some window glass was broken by the concussion. Immediately following this, a low, rumbling noise like distant thunder was heard in the direction of the explosion, and all was then quiet. The jar and noise of the explosion were apparent at points from 60 to 100 miles removed from it–namely, at Beaufort and New Berne, N.C.”

Some of the timers did not work properly, so what was supposed to have been one major explosion became four minor ones. Also, the water current had pulled the ship away from the fort, which further minimized the impact.

The Confederates did not know what happened. Major General W.H.C. Whiting, the Cape Fear district commander at Wilmington, telegraphed Colonel William Lamb, commanding the 500-man garrison at Fort Fisher, “Enemy’s gunboat blown up.” Whiting later reported that the Louisiana did not come to within 1,200 yards of the fort. Major Casey reported:

“Upon an examination of the fort the next morning, no perceptible effects could be seen to have been produced upon the works. The edges and crests of the parapets and traverses remained as sharp and well-defined as ever. The grass covering their surfaces had not been stripped from them. No slides or craters in the parapet could be observed. The stockade from the north-east bastion was intact, and the wooden barracks and other buildings about the fort were still standing.”

If Fort Fisher was to be softened up for a Federal army landing, the warships would have to do it. Porter assembled his 37 ironclads, frigates, and gunboats, led by the U.S.S. Ironsides. Porter stated:

“The Ironsides took her position in the most beautiful and seamanlike manner, got her spring out, and opened deliberate fire on the fort, which was firing at her with all its guns, which did not seem numerous in the N.E. face, though we counted what appeared to be 17 guns; but 4 or 5 of these were fired from that direction, and they were silenced almost as soon as the Ironsides opened her terrific battery.”

The other vessels soon came up, formed a semicircle and joined the attack. With 627 guns firing 10,000 rounds within five hours, this became the most intense bombardment of the war to date. Porter reported:

“In one hour and 15 minutes after the first shot was fired, not a shot came from the fort; two magazines had been blown up by our shells and the fort set fire in several places, and such a torrent of missiles were falling into and bursting over it that it was impossible for anything human to stand it.”

Some shots caused damage, while others burrowed harmlessly in the sand. Colonel Lamb reported:

“They destroyed about one-half our quarters, including headquarters. They damaged, more or less, some of our parapets and traverses, but no part of the work was greatly injured, except in front of Blakely gun, on right of northeast salient. They disabled one 10-inch carriage, one 8-inch carriage, and two 32-pounder carriages. The 10-inch in the pulpit and the 8-inch in the left of the northeast salient were dismounted by recoil; they will be mounted tonight.”

Lamb added that the bombardment “tore up large quantities of the earthworks, splintered some of the revetments, but did not injure a single bombproof or endanger any magazine.” The Confederates returned fire sparingly because they only had 3,000 rounds for their 44 guns, and Lamb wanted to conserve as much ammunition as possible for the expected infantry landing. He reported one man killed and 22 wounded, while Porter lost 45 killed or wounded, all due to malfunctioning guns.

Butler arrived that night with some of his army transports. He was furious that Porter had detonated the Louisiana and begun the bombardment without him, believing that he ruined the infantry’s element of surprise. Plus the “powder boat” had been Butler’s idea, and he wanted to watch it explode.

According to Butler, Porter assured him that the Confederate guns had been silenced, allowing for an easy infantry landing. Butler stated that if a landing was so easy, then Porter’s warships should be able to sail up the Cape Fear River and land the troops away from the Confederate gunboats. Porter countered that such a move would be dangerous for his ships because the waterway was mined with torpedoes. Porter later wrote that Butler’s report was “false from beginning to end. I never had any conversation of the kind with anyone; indeed, the whole report is a tissue of misrepresentations…”

At any rate, it was decided that Butler’s troops, with Major General Godfrey Weitzel in direct command, would land about three miles above Fort Fisher on Christmas Day.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 160-61; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22259; 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 15072-92; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 536; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 614-15; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; 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. 819; 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. 214-15; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 439

Fort Fisher: The Federal Fleet Assembles

December 23, 1864 – A joint Federal army-navy force assembled to attack Fort Fisher, which guarded the last viable Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had begun planning for an amphibious attack on Fort Fisher in October. This fort guarded Wilmington, the last major seaport open to Confederate blockade-runners. It also protected the flow of supplies from that city to the Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg.

Maj Gen B.F. Butler | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Grant shelved the plan when he received word that the Confederates were reinforcing Fort Fisher. But when troops were pulled from Fisher to stop William T. Sherman’s march to the sea, the plan was revived. Grant directed Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, to head the expedition from his headquarters while Major General Godfrey Weitzel led Butler’s 6,500-man army force. Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, would lead the naval fleet.

Butler’s chief engineer came up with an idea to send a boat filled with gunpowder up to Fort Fisher and blow her up. This explosion would damage or destroy the fort’s sea-facing wall and might even detonate the fort’s magazine. The garrison would then be easy prey for the Federal landing force. The Lincoln administration was skeptical but eventually endorsed the plan. Porter offered his own idea on how the operation should be carried out:

“I propose running a vessel drawing 8 1/2 feet (as near to Fort Fisher as possible) with 350 tons of powder, and exploding her by running her upon the outside and opposite Fort Fisher. My calculations are that the explosion will wind up Fort Fisher and the works along the beach, and that we can open fire with the vessels without damage.”

Grant wanted the expedition to start as quickly as possible because Sherman was closing in on Savannah, and once that city was taken, the Confederates who had left Fort Fisher would be coming back. On the 4th, Grant ordered Butler to send his force out immediately, “with or without your powder boat.” However, Butler spent the next week assembling his two divisions and transporting them down the James River to his headquarters at Fort Monroe.

The army part of the expedition finally began on the 13th, by which time Butler had decided to ignore Grant’s orders and lead the force in person. The transports cleared Hampton Roads and arrived at a point about 25 miles off New Inlet two days later. There Butler waited for Porter’s squadron, but he had failed to notify Porter as to the exact time and place where they should meet.

The weather was suitable for a landing, but Butler could do nothing without Porter’s warships supporting him. Porter was at Beaufort, 90 miles up the coast from Fort Fisher, gathering fuel and supplies. He also had the U.S.S. Louisiana, an out-of-service hulk, filled with over 200 pounds of explosive powder. Porter notified Commander Alexander Rhind of the Louisiana:

“Great risks have to be run, and there are chances that you may lose your life in this adventure; but the risk is worth the running, and when the importance of the object is to be considered and the fame to be gained by this novel undertaking, which is either to prove that forts on the water are useless or that rebels are proof against gunpowder… I expect more good to our cause from a success in this instance than from an advance of all the armies in the field.”

Meanwhile, the army transports waited so long for Porter that they too had to go to Beaufort for refuel and resupply. The entire force finally assembled off New Inlet on the 18th. It consisted of 150 ships, including five ironclads and 52 frigates and gunboats that bore 627 guns. They prepared to advance on Fort Fisher, but heavy storms caused rough seas, and Porter advised Butler to return to Beaufort until conditions improved. Five days later, the fleet reassembled, finally ready to attack.

The fort was defended by only 500 Confederates under the immediate command of Colonel William Lamb. They had 44 guns with just 3,000 rounds of ammunition to stave off one of the largest Federal armadas ever assembled. Lamb’s superior, Major General W.H.C. Whiting, commanding the Cape Fear district at Wilmington, reported on the Federal fleet as it approached:

Wabash and Colorado in advance, painted white, with Confederate flag. Troops concealed under deck. Two double-enders, 11 iron-clads, five torpedo raisers, 12 mortar-boats, the remainder transports, there being 85 in all, and all steamers. The land forces to consist of 20,000 men under Butler, the naval forces under Admirals Lee…”

Whiting then sent a more anxious message: “The troops ordered away cannot return, if not helped, the forts may be turned and the city goes. The reduced garrisons are not able to hold this extended position without support.” General Robert E. Lee agreed to detach Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division to reinforce Fort Fisher, but Whiting feared that Hoke might come too late. He warned:

“I think the citizens should be notified of the imminence of attack, and all business should be suspended except that of transportation and that purely connected with the defense. It should be decided what is preferable to save and that at once, for stripped as we are of forces, we shall have little time before the enemy will be upon the city.”

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, one of Lee’s corps commanders, advised that Whiting should be instructed “to hold his position as long as he has a man. If his guns are knocked down, to hold on with his infantry and field batteries… If they are prepared for such an emergency beforehand, they will meet it as they should.”

General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate department overseeing Wilmington and Fort Fisher, reported on the 23rd, “The fleet which drew off in the rough weather is again assembled.” Whiting wrote to Richmond:

“We seem to be in the midst of disasters all around. Our position here is very precarious, and as the enemy’s fleet are off New Inlet in heavy force, in our present depleted condition it may be carried at any moment unless the enemy delay until Hoke shall have arrived.”

Whiting noted that the Federals were merely waiting for calm waters, and once they attacked, “the best course would be to save the troops.” He guessed that the Federals were targeting Fort Fisher due to its lack of troops and lighthouses:

“Many indications lead me to think the enemy have hit upon this plan, so fraught with danger to us and so promising to them, with small risk… A successful coup de main would give them at an expense of no very large number of troops a position most formidably secure against any effort of ours to repossess it should we be re-enforced after the event.”

In another message, Whiting postulated, “Heavy weather may save us, but every night fills me with anxiety.”

Meanwhile, Butler notified Porter, whose fleet was off Fort Fisher, that “on the evening of the 24th I would again be at the rendezvous with the transport fleet for the purpose of commencing the attack, the weather permitting.” On the night of the 23rd, Porter directed the U.S.S. Wilderness to tow the Louisiana to her launching point, some 300 yards from the fort. She was actually anchored closer to 600 yards away. The crew set all the timers and backup fuses, escaped aboard the Wilderness, and awaited the incredible explosion that was sure to come.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159-60; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 500, 503-05, 507; 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 13319-29, 15005-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 530, 532-36; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8060; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 607, 612, 614-16; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; 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. 819; 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. 214; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 438-39; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88

The Plot to Burn New York

November 25, 1864 – Lieutenant John W. Headley and seven Confederate agents attempted to burn New York City in retaliation for Federal depredations in Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley.

The Confederate Secret Service, based in Canada and led by Jacob Thompson (former U.S. interior secretary under President James Buchanan), had devised several plots to disrupt the Federal war effort and inspire northern Confederate sympathizers to join their cause. Most of these plots involved working with the Sons of Liberty, a Copperhead organization, to free Confederates from northern prison camps.

Prior to the Federal elections, a band of conspirators was formed to both overthrow Chicago leaders and burn New York. According to Headley:

“The tangible prospects were best for an uprising at Chicago and New York. The forces of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ were not only organized, but arms had been distributed. It had been deemed surest to rely upon the attempt to organize a Northwestern Confederacy with Chicago as the capital.”

The idea to burn New York had been introduced by Colonel Robert C. Martin and suggested to Thompson by Robert C. Kennedy, an escaped Confederate prisoner. They believed that the fires would inspire the vast Copperhead population in the city to rise up while they freed the Confederates imprisoned at Fort Lafayette.

The original plan was to set fire to New York just before the election. The eight conspirators arrived in New York at different times and lodged in different hotels. Headley stated, “It was determined that a number of fires should be started in different parts of the city, which would bring the population to the streets and prevent any sort of resistance to our movement.” The conspirators believed that New York Governor Horatio Seymour–

“… would not use the militia to suppress the insurrection in the city, but would leave that duty to the authorities at Washington. Indeed, we were to have the support of the Governor’s official neutrality. We were also told that upon the success of the revolution here a convention of delegates from New York, New Jersey, and the New England States would be held in New York City to form a Confederacy which would cooperate with the Confederates States and Northwestern Confederacy.”

However, Major General Benjamin F. Butler deployed 10,000 Federal troops in New York just before the election to maintain order. Headley wrote, “The leaders in our conspiracy were at once demoralized by this sudden advent of General Butler and his troops. They felt that he must be aware of their purposes and many of them began to fear arrest, while others were defiant.”

The plot to take Chicago was foiled as well. Nonetheless, Martin insisted that the conspirators go through with burning New York, regardless of the election results. But the Confederate Secret Service refused, and as Headley wrote, “This left us practically at sea.” The agents therefore resolved “to set the city on fire and give the people a scare if nothing else, and let the Government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

On the night of the 24th, the Confederates obtained 402 bottles of a highly flammable liquid called “Greek fire” from an elderly chemist. Headley stated, “None of the party knew anything about Greek fire, except that the moment it was exposed to the air it would blaze and burn everything it touched.” The conspirators planned to set fire to their hotel rooms, hoping that the flames would spread to other buildings until the entire city was burned in “one dazzling conflagration.”

The saboteurs set fire to 19 hotels, including the prominent Astor House. In addition, Kennedy set fire to Barnum’s Museum. City officials quickly determined that this was a Confederate plot, and just as quickly the fire department and private citizens extinguished the blazes. Their biggest challenge was to douse the flames at Barnum’s because the hay for the animals had caught fire.

New York’s prominent Astor House | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Failing to destroy New York, the conspirators accused the chemist of blending an impotent batch of Greek fire. However, most of the perpetrators had failed to leave the doors and windows open in their hotel rooms when they set the fires, thus minimizing the ventilation needed for the flames to spread. When investigators began closing in on them, the conspirators left New York and returned to their headquarters at Toronto.

Kennedy later tried returning to his army unit, but Federal authorities arrested him at Detroit. A military tribunal convicted him of masterminding the plot to burn New York, and he was hanged in March 1865. Headley confessed to his role in the plot after the war but was not arrested. Martin, who devised the scheme but was not directly involved, was arrested after the war but acquitted due to lack of evidence.

The plot made sensational headlines, as reported in the New York Times:

“The plan was excellently well conceived, and evidently prepared with great care, and had it been executed with one-half the ability with which it was drawn up, no human power could have saved this city from utter destruction… But fortunately, thanks to the Police, Fire Department, and the bungling manner in which the plan was executed by the conspirators, it proved a complete and miserable failure.”

However, this failed effort did little to either damage New York or affect the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 532; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 492; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322; 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 15200-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 523; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 600-01; New York Times article of 27 Nov 1864; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62