Monday, February 26, 2007

Fort Fisher, NC

Dates: 7 December, 1864 to 15 January, 1865


Union: Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding land forces. Replaced later by Major General Alfred Terry. Admiral David Dixon Porter commanded naval forces.

Confederate: Colonel William Lamb, commanding Fort Fisher. Later commanded by Brigadier General William Whiting.

Prelude: As 1864 was approaching its end, there was an expectation that the war would come to an end soon. Most of the Confederacy’s ports were either under Union occupation or were too far away to matter any more. The only exception was Wilmington, NC. Even though the flood of blockade runners have been squeezed to a trickle, the fact that there was still a port to go to kept up hope that the now desperate supply situation for the Confederate Army could still get some relief. One Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was pinned in Petersburg, VA while there were plans to form another army under General Joseph Johnston out of several army fragments somewhere in the Carolinas. At this point in time, Savannah, GA would soon fall to Major General William Sherman and he was planning to march into South Carolina. Blockade runners could get to a Texas port, like Galveston, or to Mexico and have the cargo sent across the border in wagons, but that was too fat to be any good to the eastern armies. If Wilmington can be taken, that would be the end to getting any arms and supplies from Europe. The Confederate Army would then be starved into surrender.

This is how the Union saw it.

There was one problem. Wilmington was not on the coast, instead it was on the Cape Fear River several miles inland. The mouth of the river was guarded by three forts, Johnson at the town of Smithville, Caswell to the south, and Fisher to the east. Fisher guarded the channel into the Cape Fear River and as such, directly guarded the way to Wilmington itself, the other two being too far to the south to be of any help.

Fort Fisher sat on a sand spit and was built as a long wall set at a right angle, with the point facing the Atlantic Ocean. The walls were built of sand, which offered better protection than brick. A bombardment would break down a brick wall, but a sand or earth wall could swallow shells and could be repaired by a detail of men with shovels within hours. Having already learned this, the Federals planned to reduce the fort by naval gunfire, then take it with a land assault. Butler was selected to command the ground forces while Porter would lead the naval forces.

Butler was a political general who had been relieved of command of the Army of the James. He had earlier success in the war by capturing Fort Monroe in Virginia. He was also famous for his “contraband order” stating that African-American slaves were being used to assist in preparing Confederate positions, therefore any escaped slaves coming into Union lines could be held as “contraband of war” (and be put to work building Union positions). He is most famous for his administration of New Orleans, LA, issuing the famous “Women’s Order” which authorized Union troops to treat local women who assaulted then as “ladies of the evening plying their occupation,” meaning as prostitutes. He is nicknamed “Beast” for that. He also is known for his lack of military ability.

Porter was known for the capture of Forts Jackson and St. Philip, allowing the Federal capture of New Orleans. He also led the naval units past the Vicksburg, MS defenses in order to assist with Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to take the city. He commanded the naval portion of the disastrous Red River Campaign, managing to get most of his vessels out. At this time, he commands the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

7 December, 1864: Federals begin to assemble the naval fleet that will be needed on this campaign. This would be the largest fleet assembled in the war. The fleet would consist of the following vessels, Nereus, Pontoosuc, Pawtuxet, Senaca, Maumee, Yantic, Pequot, Huron, Unadilla, Kansas, Tacony, Brooklyn, New Ironsides, Monadock, Saugus, Canonicus, Mahopac, Minnesota, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Wabash, Macknaw, Susquehanna, Powhattan, Tuscarora, Juntata, Shenandoah, Vicksburg, Ticonderoga, Santiago de Cuba, Fort Jackson, Osceola, Sassacus, Cheppewa, Cuyler, Maratanza, Rhode Island, Monticello, Alabama, Montgomery, Keystone State, Quaker City, Iosco, Buckingham, Brittanic, Tristan Shandy, Nansemond, Lilian, Emma, Gettysburg, Eolus, Moccasin, Vance, Cherokee, Wilderness, Howquah, Louisiana, and Aries. Added to this would be 6000 infantry who would do the ground assault.

The fleet soon gets underway, with orders to form off Cape Hatteras, NC for the assault.

23 December, 1864: The fleet meets at Cape Hatteras, despite heavy seas. They move as one down the coast toward Ft Fisher. Butler has a wild plan. His plan was to stuff the USS Louisiana full of explosives, ground her near the fort, then detonate the floating bomb. Hopefully this would blow a hole on the fort, allowing an easy capture. Throughout the evening, crews filled the Louisiana with powder from the keel to the top deck. A volunteer crew then sailed the gunboat to the shore, lit the fuse, and then made a mad dash by rowboat back to the fleet.

24 December, 1864: 1:40 a.m.: There is a massive explosion as the floating bomb once known as USS Louisiana went up. The Confederate defenders were wakened by the explosion, then rolled over and went back to sleep.

Sunrise found the fort relatively unscratched. It was decided to continue with the original plan and begin the naval bombardment.

12:00 noon: 627 guns open up on Ft Fisher. Over 10,000 shells were fired at the rate of 115 a minute. Later on Butler complained that the bombardment was too ragged and not concentrated. It was found out later that many of the naval gunners were trying to knock down the Confederate flag flying over the fort. The shells sailed over the fort and landed in the marshes behind the fort, causing no harm to the defenders. Meanwhile the infantry was landed north of the fort and began to move south.

2:30 p.m.: Butler launched his assault on the fort and runs into a complication, the Confederates planted “land torpedoes” or mines, throughout the only solid path to the fort. This stalls the attack long enough for the Confederates to load canister (anti-personnel) rounds and begin firing. To make matters worse, bad weather and rumors of a relief column from Wilmington approaching caused Butler to pull back and go back to the ships. Even so, 700 were left behind.

26 December, 1864: After managing to pick up the remaining 700 troops, the troops transports sail for Hampton Roads, VA while the warships head for Beaufort, SC.

As reports of the aborted operation reach Washington, DC, the accusations and counter-accusations are flying. US President Abraham Lincoln decided to have a conference with now Commander-in Chief Grant. Lincoln was now in an unassailable position, having won a second term. After meeting with his Cabinet, Lincoln orders Butler’s removal.

1865 opens with a final defeat for Butler, his troops were building a canal that would bypass a large section of the James River. When the final explosion, which would allow water to enter, was touched off, the canal banks collapsed, filling the channel with dirt. On 7 January, 1865, Butler received a Presidential order relieving him of command and directing him home to Massachusetts to await further orders. These never arrive and Butler resigns his commission on 30 November, 1865.

Another assault on the fort is ordered, with Porter retaining command of the naval units and Terry receiving command of the infantry. That force is reinforced to 12,000. Porter decided to change tactics and move his ships closer to shore so his fire can be concentrated. He also plans to create another ground force by using sailors, armed with Colt revolvers and cutlasses, and Marines.

4 January, 1865: The troop transports depart Virginia.

8 January, 1865: The Federal fleet is formed off Beaufort and begins heading for Fort Fisher.

12 January, 1865: The Union force has reappeared off Ft Fisher. Porter sends four ironclads (Monadock, Saugus,Canonicus ,and Mahopac) to within 500 yards of the fort and began shelling the place. The Confederates respond, allowing Porter to plot the positions of the Southern batteries.

13 January, 1865: Terry begins landing on the beach north of the fort. Instead of immediately marching south, he builds a defensive line to prevent any Confederates from escaping. During the night, Porter keeps up the bombardment, preventing any repairs to the fort.
14 January, 1865: Colonel Lamb receives help in the form of 700 troops and 50 sailors. With the reinforcements came Whiting, who takes overall command. They were brought in by ship despite the Federal bombardment. There are another 6000 in Wilmington but they are command by none other than General Braxton Bragg. He ignores Lamb’s requests for additional troops, citing the need to keep Wilmington secure.

15 January, 1865: 3:00 p.m.: Porter orders the bombardment to stop. Terry splits his force, leaving some at the defensive line and taking 3000 to hit the western end of the fort. Porter lands 1200 sailors and 400 Marines on the beach and hits the sea side of the fort. The Confederates put up a massive artillery defense and forced the sailor/Marine force to pull back. Terry, on the other hand, manages to get past the minefield and into the fort. As the sailor/Marine force is pulled back, Porter resumes the naval bombardment on order to support Terry. This sets the stage for up for six hours of constant close in fighting. Gradually, the Confederates are pushed off the walls, many running to the southern end of the sand spit, where a two gun battery was located. More importantly, there was a dock where they could be evacuated. Sadly, there were no boats and those who sought refuge would soon be captured. At 10:00 p.m. the Confederate garrison surrenders.

Both Lamb and Whiting are wounded and captured. Whiting will die on 10 March of his injuries.

The main result of this was that Wilmington was now isolated and useless as a port. Because of this the city finally fell on 22 February, 1865.

Butler would be elected to the House of Representatives on 1866 as a Republican. He would lead the charge to impeach President Andrew Johnson for what he saw as soft treatment of former Confederates. He would also serve as Governor of Massachusetts and fail in an attempt to become President in the 1884 election. He dies in 1893.

Porter’s war service would conclude on the James River in April 1865. He remained in the Navy, serving as commandant of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD and becoming the Navy’s senior Admiral in 1870. He dies in 1891.

Lamb’s defense of Ft Fisher was his only action in Confederate service, in which he saw most of the war in a staff position. He was held prisoner until after the end of the war, when he presumably returned to his pre-war occupation as a publisher. He dies in 1909.

With Wilmington in Federal hands, there would be no more supplies coming in from Europe. The final surrender of the Confederacy was now only a matter of time.

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