The First Battle of Fort Fisher

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The First Battle of Fort Fisher

"The first shot fired by the enemy was from the [USS New] Ironsides . . . . Soon after the bombardment commenced in earnest, shot and shell, shrapnel, &c., flying thick as hail, but perhaps a little hotter." — Capt. Samuel B. Hunter, Company F, 36th North Carolina Regiment

DECEMBER 24, 1864 — CHRISTMAS EVE

• 1:40 a.m. — The Union "powder vessel," USS Louisiana, explodes harmlessly off Fort Fisher.

• Dawn — A thick fog shrouds the ocean as the grand Union armada begins moving into battle position off Federal Point.

• 12:40 p.m. — The Union fleet (64 warships) opens the first bombardment of Fort Fisher. The U.S. Navy's five largest frigates—Susquehannah, Wabash, Colorado, Powhatan, and Minnesota—are on hand for the attack. The USS Colorado alone, with 52 guns, has more armament than all of Fort Fisher (which mounts a mere 47 heavy guns and mortars). The Federal fleet boasts more than 600 cannons.

• 1:00-4:30 p.m. — Confederate Brig. Gen. William W. Kirkland's Brigade (of Hoke's Division)—having reached Wilmington around midnight on December 23—reaches the Confederate defensive line at Sugar Loaf, north of Fort Fisher. At Sugar Loaf, Kirkland (arriving with roughly 1,300 men), joins about 1,200 men and boys of the North Carolina Junior and Senior Reserves, a regiment of cavalry, and two batteries of artillery.

• 1:00 p.m.-Dusk — The Union fleet pounds Fort Fisher with an unprecedented naval bombardment, firing roughly 10,000 rounds of solid shot and explosive shell. Colonel Lamb's headquarters building is destroyed, and Confederate barracks and various outbuildings are set ablaze. Confederate return fire finds its mark among the vessels of the fleet, and the massive shot-torn fort weathers the storm intact.

• Late Afternoon — Confederate Maj. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting enters Fort Fisher and confers with Col. William Lamb.

• Dusk — The Union fleet hauls off, and returns to positions further out to sea.

DECEMBER 25, 1864 — CHRISTMAS DAY

"I saw plainly that [Fort Fisher] had not been materially injured by the heavy and very accurate shell fire of the navy . . . and having a distinct and vivid recollection of the two unsuccessful assaults on Fort Wagner [South Carolina], both of which were made under four times more favorable circumstances than those under which we were placed, I returned [to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler aboard the gunboat Chamberlain] and frankly reported to him that it would be butchery to order an assault on that work under the circumstances." — Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, commanding XXIV Army Corps

• Morning — About 20 Union vessels shell the beach north of Fort Fisher (near Kirkland's position). The warships, led by the USS Brooklyn, shell Confederate positions at Sugar Loaf, Battery Gatlin, and Battery Anderson in an effort to carve out a safer landing zone for Federal infantry forces.

The incessant naval bombardment of Fort Fisher resumes and Union warships hurl another 10,000 rounds upon the beleaguered bastion.

• 2:00 p.m. — A Union naval party—in small boats, and led by Lt. Cmdr. William B. Cushing—endeavors to find the channel and take soundings at New Inlet. Adm. David D. Porter is anxious to plot a safe course across the bar, prior to sending his lighter draft gunboats through the inlet into the Cape Fear River behind Fort Fisher. Porter hopes to silence the Mound Battery and adjacent installations prior to crossing the bar.

• 2:00 p.m. — Union infantry hits the beach, as the amphibious assault force rows ashore in john boats. Bvt. Brig. Gen. N. Martin Curtis is the first Union soldier to set foot on Federal Point. Curtis is joined by Gen. Godfrey Weitzel and about 500 men of the First Brigade, 2nd Division, XXIV Army Corps. The Federals spar with Kirkland's skirmishers as they strive to secure a beach head.

Curtis strikes southward with elements of the 142nd and 112th New York Regiments. Kirkland's skirmishers are overwhelmed, and the Confederate brigadier opts to withdraw to Sugar Loaf, to assure the protection of the main Rebel defensive line (guarding the road to Wilmington) until reinforcements from Hoke's Division can arrive.

• 3:00 p.m. — Curtis and Weitzel advance, with about 250 men of the 142nd New York, to within one and one-half miles of the land face of Fort Fisher.

Curtis moves a reconnaissance force southward to Howard's Hill. A command post is established at the abandoned Battery Holland, and Curtis pushes his men to within 75 yards of Shepherd's Battery, opposite the fort's western salient.

• 3:20 p.m.-Dusk — Lt. William Walling, 142nd New York, pilfers a large Confederate garrison flag, knocked down by the naval bombardment, from the outer wall of Shepherd's Battery.

Lt. George Simpson climbs a telegraph pole and severs the telegraph line with a hatchet, thereby cutting a line of communication running northward from the fort. Perched high atop the telegraph pole, Lieutenant Simpson spies the interior of Fort Fisher. Here, Simpson confirms for the Union that Fort Fisher is indeed a two-sided work, and not a four-sided bastion as previously conjectured.

Curtis is excited by the news that the rear of the fort is wide open; and he is convinced the bastion can be taken by an infantry assault. Weitzel and General Butler, however, fear that the fort is too strong to be taken with such a small attacking force. Moreover, they fear for the safety of their troops after nightfall, as the Federals are sandwiched between two strong Rebel positions—Fort Fisher to the south, and the Sugar Loaf line to the north. Butler calls a halt to the operation.

• Dusk — Dark clouds gather over Federal Point, and the wind picks up considerably.

• Nightfall — Federal Chief Engineer Cyrus Comstock and Second Division commander Adelbert Ames reach Battery Holland. Ames encourages the eager Curtis to make an assault. Comstock agrees.

As night falls, Curtis advances a skirmish line composed of elements of the 3rd, 117th, and 142nd New York Regiments.

• Dark — The Union naval bombardment abruptly ceases.

Inside Fort Fisher, Lamb and Whiting hurry Confederate troops from their bomproofs on both faces of the fort to man the northern battlements and the low berm behind the fort's palisades.

As the Union line advances on Fort Fisher in the darkness, Colonel Lamb gives the order for his men and artillery to open fire.

Encouraged by the seeming lack of Confederate manpower just a short time earlier, Ames and Comstock are shocked by the sudden blast of Rebel fire. After a brief period of confusion and indecision, Ames and Comstock heed Butler's orders and return to the Federal landing zone north of Fort Fisher.

Troops from the First Brigade remain at the front until a staff officer arrives to tell a disappointed Curtis that most of the Federal landing force has returned to the transports offshore. By the time Curtis reaches the landing zone, the weather has deteriorated to a point that precludes a safe departure for his troops. Thus Curtis—with more than 600 men of the First Brigade and several hundred Rebel prisoners captured by the 117th New York—will be stranded on the beach for the next two days.

DECEMBER 26

• Fort Fisher—with its garrison—remains intact.

• Gen. Benjamin Butler departs for Hampton Roads, Virginia.

• 12:00 p.m.-Late Afternoon — Shortly before noon, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg arrives at Sugar Loaf. Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke reaches Sugar Loaf with Hagood's Brigade and the rest of Kirkland's men later in the afternoon.

DECEMBER 27

• Instead of overwhelming Curtis's vulnerable troops, Bragg is content to let them escape; and the Federals are soon rescued from the beach.

• As the Union fleet sails away from Cape Fear, Colonel Lamb orders his Confederate gunners at Fort Fisher to fire a defiant parting volley toward the "beaten" enemy.

• Night — The steamer Wild Rover runs the blockade at New Inlet.

• Lamb and Whiting are greatly dissatisfied with Bragg's inactivity and failure to crush the enemy near Sugar Loaf.

• Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles are infuriated to learn of the failure of the expedition to capture Fort Fisher.

DECEMBER 28

• Morning — The steamer Banshee runs the blockade at New Inlet.

• 5:30 p.m. — President Abraham Lincoln queries Grant: "If there be no objection, please tell me what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present and prospective."

• An exasperated Grant replies: "The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Many of the troops are now back here [in Virginia]. Delays and free talk of the object of the expedition enabled the enemy to move troops to Wilmington to defeat it. After the expedition sailed from Fort Monroe [Va.] three days of fine weather were squandered, during which the enemy was without a force to protect himself. Who is to blame I hope will be known."

Credit: ah.dcr.state.nc.us

Recommended Reading: Hurricane of Fire: The Union Assault on Fort Fisher (Hardcover). Review: In December 1864 and January 1865, Federal forces launched the greatest amphibious assault the world had yet seen on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina. This was the last seaport available to the South--all of the others had been effectively shut down by the Union's tight naval blockade. The initial attack was a disaster; Fort Fisher, built mainly out of beach sand, appeared almost impregnable against a heavy naval bombardment. When troops finally landed, they were quickly repelled. Continued below... 

A second attempt succeeded and arguably helped deliver one of the death blows to a quickly fading Confederacy. Hurricane of Fire is a work of original scholarship, ably complementing Rod Gragg's Confederate Goliath, and the first book to take a full account of the navy's important supporting role in the assault.

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Recommended Reading: Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher. From Publishers Weekly: Late in the Civil War, Wilmington, N.C., was the sole remaining seaport supplying Lee's army at Petersburg, Va., with rations and munitions. In this dramatic account, Gragg describes the two-phase campaign by which Union forces captured the fort that guarded Wilmington and the subsequent occupation of the city itself--a victory that virtually doomed the Confederacy. In the initial phase in December 1864, General Ben Butler and Admiral David Porter directed an unsuccessful amphibious assault against Fort Fisher that included the war's heaviest artillery bombardment. Continued below…

The second try in January '65 brought General Alfred Terry's 9000-man army against 1500 ill-equipped defenders, climaxing in a bloody hand-to-hand struggle inside the bastion and an overwhelming Union victory. Although historians tend to downplay the event, it was nevertheless as strategically decisive as the earlier fall of either Vicksburg or Atlanta. Gragg has done a fine job in restoring this important campaign to public attention. Includes numerous photos.

 

Recommended Reading: Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. Description: Even before the rest of North Carolina joined her sister states in secession, the people of the Lower Cape Fear were filled with enthusiasm for the Southern Cause - so much so that they actually seized Forts Johnston and Caswell, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. When the state finally did secede, Wilmington became the most important port city of the Confederacy, keeping Robert E. Lee supplied with the munitions and supplies he needed to fight the war against the North. Continued below…

Dedicated soldiers like William Lamb and W.H.C. Whiting turned the sandy beaches of southern New Hanover and Brunswick Counties into a series of fortresses that kept the Union navy at bay for four years. The mighty Fort Fisher and a series of smaller forts offered safe haven for daring blockade runners that brought in the Confederacy's much-needed supplies. In the process, they turned the quiet port of Wilmington into a boomtown. In this book that was fifteen years in the making, James L. Walker, Jr. has chronicled the story of the Lower Cape Fear and the forts and men that guarded it during America's bloodiest conflict, from the early days of the war to the fall of Wilmington in February 1865.

 

Recommended Reading: Masters of the Shoals: Tales of the Cape Fear Pilots Who Ran the Union Blockade. Description: Lavishly illustrated stories of daring harbor pilots who risked their lives for the Confederacy. Following the Union's blockade of the South's waterways, the survival of the Confederacy depended on a handful of heroes-daring harbor pilots and ship captains-who would risk their lives and cargo to outrun Union ships and guns. Their tales of high adventure and master seamanship became legendary. Masters of the Shoals brings to life these brave pilots of Cape Fear who saved the South from gradual starvation. Continued below…

REVIEWS:

"A valuable and meticulous accounting of one chapter of the South's failing struggle against the Union." -- Washington Times 03/06/04

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Well documented...an easy read." -- Civil War News June 2004

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Will be of special interest to Civil War naval enthusiasts." -- Civil War News May 2004

"Offers an original view of a vital but little-known aspect of blockade running." -- Military Images 03/01/04

"Surveys the whole history of the hardy seamen who guided ships around the Cape Fear's treacherous shoals." -- Wilmington Star-News 10/26/03

"The story [McNeil] writes is as personal as a family memoir, as authoritative and enthusiastic as the best history." -- The Advocate 11/15/03

“Outstanding and compelling depictions of seamen courage and tenacity...Heroic, stirring, and gripping stories of the men that dared to confront the might and power of the US Navy.” – americancivilwarhistory.org

 

Recommended Reading: Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear : Running the Civil War Blockade. Description: After the elimination of Charleston in 1863 as a viable entry port for running the blockade, Wilmington, North Carolina, became the major source of external supply for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The story of blockade running on the Cape Fear River was one of the most important factors determining the fate of the South. With detailed and thought-provoking research, author Dawson Carr takes a comprehensive look at the men, their ships, their cargoes, and their voyages. Continued below…

In mid-1863, the small city of Wilmington, North Carolina, literally found itself facing a difficult task: it had to supply Robert E. Lee's army if the South was to continue the Civil War. Guns, ammunition, clothing, and food had to be brought into the Confederacy from Europe, and Wilmington was the last open port. Knowing this, the Union amassed a formidable blockading force off storied Cape Fear. What followed was a contest unique in the annals of warfare. The blockade runners went unarmed, lest their crews be tried as pirates if captured. Neither did the Union fleet wish to sink the runners, as rich prizes were the reward for captured cargoes. The battle was thus one of wits and stealth more than blood and glory. As the Union naval presence grew stronger, the new breed of blockade runners got faster, quieter, lower to the water, and altogether more ghostly and their crews more daring and resourceful. Today, the remains of nearly three dozen runners lie beneath the waters of Cape Fear, their exact whereabouts known to only a few fishermen and boaters. Built for a special mission at a brief moment in time, they faded into history after the war. There had never been ships like the blockade runners, and their kind will never be seen again. Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear tells the story of their captains, their crews, their cargoes, their opponents, and their many unbelievable escapes. Rare photos and maps. “This book is nothing shy of a must read.”

 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.

 

Recommended Reading: Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History. Reader’s Review: In the thirty years since this book was published, one always hoped another would equal or surpass it. None has, or perhaps ever will. It is a marvelous history of the Forts along the American Seacoast, both Atlantic and Pacific, and even the Philippines. …Any Fort enthusiast must read this book. The author captures so much information, so many views, so much perspective in so few pages, the book is breathtaking. It is easily the finest book on its chosen subject, which is why it never goes out of print. “If forts interest you, read it, period.” The photographs from the author's collection, the army's files, the National Archives, etc., make it an invaluable edition. Continued below…

But the text, the clear delineation of the periods of fort building since 1794 in the US, and the differentiation of the periods, are so worth while. Ray manages to be both terse, and pithy. It is a great tribute to any author to say that. “This is a MUST read for anyone interested in the subject, even one only interested in their own local Fort, and how it relates to the defense plans of the United States when it was built.” “[T]here is NO better book to read on the subject.”

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