Tag Archives: David D. Porter

The Fort Fisher Aftermath

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

Interior of Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Confederate garrison defending Fisher had surrendered after enduring the heaviest naval bombardment in history. Colonel William Lamb, the Confederate fort commander who had been wounded and captured, later wrote:

“For the first time in the history of sieges the land defenses of the works were destroyed, not by any act of the besieging army, but by the concentrated fire, direct and enfilading, of an immense fleet poured into them without intermission, until torpedo wires were cut, palisades breached so they actually offered cover for assailants, and the slopes of the work were rendered practicable for assault.”

General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate department commander, remained with his troops at Sugar Loaf, a few miles north of Fort Fisher. Despite pleas from Lamb and his superior (Major General W.H.C. Whiting), Bragg did not send his men in until it was too late. After midnight on the 16th, Bragg wired General Robert E. Lee in Virginia, “I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher, with most of its garrison, at about 10 o’clock tonight. Particulars not known.”

Bragg complimented the “the courage and devotion of Major-General Whiting and Colonel Lamb,” but Whiting bitterly denounced Bragg for failing to try to rescue the Fisher garrison. Whiting stated, “I charge him with this loss; with neglect of duty in this, that he either refused or neglected to carry out every suggestion made to him in official communications by me for the disposition of the troops…” Whiting later added, “In all (Bragg’s) career of failure and defeat from Pensacola out, there has been no such chance missed, and no such stupendous disaster.”

President Jefferson Davis read Bragg’s dispatch and responded: “Yours of this morning received. The intelligence is sad as it was unexpected. Can you retake the fort? If anything is to be done you will appreciate the necessity of its being attempted without a moment’s delay.” Bragg wrote, “The enemy’s enormous fleet alone would destroy us in such an attempt were we unopposed by the land force. The most we can hope to do will be to hold this line. We are accordingly concentrating for that purpose.”

In the three-day battle, the Federals suffered 1,341 casualties (266 killed, 1,018 wounded, and 57 missing), while the Confederates lost nearly 2,000, most of which were captured. The Federals seized 169 guns, some 2,000 stands of arms, and large quantities of supplies and ammunition.

As Federals looted Fort Fisher, the main magazine exploded. Major General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Federal army forces, informed his superiors: “I regret to report that shortly after sunrise on the 16th instant, the day following the assault, the magazine of reserve ammunition in the fort exploded, killing and wounding 130 men. The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained.”

Terry formed a commission to investigate the cause of the blast, but the stories among the witnesses varied so much that the true cause was never found. Those killed or wounded in the explosion included not only Federal troops but also Confederate prisoners not yet taken out of the fort.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal naval fleet, came ashore to survey Fort Fisher. He reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles:

“I have since visited Fort Fisher and the adjoining works, and find their strength greatly beyond what I had conceived; an engineer might be excusable in saying they could not be captured except by regular siege. I wonder even now how it was done. The work… is really stronger than the Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England, and yet it is captured by a handful of men under the fire of the guns of the fleet, and in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest… And no Alabamas, Floridas, Chickamaugas or Tallahassees will ever fit out again from this port, and our merchant vessels very soon, I hope, will be enabled to pursue in safety their avocation.”

At Sugar Loaf, Bragg informed his superiors of his next move: “The fall of Fisher renders useless our forts below. I am accordingly concentrating on this point and at Fort Anderson, directly opposite, and will endeavor to hold this line. May not be able to save heavy guns from below; in which even a supply will be necessary.”

Bragg ordered the Confederates garrisoning Fort Caswell to destroy that fort and retreat to Fort Anderson. The troops complied as Porter’s fleet moved through New Inlet and up the Cape Fear River to pound them into submission. Porter noted, “… the death knell of another fort is booming in the distance. Ft. Caswell with its powerful batteries is in flames and being broken up, and thus is sealed the door through which this rebellion is fed.”

Porter assigned a squadron under Lieutenant Commander William B. Cushing to man the Confederate signal lights on the Mound, a hill on which the Confederates signaled to blockade runners that it was safe to enter the inlet. Porter directed them to keep the lights “… properly trimmed and lighted, as has been the custom with the rebels during the blockade. Have the lights lighted to-night and see that no vessel inside displays a light, and be ready to grab anyone that enters.”

Three blockade runners followed the signal lights, unaware that Fort Fisher had fallen, and were instantly captured. Porter happily reported to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox:

“We are having a jolly time with the blockade runners, which come into our trap. We almost kill ourselves laughing at the discomfiture, when they find they have set out their champagne to no purpose, and they say it is ‘a damned Yankee trick’… This is the greatest lark I ever was on.”

The Federals had not yet captured Wilmington, but the fall of Fort Fisher closed that city to Confederate commerce. A plan to raise $40 million for the southern war effort from women selling their hair to European markets was canceled, and the Confederates could no longer trade cotton overseas for badly needed food and supplies. Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens described the significance of this defeat:

“The fall of this Fort was one of the greatest disasters which had befallen our cause from the beginning of the war–not excepting the loss of Vicksburg or Atlanta. Forts Fisher and Caswell guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear River, and prevented the complete blockade of the port of Wilmington, through which a limited Foreign Commerce had been carried on during the whole time. It was by means of what cotton could thus be carried out, that we had been enabled to get along financially, as well as we had; and at this point also, a considerable number of arms and various munitions of war, as well as large supplies of subsistence, had been introduced. All other ports… had long since been closed.”

General Terry turned his attention to the Confederates at Sugar Loaf and Fort Anderson, but he discovered that he could not defeat them without help. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, toured the area in late January and convinced Porter to cooperate with the army once more in a thrust up the Cape Fear River, with reinforcements on the way.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 518-19; 524; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15748-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 544-45, 548; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 625-26; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 831; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 219

The Fall of Fort Fisher

January 15, 1865 – The Federal naval bombardment of Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast entered its third day as Federal land forces prepared a two-pronged attack to capture the stronghold once and for all.

Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the Federal warships, resumed his devastating artillery barrage on Fort Fisher, which guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington. The ironclads U.S.S. New Ironsides, Canonicus, Mahopac, Monadnock, and Saugus fired point-blank into the fort from 1,000 yards, disabling nearly every Confederate cannon. Major General W.H.C. Whiting, the ranking Confederate commander in the fort, wrote:

“On Sunday (the 15th) the fire of the fleet reached a pitch of fury to which no language can do justice. It was concentrated on the land front and fort. In a short time nearly every gun was dismounted or disabled, and the garrison suffered severely from the fire.”

General Braxton Bragg, the ranking Confederate commander in the region, kept Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 6,000 Confederates at Sugar Loaf, north of Fort Fisher. Whiting hoped that Bragg would try relieving the fort, but Major General Alfred H. Terry’s Federal army forces had formed a strong line between Bragg and Whiting. Bragg tried calling a council of war, but Whiting replied, “I will try to confer today, but the chances are against it. Enemy still keeping heavy fire. They will try their passing this morning, unless you whip them off the land.”

Later in the day, Whiting asked, “Is Fort Fisher to be besieged, or you to attack? Should like to know.” Bragg sent a brigade by boat to reinforce the fort, but only about 350 men managed to get there under naval fire. Once inside the fort, all these reinforcements could do was join their comrades waiting in the bombproofs for the impending land assault.

Terry’s Federals were positioned north of the fort, ready to attack the landward (i.e., west) side. A squadron of sailors and Marines under Commander K. Randolph Breese prepared to simultaneously attack the seaward (i.e., east) side. Near 3 p.m., the naval guns stopped and the assaults on the eastern and western sides of Fort Fisher began.

The naval contingent reached the fort first, so the Confederates concentrated the bulk of their force on them. The Federals made three ferocious charges but were repulsed each time; Ensign Robley D. Evans explained why: “All the officers, in their anxiety to be the first into the fort, had advanced to the heads of the columns, leaving no one to steady the men in behind; and it was in this way we were defeated, by the men breaking from the rear.” Porter later reported, “The marines could have cleared the parapet by keeping up a steady fire, but they failed to do so…”

The Confederates cheered their success but soon discovered that Terry’s Federals were attacking them from the northwest. Three infantry brigades charged the fort’s parapets, and as a Confederate officer recalled, “On this force we brought to bear our one available gun and three mortars, which had been mounted during the night, and these repeatedly broke their line and temporarily checked the advance.”

Federal assault on Fort Fisher | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

All three Federal brigade commanders were wounded. But the survivors continued moving forward, and vicious hand-to-hand fighting ensued. Whiting reported:

“As the enemy here slackened his fire to allow the assault to take place, the men hastily manned the ramparts and gallantly repulsed the right column of assault. Portion of the troops on the left had also repelled the first rush to the left of the work. The greater portion of the garrison being, however, engaged on the right, and not being (able) to man the entire work, the enemy succeeded in making a lodgment on the left flank, planting two of his regimental flags in the traverses.”

Federal naval gunners demonstrated extraordinary accuracy by pouring fire into each of the fort’s 13 traverses just before the Federal attackers came up to capture them. Even so, Terry had to commit his reserve brigade to keep the Federal line from breaking. As the reserves came up, the Confederates started wavering.

Both Whiting and the fort commander, Colonel William Lamb, were wounded; Lamb was replaced by Major James Reilly. Whiting sent a message to Bragg, “Their infantry outnumbers us. Can’t you help us? I am slightly wounded.” Whiting sent another: “We still hold the fort, but as sorely pressed. Can’t you assist us from the outside?” But Bragg would not commit any of the men at Sugar Loaf.

The Federals soon overwhelmed the Confederates by force of numbers. White flags went up, and the fighting gradually stopped. Whiting wrote, “We were overpowered, and no skill or gallantry could have saved the place, after he effected a lodgment, except attack in the rear.” He later added:

“Then was the time for the supporting force (i.e., Bragg), which was idly looking on only three miles off, which could see the columns on the beach, to have made an attack upon the rear of the assaulting columns; at any rate, to have tried to save Fort Fisher, while the garrison had hurled one assaulting column, crippled, back, and were engaged for six hours with 5,000 men vigorously assaulting it.”

Bragg finally sent a small force under Brigadier General Alexander Colquitt, but by the time it arrived, the Federals had taken over the fort and there was nothing left to do but retreat. Colquitt wired Bragg, “Fort Fisher evacuated. There is no mistake in this information.”

Confederates lowered their flag over Fort Fisher at 10 p.m. Whiting and Lamb were taken prisoner with all other surviving defenders. Terry found Whiting, who told him, “I surrender, sir, to you the forces under my command. I care not what becomes of myself.” Porter telegraphed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Fort Fisher is ours.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 209; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22267; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 517-18; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15547-86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 542-44; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 685; Hoffsommer, Richard D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 748-49; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 18; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 107; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 624-25; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 273, 831; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 184; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 820-21; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 218-19; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 443-44; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 393

Fort Fisher: The Bombardment Begins

January 13, 1865 – The largest naval fleet ever assembled by the U.S. arrived off Beaufort, North Carolina, in preparation for a second assault on Fort Fisher.

The Confederates attached great importance to holding Fort Fisher because it guarded Wilmington, the last major seaport still open to blockade runners. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, under siege at Petersburg and Richmond, drew most of its supplies from Wilmington, and if that city was conquered, Lee’s Confederates could be starved into submission. Lee therefore telegraphed the fort commander, “If Fort Fisher falls, I shall have to evacuate Richmond.”

The Federals dedicated a fleet of 59 warships bearing 627 guns to capture Fort Fisher, as well as transports conveying some 8,000 army troops. This joint expedition was led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter for the navy and Major General Alfred H. Terry for the army, and they were expected to work in close cooperation.

As Porter and Terry planned their attack, a three-day storm postponed offensive operations. During this time, Colonel William Lamb, commanding the Confederate garrison at Fort Fisher, appealed to both his district commander (Major General W.H.C. Whiting) and his department commander (General Braxton Bragg) for reinforcements. Lamb had just 800 men in the fort.

When the weather cleared, Porter moved his warships up to the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The U.S.S. New Ironsides led the ironclad monitors, which included the Canonicus, Mahopac, Monadnock, and Saugus. The U.S.S. Brooklyn led the wooden vessels in a line behind the ironclads. They came to within 1,000 yards of Fort Fisher and began the largest concentration of naval firepower in history.

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

Porter had worked with his gunners to adjust their targets and instructed them that “the object is to lodge the shell in the parapets, and tear away the traverses under which the bombproofs are located… Commanders are directed to strictly enjoin their officers and men never to fire at the flag or pole, but to pick out the guns…” Consequently, this bombardment was much more accurate than the one in late December.

Terry’s army troops began debarking their landing boats and wading ashore at 8 a.m. They drove off Confederate skirmishers and took up positions on the narrow peninsula a few miles north of Fort Fisher. As the relentless naval bombardment continued, the troops completed their landing around 3 p.m. They worked through the afternoon and evening to set up defensive lines from which to launch their assault on the fort.

The Federals wedged themselves between Fort Fisher to the south and about 6,000 Confederate reinforcements at Sugar Loaf to the north. Whiting asked Bragg to with the Sugar Loaf contingent, but by the time Bragg’s scouts reconnoitered the enemy positions, his Confederates were effectively cut off from the Fort Fisher garrison.

Federals from the black division formed a defense line facing north across the peninsula’s neck to keep Bragg from trying to break through and rescue the Confederates at Fisher. The white divisions faced south, ready to attack the fort’s landward side, which was rendered virtually defenseless by Porter’s naval artillery.

The Confederates struggled to keep covered as the shells exploded all around them. Whiting came to the fort with some reinforcements to join Lamb’s men, raising the total number of defenders to nearly 1,500. Whiting told his subordinate, “Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.” When Lamb disagreed, Whiting told him that Bragg would not be sending reinforcements.

By day’s end, Porter’s warships had fired over 800 tons of shot and shell on Fort Fisher. They silenced all but one gun on the landward face and disabled over half the guns on the seaward side. They also destroyed many land mines and their trip wires, which would help Terry’s impending attack. Porter reported, “It was soon quite apparent that the iron vessels had the best of it; traverses began to disappear and the southern angle of Fort Fisher commenced to look very dilapidated.”

The unrelenting Federal bombardment resumed at dawn on the 14th. Fort Fisher sustained a total of 1,652,638 pounds of artillery fire, the most ever in a single naval engagement. Terry spent the day constructing defenses to fend off Bragg’s Confederates to the north, then probed southward toward Fisher.

Confederate casualties within Fisher soon exceeded 200, and reinforcements could only hope to get to the fort on boats from the Cape Fear River side. As the men huddled in bombproofs, Whiting reported to Bragg: “I will hold this place till the last extremities, but unless you drive that land force from its position I cannot answer for the security of this harbor. The fire has been and continues to be exceedingly heavy, surpassing not so much in its volume as in its extraordinary condition even the fire of Christmas. The garrison is in good spirits and condition.”

Bragg later reported his assessment of the situation:

“To have assaulted the enemy behind his intrenchments, covered by his fleet, with inferior numbers, would have exhausted our means to aid the fort, and thereby not only have insured its ultimate fall, but have opened the country behind it. To make him the assaulting party, considering our means for attack and defense, seemed to me the only policy, and it promised his early and complete discomfiture, as the first change of weather would drive off the fleet and leave him unsupported and cut off from supplies.”

Bragg assured Whiting that he would send him 1,000 troops, which would make Fort Fisher “impregnable against assault.” Bragg would also “make a corresponding movement and, if opportunity occurs, attack.” While waiting for the reinforcements, Lamb ordered his artillerists to slow their firing to once every half-hour to conserve ammunition for the coming land assault.

Terry met with Porter aboard the flagship U.S.S. Malvern to plan the attack. Half of Terry’s 8,000-man attack force would hold the northern line against the potential Confederate reinforcements while the other half attacked the fort’s landward side. At the same time, a squadron of sailors and Marines would attack the seaward side, with 1,600 sailors using cutlasses and pistols to “board the fort in a seaman-like way,” and 400 Marines backing them with rifles. The assault was scheduled for 3 p.m. the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 475; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 513-16; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 15469-537; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 540-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 621, 623-24; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 273; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 184; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 820; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 217-18; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 442

The Second Fort Fisher Campaign Begins

January 5, 1865 – After failing to capture Fort Fisher in December, Federals prepared to launch another army-navy expedition from Bermuda Hundred and Fort Monroe on the Virginia coast.

The Federal high command had made capturing Fort Fisher a top priority because it guarded the last major Confederate seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina. An attempt led by Major General Benjamin F. Butler and Rear Admiral David D. Porter failed in late December, but the Federals resolved to try again, this time without Butler running the army part of the operation.

Porter issued orders for 66 warships to assemble off the North Carolina coast, stocked with “every shell than can be carried” to blast the fort into submission. Porter had reported that his ships nearly destroyed Fort Fisher in December, but now he realized that the gunners overshot most of their marks by aiming at the Confederates’ flag, which was strategically placed at the fort’s rear. This time, Porter directed the gunners to target the enemy cannon, not the flag.

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

Meanwhile, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles impressed upon Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton the importance of capturing Fort Fisher and sealing off Wilmington, “the only port by which any supplies whatever reach the rebels.” Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal army commander, scrambled to find boats to transport the troops down the coast from Virginia. He also replaced Butler with Major General Alfred H. Terry, who commanded XXIV Corps in Butler’s Army of the James.

From his City Point headquarters, Grant wrote Butler on the 2nd, “Please send Major-general Terry to City Point to see me this morning.” Grant did not explain why he wanted Terry to either man to keep the mission as secret as possible. Grant merely told Terry that he was being put in charge of a force to be transferred by sea to an undisclosed site. Terry thought he was being sent to reinforce William T. Sherman’s army at Savannah.

The same provisional corps that Butler had led in the first Fort Fisher expedition would now be led by Terry: Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division and a brigade from Terry’s corps, and Brigadier General Charles Paine’s division from Butler’s XXV Corps. As Terry reported:

“I was instructed to move them from their positions in the lines on the north side of the James River to Bermuda Landing in time to commence their embarkation on transport vessels at sunrise on the 4th instant. In obedience to these orders the movement commenced at noon of the 3rd instant. The troops arrived at the landing at sunset, and there bivouacked for the night.”

Grant notified Porter:

“General Terry will consult with you fully, and will be governed by your suggestions as far as his responsibility for the safety of his command will admit of. My views are that Fort Fisher can be taken from the water front only in two ways, one is to surprise the enemy when they have an insufficient force; then the other is for the navy to run into Cape Fear River with vessels enough to contend against anything the enemy may have there. If the landing can be effected before this is done, well and good; but if the enemy are in a very strong force, a landing may not be practicable until we have possession of the river.”

Porter wrote Grant, “I shall be ready, and thank God we are not to leave here with so easy a victory at hand.” He recommended that Terry’s men “should have provisions to last them on shore in case we are driven off by gales, but I can cover any number of troops if it blows ever so hard. I have held on here through all and the heaviest gales ever seen here. They seem to blow that I might show the commanders that we could ride it out at anchor.”

Regarding the Confederates in the fort itself, Porter wrote, “We destroyed all their abatis, and made a beautiful bridge for the troops to cross on. They think they have whipped us. I made the ships go off as if they were crippled, some in tow. We will have Wilmington in a week, weather permitting.”

Grant met with Terry on the James River, and they both took a steamer down to the operation’s launching point at Fortress Monroe. Grant finally disclosed the details of this secret mission:

“The object is to renew the attempt to capture Fort Fisher, and in case of success to take possession of Wilmington. It is of the greatest importance that there should be a complete understanding and harmony of action between you and Admiral Porter. I want you to consult the admiral fully, and let there be no misunderstanding in regard to the plan of cooperation in all its details. I served with Admiral Porter on the Mississippi, and have a high appreciation of his courage and judgment. I want to urge upon you to land with all dispatch, and intrench yourself in a position from which you can operate against Fort Fisher, and not to abandon it until the fort is captured or you receive further instructions from me.”

To ensure that the army would not withdraw again, Terry was to bypass his immediate superior (Butler) and report directly to Grant. Porter instructed sailors and Marines to form squadrons that would land on the seaward side of Fort Fisher. Terry’s men were to attack the landward side.

Terry’s provisional corps left Fortress Monroe on transports and started heading down the coast on the 5th. There would be no stopping this expedition now.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 511-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 538-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 619; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 184; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 217

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