Published 1883, 1885





Fort Fisher


Preparations having been completed, at noon on the 18th of December the largest fleet that had ever sailed under the Union flag formed lines in accordance with instructions, and proceeded to the rendezvous, twenty-five miles east of Fort Fisher, a distance of fifty miles from Beaufort Roads. There was a good deal of awkwardness in forming lines with vessels that had never acted together, and there were several officers in command not well versed in the matter, simple enough, had the leading vessels steamed slowly on their course and thus permitted their followers to fall into the positions assigned in line. The appearance was not promising; there was much room for improvement; but when under the fire of the enemy the vessels took up their positions with less disorder and more celerity than in forming the first order of sailing, or "line ahead," at distances of two ships' lengths apart. The fleet reached the rendezvous and anchored after a run of ten hours, and found the transports at anchor, having on board the command of General Butler. The weather was not regarded as favorable for landing troops, and the vessels remained at anchor. On the 20th a heavy southwest gale set in, and the army transports being short of water, and many of them not well adapted to ride out a gale at anchor, a num­ber of them made for Beaufort. The depth of water where the vessels anchored was seventeen fathoms with sandy bottom; the seas rolled in unbroken by land for hundreds of miles. Many of the vessels dragged for miles, and' some oc­casions were presented where seamanship was necessary to prevent them fouling each other. When the gale was over the fleet was widely scattered, but as soon as the weather moderated vessels that had dragged steamed into line again and anchored.

After the gale the wind changed to the westward, off the land, the sea became smooth, and as it was necessary to avail himself of the good weather, although the transports with the troops had not returned, the admiral determined to go in and attack the batteries. Mr. Bradford, of the Coast Survey, had previously made a night examination of the depth of water near Fort Fisher, and found that a vessel of seven feet draught could be placed right on the edge of the beach. At 10.30 P.m. of the 23d, the powder-boat Louisiana, Commander Rhind and the officers before mentioned, was taken in tow by the Wilderness, Master Arey in command, and Lieutenant Lamson, commanding the Gettysburg, on board to take her into position.

The Louisiana, though having steam, was towed in and piloted by the Wilderness to near her station, when she was cast off. Lieutenant Lamson, Mr. Bradford, of the Coast Survey, and Mr. Bowen, bar-pilot, were of the "greatest service in perfecting arrangements and carrying out the plan successfully." The officers and crew of the Wilderness "shared whatever of risk or danger attended the enter­prise." At 11.30 the Wilderness cast off her tow, and the powder-boat (Louisiana) steamed in until she reached a point east by north, half north, from Fort Fisher, within three hundred yards of the beach. There was a light wind off shore; the anchor was let go, the fires hauled, the men put in the boat, and Commander Rhind and Lieutenant Preston proceeded to light the fuses and the fires; the latter had been arranged by Engineer Mullan. The officers then got in the boat, and they reached the Wilderness precisely at midnight; her anchor was slipped, and she steamed at full speed a distance of twelve miles, and then hove to. At 1.40 the powder-boat blew up; the shock was hardly felt, and four distinct reports were heard. The fuses were set by the clocks to one hour and a half, and the explosion did not occur until twenty-two minutes later. Commander Rhind says: "The zeal, patience, and endurance of officers and men were unsurpassed, and I believe no officer could have been better supported."

At the anchorage, twenty-five miles from the powder-boat, there was the appearance of distant lightning on the hori­zon; then came, after a lapse of time, a dull sound, and after a couple of hours a dense powder-smoke that shut out the view and was an hour in passing.

At daylight the different divisions of the fleet stood in at low speed. At 11.30 A.M. the signal was made to engage the forts, the Ironsides leading, and the Monadnock, Canonicus, and Mahopac following. The Ironsides took her position in the most beautiful and seamanlike manner, got her spring out, and opened deliberate fire on the fort, which was firing at her with all available guns.

The Minnesota then took her position in handsome style, closely followed by the Mohican, which ranged ahead and anchored; a few shells gave the range, and then they opened fire rapidly and with precision on the guns in the fort, receiv­ing at the same time their fire. There was a considerable gap in the line, and some fifteen minutes elapsed before the Colorado passed in and ahead, anchored, opened on the fort, and was followed by the other vessels of the line. The other lines then got into position with a moderate degree of succes, and the works of the enemy were alive with the bursting shells. The fort maintained an indifferent fire from the more distant guns, and but little, if any, from the parts of the work within range of the shell-guns of the fleet.

At signal made by the admiral to “fire slowly," the firing from the vessels became veritable target practice at particu­lar guns of the fort, with officers in the tops to mark the ranges; from the inner line and from the ironclads and gun­boats near them the firing was also accurate. The outer lines were somewhat too distant, and many shells from them were observed to fall short.

Two service magazine explosions occurred in the forts, and several buildings were set on fire and burned. The admi­ral's report says: "Finding that the batteries were silenced completely, I directed the ships to keep up a moderate fire, in the hopes of attracting the attention of the transports and bringing them in. At sunset General Butler came in, in his flag-ship, with a few transports, the rest not having arrived from Beaufort. Being too late to do anything more, I sig­naled the fleet to retire for the night for a safe anchorage, which they did without being molested by the enemy." With the exception of a boiler explosion on board the Mackinaw by a shell, the casualties were entirely from the bursting of 100-pounder Parrott rifled guns, and they were serious.. These occurred on board of the Ticonderoga, 8 killed, 11 wounded; Yantic, 2 killed, 3 wounded; Juniata, 5 killed, 8 wounded; Mackinaw, 1 killed and 1 wounded, and Quaker City.

Some of the fleet were somewhat damaged by shells. The Osceola received « a shell near her magazine, and at one time was in a sinking condition; but her efficient com­mander stopped up the leak, while the Mackinaw fought out the battle notwithstanding the damage she received."

On the 25th the transports generally had arrived, and General Weitzel, chief-of-staff, went on board of the flag-ship "to arrange the programme for the day. It was decided that the fleet should attack the forts again, while the army landed and assaulted them, if possible, under our heavy fire."[1] Seventeen gunboats, under command of Captain O. S. Glisson, were sent to cover the landing, and assist with their boats; it was perceived that the smaller vessels kept too far from the beach, and the Brooklyn was dispatched to set them an example. An addition of perhaps twenty vessels was sent to aid in the debarkation of the troops, the aggre­gate number of their boats being one hundred; the army had boats probably better adapted to the purpose than those belonging to the ships.

The admiral made signal for commanders of vessels to go on board the flag-ship, and determined to form his lines as near the forts as a close examination of the depth of water by boats sounding in advance would permit. The Minnesota was held off until the soundings were made, and then took up position, and the main line was soon in very effec­tive position, and previously the Ironsides took position in her usual handsome style, the monitors following close after her, all the vessels followed according to order, and took position without a shot being fired at them, excepting a few shots fired at the four last vessels that got into line."

The firing was slow at intervals, and was directed actually at the guns as at target practice; the parapets and the tra­verses of huge proportions were dug into and so changed in appearance by the craters made from heavy shells that these enormous piles seemed likely to be relegated to fellowship with the neighboring "dunes" or natural sand-hillocks.

The admiral in his report says: "I suppose about 3,000 men had landed, when I was notified they were re-embark­ing. I could see our soldiers near the forts reconnoitering and sharpshooting, and was in hopes an assault was deemed practicable. General Weitzel in person was making obser­vations about six hundred yards off, and the troops were in and around the works. One gallant officer, whose name I do not know, went on the parapet and brought away the rebel flag we had knocked down. A soldier went into the works and led out a horse, killing the orderly who was mounted on him and taking the dispatches from his body. Another sol­dier fired his musket into the bomb-proof among the rebels, and eight or ten others who had ventured near the forts were wounded by our shells. As the ammunition gave out the vessels retired from action, and the ironclads and Minnesota, Colorado, and Susquehanna were ordered to open rapidly, which they did_ with such effect that it seemed to tear the works to pieces. We drew off at sunset, leaving the ironclads to fire through the night, expecting the troops would attack in the morning, when we would commence again. I received word from General Weitzel, informing me that it was impracticable to assault."[2]

The bombardment of this day was of about seven hours duration. A few guns near the Mound battery kept up a fire on the vessels, and at intervals there was some firing from guns nearer the ironclads and line of frigates. "Everything was coolly and systematically done," and the admiral adds, " I witnessed some fine practice."

The weather had grown threatening and a heavy swell rolled in, which toward night put an end to the re-embarka­tion of the troops. In relation to this the admiral states in his report: "Seven hundred men were left on the beach by General Butler when he departed for Fortress Monroe, and we had no difficulty in protecting them from the rebel army said to be in the background, which was a very small army after all." The men were not re-embarked until the noon of the 27th, owing to the surf, when the transports left for Fort­ress Monroe.

In an official letter of December 31, 1864, commenting upon the letter of General Butler, Admiral Porter says: "General Butler mentions in his letter to me that he had captured Flag-pond battery with sixty-five men, and Half Moon bat­tery with two hundred and eighteen men and seven officers. This is making capital out of very small material.

"Flag-pond battery was some loose sand thrown up, behind which the rebels used to lie with field pieces and fire at our blockaders when they chased runners ashore. It does not deserve the name of a work. Sixty-five or seventy rebels in it came forward and delivered themselves up to the navy and were taken on board the Santiago de Cuba. The men in Half Moon battery (which is no work at all and exactly like the other) came forward and delivered themselves up to the army. They could easily have escaped had they desired to do so."

The fact that these men were taken prisoners is significant. They could have reached the cover of an adjacent wood and gone toward Wilmington entirely unmolested. This does not comport with the report of Major-General Whiting of the Confederate service herein quoted, as to the spirit ani­mating the garrison of Fort Fisher, or with the fact that some of our skirmish line carried off a Confederate flag, killed a courier, and carried off his horse actually behind the curtain, and left without injury or molestation save from the shells of the bombarding vessels.

General Whiting paid a visit to Fort Fisher, under the command of Colonel Lamb, reaching the fort just before the close of the first day's bombardment. He says: "The bom­bardment of the second day commenced at 10.20 A.M., and continued, with no interruption or apparent slackening, with great fury from over fifty ships till dark. During the day the enemy landed a large force, and at 4.30 P.M. advanced a line of skirmishers on the left flank of the sand curtain, the fleet at the same time making a concentrated and tremendous enfilading fire on the curtain.

"The garrison, however, at the proper moment, when the fire slackened to allow the approach of the enemy's land force, drove them off with grape and musketry; at dark the enemy withdrew. A heavy storm set in, and the garrison were much exposed, as they were under arms all night."[3]

The vessels not engaged on the blockade were withdrawn to Beaufort, to get a full supply of ammunition and shells, and to await further instructions. The results of the bom­bardment were not satisfactory to either side, but doubtless more so to the Confederates than to their opponents. It was heralded that this great fleet had been driven off, when in fact surprisingly little injury had been inflicted upon it, save through the bursting of rifled guns.

On December 29th the Secretary of the Navy, in a letter to Lieutenant-General Grant, said: "Ships can approach nearer the enemy's works at New Inlet than was anticipated. Their fire can keep the enemy away from their guns. A landing can easily be effected upon the beach north of Fort Fisher, not only of troops, but all their supplies and artillery. This force can have its flanks protected by gunboats. The navy can assist in the siege of Fort Fisher precisely as it cov­ered the operations which resulted in the capture of Wagner. . . . Rear-Admiral Porter will remain off Fort Fisher, continuing a moderate fire to prevent new works from being erected, and the ironclads have proved that they can main­tain themselves in spite of bad weather. Under all these circumstances, I invite you to such a military co-operation as will ensure the fall of Fort Fisher, the importance of which has already received your careful consideration." He added that the telegram was sent at the suggestion of the President.

On the 31st of December the Secretary of the Navy wrote Admiral Porter as follows: ''Lieutenant-General Grant will send immediately a competent force, properly commanded, to co-operate in the capture of the defenses on Federal Point."

On January 14, 1865, Admiral Porter reports that he had been busily employed since his withdrawal from Fort Fisher in filling the ships with ammunition and coal. The large vessels had no harbor, and these operations outside were attended by extreme difficulties. It was a season of gales upon which the enemy relied to break up operations against him. "We will see; we have gone through the worst of it, have held on through gales heavy enough to drive anything to sea, and we have sustained no damage whatever."

In a subsequent report he informs the Department that Major-General Terry arrived at Beaufort, N. C., on the 8th of January, in command of a co-operating army force, and a plan of operations had been agreed upon that had resulted in success.

Heavy weather set in about the time of Terry's arrival, which lasted for forty-eight hours, although the large vessels of war lying off the harbor were exposed to its full force; with furious seas setting in on a lee shore, they rode out the gales without accident; some of the heavier transports, with troops, were also lying with them; ammunition and coal had been taken on board, notwithstanding all of the difficulties, and on the 12th of January the fleet had sailed in three columns, accompanied by the transports.

The Brooklyn led the first line, followed in order by the Mohican, Tacony, Kansas, Yantic, Unadilla, Huron, Maumee, Pequot, Pawtuxet, Seneca, Pontoosuc, and Nereus, thirteen vessels.

The Minnesota led the second line, followed in order by the Colorado, Wabash, Susquehanna, Powhatan, Juniata, Shenandoah, Ticonderoga, Vanderbilt, Mackinaw, and Tuscarora, eleven heavy vessels.

The Santiago de Cuba led the third line, followed in order by the Fort Jackson, Osceola, Sassacus, Chippewa, Cuyler, Maratanza, Rhode Island, Monticello, Alabama, Montgomery, and Tosco, twelve vessels.

The Vance led the reserve division, followed in order by the Britannia, Tristram Shandy, Lillian, Fort Donelson, Wilderness, Aries, Buckingham, Nansemond, Little Ada, Eolus, and Republic, the two last being dispatch boats, twelve vessels.

The lines above form a total of forty-eight vessels, the ironclads, not yet mentioned, being five in number. The reader will bear in mind the very effective broadside battery of the Ironsides (seven XI-inch shell-guns and one VIII-­inch rifle), and that the Monadnock with her two turrets was equivalent in force to two monitors such as the Canonicus, Saugus, and Mahopac, of more recent construction than the Passaic class, and possessed more power of resistance to projectiles.

The fleet, accompanied by numerous army transports, an­chored during the night some twelve miles east of Fisher. In the morning, the Ironsides and her consorts proceeded at once to get under way toward Fort Fisher, and follow­ing in on their former range lines anchored as near that work as the depth of water would permit. This brought the Ironsides within one thousand yards, and the nearest monitor within seven hundred yards of the nearest guns, that were vigorously firing upon them as they anchored. The vessels proceeded to get ranges, and then to make effec­tive practice at the guns in the fort, which, however, "replied vigorously until late in the afternoon, when the heavier ships coming into line soon drove them into their bomb-proofs."[4]

At daylight lines one, two, and three proceeded also to execute the duties assigned them, and soon after sunrise were anchored in lines near the beach at Half Moon battery, four miles north of Fort Fisher. Boats were at once sent to the transports, and although there was considerable swell, the work of debarkation went on vigorously and effectively. Preceding this, vessels on line No. 1 had shelled the woods back of the beach, and hundreds of cattle that had doubtless been brought there for the supply of the garrison of Fort Fisher rushed wildly to the beach and delivered themselves over, opportune food for the army.

At 2 P.M. 6,000 men and twelve days' provisions had been landed, and one hour later the whole force was in front of Fort Fisher, or prepared to go. At 3.30 line No. 1 was sig­nalled to get under way and attack Fort Fisher, and half an hour later line No. 2 followed under like instructions; the vessel to lead, Minnesota, was detained for an hour by a hawser fouling the propeller, and joined the line during the bombardment. Line No. 3 remained during the day to de­bark artillery and whatever might still be afloat, which was fully accomplished the next day.

With the ironclads in position serving as guides, Line No. 1 soon anchored, and at 4.35 P.M. opened fire, and with this line in position, line No. 2, composed of heavier ships, was soon after at anchor, and delivering broadsides which « soon drove the enemy to their bomb-proofs."

As the sun went down, and the shadows fell over the .waters, the spectacle was truly grand; the smoke rose and partially drifted off, permitting glimpses now and then of the earthwork, and the fitful yet incessant gleams from the hundreds of shells bursting on or beyond the parapet illu­minated, like lightning flashes, the clouds above and the smoke of battle beneath.

At 5.50 it was too dark to fire with precision. All the wooden vessels were signalled to withdraw and anchor in line to seaward, and the ironclads to maintain a slow fire on the works throughout the night.

The admiral observed that the fire had already damaged some of the guns of the enemy, and he determined that before the army went to the assault there should be no guns within the reach of the fleet to arrest progress; he saw, too, that within, near Mound battery, heavy guns were brought to bear, and therefore changed the plan of bombardment on the next day.

On the 14th, all of the small gunboats carrying XI-inch pivot guns were sent into positions commanding the north face of Fisher to dismount the guns bearing along the in­tended line of assault by the army; line No. 1 at the same time delivering a rapid fire on the fort to keep the enemy in his bomb-proofs. The vessels were fairly in position at 1 P.M., and all of them actively employed until long after dark, and during the whole night this gunboat fire was added to that of the slower fire of the ironclads. The guns far up in the line of works alone replied to this attack, and in doing so hit the gunboats occasionally, cutting off the mainmast of the Huron and doing other damage.

In the evening, General Terry visited the flag-ship Mal­vern to arrange final plans. His troops on the night after landing had effected a lodgment and thrown up defenses across the peninsula, some two miles north of Fort Fisher. They had recovered from the effects of the sea voyage and from the drenching received when landing in the surf, and were prepared to make the assault, and gallantly indeed was it done the following afternoon.

It was determined that the entire fleet should go into action at an early hour the following day, and continue a vig­orous bombardment until the hour of assault. The admiral "detailed 1,600 sailors and 400 marines to accompany the troops in the assault, the sailors to board the sea face while the troops assaulted the land side." The order sent to commanders of vessels was as follows: "The sailors will be armed with cutlasses, well sharpened, and with revolvers. When the signal is made to man the boats, the men will get in but not show themselves. When the signal is made to assault, the boats will pull around the stern of the monitors and land right abreast of them, and board the- fort on the run in a seamanlike way. The marines will form in the rear and cover the sailors. While the soldiers are going over the parapets in front, the sailors will take the sea face of Fort Fisher." This was more easily said than done, as we shall presently see.

At 9 A.M on the 15th signal was made for the fleet to bombard as per plan. The last of the vessels got into posi­tion by 11 A.M., but the heads of some of the lines were in action very promptly. The reader will bear in mind that the ironclads remained where they had first anchored, and were supplied with ammunition brought alongside during the night. On signal from the flag-ship the vessels sent their quotas of men on shore some time in the early fore­noon, for making the assault. At 2 P.M. the admiral was in expectancy of the signal from the general for "vessels change direction of fire." The sailors landed under command of their officers, who had no previous knowledge to whom they should report, or who was to lead them in the assault. Fleet-­Captain K. R. Breese, a very gallant and competent officer, had gone to arrange details with General Terry, and he was absent for that purpose. Until his return it was not known to all who was to lead the assault.

Lieutenant-Commander Parker, the executive officer of the Minnesota, commanded the detail, 240 men, from that vessel. He says: "We were huddling there together like a flock of sheep, and pretty soon the enemy got the range with sufficient accuracy to satisfy me that a formation of some kind must be made if we expected to do anything."

He was the senior officer ashore, and therefore directed the commanding officers of detachments from the different ships to report to the senior lieutenant-commander of that divi­sion of the fleet to which their respective vessels belonged, and that they should be formed in line of battle, first divi­sion in front and second and third following. Cushman was in command of the first division, Parker of the second, and Selfridge of the third.

These preparations were completed when Lieutenant-Com­mander Breese came in haste from General Terry. He had with him two sailors, one of whom bore the admiral's flag. On meeting Parker, the last named asked who was to com­mand, and Breese produced a letter from the admiral stat­ing that he [Breese] was to represent the admiral in the assault. With praiseworthy zeal Parker assumed the role of an inferior rank, in deference to the admiral's flag, and the columns actually in movement were proceeding by the flank under the shelving beach, which afforded partial protection from the enemy's fire.

In his report, in reference to preliminary arrangements, Fleet-Captain Breese says: "Lieutenant Preston with a de­tail of men from the vessels, threw up, within six hundred yards of the fort, a well-protected breastwork, and from that gradually advanced to within two hundred yards a succession of rifle-pits, which were most promptly occupied by a line of skirmishers composed of marines under Lieutenant Fagan. The manner in which this was done reflects most creditably upon Lieutenant Preston." He states further that four lines of assault were intended, the first of marines, Captain L. L. Dawson; the second of sailors from the first and fourth divi­sions of the fleet, under Cushman; the third, sailors from the second division, under Parker; the fourth, the sailors from the third division of the fleet, under Selfridge.

"It was intended that the men should assault in line, the marines acting as sharpshooters, and the different lines were to charge over them; but from the difficulty I had of in­forming myself of the time when the army was to assault, which was to guide our movements, that moment found us too far off to move to the attack unless under cover."[5]

At three o'clock the signal came, the vessels changed their fire to the upper batteries; all the steam-whistles were blown, and the troops and sailors dashed ahead, nobly vying with each other to reach the top of the parapet. . . . The sailors took to the assault by the flank along the beach, while the troops rushed in at the left [right?], through the palisades that had been knocked away by the fire of our guns."[6]

Fifty steam-whistles from the vessels, blown long and loud, and the sound of shells bursting far beyond the near faces of Fort Fisher, upon which assaulting columns were advancing, gave notice within every bomb-proof of a move­ment. The army force, managed dexterously, had been placed under cover close to the land face of the fort. It advanced rapidly, gained and held the western end of that parapet and between the traverses, but the sailors and marines had nearly half a mile before them, along a line, too, enfiladed by low and more distant guns that swept the ground with grape and shells. The enemy swarmed the bastion and delivered deadly volleys at distances at which the cutlasses and revolvers in the hands of the sailors were quite inoperative, and yet many of the assailants reached, and some of them passed through the line of palisades that re­mained in part, and now afforded them partial protection, and the only one, from certain death; others farther away, and still advancing, seeing that to press on would simply end in measuring their length upon the sand, turned, fled in haste up the beach, and sought the cover of the pits and trench dug some hours before, too distant to enable even the marines with their arms to return an effective fire. A doubt may be ventured whether any troops, however armed, could have effected an advance on this line of assault at that time.

"When it was discovered that the army column was mov­ing to attack, the navy columns were ordered to advance by the flank along the beach, with the hope of forming them for the assault under cover of the marines; but exposed to a galling fire of musketry, only four hundred yards distance, threw a portion of the marines into the first line, and the rest of them did not take position as they should.

"The second and third lines came along and the heads of the three lines joined and formed one compact column, which filing up to the sea face of Fort Fisher, assaulted to within fifty yards of the parapet, which was lined by one dense mass of musketeers, who played sad havoc with our men. Although exposed to a most severe fire from the enemy, the men were rallied three times under the personal encouragement and exposure of their commanding officers, but failed to gain much ground."[7]

Captain Breese mentioned the gallantry of many officers, among whom was his senior, Lieutenant-Commander Parker, who led the third line of assault, if the columns advancing as above described can be called lines of assault.

In fact, the palisades, a shelving sea-beach, the rifle-pits, some small sand-hills, and the trench before mentioned served partially to protect the survivors of the heads of col­umns from the fire of the small arms on the bastion until the heavy guns of the fleet again opened on that part of the fort, and made it necessary for the Confederates to look to their safety.

In the meantime, the National troops having gained the parapets on their front, had carried seven of the traverses most to the west, without serious loss, attacked the traverses more toward the sea, one after the other, and the vessels farthest in, especially the Ironsides and the monitors, re­sumed a fire of heavy shells between the traverses in ad­vance of the troops, as they carried traverse after traverse, most obstinately defended as they were by the Confederates. But the odds were against them. They had to face as gal­lant men pressing onward as the Confederate defenders, who were flanked by a destructive fire of heavy shells; they had, in fact, either to abandon traverse after traverse or be killed where they stood. By nightfall the bastion was carried and some of the traverses on the sea face.

As opportunity offered, officers and men of the navy who had been held fast under their imperfect cover, found their way around the palisades into the army lines or went within them higher up. Lieutenant Cushing, who was wounded, organized the sailors and took charge of a line of breast­works to protect the rear from a Confederate attack from the north along the sandspit, and thus released additional troops, who joined those already within the fort.

But while the battle raged hot in the fort and its defend­ers looked for relief from Hoke's division along the penin­sula, and have upbraided General Bragg because it did not advance, the half dozen gunboats placed close along the beach north of General Terry's lines, defended by General Paine's brigade, about 4 P.M. saw from their mast-heads Hoke's skirmish line advancing, and with shells exerted a restraining influence. Had assaulting columns followed the skirmish line, they certainly would have reached General Terry's entrenchments in bad plight, and admitting that line had been carried, the Confederates would not have been formidable after a march of two miles toward Fort Fisher on an open sandspit under the fire of gunboats.

Shortly after ten o'clock resistance in Fort Fisher ceased, the Confederates retreating, as is stated by Colonel Lamb, without ammunition, to the innermost point, from whence such of them as had the means of transportation escaped. Lieutenant Chapman and others of the Confederate Navy are known to have done so, but the whole number that fled is not ascertainable. When the sound of fire-arms had ceased, and it was known the enemy had surrendered, the sky was illuminated by hundreds of rockets from the fleet, and the remote works for the defence of the entrances to Cape Fear River were thus incidentally apprised that their defenders had the alternative in prospect to surrender or to precipi­tately retreat.

In the Appendix will be found the list of the vessels en­gaged, by whom commanded, the batteries, and the casual­ties in the fleet.

Among the killed in the assault were Lieutenants Preston and Porter, both of them young officers of great ability and admirable qualities; also Assistant-Surgeon Longshaw and Ensign Wiley, and by the explosion of the magazine, Pay­master Gillett and Ensign Leighton. There were wounded in the assault, Lieutenant-Commander Allen, Lieutenants Bache, Lamson, and Baury; Ensigns Evans, Harris, Ches­ter, Bertwistle, O'Connor, Coffin, and Wood; Acting-Master Louch, and Mates Green, Simms, and Aldridge.

In relation to Flag-Captain Breese, who led the assault, Lieutenant-Commander Parker said in his report: "He led the advance to the palisades, and when he saw the rear delaying, endeavored, sword in hand, to bring them forward to our support. Failing to accomplish this, he returned, under a shower of bullets directed at him alone, to the sand-hills at 'C,' and when it seemed no longer useful to remain there coolly followed the retreating mass. How he escaped death is a marvel."

In relation to Lieutenant-Commander Daniels, he says "He came ashore in command of the party from his vessel. Although fitter for the sick-bed of a hospital than for the field, he persisted in going to the assault. He started with us, marched until his strength gave out, and his weak body was unable to carry his brave heart forward, when, by my orders, he went into the trench thrown up by Lieutenant Preston's party." An interesting letter from Colonel Lamb to Parker is given in the foot-note.[8]

In his report, the fleet-captain attributes the failure of the assault to the absence of the marines from their position, as their fire would have enabled our boarders to use their cutlasses and pistols most effectively. By this I would im­ply the lack of proper organization, it being impossible in the short space of time, on account of so many small squads of men from the different vessels in one mass, lacking proper company formations, and wholly unacquainted with each other, to secure such organization. This led to the confu­sion exhibited, for it was not due to any want of personal valor on the part of the officers or men."

A more thorough organization, and a studied preparation with proper arms in the hands of the sailors instead of cut­lasses, would have made the gallantry displayed by many serve a more effective purpose, and, indeed, would probably have transformed putative cowardice into effective endeavor. There are few men so stupid or so sublimated as to march on an enemy when the palpable result is simply to be shot. Had parallel lines of trenches been dug during the night on the line between the ironclads and the northeast bastion, extending them to the sea at such distances from the fort as might have been found practicable, and the sailors been properly armed, that bastion might not have proven so popu­lar a point of defence as it evidently was, as seen from the fleet. No reflection is intended on the defenders of the fort, who certainly in the second attack exhibited throughout the utmost pertinacity and courage.

The morning following the fall of the defenses of New Inlet, as soon as a channel could be found and buoyed, the light-draught gunboats were taken over the outer bar as fast as possible, and as there is a shoaler one within, similar to the " bulkhead " at Hatteras Inlet, it was only on the fore­noon of the 20th that all of the gunboats assigned for operations were within the river proper. Commander Truxton, of the Tacony, reported as follows: "In Fort Lamb was a galvanic battery in good working order, connecting with copper wires, which I this morning [19th of January] caused to be under-run, and which I found led directly across the river to the magazine in Fort Fisher. This, I believe, will fully account for the mysterious explosion on the 16th instant, by which over two hundred gallant men lost their lives."

In reply to a letter of General Bragg, published in Vol. X., "Southern Historical Society Papers," Colonel Lamb in the same volume, p. 360, indignantly denies that the troops under his command just after the fall of Fort Fisher were drunk. He says: " I had no liquor for distribution to the garrison, and what remained in the hospital bomb-proof was captured by some sailors from the fleet, who becoming intoxicated with it, entered the reserve magazine the morning after the battle seeking plunder, and caused its explosion, which re­sulted in the death and wounding of nearly two hundred brave men."

Colonel Lamb seemed at the time to be either indifferent to or ignorant of the report of Truxton. The existence of the insulated wire and galvanic battery could hardly be un­known to him, and would seem a more reasonable explana­tion of the cause- of the explosion of the magazine than drunken sailors, in relation to whom we have no other accounts than the one above given.

Admitting the existence of the appliances establishes the existence of a purpose in an eventuality to blow up the magazine. If executed, as seems altogether probable, by a Confederate, with or without orders, the perpetrator had sooner or later the knowledge that he had destroyed quite as many of his former comrades as his foes. Whatever the cause, the magazine in Fort Fisher was blown up soon after sunrise on the morning of the 16th, the day following the surrender of the fort.

Fort Fisher had a northern or land face of 480 yards and mounted on it 21 guns, and a sea face of 1,300 yards, upon which were mounted 17 guns. The heavy calibres and char­acter of the guns will appear in the Appendix or in the plan of the work. The parapets were 25 feet thick and an aver­age of 20 feet in height; traverses ten feet higher, sloping back on their tops, were 8 to 12 feet thick. The traverses were generally bomb-proofed for men or magazines. Thirty bomb-proofs and magazines had a superficial area of 14,500 feet, not including the main magazine, which was exploded.

In all the works defending the two entrances of Cape Fear River were found one hundred and sixty-nine pieces of ar­tillery, nearly all of which were heavy, and two thousand stand of small arms.

In common with his comrades afloat, the writer would fail in his duty were he to omit an expression of the universal sentiment of admiration of the ability and courage shown by General Terry, his Chief-of-Staff, General Comstock, and of General Ames, who led the assaulting columns, and of their gallant comrades, the living and the dead, who achieved this gallant work. Nothing could exceed the devotion and the courage shown by them.

The army losses in killed and severely wounded in the as­sault are given as 700. When the work accomplished is considered the losses are light, which show the true merit of the soldier. They met and conquered not less than 2,500 men in the best constructed earthwork known; 112 officers and 1,971 enlisted men were taken prisoners.

The night of the 16th and 17th was lurid with burning forts and barracks on Smith's Island, Fort Caswell, and else­where, and from time to time the explosions of powder magazines "vexed the dull ear of night." As soon as possi­ble, after getting into the river, Admiral Porter pressed on with unabated energy and zeal with the gunboats within the river, which was filled with torpedoes. The work of drag­ging for them was painfully slow and laborious. The army was pressing onward also on both banks of the river to Wil­mington.

The march of General Sherman had been delayed by rains; a considerable force under Bragg opposed the prog­ress of the comparatively small one under General Terry, who could well afford to move cautiously, as the end was in­evitable and could not be far off.

For the reduction of Wilmington General Schofield ad­vanced from Smithville on the 17th of February. At the same time Admiral Porter attacked Fort Anderson, situated on the river, nearly half way to Wilmington, the monitor Montauk close to the works, and the gunboats Pawtuxet, Lenapee, Unadilla, and Pequot at some distance; the river had been previously dragged for torpedoes. The attacking force was limited, by reason of the difficulty of having more vessels in position. The following day (18th), in order to get more batteries to bear, at 8 A.M. the monitor Montauk led, followed by the Mackinaw, Huron, Sassacus, Pontoosuc, Maratanza, Lenapee, Unadilla, Pawtuxet, Osceola, Shawmut, Seneca, Nyack, Chippewa, and Little Ada. They anchored in position and maintained a heavy fire during the day. At 3 P.m. the fort no longer replied, but the fire was maintained by the fleet until after dark, and throughout the night with diminished intensity.

Aware that General Schofield was on the point of cutting off their retreat, the garrison abandoned the work during the night, carrying away six field pieces. Ten heavy guns were found in the fort. The casualties during the day in the at­tacking force were 3 killed and 4 wounded.

On the 20th and 21st the boats of the fleet were employed in dragging for torpedoes in the waters over which the gun­boats had to pass to attack the batteries higher up. While thus employed a torpedo exploded under the bow of a boat of the Shawmut, killing two men and wounding an officer and one man.

On the 22d Admiral Porter reports that Wilmington had been evacuated and was in possession of the Union troops. On the evacuation of Fort Anderson the gunboats had pushed up as far as the depth of water would permit, an army force pushing up on both sides of the river, on the hard ground, more or less distant from intervening marshes. At Big Island the channel was sounded and buoyed, the gunboats moved up, and fire was opened on Fort Strong, the work commanding the principal obstructions; the fire soon drove the enemy from the fort. During the engagement a shell struck the Sassacus below the water-line, causing her to leak badly; she received several other shots.

During the night of the 20th, not having further use for them, as they intended to evacuate Wilmington, the enemy sent down two hundred floating torpedoes, which for the most part were sunk by musketry fire; one that lodged in the wheel of the Osceola blew the wheelhouse to pieces and knocked down bulkheads inboard, but did not damage the hull. The following morning fishing-nets were spread across the river above the vessels to intercept torpedoes. The army had also engaged Fort Strong. The admiral closes by saying that he had the pleasure of hoisting the Union flag over it, and that day being the anniversary of the birth of Washing­ton, at noon would fire a national salute. No hostile gun was thereafter fired between Wilmington and the sea, but higher up, where the army of General Sherman was yet to pass, the war was not yet over.

Some of the smaller vessels of the navy ascended the river as a supporting force as high as Fayetteville, and found sunk, as a channel obstruction, the Confederate privateer Chickamauga. A national salute, reverberating over the navigable waters of Cape Fear River, now restored to national authority, seemed a fitting close to nearly four years of civil war.


[1] Admiral Porter’s report.

[2] Extract of letter of General Butler to Admiral Porter, dated December 25, 1864: "Admiral-Upon landing the troops and making a thorough reconnoissance of Fort Fisher, both General Weitzel and myself are fully of the opinion that the place could not be carried by assault, as it was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the navy fire. We found seventeen guns protected by traverses, two only of which were dismounted, bearing up the beach, and covering a strip of land, the only practicable route, not more than wide enough for a thousand men in line of battle. . . . I shall therefore sail for Hampton Roads as soon as the transport fleet can be got in order. My engineers and officers report Fort Fisher to me as substantially uninjured as a defensive work."

[3] General Whiting, in answer to inquiries by General Butler, states that the garrison was 667 men on the 18th. On the 23d, 110 veteran artillery, 50 sailors, and 250 junior reserves were added. Total, 1,077. On the 24th the fleet disabled five guns; on the 25th four guns, two of them being on the left, looking up the beach, and nineteen in position, and mines (for explosion) undisturbed. He doubts the success of an assault at that time. In the official report of General Whiting, dated December 30th, is found the fact that the " Junior Reserves" and others had to be coaxed out of the bomb-proofs, one might say, on the 25th, to repel a possible assault. This report concludes as follows: " Whatever the power of resistance of the fort, and it is great, no doubt, the delay due to the heavy weather of Wednesday and Thursday after the arrival of the fleet was its salvation. . But we cannot always hope for such aid from weather, or the blunder of the enemy, manifest here for his not landing and occupying the work before the commencement of his bombardment, and I trust the lesson will not be lost." The reader can now form his own conclusion whether General Butler could or could not have taken Fort Fisher.

[4] Belknap’s report.

[5] Captain Breese’s report.

[6] Admiral Porter’s report.

[7] Captain Breese’s report.

[8]                                                                                                                                                              NORFOLK, VA., January 15, 1879.


Dear Sir―In reply to your recent letter, I would state that I was colonel in command of the Confederate garrison of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, upon the occasion of its assault and capture by the United States forces on this day fourteen years ago. The attacking column of the army was hid and protected by the river bank as it approached the left flank of the work, but the naval column came up the open beach upon our center. As its success would have been disastrous, I concentrated all available gnus upon this column, and met its assault with the larger portion of my men, posting them upon the ramparts so as to fire down upon the sailors and marines. I particularly noticed in the assault an officer who seemed to lead the column, and who was almost recklessly brave, and directed my men to pick him and other officers off, to discourage the assailants. When we afterward met on board the steamship California, at Old Point Comfort (where you had come to see if you could be of service to me in my wounded condition), you can imagine my surprise, after I had described this officer's dress to you, to learn that you were he, and the pleasure it gave me to know that so brave and gallant a foe had escaped.

With best wishes, yours very truly,


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