THE first expedition against Fort Fisher failed to capture the fort, but it acted as a successful reconnoissance by which information of the most important character was obtained. When the first attempt was made, it was supposed by the Secretary of the Navy and the Lieutenant-General that the navy could run the batteries and isolate the Rebels. Admiral Porter decided, in the light of his experience on the first expedition, that this was impracticable. The second expedition enjoyed all the benefits of the experience gained by the failure of the first, and it sailed to execute certain definite instructions. Its action was not to depend upon the result of reconnoissance or experiment. Immediately upon the receipt of the news announcing the unsuccessful character of the first expedition, Secretary Welles, at the suggestion of the President, telegraphed Lieutenant-General Grant, requesting him to order the return of a force sufficient to render certain the fall of the defences of the port of Wilmington. True to that tenacity of purpose which always characterized the action of General Grant throughout the whole Rebellion, he immediately ordered that preparations be made to re-embark the troops for another attempt, in co-operation with the navy, to carry these strongholds, so useful to the life of the Confederacy and so dangerous to the success of the Union arms.
On the 1st day of January, 1865, Major-General Benjamin F. Butler and Brevet Major-General Alfred H. Terry had an extended interview with Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, at his head-quarters at City Point, Va. It was here determined that the second expedition should be intrusted to the command of General Terry. On the 2d of January orders were issued to the troops that were to take part in the enterprise, and on the night of the 3d they were marched to Bermuda Hundreds, where they were embarked on ocean transports, under the direction of Colonel George S. Dodge of the Quartermaster’s Department. On the morning of the 5th of January the fleet was at Fortress Monroe and in readiness to sail.
The army force consisted of the same troops which composed the first expedition, together with the Second Brigade of the Third Division of the Twenty-fourth Army Corps, under the command of Colonel J. C. Abbott of the Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers ; Battery E, Third United States Artillery, under the command of Lieutenant Myrick ; a siege train ; a detail of artillerists ; and a company of engineers. These troops taken together numbered about eighty-five hundred men. There were twenty-one first and second class transport steamers, and a third class of small vessels and tenders. General Terry made his head-quarters on the McClellan, General Ames on the Atlantic, and General Paine on the Champion. On the morning of the 6th of January this fleet sailed under sealed orders. Everything seemed to have been admirably and expeditiously managed. On opening the orders, the point of destination was found to be twentyfive miles off Beaufort, N. C. Here the army fleet once more found that of the navy, which had withdrawn to this point. It was the misfortune of this expedition to experience a gale almost equal in fury to that which the first encountered. This heavy weather commenced immediately after the sailing of the fleet, and continued until the 11th of January. Some of the vessels had become scattered, and others driven into Beaufort, and delays were occasioned, so that it was not until the morning of. the 12th that Admiral Porter steamed out and led the fleets in the direction of New Inlet. This day was a beautiful one, and the Atlantic had the appearance of an immense placid lake. At about ten o’clock in the evening both fleets came to anchor at a point five miles north of Fort Fisher. Early on the following morning the Brooklyn, the double-enders, and other gunboats opened a fire on
the woods directly in the rear of the position upon which it was decided to land the troops. The first troops were landed on the beach about four miles north of New Inlet. Pickets were thrown out in every direction. The enemy did not make any opposition to this movement. In fact, not a single shot was fired at our troops at this time. During this day eighty-five hundred men were landed, with forty rounds of ammunition, six days’ hard bread in bulk, and three hundred thousand additional rounds of small arms ammunition. The landing was accomplished amid the greatest enthusiasm of the soldiers. Cheer upon cheer went up, clearly indicating their splendid morale. The surf gave some trouble at first, but it seemed to subside as the day progressed. This favorable condition of the surf continued through the three days of active operations which culminated in the accomplishment of the object of the expedition. Paine’s division of colored troops having been successfully disembarked, it was marched a short distance toward the fort, and then directed across the peninsula to the Cape Fear River. After the line had been established across this narrow strip of land, the troops threw up a strong intrenchment from the ocean to the river and facing Wilmington, It was undoubtedly General Terry’s object to prepare himself against an attack from that direction. It was well known that Hoke’s division of Rebel troops had been relieved from Richmond and transferred to the defences of Wilmington about the 22d of December, 1864. This division probably numbered about four thousand men, and would undoubtedly have attacked the army forces, had they believed that there were no earthworks in their front. Colonel Abbott’s brigade also formed a part of this line. On the 14th of January Captain Lee’s and Lieutenant Myrick’s batteries were landed, and placed in position on the line already described. In this way General Adelbert Ames was left free to operate against the fort, without any fears of an attack upon his rear. The enemy would have had to destroy a division and a brigade of troops before they could interfere with this more direct attack. On the 14th the first brigade of Ames’s division was moved up toward the fort, while the other two brigades were held in reserve. The skirmishers were advanced to within one hundred and fifty yards of the work. In doing this an outwork was captured, and an unsuccessful attempt made to turn the guns against the main fortification. Active preparations were continued for the bloody conflict, which finally took place on the following day. On the entire 13th and 14th the navy maintained a tremendous bombardment of the fort. The Admiral had adopted a different plan of attack, which seemed to be successful in materially damaging the fortification. On the evening of the 14th General Terry went on board of the Malvern to arrange with Admiral Porter the plan of attack for the next day. The Admiral says (see page 189, Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War): “It was arranged between the General and myself that the ships should all go in early, and fire rapidly through the day, until the time for the assault to come off. The hour named was five P. M. I detailed sixteen hundred sailors and four hundred marines to accompany the troops in the assault, the sailors to board the sea face, while the troops assaulted the land side.” The following are among the directions that were given to the sailors and marines to regulate them in their landing upon the beach, and in their assault upon the sea face of the fort: —
“GENERAL ORDER NO. 81.
“ FLAG-SHIP MALVERN, January 4, 1865.
“. . . . That we may have a share in the assault, when it takes place, the boats will be kept ready lowered near the water on the off side of the vessels. 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 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 seaman-like way.” (See page 198, Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War.)
“ LANDING ORDER.
“ FLAG-SHIP MALVERN,
OFF NEW INLET, January 15, 1865.
“..... No move is to be made forward until the army charges, when the navy is to assault the sea or southeast face of the work, going over with cutlasses drawn and revolvers in hand. The marines will follow after, and when they gain the edge of the parapet they will lie flat and pick off the enemy in the works. The sailors will charge at once on the field-pieces in the fort and kill the gunners. The mouths of the bomb-proofs must be secured at once, and no quarter given if the enemy fire from them after we enter the fort. Any man who straggles or disobeys orders is to be sent to the rear under a guard. The men must keep their flags rolled up until they are on top of the parapet and inside the fort, when they will
hoist them.....If, when our men get
into the fort, the enemy commence firing on Fort Fisher from the mound, every three men will seize a prisoner, pitch him over the walls, and get behind the fort for protection, or into the bomb-proofs.” (See pages 194 and 195, Report of Committee on the Conduct of the War.)
Sunday, the 15 th day of January, 1865, proved to be a bright and beautiful day. The air was mild and balmy as a May day. The sun shed its bright rays upon the scene through a cloudless sky. What little wind there was blew off shore flattening the surf and ocean to a calm seldom experienced off the coast. But this was not to be a day of rest for the boys in blue on sea or shore before Fort Fisher. The storm of human conflict was soon to burst forth.
Early in the morning General Ames, at the head of Bell’s and Pennypacker’s brigades of his division, took up his line of march toward the fort. As this advance was made, the Tallahassee, a Rebel gunboat in the Cape Fear River, opened fire upon this body of men. A number of officers and men were killed and wounded ; a captain was obliged to have his leg amputated. This vessel was soon afterward driven off and did not make her appearance again. Immediately upon the arrival of Pennypacker’s brigade, directly in front of the fort, the First Brigade was moved forward in line of battle to a new position about two hundred yards from the fort ; the right resting near the Cape Fear River, and the left extending toward the ocean and parallel to the front of the fort, and covering one half its land face. The skirmishers were about a hundred yards in advance of this line. This movement had to be executed under a sharp musketry fire and an occasional discharge of grape and canister. The Second Brigade, under command of Colonel Pennypacker, was now moved forward, also in line of battle, to a position of five hundred yards from the fort and parallel to the line formed by the first Brigade. The Third Brigade, under command of Colonel Bell, was formed in a similar manner about seven hundred yards from the fort. This column of brigades was formed on the open sandy beach, directly in front of the land face and opposite the westerly side of the fort. The men were moved up quickly, and as soon as they were properly placed, they threw up small rifle-pits for temporary protection. While these operations were taking place, General Terry and staff and General Ames and his staff occupied a prominent position near an old earthwork about five hundred and fifty yards from the fort. General Ames gave a personal supervision to every detail of these preliminary manœuvres ; going himself, and sending his staff to the front and to the flanks in order to correct and establish the lines of attack. All these evolutions were executed with the precision and order of a
parade. At this time a number of brave men volunteered to go forward in advance of the skirmishers and cut away the palisade. They were provided with axes for this purpose. In the mean time, while these operations of the army had been going on, a force of sailors and marines, numbering two thousand men, were landed on the seabeach under the command of Fleet Captain K. R. Breese. The head of this column had been pushed up to within a few hundred yards of the fort, by means of a succession of intrenchments and rifle-pits, which were promptly occupied by the United States Marine Corps. The navy had kept up its terrific fire upon the fort. Nevertheless at no time was it entirely silenced. The Ironsides and monitors hurled forth their immense projectiles ; the grand old frigates boomed out their heavy broadsides ; and the gunboats poured in their whistling shots upon the doomed stronghold. Probably the fire of the navy was not so rapid as on some of the previous days of the attack, but it was certainly far more accurate and effective. It was the wonder of the army artillerists to see how it was possible for ships at sea to direct an artillery fire with such precision. By means of army signals, General Terry was in continued conversation with Admiral Porter, who was over a mile distant. In this way the navy were requested to direct their fire either against the parapet or against the palisade. By this time the assaulting column of soldiers, sailors, and marines, numbering about five thousand two hundred men, were in readiness to charge. If Abbott’s brigade, which was brought up toward the close of the action, be counted, then the assaulting column numbered in the aggregate six thousand three hundred men. At half past three o’clock the signal was given to the navy to cease firing. At the instant the steam whistles shrieked out this signal, General Curtis, who commanded the first line, sprang to his feet and shouted the order of advance to his brigade. With a wild cheer his men charged forward ; many passing through the apertures in the palisade, across the ditch and up to the parapet, the rest charging across a bridge which led around to the left and rear of the fort. This charge was under the direction of a staff-officer of General Ames, who was the first man on the parapet of the fort, and was stricken down, severely wounded, while planting a color on the top of one of the traverses. Three other members of his staff were struck at this time ; of these Captain Dawson afterward died of his injuries. The Second Brigade was now ordered forward and successfully entered the fort. The most of this brigade entered by the bridge already mentioned. The planks were torn up, leaving the soldiers to cross upon the string-pieces. At this juncture Colonel Pennypacker was so seriously wounded that his life was despaired of for many months. This charge of the two brigades was met by the enemy with a vigorous resistance. They sprang to their guns and fought with desperation, contesting each traverse and bomb-proof inch by inch. A half-hour’s fighting gave the army possession of about five or six of the immense traverses and also a firm footing to the left and rear of the fort.
The brave sailors and marines at the signal had rushed to the attack. They met with a murderous grape and canister and musketry fire. Their ranks were rapidly thinned beneath the fearful storm of iron, but the survivors pressed bravely forward to close up the gaps. Great gallantry was displayed by the officer who led these men into the “deadly breach.” Lieutenants B. H. Porter and S. W. Preston were instantly killed. They had been classmates and messmates, they had been captured and suffered imprisonment together, and at last died fighting side by side. Captain Breese, in his report, says: —
“ Finding the rear of the men retreating, I hastened toward it to form them under cover, and have them use their rifles, but they were too far distant for me to reach them, and I accordingly returned to a position near the works. As I did so the remaining men, notwithstanding all attempt to stop them, fled, with the exception of about sixty, among whom were Lieutenant-Commander James Parker, C. H. Cushman, T. O. Selfridge, and M. Sicard,and Lieutenant N. H. Farquhar and R. H. Lamson, the latter of whom was wounded, and several volunteer officers whose names I unfortunately do not know. The fire of the enemy was so severe that the few of our men remaining had to seek such cover as they could, and there remained until dark, when a demonstration upon the part of the Rebels induced all to make a rush, and most succeeded in escaping” (See page 193. Report of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.)
This part of the assaulting column, having been driven back in confusion, was not again brought in requisition against the fort. In the latter part of the fight they were rallied to man the position out of which Colonel Abbott’s brigade was moved. The sailors did all that could have been expected of them. They had not been properly armed for such service. Cutlasses and revolvers may be the suitable weapons to arm men with for the purpose of boarding a vessel at sea, where the fighting is necessarily confined to a small space, but they will not do for an attack upon a strong fortification, defended by artillery and infantry.
The First and Second Brigades of General Ames’s division had been gallantly fighting all this time inside of the fort. The troops had gained by their desperate valor a number of the traverses and had advanced across the west part of the terre-plein almost to the centre of the fort. General Curtis, who had been conspicuous throughout the day for his bravery and coolness, fell, badly wounded by a canister shot. Colonel Bell’s brigade was then advanced. His manly form was seen at the head of his column, as it darted forward over the bridge and into the fort. But this was the Colonel’s last charge, for at this point the brave and noble soldier fell, mortally wounded. His brigade was moved forward against the sea face of the fort. The ground over which the brigade had to charge was obstructed by the débris of the barracks, while the enemy was protected by the traverses and magazines. The navy had recommenced their fire upon the sea face, after the repulse of the sailors and marines. This fire assisted in sweeping the traverses for the advance of the men. It ceased at dark, and was again reopened for a short time, but it was soon found that the fire was killing and wounding our own men. It was therefore finally discontinued. The impetuous resistance of the garrison would not permit darkness to cause a cessation of hostilities. The fearful encounter was continued. The enemy kept up a continual artillery fire from the mound upon the soldiers who held the western part of the fort. The bursting of shell, the rattling of musketry, shouts of the men, groans of the wounded, all went to make up a perfect Pandemonium.
General Ames, who had entered the fort at the head of the Second Brigade, remained there fighting with his men until the close of the action. He had been made particularly conspicuous, not only by the prominent and advanced position he had occupied, but by a brigadier-general’s full dresscoat, which he wore on that day. It was next to a miracle to see him go unscathed, while his officers and men were continually falling by his very side. There he stood among his troops. No advice to retreat, no request to postpone the engagement until the following morning, found a listening ear with him. “Advance, drive the enemy from their works,” was his repeated order. To his determined bravery and skill on this occasion the country owes more than to any other one officer either in the army or navy. Although the garrison was already showing signs of weakness, still General Ames, wishing to make “ assurance double sure,” at about eight o’clock sent to General Terry for reinforcements. He immediately forwarded Colonel Abbott’s brigade, which went gallantly to the rescue. At the same time General Terry, who had continued to occupy the position he had held in the first part of the assault, so that he could be in perfect communication with the fleet, entered Fort Fisher. Abbott’s brigade was formed near the river, while a portion of these reinforcements, armed with Spencer’s carbines, were ordered to advance on the sea front. At about nine o’clock a general assault was made, and the Rebels retreated out of the fort toward Battery Buchanan. Cheer after cheer now rang out upon the night air; the fact of the capture of the fort was signalled to the fleet almost immediately. The navy vessels sent up rockets in celebration of the glorious event. In the excitement and joy of the moment, the killed, the dying, and the wounded were apparently forgotten.
Abbott’s brigade was now ordered to advance upon Battery Buchanan. Here General Whiting and Colonel Lamb were found both badly wounded. The garrison, to the number of about nineteen hundred men, surrendered at this place, and were marched back to the vicinity of Fort Fisher. Thus, after one of the most stubbornly fought battles of the war, this fortification fell into the hands of the Union forces.
The sacrifices of the army, navy, and marine corps, in killed and wounded, amounted to eight hundred men. The Rebel loss was trifling compared to the Union.
In the language of General Ames, “ the name of every officer and man engaged in this desperate conflict should be mentioned ” ; but space at the present will not allow the recital of the sacrifices and acts of heroism of that day.
The next morning a terrific explosion of the main magazine of the fort occurred. By this accident, one hundred and fifty men were killed and wounded, and many a brave man who had survived the conflict of the day before lost his life. It was undoubtedly caused by some person entering the magazine with a light, without knowing its nature.
On the night of the 16th of January, the Rebels having lost the key of the position, blew up and abandoned Fort Casswell and the works on Smith’s Island. The United States forces triumphantly entered Wilmington, N. C., on Washington’s birthday.
Every circumstance of the second expedition was most auspicious. So favorable was the weather, that constant communication was kept up with the fleet and transports, and the navy was accorded three successive days for bombarding the fort, so that when the column moved to the assault there were but few guns to oppose them.
General Terry deserves the highest encomiums for the manner in which he prepared and organized all the details of the operations which culminated in the attack upon Fort Fisher. It is true that some reinforcements had been thrown in the fort after the first attempt to carry it, but General Whiting has stated that they were not of good material. (See page 108, Report on the Conduct of the War.)
Admiral Porter’s theory in relation to the force necessary to take the fort was, that after he had bombarded it, any land force could successfully assault it, and when they had carried the parapet, that the garrison would capitulate. The Admiral makes use of the following statements in describing the events of the first expedition: “The works were battered and burnt to that degree that there appeared no life within the walls.....Until late in the day
on the 26th the forts laid at our mercy, and if the men had not been brought off, the Rebels would have surrendered when they marched up and the navy opened fire.” (See Report Committee on the Conduct of the War, page 178.) " They (the forts) were so blown up, burst up, and torn up, that the people inside had no intention of fighting any
longer.....There never was a fort
that invited soldiers to walk in and take possession more plainly than Fort Fisher.....We have shown the weakness of this work. It can be taken at any moment in one hour’s time.” (See Report Secretary of Navy, page 51.)
To the superficial observer the final capture of the fort might seem to prove the correctness of these views ; but it establishes the contrary. It appears from the experience of the second expedition that assaulting the fort was but half of the work to be done; for after the troops had gained the inside and rear of the fort, the fight continued for over six hours. The troops first got possession of the west part of the fort, and then the fight partook of the nature of a battle of infantry against infantry. Assaulting the fort was one thing, capturing its garrison was another. This great fact seems to have been entirely lost sight of by those who believe that the engineer officers showed timidity on the first expedition. However, Admiral Porter afterwards changed his mind materially on the subject of the strength of the fort and the forces necessary to carry it. In his testimony before the Committee on the Conduct of the War (see page 190) he says : “ I have since visited Fort Fisher and the adjoining works, and find their strength greatly beyond what I had conceived. An engineer might be excusable in saying they could not be captured except by regular siege. I wonder even now how it was done. The work, as I said before, is really stronger than the Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England ; and yet it is captured by a handful of men under the fire of the guns of the fleet, and in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest.”
Bearing in mind all the difficulties that surrounded the first expedition, and at the same time the remarkably favorable events of the second, it must be admitted that General Butler’s withdrawal of that part of his troops which had been landed, from their exposed position before the walls of Fort Fisher was a duty which he owed to his soldiers and to his country.
H. C. Lockwood.