The Wilmington Campaign, 1864–1865
The Battle of Fort Fisher, 13-16 January 1865
Date 2016, CMH
by Dr. Scott Moore
During the Civil War, Federal military operations along the Atlantic coast played a key role in slowly strangling the Confederacy. Between 1862 and 1865, Southern cotton exports fell to just 5 percent of prewar levels. The number of vessels entering Confederate ports steadily decreased as the war went on. The broad strategy first envisioned by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott and detailed by the Commission of Conference ultimately proved highly effective. Bit by bit the North closed off rebel commerce while keeping Southern coastal communities in a state of alarm that tied down the Confederacy's own hard-pressed military manpower. Thus, despite their relatively few numbers and often forgotten efforts, the soldiers who served along the Atlantic coast played a crucial part in the outcome of the Civil War. The capture of Fort Fisher in January 1865 was key to closing the South’s last major Atlantic seaport at Wilmington, North Carolina.
By the fall of 1864, only one major seaport remained open to the Confederacy, Wilmington, North Carolina, which seemed almost impervious to interdiction. The city lay more than twenty-five miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River and well out of range of naval guns. The entrance to the Cape Fear River and the approaches to the city bristled with forts, earthworks, artillery batteries, and defensive lines. Two inlets, separated by miles of shallow water, islands, and shoals made blockading problematic. For more than three years, the U.S. Navy had unsuccessfully tried to stop the blockade runners. But to do so demanded more than just warships. The key to closing Wilmington rested with Fort Fisher, a mammoth earthwork located between the sea and the river. Its sea face, nearly a mile long from south to north, held nearly twenty long-range guns, mostly 8- and 10-inch Columbiads, in protected batteries. The Mound Battery anchored the southern end, rising over forty feet and mounting two heavy cannons. It not only fixed the end of the fort and overlooked the inlet, it provided a beacon for blockade runners. The land face cut for 500 yards across the peninsula from the sea to the Cape Fear River. It mounted twenty-two smaller cannons, in one- and two-gun batteries separated by traverses shielding them from enfilading naval gunfire. A palisade and electronically detonated torpedoes (land mines) were meant to break up any assault before it reached the walls. At the river end, a pair of fieldpieces guarded the only entrance to the fort via a road that crossed a stream immediately to the front of the gate. At the apex of the land and sea faces rose the 32-foot-high Northeast Bastion, a combination firing battery and battle command post that allowed observation over the entire fort and its approaches. Inside the fort, a flat plain contained barracks and three mortars, while sturdy bombproofs dug into the fort's walls protected the garrison and ammunition magazines. The entire fort was constructed of sand and earth covered in sea oats and grass designed to absorb the impact of naval shells. About a mile west and south of the fort, at the tip of Federal Point, stood Battery Buchanan, mounting two 10-inch Columbiads and two 11-inch smoothbores overlooking the inlet and river.
Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry
General Ulysses S. Grant
In early December, Grant learned that the Confederates were withdrawing troops from Wilmington and Fort Fisher to reinforce those confronting Sherman in Georgia. Sensing an opportunity, he released a division of troops under Major General Godfrey Weitzel to link with the Navy and capture the fort. Much to the Navy's chagrin, and that of Admiral David Dixon Porter, commander of the blockading squadron, however, Grant made no attempt to stop Major General Benjamin Butler, nominally Weitzel's commander, from assuming active command of the expedition. Butler;s assumption of command all but ended any prior coordination between the Army and Navy. Porter thought Butler a fool. Butler equally detested Porter. The two rarely met to plan the operation. Fully aware of Fort Fisher's formidable defenses, Butler distrusted the Navy's ability to neutralize them. Instead, he proposed to load a ship full of explosives, beach it opposite the fort's sea face, and detonate it, blasting a gap in the wall, thereby stunning the garrison into defenselessness. Porter thought the idea impractical but supplied the flat-bottomed USS Louisiana for the purpose. On 12 December Porter's armada, the Louisiana included, sailed from Hampton Roads, followed two days later by Butler's troop transports.
Civil War Along the Atlantic Coast, 1861-1865
A succession of errors, poor coordination, and bad luck ensued. Porter's ships put in to Beaufort, North Carolina, to coal and to complete packing the Louisiana. Unaware, the Army transports arrived at the designated rendezvous point off Wilmington on 15 December to find no Navy ships. Three days later, Porter arrived, advising Butler by dispatch boat that the Navy would detonate the explosives-packed ship that night. Surprised and enraged, Butler demanded the operation be delayed until it could be coordinated with the landing of his troops. Neither Butler nor Porter talked directly, instead using dispatches and subordinates. When a storm struck the fleet on 19 December, Butler steamed his transports to Beaufort for refueling and provisioning. Porter, whose ships remained off Cape Fear, chose not to wait for Butler to return. On the night of 23 December, the Louisiana proceeded toward the fort, crewed by a few sailors. When about 600 yards offshore, the crew set the charges and abandoned ship. Shortly before 0200 on 24 December, the Louisiana exploded, sending flames and water skyward but doing little else. Inside Fort Fisher, the garrison assumed a blockade runner, chased aground by a Federal gunboat, had been set afire and its magazines exploded. Fort Fisher remained unscathed.
Nonetheless, with dawn the Navy commenced firing on Fort Fisher in anticipation of Butler's arrival and a Christmas day landing. The shelling lasted all day and, from the sea, looked to be effective as geysers of sand flew and smoke covered the fort. The garrison, however, sat safely in bombproof shelters while the ramparts above them absorbed the bombardment. In fact, many of the shells overshot the walls and impacted on the plain behind, destroying barracks but doing little else. When Butler's transports returned that night, he sent Weitzel to meet with Porter to work out a landing plan. On Christmas Day, the combined attack began. Following another naval bombardment, troops landed in surfboats and barges north of Fort Fisher. The fort remained silent, a sign taken by some, to include Porter, that the bombardment had done its work. By late afternoon, more than 2,500 soldiers were ashore, with another 4,000 waiting on the transports. As the lead brigade turned south toward the land face of Fort Fisher, offshore winds rose, threatening further landings. The Confederates emerged from their bombproofs to man the fort's guns, most still intact. Faced with the dilemma of only part of his force ashore, rising winds, and a still strongly defended fort, Butler ordered a withdrawal. He then promptly departed for Hampton Roads, even while many of his troops remained stranded on the beach by high winds. Porter was outraged at what he thought was cowardice. But he could do little. Two more days elapsed before all troops ashore could be ferried back to their transports. Porter then took his ships to Beaufort.
The Battle of Fort Fisher, 13-16 January 1865
The failure at Fort Fisher produced immediate effects. Lincoln recalled Butler, who never held another command. Porter blamed the Army, convinced the fort could have been taken by storm after the Navy had all but neutralized its defenses (an exaggerated claim at best). The allegations stung the War Department and Grant, who pledged support for another attempt to seize Fort Fisher. Once ambivalent toward Wilmington, Grant now viewed the port as an essential forward base for Sherman's army, now marching into the Carolinas. In early January 1865, he placed Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry in command of nearly 9,000 troops for a second assault on Fort Fisher. In written orders, Grant directed Terry to cooperate closely with Porter, warning him that no misunderstandings should come between the two. Terry, a modest and capable combat veteran, impressed Porter when they met at Beaufort on 8 January. They quickly bonded, personally meeting each day for detailed planning.
On 12 January, the newly reformed expedition got under way, led by nearly sixty warships ranging from small gunboats to the USS New Ironsides with its fourteen 11-inch Dahlgren guns. Twenty-two transports carried Terry's landing force of three small divisions, to include one from the recently formed XXV Corps composed entirely of African-American regiments, along with field artillery, heavy siege guns, and engineers. Facing the Federal force, the Fort Fisher garrison could muster barely 700 men, although Lt. Gen. Braxton Bragg, recently appointed to command the defenses of Wilmington, promised reinforcements to the fort's commander, Col. William Lamb, should an attack occur. In December, in response to Butler's landings, Lee had dispatched 6,000 men under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke to Wilmington from the defenses of Petersburg. In the event of another assault on Fort Fisher, Bragg planned to move Hoke's division to block any movement toward Wilmington and threaten the Federals near the fort.
Shortly after dawn on 13 January, Porter's fleet positioned itself off Fort Fisher and the beaches to its north while the troops prepared to board boats, many rowed by sailors. Navy guns opened fire into the woods and brush behind the beaches, intent on keeping any lurking Confederates at bay. Despite high surf, the landings went smoothly. Indeed, some troops stopped on the beach to build fires and dry out while regimental bands greeted follow-on waves. After two hours and with several brigades ashore, skirmishers advanced inland.
Bragg ordered Hoke to move south to threaten the landings and protect the approach to Wilmington. Convinced he faced a much larger force and leery of the naval guns, Hoke chose to dig in north of the landing site. About 350 South Carolinians, loaded on boats, managed to reach Battery Buchanan and make their way to Fort Fisher. Meanwhile, Porter's main battle line opened fire on the fort. Tacitly admitting the previous bombardment may not have been wholly effective, he gave strict orders to his captains to carefully observe the fall of shot. The naval bombardment systematically whittled away at the defenses. Terry, meanwhile, consolidated his beachhead and late that night the division from the XXV Corps extended a defensive line across the peninsula two miles north of Fort Fisher to stop a still-anticipated counterattack by Hoke's Confederates less than a mile away. Behind the defensive line, the rest of Terry's force readied to move south.
The next day, the remainder of Terry's force landed, along with much of the artillery and some of the siege guns. Hoke made little effort to interfere. In midmorning, Porter's ships again closed in and opened fire on Fort Fisher. They disabled nearly all of the guns along the land face, tore gaps in the protecting palisade, and killed or wounded Confederates attempting to effect repairs or return fire. The two assault divisions moved slowly toward Fort Fisher, remaining concealed in the woods near the river. Terry personally crept to within 400 yards of the fort to see the defenses for himself and finalize his attack plan. Observing the damage from the naval bombardment and unsure of the size or intentions of the Confederate force to his north, he determined to attack Fort Fisher the next day rather than to settle into a lengthy siege. Terry then rowed out to Porter's flagship to coordinate the assault.
Terry's plan exploited a weakness he had observed. His main effort would be directed near the river, where the land face ended at the road entrance to the fort. Two enemy fieldpieces protected the gate and a battery on the wall overlooked the open ground to the front. Nonetheless, Terry felt his troops could cross the ground and overwhelm the defenders while avoiding fire from many of the guns farther down the land face. The Federal forces would attack in a column of brigades, each to be committed on Terry's order. Once inside, they would move along the land face, rolling up the batteries one at a time from west to east. The two commanders agreed on a system of flag signals to keep supporting naval gunfire just ahead of the advancing troops, preventing Confederates from reestablishing their defensive positions. Porter then added a twist. He intended to land a naval brigade of more than 2,000 marines and sailors armed with cutlasses and pistols to overwhelm the Northeast Bastion at the other end of the land face. Although surprised by Porter's plan, Terry said little. Grant had strictly enjoined him to cooperate fully with the Navy. The naval attack would not affect Terry's plan.
During the night, Terry advanced his brigades to their final attack positions. They settled into shallow rifle pits within a few hundred yards of the land face. The 15th New York Engineers built battery positions along the river for heavy artillery to ward off any Confederate attempt to bring reinforcements down the river or to shell the Federals from gunboats. In midmorning on 15 January, the naval brigade landed. The sailors, undrilled in land tactics, formed into a loose column. Marines deployed forward as sharpshooters, under orders to pick off any enemy who might poke up their heads. By mid-afternoon, the naval brigade stood in full view of the Confederates. On the far right, Federal soldiers prepared for the assault arrayed in a column of four brigades, led by sharpshooters who advanced to within 200 yards of the fort,. At 1530, Terry signaled Porter to shift his bombardment, and, five minutes later, Porter's ships sounded their whistles as a signal to all to start the attack.
Already under sporadic cannon and rifle fire, the naval brigade charged in an elongated mass of shouting sailors and marines, with the officers quickly losing control. When the naval bombardment shifted to the sea face to prevent firing into their own troops, the unsupported sailors advanced down the open beach into a deadly hail of rifle fire and canister from Confederates on the fort's parapets. The sailors and marines moved in bounds, fewer getting up to go forward each time. Confusion reigned as officers fell and order disintegrated. With no covering naval gunfire to suppress them, Confederate defenders stood in the open and fired into the mass below. It became a slaughter. A few sailors reached the foot of the Northeast Bastion, only to be cut down from above. Under withering fire and without direction, the sailors and marines broke, degenerating into a disorganized mob and fleeing back up the beach. The Confederates cheered and catcalled the fleeing naval force, unaware the fort had been breached elsewhere.
As the sailors and marines struggled, Terry's lead brigade advanced from its wooded cover. Once in the open, the soldiers came under fire from the land face and the two field howitzers that covered the access gate. In addition, a Confederate gun deployed forward through a sally port a few hundred yards up the land face and opened an enfilading fire. Yet, despite heavy casualties, the brigade pressed on. Reaching the base of the palisade, the attacking soldiers discovered the Confederate defenders could not fire down from the walls without being exposed. The Federal troops regrouped and charged the enemy parapet, cresting the top more than twenty feet above, and became enmeshed in hand-to-hand combat. The 117th New York Infantry charged down the access road and across the half-destroyed bridge, straight into the two guns at the entrance gate. Those not killed or wounded closed on the battery, where a melee occurred. The lead brigade stalled. Terry ordered his next brigade to press forward. Sheer numbers began to tell. The Confederates at the gate and the overlooking battery finally gave way. Lamb, unaware of the attack and facing what he thought to be the main assault along the beach, could send no reinforcements. At just about the moment the naval brigade broke, Terry's troops secured a foothold at the other end of the land face. The sailors and marines had distracted the enemy just long enough to ensure Army success.
Wheeling to their left, the Federal troops attacked along the land face, while others advanced in parallel on the flat ground inside the fort. Lamb suddenly aware of the threat to his inland flank, attempted to shift what troops he had. The battle became a continuous series of hand-to-hand fights as the federal troops assaulted along the long axis of the land-face. Confusion reigned in the bloody close-quarters fighting. Attacking regiments, many of their officers killed or wounded, lost cohesion even as the soldiers pressed on. Repositioned to sweep the plain inside the fort, Confederate canister fire from cannons on the sea face prevented any Federal advance on the open ground to the rear of the wall. Porter's ships resumed firing on the land face, aided by signals and careful observation of advancing regimental colors. The defenders, assailed by superior numbers of Federal troops and blasted by accurate naval fire, slowly fell back towards the Northeast Bastion. As darkness fell and exhaustion on both sides set in, the battle abated with the defenders still in control of half the land face.
Terry refused to let up. He ordered his final brigade to pass through the others and continue the attack. At 2100, the brigade resumed the assault led by the 3d New Hampshire Infantry, joined by many of the troops who had fought all day. The Confederates gave way, too weak and demoralized to resist any longer. Clearing the land face and turning south along the interior base of the sea face, the attack gained momentum as the defenders lost heart. Resistance soon gave way. The survivors fled to Battery Buchanan to the south, seeking to flee to Wilmington or across the river by boat. The 27th U.S. Colored Troops, redeployed from the northern defensive line, now joined the advance as Terry committed his last reserve. With Federal troops mopping up the fort and closing on Battery Buchanan, the last of the fort's garrison surrendered. Fort Fisher had fallen. In a tragic postscript, early on 16 January, Fort Fisher's main magazine exploded in a roar, probably after entry by torch-wielding soldiers, killing or burying as many as 200 men, both Federal troops and Confederate prisoners.
With the seizure of Fort Fisher, the port of Wilmington was effectively closed. Yet Grant still needed the port and city as a base for Sherman's army advancing into North Carolina. More than 7,000 Confederate troops based in and around Wilmington still stood in the way. Terry lacked the strength for the task, his original force of less than 10,000 depleted by the casualties suffered at Fort Fisher. In a testimony to how far the United States Army had come since 1861, Grant ordered the XXIII Corps, veterans of Sherman's Atlanta Campaign and most recently the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, to travel east from Nashville by train and board transports for movement to North Carolina. He appointed its commander, Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield, to take personal command of operations. Within three weeks, the lead division of the corps arrived at Fort Fisher. On 11 February, Terry, now under Schofield's direction, advanced up the east side of the Cape Fear only to be stopped by Hoke's division, still dug in to the north. Schofield ferried the division of the XXIII Corps to the west side of the river in hopes of flanking Hoke's division and the city. On 18 February, supported by Navy gunboats moving up the Cape Fear River, the Federals enveloped the Confederate stronghold at Fort Anderson, fifteen miles downriver from Wilmington, forcing the defenders to retreat. Bragg ordered Hoke to withdraw to the city's inner defenses. Making one last stand on 20 February to allow stores to be evacuated or destroyed, Bragg withdrew from Wilmington two days later, retreating northward toward Goldsboro. The 3d New Hampshire Infantry led the procession into the city, closely followed by a contingent of U.S. Colored Troops. The battle for Fort Fisher and the subsequent capture of Wilmington, models of Army-Navy cooperation, closed the last Confederate port while establishing firm base for the rampaging Sherman. The war would end just two months later.
CMH Related Publications
Civil War Medal of Honor Recipients
The "Pulpit" after capture, Fort Fisher, North Carolina, January 1865.
Photographed by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. 165-SB-79
Source: National Archives