Fort Fisher Part I


The sea face of Fort Fisher.



Wilmington was protected by a geography that made the city difficult to blockade and even more difficult to capture. It was removed some distance from the sea and occupied the eastern bank of the Cape Fear River 25 miles upriver from its mouth. A gauntlet of forts controlled access to the river: Forts Caswell and Holmes guarded Old Inlet at the river’s mouth, and the even larger Fort Fisher guarded New Inlet where the Atlantic currents had worn a new entrance into the channel. Wilmington was invaluable to the Confederacy because (again like Mobile) it had direct rail communications to the rest of the Confederate South. The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad ran northward from the city to Weldon, North Carolina, where it connected with the Weldon & Petersburg Railroad into southeastern Virginia. By 1864, the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad had become one of the principal arteries of supply for the Army of Northern Virginia.

Most blockade runners used New Inlet in their approach to the river, and as a result, it was Fort Fisher that was the key to rebel defenses at Wilmington. Unlike Fort Sumter and Fort Morgan, Fort Fisher was an earthwork fort, constructed during the war mostly by slaves who shoveled tons of sand and earth into an enormous two-sided fieldwork a mile long and 24 feet high that was shaped like a giant number 7 with the longer side facing the Atlantic and the shorter side facing northward to guard against an overland attack. Twenty-two heavy seacoast guns studded its seaward face, and 25 more commanded its landward face. At the bottom of the 7, overlooking New Inlet itself, was a huge man-made conical mound, 60 feet high, topped with a beacon that blockade runners used to calculate their final runs into the river. The modern historian of the Wilmington campaign, Chris Fonvielle, has labeled it “the mightiest fortress in America.”

Wilmington was a major blockade-running port, and attempting to shut it down consumed a disproportionate amount of Union naval assets. As many as 35 blockading warships patrolled the waters off the two entrances to the Cape Fear River, and despite that, dozens of blockade runners still managed to sneak in and out with seeming impunity. For most of a year, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee (a third cousin of Robert E. Lee), pressed Washington for permission to assault Fort Fisher in order to close down the port. His plan was to send one or two ironclad warships through New Inlet into the Cape Fear River to shell the unprotected rear of Fort Fisher. Once Fort Fisher was neutralized, Lee planned to take his squadron through the inlet and upriver to Wilmington itself. But in 1862 and 1863, the Navy Department was sending all its ironclads to Du Pont for his attack on Charleston. Undeterred, Lee next proposed attacking Fort Fisher with a landing party put ashore north of the fort. The Navy Department found this idea even less palatable because it involved cooperation with the army, and neither Welles nor Fox was enthusiastic about such an operation.

Not until the fall of 1864 did the Navy Department decide to make Wilmington the target of a concerted campaign. This was not so much because of the ongoing blockade running, but rather because Sherman had decided to march his army northward from Savannah to Virginia and he wanted a reliable port en route that he could use either as a base of supply or, if need be, a refuge. Grant added his voice to those urging an attack on Wilmington, and that shifted the strategic decision-making in Washington.

If Grant was an advocate for an attack on Wilmington, he was less sure that Acting Rear Admiral Lee was the man for the job. He was disappointed with the way Lee had behaved during the recent ascent of the James River in the army’s move toward Petersburg, and he let it be known that he would be happy with a change in command. Welles decided to bring Farragut from the Gulf of Mexico to command the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron and conduct the attack on Wilmington. But Farragut was happy where he was and asked to be excused. Instead, Welles sent for David Dixon Porter.

The Union attack on Fort Fisher was to be another joint operation, and Porter’s army counterpart was the politically astute but so far spectacularly unsuccessful Major General Benjamin F. Butler. The overall plan was for the navy to suppress the artillery fi re from the fort while an army landing party stormed the ramparts, in much the same way that the army and navy had cooperated in the capture of Fort Wagner at Charleston. Butler proposed an additional element. He suggested to Fox that an old hulk stuffed with high explosives could be run up onto the beach next to Fort Fisher and detonated. The ensuing explosion would presumably destroy the fort entirely. Porter was enthusiastic; he may have hoped that the “powder boat,” as it came to be called, plus a naval bombardment, would destroy fort Fisher before the army arrived to claim the prize.

The original plan called for 300 tons of powder, half supplied by each service. The army came up with its 150 tons, but the navy offered a smaller amount of old and unreliable powder and was late in delivering it. This postponed the scheduled attack for more than a week and meant that Butler’s soldiers, already embarked in their transports, had to return to Beaufort, North Carolina to resupply while they waited for the powder boat to arrive. When it did arrive, Porter decided to trigger it while Butler’s men were still at Beaufort. Late on December 23, the USS Louisiana, loaded with 285 tons of black powder, was towed into position. Commander Alexander C. Rhind and his volunteer crew carefully navigated their way through the inshore obstructions, inadvertently aided by a blockade runner that was making for New Inlet at the same time. In the dark of the night, Rhind had to guess at his location, and he dropped anchor when he believed he was 300 yards off shore (it was actually 500 yards). After setting the slow match, the crew escaped in a small boat. The Louisiana exploded at 1:35 a. m. on Christmas Eve morning. The results were disappointing. Not all of the powder ignited, and it merely blew up the ship without doing any meaningful damage to the fort. Colonel Charles Lamb, who commanded the fort’s garrison, noted in his diary that “a blockader got aground near fort; set fire to herself and blew up.”

Though the powder boat had little impact on Fort Fisher, Porter’s warships began their bombardment anyway. It is not clear what Porter expected them to accomplish. The army was still not at hand, so it is possible he hoped that he could demolish the fort with gunfire alone and gain a victory without having to share it with the army. For most of five hours, 64 ships mounting 630 heavy cannon hurled 10,000 rounds of high explosive ordnance at the sand and earth fort. The cannonade may well have been the largest naval gunfire assault in world history. “The roar of the cannon was something terrible,” one sailor recalled. “Every particle of flesh upon one’s bones seemed to be slipping off, eyes stinging, and we were almost blinded by powder, smoke, and refuse. . ., several men at my gun bled at the nose.” Though Porter bragged to Welles that he silenced the forts in “about an hour and a half,” and that “the forts are nearly demolished,” the truth was that most of the navy shells flew long, well over the fort, or buried themselves in its 25 foot thick sand walls without doing significant damage. Porter had not given his captains specific instructions regarding targets in the fort, and most gun captains simply aimed at the fort’s flagpole. To be sure, the Confederate gun crews were driven temporarily into the bombproofs, but the fort itself was hardly demolished. Porter later insisted that if the army had made a half-serious effort to seize the fort, it would have fallen easily into their laps, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had failed to wait for the army to be present before starting his bombardment.

First Assault

Butler, of course, was furious. He brought his transports up to Fort Fisher from Beaufort for a landing the next morning (Christmas Day). Not surprisingly, there was a greater sense of rivalry than cooperation between the two services. Porter’s fleet renewed its bombardment, expending another 10,000 shells, which again caused most of the defenders to keep their heads down, but Major General Geoffrey Weitzel, who went ashore with the landing party, did not like the look of Fort Fisher’s northern face which appeared undamaged and where the guns were still operational. Though a party of Federal skirmishers reached the northeast bastion of the fort, and one officer actually managed to grab a Confederate flag from a downed flagstaff, the main body never mounted a serious attack. Porter insisted it was simply for lack of trying. Butler himself did not go ashore, and Porter went alongside the general’s command ship to insist that there were no Confederates within five miles of the fort. “You have nothing to do but to land and take possession of it,” he shouted across ship-to-ship. Porter was wrong in that, of course, but his belief that it was true colored both his reports to Washington and his subsequent relationship with Butler.

This first assault on Fort Fisher ended with the Union forces in retreat and the commanders of the army and navy bickering in language that might have led to duels in the pre-war years. Both Porter and Butler excoriated one another in their reports to the respective secretaries. Porter wrote to Welles that Fort Fisher “could have been taken on Christmas with 500 men,” but for the “cowardice” of the army. He even wrote to Grant to tell him to “never send a boy on a man’s errand.” Butler wrote to Stanton that Porter’s ships had completely failed to silence the guns of the fort, a claim that Porter called “a tissue of misstatements from beginning to end.” Even after the war ended, the feud continued. The antagonism evident in the post-war memoirs of both Porter and Butler testifies to the bitterness of their relationship.


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