Tag Archives: David D. Porter

The City Point Conference

March 27, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln met with his top commanders to discuss plans for what they hoped would be the last campaign of the war.

Major General William T. Sherman, commanding all Federals armies in the West, and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, met at the headquarters of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal army commander, at City Point, Virginia. Sherman left Major General John Schofield in charge of the Federals in North Carolina, announcing before he boarded the steamer Russia: “I’m going up to see Grant for five minutes and have it all chalked out for me, and then come back and pitch in.”

Grant met his old friend Sherman at the gangplank as the Russia docked. The generals embraced, having not seen each other since their respective campaigns in Virginia and Georgia had begun last April. Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff recalled: “Their encounter was more like that of two school-boys coming together after a vacation than the meeting of the chief actors in a great war tragedy.” Sherman later wrote:

“I found General Grant, with his family and staff, occupying a pretty group of huts on the bank of James River, overlooking the harbor, which was full of vessels of all classes, both war and merchant, with wharves and warehouses on an extensive scale. The general received me most heartily, and we talked over matters very fully.”

After Sherman shared stories about his campaign through the Carolinas, the commanders boarded the steamer River Queen to meet with President Lincoln, whom Grant had invited down from Washington. This marked the first meeting between the president and his top commanders. Lincoln went with Grant and Sherman to Grant’s tent, where they sat on cracker barrels and shared stories. Mrs. Grant admonished her husband and Sherman for not calling on Mrs. Lincoln while they were aboard the River Queen. The next day, the generals called upon the first lady but were told that she was not feeling well and would not see them.

Meeting aboard the River Queen | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lincoln met with Grant, Sherman, and Porter in the upper saloon of the River Queen to discuss serious business on the 28th. According to Sherman, “Both General Grant and myself supposed that one or the other of us would have to fight one more bloody battle, and that it would be the last. Mr. Lincoln exclaimed, more than once, that there had been blood enough shed, and asked us if another battle could not be avoided.” He also hoped that it would end before the next Congress assembled in December because it was dominated by Radical Republicans who wanted to punish the South, while Lincoln wanted no more resentment on either side.

The president worried that the Confederates might resort to guerrilla warfare. He also expressed fear that while Sherman was away from his army, General Joseph E. Johnston might “have gone south with those veterans of his, and will keep the war going indefinitely.” But as Sherman later wrote: “I explained to him that that army was snug and comfortable, in good camps, at Goldsboro; that it would require some days to collect forage and food for another march; and that General Schofield was fully competent to command it in my absence.”

The president did not ask the commanders for specifics regarding their upcoming plans. His top priority was to end the war as quickly and with as little loss of further life as possible. This meant getting “the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes.” Lincoln said:

“Let them once surrender and reach their homes, they won’t take up arms again. Let them go, officers and all. I want submission and no more bloodshed… I want no one punished, treat them liberally all around. We want those people to return to their allegiance to the Union and submit to the laws.”

As soon as the fighting ended, southerners “would at once be guaranteed all their rights” as citizens of the U.S. Sherman recalled:

“During this interview I inquired of the President if he was all ready for the end of the war. What was to be done with the rebel armies when defeated? And what should be done with the political leaders, such as Jeff. Davis, etc.? Should we allow them to escape, etc.? He said he was all ready; all he wanted of us was to defeat the opposing armies, and to get the men composing the Confederate armies back to their homes, at work on their farms and in their shops. As to Jeff. Davis, he was hardly at liberty to speak his mind fully, but intimated that he ought to clear out, ‘escape the country,’ only it would not do for him to say so openly.”

Sherman later asserted that Lincoln had authorized him to work with Governor Zebulon Vance and the legislature to restore order in North Carolina, “and that to avoid anarchy the State governments then in existence, with their civil functionaries, would be recognized by him as the government de facto till Congress could provide others.” However, this conflicted with Lincoln’s directive to Grant earlier this month in which Grant was only authorized to handle military affairs while all political issues would be handled by the president himself.

This meeting set the tone for how the Federal commanders would handle the Confederates in upcoming engagements. Lincoln’s relationship with these commanders stood in stark contrast to those who had led Federal forces in the past. Noting this, Lincoln asked, “Sherman, do you know why I took a shine to Grant and you?” When Sherman confessed that he did not, Lincoln said, “Well, you never found fault with me.”

Colonel Porter later wrote: “My opinion is that Mr. Lincoln came down to City Point with the most liberal views toward the rebels. He felt confident that we would be successful, and was willing that the enemy should capitulate on the most favorable terms.”

Sherman wrote of Lincoln:

“I know, when I left him, that I was more than ever impressed by his kindly nature, his deep and earnest sympathy with the afflictions of the whole people, resulting from the war, and by the march of hostile armies through the South; and that his earnest desire seemed to be to end the war speedily, without more bloodshed or devastation, and to restore all the men of both sections to their homes.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213-14; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 592; Catton, Bruce, The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1953), p. 340-41; Catton, Bruce. Grant Takes Command (Open Road Media. Kindle Edition, 2015), p. 437-39; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22901; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 551; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12261; 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 17539-49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 571; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 712-13; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 76-77; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 658-59; McFeely, William S., Grant: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 212-13; Sherman, William T., Memoirs of General William T. Sherman, Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1889, Kindle Edition), Loc 12023-41

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.

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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. 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 Fall of Fort Anderson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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