Tag Archives: Braxton Bragg

Jefferson Davis Stops at Abbeville

May 2, 1865 – Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his dwindling government-in-exile held what turned out to be their last council of war in their southward flight to avoid Federal capture.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

As May began, Davis and his party reached Cokesbury, South Carolina. Unbeknownst to them, President Andrew Johnson had issued a proclamation declaring that Davis and other Confederate officials were responsible for assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Despite no tangible evidence linking Davis to the crime, Johnson offered a $100,000 reward for Davis’s capture.

The Davis party arrived at Abbeville, South Carolina, on the afternoon of the 2nd. They were met by Confederate Navy Lieutenant William H. Parker’s escort, which turned over the Confederate archives and treasury they had been guarding to Davis and his cabinet. Cabinet officials were directed to destroy most official government papers to prevent Federals from confiscating and using the documents against them.

Parker disbanded his force of midshipmen, with orders to “report by letter to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy as soon as practicable,” once they got home. But that would prove more difficult than supposed because on this day Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory resigned, citing the “dependent positions of a helpless family.”

At 4 p.m., Davis held a “council of war” with Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge, General Braxton Bragg, and the five brigade commanders heading the president’s military escort. One of the brigade commanders, Brigadier General Basil W. Duke, later wrote that if this could be called a war council, “It was, perhaps, the last Confederate council of war held east of the Mississippi River, certainly the last in which Mr. Davis participated.” The eight men assembled in a private residence in Abbeville that Davis had made his headquarters.

The president announced: “It is time that we adopt some definite plan upon which the further prosecution of our struggle shall be conducted. I have summoned you for consultation. I feel that I ought to do nothing now without the advice of my military chiefs.” His “military chiefs,” by this time only a handful of brigadiers, could muster no more than 3,000 men to guard Davis and somehow continue the fight.

Davis was not (or at least pretended not to be) discouraged. He said, “Even if the troops now with me be all that I can for the present rely on, three thousand brave men are enough for a nucleus around which the whole people will rally when the panic which now afflicts them has passed away.” The president then asked the commanders to offer suggestions on how best to carry on the fight.

The brigadiers looked at each other in amazement. The top two Confederate field generals, Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, had already surrendered, and Richard Taylor was about to surrender all Confederate forces in Alabama and Mississippi. None of them believed that the fight should go on, yet all were too awestruck to disagree with Davis. Someone finally spoke up, and then all five unanimously agreed that further resistance was futile.

They explained that the people were not “panic-stricken” as Davis believed, but exhausted and impoverished and unwilling to fight anymore. According to General Duke:

“We said that an attempt to continue the war, after all means of supporting warfare were gone, would be a cruel injustice to the people of the South. We would be compelled to live on a country already impoverished, and would invite its further devastation. We urged that we would be doing a wrong to our men if we persuaded them to such a course; for if they persisted in a conflict so hopeless they would be treated as brigands, and would forfeit all chance of returning to their homes.

“He (Davis) asked why then we were still in the field. We answered that we were desirous of affording him an opportunity of escaping the degradation of capture, and perhaps a fate which would be direr to the people than even to himself, in still more embittering the feeling between the North and South. We said that we would ask our men to follow us until his safety was assured, and would risk them in battle for that purpose, but would not fire another shot in an effort to continue hostilities.”

Davis sternly declared that he would not discuss any efforts to save himself. He appealed to their patriotism, their sense of honor, and their duty as gentlemen and warriors. When none of this moved the commanders, Davis rose and said, “Then all is indeed lost.” According to Duke, “He had become very pallid, and he walked so feebly as he proceeded to leave the room that General Breckinridge stepped hastily up and offered his arm.” After Davis left, Breckinridge and Bragg, who had been silent up until now, told the brigadiers that they agreed with their assessment. Duke later wrote:

“They had forborne to say anything, because not immediately in command of the troops, and not supposed, therefore, to know their sentiments so well as we did. But they promised to urge upon Mr. Davis the necessity and propriety of endeavoring without further delay to get out of the country, and not permit other and serious complications to be produced by his capture and imprisonment, and perhaps execution.”

Davis’s options were dwindling, and frustration was setting in. Lashing out at those he believed had forsaken him, the president wrote to his secretary Burton Harrison about the “three thousand brave men”: “I have the bitterest disappointment in regard to the feeling of our troops, and would not have any one I loved dependent upon their resistance against an equal force.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 564-65; 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 21179-99, 21209-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 589; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 684-85; Murphy, Richard W., The Nation Reunited: War’s Aftermath (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18-24; 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), Q265

The Battle of Bentonville

March 19, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston’s makeshift Confederate army moved to crush the left wing of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal army outside Bentonville before the right wing could come up in support.

Sherman’s left wing was led by Major General Henry W. Slocum, and it consisted of XIV and XX corps, with Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry in support. The Federals had camped within five miles of the Confederate line on the 18th and resumed their forward march the next morning, with Major General Jefferson C. Davis’s XIV Corps in the lead.

Johnston had about 18,000 infantrymen from various commands, along with Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. The Confederates blocked the Federals’ path to Goldsboro, where Sherman hoped to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina. Johnston looked to take on XIV Corps, which was about the same size as his force, before XX Corps or Sherman’s right wing could reinforce it.

The Federals advanced near dawn and quickly ran into Hampton’s cavalry in front of the main Confederate line. Skirmishing ensued, but Slocum did not think it was too serious. A staff officer informed Sherman that Slocum’s “leading division had encountered a division of rebel cavalry, which he was driving easily.” Satisfied there was no danger, Sherman rode off to join his right wing, about a half-day’s march to the east.

Meanwhile, the skirmishing intensified and both sides brought up artillery. The Confederates began deploying for battle, but they moved slowly because there was only one viable road from Bentonville to the field. General Braxton Bragg’s division under Major General Robert F. Hoke held the Confederate left, while Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps from the Army of Tennessee held the right. Lieutenant General William Hardee’s command was slated to come up between Hoke and Stewart, but he was running late. Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps from the Army of Tennessee was also on its way.

Fighting at Bentonville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Slocum sent a message to Sherman assuring him that no reinforcements were needed. He then ordered Davis’s XIV Corps forward to meet the threat. Brigadier General William P. Carlin’s division led the advance, but they were hit by unexpectedly heavy volleys from Hoke’s Confederates and forced to fall back. One officer said, “I tell you it was a tight spot… (we) stood as long as man could stand… (then) we run like the devil.” Carlin’s men quickly built breastworks that one officer said “saved Sherman’s reputation.”

Davis soon learned from Confederate prisoners that this was more than just an isolated Confederate unit; Johnston was making a stand with his whole army. According to Slocum, Davis “informed me that General Johnston had, by forced marches, concentrated his army in my front; that it was understood among the rebel soldiers that this force amounted to 40,000 men; they were told that they were to crush one corps of Sherman’s army.” Slocum therefore “concluded to take a defensive position and communicate with the commanding general.”

The Federal advance was stopped by 1:30 p.m., as the troops fortified themselves and Slocum called on XX Corps, led by Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, to hurry to the front. Williams’s men began arriving around 2 p.m. and took positions to the left of XIV Corps.

On the Confederate side, Hardee’s troops began arriving around 2:45 p.m., with Hardee taking command of the right wing. Johnston then ordered a general assault. Colonel Charles W. Broadfoot from Hoke’s command described the scene: “It looked like a picture and at our distance was truly beautiful… But it was a painful sight to see how close their battle flags were together, regiments being scarcely larger than companies and a division not much larger than a regiment should be.”

The Confederates crumpled the Federals’ left flank, which had not yet been fully manned by XX Corps. They nearly captured Carlin and overran a Federal field hospital. As they continued forward, Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates began enfilading the rest of the Federal line. However, the attack was not coordinated well enough to break the Federal defenses.

A second phase of the battle began when Hoke’s Confederates attacked the Federal right, which was isolated due to the left having been crumpled. Vicious fighting took place, with one Army of Northern Virginia veteran later stating that “it was the hottest infantry fight they had been in except Cold Harbor.” The Federal line seemed about to break, but reinforcements arrived just in time to repel the attackers.

Hampton wrote that Bragg, “fearing he could not maintain his ground, applied for reinforcements. General Johnston at once determined to comply with this request, and he directed Hardee to send a portion of his force to the support of Hoke. This movement was in my judgment the only mistake committed on our part during the fight…”

A third phase began when the Confederates on the right renewed their assault on the crumpled flank. Hardee committed two divisions in a heavy attack near the Harper house. Johnston later wrote of Hardee:

“He then made the charge with characteristic skill and vigor. Once, when he apprehended the difficult, Hardee literally led the advance. The Federals were routed in a few minutes, our brave fellows dashing successively over two lines of temporary breastworks, and following the enemy rapidly, but in good order.”

But troops from XX Corps came up and checked the Confederate advance. Hardee committed a third division and launched five separate assaults after 5 p.m., but none could break the Federal line. A North Carolinian remembered that nowhere “in the battle of Gettysburg (was) as hot as that place.” Slocum reported, “The enemy was repulsed at all points along our line, but continued his assaults until a late hour in the evening.”

Nightfall ended the fighting. Johnston concluded that the enemy force had been “greatly increased,” even though Sherman’s right wing had not yet arrived. He reported:

“After burying our dead and bringing off our own and many of the Federal wounded, and three pieces of artillery… we returned to our first position. The impossibility of concentrating the Confederate forces in time to attack the Federal left wing while in column on the march, made complete success also impossible, from the enemy’s great numerical superiority.”

After midnight, the Confederates fell back to their original position behind Mill Creek and built defenses. Meanwhile, the Federals set up makeshift hospitals to tend to the wounded, and a witness recalled:

“A dozen surgeons and attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the window where they lay scattered on the grass. The legs of the infantrymen could be distinguished from those of the cavalry by the size of their calves.”

During the night, couriers hurried to Sherman’s headquarters and delivered the news that a major battle had been fought. One of Sherman’s staff officers recalled:

“At about half past nine, one of General Slocum’s aides came up at a dashing pace, and, throwing himself from his horse, asked for General Sherman. We all gathered round, and listened attentively, as he told the particulars of the battle. The commander-in-chief would have made a good subject for Punch or Vanity Fair. He had been lying down in General Howard’s tent, and hearing the inquiry for him, and being of course anxious to hear the news of the fight, he rushed out to the camp-fire without stopping to put on his clothes. He stood in a bed of ashes up to his ankles, chewing impatiently the stump of a cigar, with his hands clasped behind him, and with nothing on but a red flannel undershirt and a pair of drawers.”

Sherman wrote:

“I sent back orders for him to fight defensively to save time, and that I would come up with reénforcements from the direction of Cox’s Bridge, by the road which we had reached near Falling-Creek Church. The country was very obscure, and the maps extremely defective. By this movement I hoped General Slocum would hold Johnston’s army facing west, while I would come on his rear from the east…”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22119-28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 548; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 568; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 270-71; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 654-55; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p.56; 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. 829; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 453; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 304; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 362-63

The Battle of Kinston

March 8, 1865 – A small Confederate force under General Braxton Bragg tried making a stand east of Kinston to stop Major General Jacob D. Cox’s advance inland from the North Carolina coast.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By the morning of the 8th, Bragg had about 8,000 troops under Major Generals Robert F. Hoke and D.H. Hill entrenched on the west bank of Southwest Creek, about three miles east of Kinston. In their front was Major General Jacob D. Cox’s 13,000-man Provisional Corps, detached from Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina and fortified at Wyse Fork. Bragg hoped to destroy Cox’s command before he could be reinforced by larger Federal forces under either Schofield or Major General William T. Sherman.

Bragg’s line consisted of Hoke on the right and Hill on the left. Major General Samuel P. Carter’s division held Cox’s left, while Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division held the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad on the right. The Federals were not aware that Hill had reinforced Bragg until Carter received a message “that negroes reported some 2,000 rebels had passed down the Trent road early that morning.”

Cox doubted the report’s accuracy and wrote Carter, “The movement on the left can scarcely be more than a reconnaissance.” He instructed Carter to send out cavalry and an infantry regiment, adding, “These reconnoitering parties must go out boldly and learn definitely what they can.” As Cox and Schofield rode for the front, Hoke’s troops attacked Carter’s unprepared Federals.

The Confederates drove an advance Federal brigade back in confusion and then began pushing back the entire Federal left. Hoke’s men captured a gun, nearly the entire 15th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, and gained control of the crossroads near Wyse Fork. Hill advanced and attacked the Federal right, and both of Cox’s flanks began crumbling. It seemed that the Federals would be routed.

However, Bragg ordered Hill to disengage and try moving around into the Federal rear. This inadvertently allowed the Federals to build new defenses and hold their ground. From their newly fortified positions, Cox’s men repulsed several Confederate probes.

As the day ended, the Confederates held the two roads on the Federal left and repaired the Southwest Creek crossings in their rear. Fighting continued the next day near the important railroad, but Bragg could not break through the Federal lines. Cox brought up his third division, led by Major General Thomas H. Ruger, to fill the gap the Confederates had opened between Palmer and Carter.

Bragg tried to turn the Federal left one more time on the 10th, with Hoke’s men attacking just before noon. The Confederates initially drove some of Carter’s men out of their trenches, but Federal artillery proved too deadly and the Confederates had to fall back. At the same time, Hill gained some ground against Palmer, but Ruger’s men came up to reinforce the line. Hill was forced to withdraw.

Bragg learned that the two other divisions from Cox’s XXIII Corps had just arrived at New Bern and would soon reinforce the Federals. Having failed to defeat three of Cox’s divisions, Bragg could not hope to beat five. He therefore ordered his men to withdraw west to Kinston. The Confederates fell back across the Neuse River, burning the bridges behind them. They camped near Kinston that night and then moved on to Smithfield by train.

Cox reported, “The enemy was severely punished, and has during the night evacuated his lines in my front and fallen back toward Kinston.” The Confederates lost 134 men killed, wounded, or missing. The Federals sustained 1,257 casualties, most of which were captured on the 8th. This battle temporarily stopped Cox’s advance from New Bern to Goldsboro, but it did little to prevent Schofield and Sherman from joining forces as planned.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545; 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 17188-208, 17237-56; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563-64; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-50; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19

North Carolina: Battle Looms Near Kinston

March 7, 1865 – General Braxton Bragg hoped to prevent Federals from joining forces in North Carolina by blocking a detachment moving inland from the coast.

Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of North Carolina had begun moving inland after capturing the vital port city of Wilmington. Schofield’s X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry moved north from Wilmington, while a division led by Major General Jacob D. Cox moved via water up the coast to New Bern. Once there, Cox’s command was expanded to three divisions known as a Provisional Corps.

Brig Gen J.D. Cox | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Cox’s new corps established a supply base at New Bern and began repairing the railroad to Goldsboro. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving north from South Carolina were to link with Schofield’s army at Goldsboro, using the railroad as their supply line. After Sherman and Schofield joined forces, they would confront the remaining Confederates in the state now led by General Joseph E. Johnston.

Bragg commanded the Confederate department covering the Wilmington area, which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 5,500-man division. Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee directed that Johnston absorb Bragg’s department into his command. This gave Johnston about 23,500 effectives against nearly 100,000 Federals under Sherman and Schofield. Johnston looked to attack before Sherman and Schofield could unite.

Bragg was disgusted that Johnston now superseded him, and even worse, a man who despised him, John C. Breckinridge, was now Confederate secretary of war. Bragg felt no longer needed in North Carolina and therefore wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “I seek no command or position, and only desire to be ordered to await assignment to duty at some point in Georgia or Alabama.” Davis did not immediately respond due to more pressing matters at hand.

Johnston looked to concentrate all available Confederate forces near Fayetteville, where Sherman was headed, to block him from linking with Schofield. Johnston asked Lee to send elements of the Army of Northern Virginia down from Petersburg to help him “crush Sherman.” Once Sherman was defeated, Schofield would be isolated on the coast, allowing the Confederates to turn north and break the siege of Petersburg.

Lee did not have much faith in this plan, but there were few other options. He only asked that Johnston leave supplies at railroad depots alone: “Endeavor to supply your army by collecting subsistence through the country. That at depots is necessary for Army of Northern Virginia. In moving troops on North Carolina Railroad please do not interrupt transportation of supplies to this army.”

Johnston asked for guidance on how best he could link with Bragg and Hoke near the coast. Lee answered that that “must be determined by you. I wish you to act as you think best.” By the 6th, Johnston realized that Sherman’s army was moving too fast toward Fayetteville to be stopped. He wrote to Lieutenant General William Hardee, whose command was retreating from that town, “It is too late to turn to Fayetteville. (Take) the best route to Raleigh. It may be through Egypt, crossing both Deep and Haw Rivers, near their junction.”

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Meanwhile, Bragg’s Confederates were close to Cox’s Provisional Corps moving on Goldsboro, and Bragg saw a chance to destroy Cox before Schofield or Sherman could rescue him. Bragg therefore positioned his troops on the Neuse River near Kinston and informed Johnston on the 6th, “The enemy’s advance was this morning nine miles from Kinston. They are in heavy force and moving in confidence. A few hours would suffice to unite the forces at Smithfield with mine and insure a victory.”

The “forces at Smithfield” were 2,000 Confederate veterans from the Army of Tennessee under Major General D.H. Hill. Johnston directed Hill to rush these troops to Bragg and join him in attacking Cox. Hill was then to hurry back to Smithfield so he could reinforce Hardee and stop Sherman between Fayetteville and Raleigh.

The next day, Bragg entrenched Hoke’s division on the west bank of Southwest Creek, about three miles east of Kinston. This important position connected the creek to the Neuse River and blocked Cox’s advance along the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad. Cox reconnoitered the Confederate positions and informed Schofield that they were “the last point the enemy can make a stand” in front of Kinston.

Cox learned from scouts that the enemy consisted of Hoke’s North Carolina veterans, augmented by junior reserves. Cox did not know that Hill’s Confederates were on their way as well. He directed Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division to guard a crossroads a mile and a half in front of Wyse Fork. Major General Samuel P. Carter’s division came up to support Palmer, and both sides traded artillery fire.

Hoke’s men had destroyed the three nearby creek crossings, but Federal cavalry rode off to the far left and secured a crossing at the Upper Trent Road. Some troopers went farther left and found the Wilmington Road unguarded. Cox reported to Schofield:

“The cavalry was ordered to observe carefully the Wilmington road on the left and to picket the crossings of the creek, giving prompt notice of any movement toward that flank. All the troops were ordered to be on the alert, though the command was not expected to take the aggressive until the railroad should be farther advanced or supplies received by the river, since it had been found impossible to feed the troops regularly where they were.”

Cox stated that his troops “will practically invest the bridge-head at Kinston by occupying the line of Southwest Creek, my right being within reaching distance of the (Neuse) River.” A fight would come the next day.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22103; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 544; 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 17189-218; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 562-63; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 647-48; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19

Johnston Returns to Duty

February 25, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston reluctantly took command of the shattered Army of Tennessee and all other Confederates in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Most troops in this vast region had been under General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Division of the West. However, Beauregard had been in poor health, and now he was breaking down from the stress of trying to stop the Federal thrust through the Carolinas. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and 17 senators had petitioned General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee to put Johnston back in charge of his old Army of Tennessee, and Lee responded on the 13th:

“The three corps of that army have been ordered to South Carolina and are now under the command of Genl Beauregard. I entertain a high opinion of Genl Johnston’s capacity, but think a continual change of commanders is very injurious to any troops and tends greatly to their disorganization… Genl Beauregard is well known to the citizens of South Carolina, as well as to the troops of the Army of Tennessee, and I would recommend that it be certainly ascertained that a change was necessary before it was made. I do not consider that my appointment… confers the right which you assume belongs to it, nor is it proper that it should. I can only employ such troops and officers as may be placed at my disposal by the War Department.”

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Less than a week later, the Federals captured Columbia and Charleston. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals continued their relentless march toward North Carolina, and Major General John Schofield’s Federals threatened Wilmington. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge:

“I do not know where his (Beauregard’s) troops are, or on what lines they are moving… Should his strength give way, there is no one on duty in the department that could replace him, nor have I anyone to send there. Genl J.E. Johnston is the only officer whom I know who has the confidence of the army and the people, and if he was ordered to report to me I would place him there on duty…”

President Jefferson Davis had strongly disliked Johnston almost since the beginning of the war. However, Johnston had influential supporters such as Stephens and Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas. Therefore, Lee and the War Department issued orders recalling Johnston to duty on the 22nd. His command included the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of Tennessee and Georgia.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that Johnston had been reinstated. Lee acknowledged that the Confederates in South Carolina were “much scattered,” but “by diligence & boldness they can be united.” Davis agreed to the appointment after assurances that Lee would oversee all of Johnston’s operations. Lee told Davis, “I shall do all in my power to strengthen him.”

Johnston was reluctant to accept the assignment. He had recently speculated to a friend that if Davis ever gave him another command, it would be one destined to fail so that Davis could blame him for the Confederacy’s downfall. Nevertheless, Johnston obeyed orders.

Lee instructed him to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Lee then notified Davis that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Sherman’s progress.” But before Johnston even left to take command, he replied to Lee, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”

Two days later, Johnston arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command. His jurisdiction included:

  • Lieutenant General William Hardee’s 8,000 Confederates at Cheraw, South Carolina (75 miles southeast of Charlotte)
  • General Braxton Bragg’s 5,000 Confederates retreating from Wilmington to Goldsborough
  • The once mighty Army of Tennessee, now numbering just a few thousand men at Newberry, South Carolina (about 100 miles south of Charlotte)

Johnston’s top priority was to unite these commands, but he reported that they numbered no more than 25,000 against Sherman’s estimated 40,000 (Sherman actually had closer to 60,000). Moreover, Sherman’s army could “prevent their concentration or compel them to unite in its rear by keeping on its way without loss of time.” Johnston wrote, “In my opinion, these troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.”

Johnston hoped that Sherman would move toward Fayetteville because this would allow Bragg to confront the Federals from the east while the rest of Johnston’s force came in from the west. However, as February ended, Johnston and the Confederates were still unaware whether Sherman planned to head for Fayetteville or Charlotte. Either way, it seemed that they could do little to stop him now.

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22057; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 538, 540; 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 16696-706, 16715-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 557-58; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8179; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26, 61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 638, 642-44; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704; 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. 828; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 457-58; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747-48

The Fall of Wilmington

February 22, 1865 – Major General John Schofield’s new Federal army captured a once-vital Confederate port city on the North Carolina coast.

General John Schofield | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Schofield’s Federals moved north up the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher in an effort to capture Wilmington. Schofield hoped to use the city as a military supply base now that the fall of Fort Fisher had rendered it useless for Confederate shipping. But Confederates on the east and west banks of the river blocked the Federals’ path.

To the east, Major General Alfred H. Terry’s X Corps moved north up the peninsula between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River to face Major General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederates on the Sugar Loaf Line. To the west, Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps moved north along the west bank of the Cape Fear to face Brigadier General Johnson Hagood’s Confederates at Town Creek. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval fleet worked to clear torpedoes and other obstructions from the river.

After Hagood abandoned Fort Anderson, Hoke fell back to a new defense line about three miles south of Wilmington. Terry pursued cautiously, reinforced by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division previously on loan to Cox. Across the Cape Fear, Hagood’s Confederates burned the only bridge over Town Creek and built defenses on the north bank.

The Federals could not ford the creek, so Cox dispatched three brigades to outflank the Confederates while his fourth brigade kept them occupied. The flankers found a flat-bottom boat and used it to cross Town Creek, on the Confederate left. Hagood had anchored his left flank on a swamp, figuring that the Federals could not get around it.

Cox later wrote, “The ground was such that no horses could be used and all officers were dismounted. With some difficulty the command passed through the rice swamps, moving obliquely to the right till we reached dry land about a mile from the place of crossing.” After several grueling hours, the Federals got across.

Hagood discovered the Federal maneuver and ordered a retreat to Wilmington, leaving two regiments as a rear guard. The Federals routed these regiments, taking 375 prisoners and two guns. The rest of Hagood’s men escaped into Wilmington, but the Federals were close behind.

Meanwhile, Terry’s Federals were entrenched in front of Hoke’s defense line, with Porter’s gunboats bombarding the Confederates from the river. That night, the Confederates released about 200 torpedoes from their moorings and sent them floating downriver. Federal naval crews panicked, fearing that these floating mines would destroy their ships. However, Porter had detailed rowboats with netting to catch most of the torpedoes before they reached the main fleet. They ultimately caused no damage.

General Braxton Bragg, who had been unofficially ousted as President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor once Robert E. Lee became general-in-chief, arrived at Wilmington on the 21st to take overall command of the situation. By that time, Hagood’s small force had retreated into the city, and Hoke’s Confederates on the eastern peninsula would soon have to retreat before superior numbers as well.

Bragg reported, “The enemy in force on the west, and our communications south cut. We are greatly out-numbered.” Lee responded, “Destroy all cotton, tobacco, and naval stores that would otherwise fall into the hands of the enemy.” Bragg completed his assessment and wrote, “Our small force renders it impossible to make any serious stand. We are greatly embarrassed by prisoners, the enemy refusing to receive them or entertain any proposition.” Knowing that the Confederate retreat would be hindered by transporting hundreds of prisoners, the Federals refused to discuss exchanging them.

By the end of the 21st, Cox’s Federals had reached the southwestern outskirts of Wilmington, and Terry’s men were poised to launch a full-scale assault southeast of the city. Cox’s advance was delayed by destroyed bridges and Confederate cavalry. During that time, Bragg evacuated all troops, prisoners, and military necessities from Wilmington, and his Confederates destroyed anything of military value they could not take with them.

The general retreat began at 1 a.m. on the 22nd with the abandonment of Fort Strong and all other defensive points. Bragg reported, “By the active and efficient operation of the Weldon and Wilmington Railroad, we succeeded in getting off all the prisoners able to travel and all important stores. Some naval stores and a small lot of cotton and tobacco were destroyed by fire. These could have been saved but for the occupation of the trains in carrying prisoners.”

As the sun rose, Cox saw that the city had been abandoned. He later wrote:

“Bragg had carefully removed all boats from our side of the channel, but citizens anxious to prevent us from firing on the town came over in skiffs, and we learned that the Confederate forces had marched away toward Goldsborough, leaving the way open for Terry’s march into the city, which took place in the early morning of the 22nd, which we were happy to recall was Washington’s Birthday.”

Federal bands blared loud, patriotic music as Terry’s Federals entered Wilmington. Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles: “I have the honor to inform you that Wilmington has been evacuated and is in possession of our troops… I had the pleasure of placing the flag on Fort Strong, and at 12 o’clock noon today shall fire a thirty-five guns salute this being the anniversary of Washington’s birthday.” Mayor John Dawson surrendered Wilmington to Terry the next day.

Federal officials planned to convert Wilmington into another supply base for operations against Lee’s Confederates under siege at Petersburg. The fall of Wilmington freed Schofield to join forces with Major General William T. Sherman’s armies. This combined force would then move northward across the Roanoke River, the last strong defensive line south of Virginia’s Appomattox River.

Schofield directed his men to repair all railroad tracks and equipment in the Wilmington area, but he soon learned that supplies for such repairs were scarce. He therefore ordered Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer to open a supply line from New Bern. The line would extend west to Goldsborough, where Sherman’s Federals were expected to arrive after their march through South Carolina. When Palmer did not move quickly enough, Schofield put Cox in charge of the operation.

Meanwhile, the Confederates scrambled to escape Federal capture. They took the C.S.S. Chickamauga up the Cape Fear River and scuttled her in such a way to block enemy vessels from advancing upriver. Commodore John R. Tucker, who had led 350 Confederate sailors out of Charleston, marched 125 miles to Fayetteville. They joined with another grounded naval force and continued marching north to join the Confederates at Richmond and Petersburg.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, believed that Sherman would follow up the fall of Wilmington with an attack on Charlotte. He therefore issued a proclamation urging Charlotte residents to volunteer their slave labor to “destroy and obstruct” the roads to the city. However, Sherman only feinted toward Charlotte while actually moving east to join forces with Schofield at Goldsborough. As February ended, North Carolina seemed doomed.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 830-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 537-40; 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 16705-25, 16755-65; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 556-59; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 641-42; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19, 831; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 184; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 444; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 542

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.

—–

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

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.”

—–

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.

—–

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

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.

—–

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