Tag Archives: Ulysses S. Grant

Butler Finally Removed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

References

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

The Second Fort Fisher Campaign Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant notified Porter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

The Dutch Gap Canal Flop

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

References

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

Fort Fisher: Who to Blame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After reading this letter, Welles noted in his diary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

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

The Tennessee Campaign Ends

December 28, 1864 – Major General George H. Thomas decided to end his pursuit of the beaten, demoralized Confederates as they left Tennessee for the last time.

Confederate General J.B. Hood | Image Credit: Flickr.com

It was a gloomy Christmas for General John Bell Hood’s once-powerful Confederate Army of Tennessee. When he began his campaign in November, Hood had envisioned reclaiming Tennessee and Kentucky, and possibly even invading the North. But since then, his army had suffered crushing defeats at Franklin and Nashville, and now the few remaining men struggled to get across the Tennessee River before the Federals destroyed them once and for all. Yet despite the army’s failures, Tennessee Governor Isham Harris urged President Jefferson Davis not to blame Hood:

“… I have been with General Hood from the beginning of this campaign, and beg to say, disastrous as it has ended, I am not able to see anything that General Hood has done that he should not, or neglected any thing that he should, have done… and regret to say that, if all had performed their parts as well as he, the results would have been very different.”

On the Federal side, Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland had the advantage in numbers and momentum, but the troops were enduring hardships of their own. They had set out to finish off the Confederate army, but they got bogged down in rain, mud, snow, and ice. Nevertheless, Thomas wrote his superiors, “I have my troops well in hand, and well provided with provisions and ammunition, and close upon the heels of the enemy, and shall continue to press him as long as there is a chance of doing anything.”

Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s Federal cavalry probed forward to find a weak spot in Hood’s retreating column, but Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry held him off long enough for the rest of the Confederates to slip away. Forrest suffered heavy losses on Christmas Day while the Confederates destroyed anything they could not take with them out of Pulaski. Later that day, Hood’s vanguard reached the banks of the Tennessee River at Bainbridge.

A Federal gunboat squadron led by Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee moved up the Tennessee to try to block the Confederate river crossing. However, as Lee later reported:

“Foggy weather and a rapidly falling river prevented my reaching and destroying Hood’s pontoons at Bainbridge. Bainbridge was not a regular ferry, and my clever pilot thought the water was too swift there for a crossing. Hood must have been sorely pushed to have resorted to such a place on the shoals.”

Besides Thomas and Lee, a third Federal force under Major General James B. Steedman tried to cut Hood off. Steedman’s 5,000 Federals had been sent to Murfreesboro after the Battle of Nashville, and now they were ordered to take the railroad to Decatur, Alabama. The troops began boarding on the 22nd, but due to delays, they did not get there until the 26th, too late to block Hood’s line of retreat.

The Confederates began crossing the river on the 26th while Forrest, supported by some infantry, continued checking the Federal advance. Wilson’s cavalry came up again that day, and according to Forrest:

“Owing to the dense fog, he could not see the temporary fortifications which the infantry had thrown up and behind which they were secreted. The enemy therefore advanced to within 50 paces of these works, when a volley was opened upon him, causing the wildest confusion.”

Forrest then counterattacked with his entire force, forcing the Federals to retreat. This minor victory ended an otherwise disastrous campaign for the Army of Tennessee. Forrest’s men joined the rest of Hood’s demoralized force in crossing the Tennessee to safety. Lee’s gunboats tried getting to the Confederates again on the 27th, but they could only destroy two Confederate batteries at Florence, Alabama, before having to pull back to Eastport, Mississippi, due to rapidly falling waters.

Major General George H. Thomas | Image Credit: Histmag.org

Thomas’s Federals, led by Wilson’s cavalry and followed by Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood’s IV Corps, reached Pulaski on the 28th. By that time, the Confederates had finished crossing the Tennessee, but Thomas did not yet know it. He therefore directed Wilson to ride ahead and destroy the Confederate pontoon bridges. Thomas reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, “I feel confident that he will make every exertion to carry out my orders.”

If Wilson found that the Confederates had already crossed, Thomas wrote that he would continue to “pursue him, if the roads are at all practicable.” Thomas reported that Hood’s army was in a “most deplorable condition,” so he was confident that he could “intercept him at Iuka, if he retreats that way.” But then the situation changed.

That night, Wilson reported that “the last of the enemy crossed the river yesterday evening… there is no necessity of going to the Tennessee River as a matter of pursuit.” When Thomas pressed Wood to lead his infantry in pursuit, Wood replied, “As I have already stated in previous dispatches, the road from Pulaski to the Tennessee River is exceedingly bad, and in my judgment, utterly impracticable as a route for the supply of troops.” Moreover, Thomas’s pontoon bridges were still on the Duck River, 70 miles north. Thomas therefore decided to end the pursuit.

Thomas sent Halleck a report on the campaign, stating that the Federals had virtually destroyed the Confederate army. Prisoners taken reported “that they had orders to scatter and care for themselves.” This indicated that Hood’s force “had become a disheartened and disorganized rabble of half-naked and barefooted men, who sought every opportunity to fall out by the wayside and desert their cause to put an end to their sufferings. The rear guard, however, was undaunted and firm, and did its work bravely to the last.” Thomas then explained why he decided not to continue forward and finish the Confederates off:

“In consequence of the terribly bad weather, almost impassible condition of the roads, and exhausted country, the troops and animals are so much worn down by the fatigues of the last two weeks that it becomes necessary to halt for a short time to reorganize and refit for a renewal of the campaign, if Hood should halt at Corinth. Should he continue his retreat to Meridian, as supposed by many of his officers who have been taken prisoners, I think it would be best for the troops to be allowed till early spring, when the roads will be in a condition to make a campaign into the heart of the enemy’s country.”

Thomas wrote Wood directing “that the pursuit cease, and that you march with your corps to Huntsville, Athens, and vicinity, and there go into camp for the winter.” Thomas directed Major General John Schofield’s XXIII Corps to set up winter quarters at Dalton, Georgia. Thomas told Halleck that he selected these points because “they can be easily supplied, and from which points they can be readily assembled to make a spring campaign.”

This did not sit well with Halleck or Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander. Grant replied, “I have no idea of keeping idle troops in any place,” and Halleck forwarded this message along with one of his own: “General Grant does not intend that your army shall go into winter quarters. It must be ready for active operations in the field.”

But as the year ended, what was left of Hood’s Army of Tennessee was temporarily safe at Tupelo, Mississippi. This was not necessarily the case for Hood himself: President Davis dispatched General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the Western Theater, to go to Tupelo and decide whether Hood should be removed from command.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21190, 21207; 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 14855-75, 14895-905, 15816-36; 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. 615-16; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 144; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 285-86

Fort Fisher: The Federal Fleet Assembles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159-60; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 158; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 500, 503-05, 507; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 13319-29, 15005-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 530, 532-36; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8060; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 607, 612, 614-16; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 99-100; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 819; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 214; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 438-39; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 88

The Fall of Savannah

December 22, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals completed their devastating march to the sea by capturing the vital Confederate port city of Savannah.

By sunrise on the 21st, Lieutenant General William Hardee’s small Confederate army had evacuated Savannah. They cut their pontoon bridge over the Savannah River loose to keep the Federals from pursuing. Skirmishers from Sherman’s armies cautiously probed forward and found Savannah’s outer defenses empty. The Federals quickly advanced on the abandoned city.

That morning, Brigadier General John W. Geary’s division of XX Corps marched into Savannah unopposed. Mayor Richard Arnold formally surrendered the city on behalf of his 20,000 constituents, many of whom were tired of war and supportive of surrender. Federal Major George W. Nichols later wrote:

“… The path by which Hardee escaped led through swamps which were previously considered impracticable. The Rebel general obtained knowledge of our movement through his spies, who swarmed in our camp. It was fortunate that our troops followed so quickly after the evacuation of the city by the enemy, for a mob had gathered in the streets, and were breaking into the stores and houses. They were with difficulty dispersed by the bayonet of our soldiers, and then, once more, order and confidence prevailed throughout the conquered city… We had not been in occupation 48 hours before the transport steamer Canonicus… lay alongside a pier, and our new line of supplies was formed.”

Federal troops entering Savannah | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 420, 14 Jan 1865

The crew of the U.S.S. Winona, which had been bombarding the Savannah defenses, recorded in their log on this date: “At 10:05 saw the American Ensign flying on Ft. Beaulieu. Ships cheered; captain left in the gig and proceeded up to the fort.” Confederate Commander Thomas W. Brent directed the destruction of the C.S.S. Firefly, Isondiga, and Savannah to prevent their capture. The floating battery C.S.S. Georgia in Savannah Harbor was also destroyed. This ended Confederate naval resistance in Savannah.

Meanwhile, Federal troops in Savannah quickly seized all war materiel that Hardee’s Confederates did not destroy. Sherman’s two army commanders, Major Generals Henry W. Slocum and Oliver O. Howard, quickly set up headquarters in the city. Sherman followed the next morning. As he wrote in his autobiography:

“On the morning of December 22nd, I followed with my own headquarters, and rode down Bull Street to the custom-house, from the roof of which we had an extensive view over the city, the river, and the vast extent of marsh and rice-fields on the South Carolina side. The navy-yard, and the wreck of the iron-clad Savannah, were still smoldering, but all else looked quiet enough.”

To Sherman’s annoyance, a Federal Treasury agent was already in town calculating what the value of the city’s cotton and other commodities would be to the government. But he liked the agent’s idea to deliver the city itself as a Christmas present to Washington. Sherman therefore wrote to President Abraham Lincoln: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

This ended Sherman’s remarkable 285-mile march from Atlanta to the sea. The trek lasted nearly a month and a half and yielded fewer than 2,000 Federal casualties. During that time, the Federals cut an unprecedented swath of destruction through the Georgia heartland, demoralizing the people and severely damaging the Confederacy’s ability to wage war. In fact, the Federal army was in better condition and spirits than when it had left Atlanta.

Sherman was disappointed that Hardee’s Confederates got away, but he now held a vital point from which he could move northward and continue his destruction through the Carolinas. For the moment, Sherman was content to stop long enough to rest, resupply, and reorganize his troops.

The Federal army quickly became an occupation force, although Sherman allowed the municipal government to continue functioning as long as it did not interfere with his operations. Meanwhile, the local slaves quickly broke free from their masters. According to a history of the First Colored Baptist Church of Savannah:

“When the morning light of the 22nd of December, 1864, broke in upon us, the streets of our city were thronged in every part with the victorious army of liberty; every tramp, look, command, and military movement told us that they had come for our deliverance, and were able to secure it to us, and the cry went around the city from house to house among our race of people, ‘Glory be to God, we are free!’”

Two days later, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, wrote Sherman congratulating him on “on the successful termination of your campaign. I never had a doubt of the result” and “would not have intrusted the expedition to any other living commander.”

Grant had originally wanted Sherman to stop his move on Savannah and move his army by sea to join forces with the Federals besieging General Robert E. Lee at Petersburg: “I did think the best thing to do was to bring the greater part of your army here, and wipe out Lee, (but) the turn affairs now seem to be taking has shaken me in that opinion.” Now Grant wrote:

“I want to get your views about what ought to be done, and what can be done… my own opinion is that Lee is averse to going out of Virginia, and if the cause of the South is lost he wants Richmond to be the last place surrendered. If he has such views, it may be well to indulge him until we get everything else in our hands.”

That night, Sherman replied that he was glad that Grant changed his mind about him moving north, “for I feared that the transportation by sea would very much disturb the unity and morale of my army, now so perfect… In about 10 days I expect to be ready to sally forth again. I feel no doubt whatever as to our future plans. I have thought them over so long and well that they appear as clear as daylight.”

Lincoln released Sherman’s message from the 22nd to the public on Christmas Day, making the holiday extra special in the North. Major General John A. Logan, currently in Washington but preparing to return to Sherman’s army, brought along a letter for Sherman from the president:

“My Dear General Sherman: Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift–the capture of Savannah. When you were about to leave Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful, but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that ‘nothing risked, nothing gained,’ I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went further than to acquiesce. And taking the work of General Thomas into the count, as it should be taken, it is indeed a great success… Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army, officers and men. But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave General Grant and yourself to decide.”

Sherman quickly dispelled rumors that he would ask for a military rank equal to Grant:

“I will accept no commission that would tend to create a rivalry with Grant. I want him to hold what he has earned and got. I have all the rank I want. I would rather be an engineer of a railroad, than President of the United States. I have commanded a hundred thousand men in battle, and on the march, successfully and without confusion, and that is enough for reputation. Now, I want rest and peace, and they are only to be had through war.”

Sherman now looked to move his army northward, through the Carolinas, on the way to join Grant in Virginia. Regarding this, Sherman sent an ominous message to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“The truth is the whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina. I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems in store for her. Many and many a person in Georgia asked me why we did not go to South Carolina, and when I answered that I was en route for that State the invariable reply was, ‘Well, if you will make those people feel the severities of war, we will pardon you for your desolation of Georgia.’

“Thousands who had been deceived by their lying papers into the belief that we were being whipped all the time, realized the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience. To be sure, Jeff Davis has his people under a pretty good state of discipline, but I think faith in him is much shaken in Georgia; and I think before we are done, South Carolina will not be quite so tempestuous.”

—–

References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 185; Castel, Albert, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658-59; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21097; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 507, 509; 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 14934-54, 14995-15015, 15180-90; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 535; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 684-85; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 613-16; 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. 811; Nevin, David, Sherman’s March: Atlanta to the Sea (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 155-69; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 431