By late 1864, the Confederacy’s last remaining open seaport was at Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington is roughly 30 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean, and the mouth of the Cape Fear was guarded by Fort Fisher, an enormous earthwork with 47 cannon and 1900 troops. The capture of Fort Fisher by the Union would sever the Confederacy’s last supply line with the outside world. A combined army and navy expedition in December of 1864 ended in failure, but Federal forces returned in January of 1865.
On January 13th, a 58 vessel fleet of warships under the command of Admiral David Porter began bombarding Fort Fisher. Porter ordered the warships to fire at specific targets rather than as a general bombardment of the fort. It paid off. The naval gunfire, which continued the next day, was accurate and destroyed or disabled many of the heavy guns in the fort. The ground forces under the overall command of Major General Alfred Terry made an amphibious landing on the 13th and constructed defensive works.
On January 15th, a force of approximately 2300 sailors and marines attacked the northeast corner of the fort but were driven off, suffering heavy casualties. While the fort’s defenders were preoccupied with the sailors, the infantrymen moved into position on the far western end of the earthworks and attacked. The fighting was intense and often hand to hand, but the 4000 man Union force slowly gained the upper hand, driving the Confederates back. By 9:30 p.m., Fort Fisher was in Federal hands. Although Wilmington itself would not be taken until February, the capture of Fort Fisher closed the port to Confederate blockade runners.
Afterwards, Admiral Porter submitted this report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the Navy’s actions at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher:
[NORTH ATLANTIC SQUADRON,
U. S. Flagship Malvern, off Fort Fisher, January 17, 1865.
SIR: I had the honor to make you a short report on the 15th, stating to you that Fort Fisher had been captured by the military and naval forces now here. I beg leave to submit now a detailed report of the operations, having received all, or nearly all, the information required to make out a complete report.
As soon as Major-General Terry arrived at Beaufort, N. C., which he did on the 8th December [January], we arranged together a plan of operations which has proved successful.
The weather was threatening, and I advised the general to get his transports inside the harbor to avoid the violence of the coming gale; most of them, however, laid outside.
The gale blew very heavy for two days and nights. The ships of war all held on and rode out at their anchors, except the Colorado, which vessel was obliged to go to sea, having only one anchor left, with which alone she could not possibly have ridden out the gale, the sea being very heavy from the S. W. and breaking clear over the vessels. Knowing that the transports had arrived, the commanders all made strenuous efforts to keep their vessels at anchor off Beaufort, to be ready for the move that was about to be made.
Having expended almost every shot and shell in the first bombardment, it became necessary to take in about 15,000 more and fill up with coal, which was done under the most adverse circumstances, the large vessels all lying outside in a heavy sea, and filling up as best they could. The fleet, accompanied by the transports, steamed away on the 12th for Fort Fisher, and the wind being fair and moderate I was in hopes that we would be able to land the troops by 9 or 10 o’clock that night. The wind changing to S. W., we were obliged to anchor off Half Moon battery for the night.
The fleet sailed in three columns. Line No. 1, led by the Brooklyn, Captain James Alden, consisted of the Mohican, Commander Daniel Aremen; Tacony, Lieutenant-Commander W. T. Truxtun; Kansas, Lieutenant-Commander P. G. Watmough; Yantic, Lieutenant-Commander T. C. Harrnadillis; Unadilla, Lieutenant. Commander F. M. Ramsay; Huron, Lieutenant-Commander T. O. Selfridge; Maumee, Lieutenant-Commander Ralph Chandler; Pequot, Lieutenant-Commander D. L. Braine; Pawtuxet, Commander J. H. Spotts; Seneca, Lieutenant. Commander M. Sicard; Pontoosuc, Lieutenant-Commander W. G. Temple; Nereus, Commander J. C. Howell.
Line No. 2, Minnesota, Commodore Joseph Lanman, leading, consisted of the Colorado, Commodore H. K. Thatcher; Wabash, Captain M. Smith; Susquehanna, Commodore S. W. Godon; Powhatan, Commodore J. F. Schenck; Juniata, Lieutenant-Commander T. S. Phelps; Shenandoah, Captain D. B. Ridgley; Ticonderoga, Captain Charles Steedman; Vanderbilt, Captain C. W. Pickering; Mackinaw, Commander J. C. Beaumont; Tuscarora, Commander J. M. Frailey.
Line No. 3, Santiago de Cuba, Captain O. S. Glisson, leading, consisted of the Fort Jackson, Captain B. F. Sands; Osceola, Commander J. M. B. Clitz; Sassacus, Lieutenant. Commander J. L. Davis; Chippewa, Lieutenant-Commander E. E. Potter; R. R. Cuyler, Commander C. H. B. Caldwell; Maratanza, Lieutenant-Commander George W. Young; Rhode Island, Commander S. D. Trenchard; Monticello, Lieutenant W. B. Cushing; Alabama, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant A. R. Langthorne; Montgomery, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant T. C. Dunn; Iosco, Commander John Guest.
The reserve division, under Lieutenant-Commander J. H. Upshur, in the A. D. Vance, consisted of the Britannia, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant W. B. Sheldon; Tristram Shandy, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant F. M. Green; Liltart, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant T. A. Harris; Fort Donelson, Acting Master G. W. Frost; Wilderness, Acting Master H. Arey; Aries, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant F. S. Wells; Gov. Buckingham, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant J. MacDiarmid; the Nansemond (Acting Master J. H. Porter), Little Ada (Acting Master S. P. Crafts), Eolus (Acting Master E. S. Keyser), and Republic (Acting Ensign J. W. Bennett) being used as dispatch vessels.
Great enthusiasm was displayed in the fleet when it was ascertained that troops had come to renew the attack on Fort Fisher, for great was the disappointment on account of the late failure.
Some of the vessels that accompanied the last expedition were badly damaged in various ways. The Sassacus had both rudders disabled, but her energetic commander, Lieutenant. Commander J. L. Davis, was ready in time. The Mackinaw, Commander J. C. Beaumont, had one of her boilers knocked to pieces, but her commander would go on one boiler.
The Osceola, Commander J. M. B. Clitz, in the same condition, one boiler smashed up with shot and a hole near the bottom, was ready for anything, and I heard no complaints from anyone. With such a disposition on the part of the officers, I anticipated the most favorable result.
At daylight on the 13th instant line No. 1 took position within 600 yards of the beach to land the troops, lines No. 2 and 3 anchoring close to and outside of them, and the reserves taking charge of the provision vessels.
At 8:30 a.m. signal was made to the fleet to send boats to transports to land troops. At 2 p.m. we had landed 8,000 men with 12 days’ provisions and all their intrenching tools.
In the meantime the New Ironsides, Commodore William Radford; Saugus, Commander E. R. Colhoun: Canonicus, Lieutenant-Commander George E. Belknap; Mahopac, Lieutenant-Commander A. W.
Weaver; and Monadnock, Commander E. O. Parrott, were ordered in to take a nearer position, the outside vessel (the Ironsides) being 1,000 yards from Fort Fisher, which was the principal work, and on which the iron vessels were ordered to pour all their fire and endeavor to dismount all the guns. They got into position about 8 a.m. and opened fire deliberately.
The troops having all landed without opposition, at 3 p.m. I signaled line No. 2 to get underway and go in and attack. Line No. 1 was signaled to take position in front of the batteries, and line No. 3 was to remain and cover the landing party and get the field artillery on shore.
The different lines, having formed into line of battle, steamed toward Fort Fisher, the Colorado leading (the Minnesota having got a hawser around her propeller). The vessels took their positions handsomely (having had some practice at that place)and delivered their fire as they fell in. The rapid fire [of the] monitors and Ironsides kept the rebels partly away from their guns, and they inflicted no damage on the fleet, the firing being very unsteady. Indeed, I don’t see how they could fire at all after lines Nos. I and 2 got fairly anchored in position; the bombardment was very rapid and severe. This was continued without intermission from 4 p.m. until some time after dark, when the wooden vessels were ordered to haul out and anchor. The monitors and Ironsides were directed to keep up the fire during the night. The enemy had long ceased to respond to our fire and kept in his bombproofs.
I could see that our fire had damaged some of their guns, and I determined before the army went to the assault there should be no guns (within our reach) to arrest their progress.
Having found that the rebels could still bring some heavy guns to bear, which annoyed us somewhat, I determined to try another plan, and on the morning of the 14th ordered in all the small gunboats carrying XI-inch guns to fire slowly and try and dismount the guns on the face of the works where the assault was to be made. The Brooklyn was ordered to throw in a pretty quick fire to keep the rebels from working their guns. The attack was commenced at I p.m. and lasted until long after dark. One or two guns only were fired this day from the upper batteries, inflicting no serious damage on any of the vessels, except cutting away the mainmast of the Huron and hitting the Unadilla once or twice. These guns were always silenced when a rapid fire was opened. The attack of the gunboats lasted until long after dark, and one vessel was employed firing (an hour each) throughout the night. On this evening General Terry came on board to see me and arrange the plan of battle for the next day. The troops had got rested after their long confinement on ship board and sea voyage, and had recovered from the drenching they received when landing through the surf. Having been long enough on their native element, they were eager for the attack.
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 came off. The hour named was 2 p.m. I 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.
Most all of the sailors were armed with cutlasses and revolvers, while a number had Sharps rifles or short carbines. I herewith enclose the order of attack on the fort, and the manner of approaching it. There was a perfect understanding between the general and myself, and a system of signals established (by the Army code) by which we could converse at our pleasure, though nearly a mile apart and amidst the din of battle.
At 9 a.m. on the 15th the squadron was signaled to attack in three lines, or assume position marked on the plan herewith enclosed.
All the vessels reached position at about 11 a.m., and each opened fire as they got their anchors down.
The same guns in the upper batteries opened again this day with some effect, as you will see by reference to the reports of different commanders, but no vessel was injured sufficiently to interfere in the least with her efficiency. The fire was kept up furiously all day. The Mound Hill battery kept up rather a galling fire with its two heavy guns, but the rebels were driven away from their works into their bomb-proofs, so that no vessel was in the least disabled.
At 2 o’clock I expected the signal for the vessels to “change the direction of their fire,” so that the troops might assault. The sailors and marines had worked, by digging ditches or rifle pits, to within 200 yards of the fort, and were all ready. The troops, however, did not get into position until later, and at 3 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. We had evidently (we thought) injured all the large guns so that they could not be fired to annoy any one. The sailors took to the assault by the flank along the beach, while the troops rushed in at the left through the palisades, that had been knocked away by the fire of our guns.
All the arrangements on the part of the sailors had been well carried out; they had succeeded in getting up to within a short distance of the fort and laid securely in their ditches. We had but very few killed and wounded to this point. The marines were to have held the rifle pits and cover the boarding party, which they failed to do. On rushing through the palisades, which extended from the fort to the sea, the head of the column received a murderous fire of grape and canister, which did not, however, check the officers and sailors who were leading; the parapets now swarmed with rebels, who poured in a destructive fire of musketry. At this moment, had the marines performed their duty, every one of the rebels on the parapets would have been killed.
I witnessed the whole affair; saw how recklessly the rebels exposed themselves, and what an advantage they gave our sharpshooters, whose guns were scarcely fired, or fired with no precision. Notwithstanding the hot fire, officers and sailors in the lead rushed on, and some even reached the parapet–a large number having reached the ditch.
The advance was swept from the parapet like chaff, and, notwithstanding all the efforts made by commanders of companies to stop them, the men in the rear, seeing the slaughter in front and that they were not covered by the marines, commenced to retreat, and, as there is no stopping a sailor if he fails on such an occasion on the first rush, I saw the whole thing had to be given up. In the meantime the troops were more successful on their side. The rebels, seeing so large a body of men coming at them on the sea side, were under the impression it was the main attack, and concentrated the largest part of their forces at that point, and when they gave three rebel cheers, thinking they had gained the day, they received a volley of musketry in their backs from our gallant soldiers who had been successful in gaining the highest parapet. Then commenced such a system of fighting as has never been beaten. Our soldiers had gained two traverses, while I directed the Ironsides to fire on the traverses occupied by the rebels. Four, five, and six traverses were carried by our troops in the space of an hour. These traverses are immense bombproofs, about 60 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet high–17 of them in all–being on the northeast face. Between each traverse or bombproof are one or two heavy guns. The fighting lasted until 10 o’clock at night, the Ironsides and monitors firing through the traverses in advance of our troops, and the level strip of land called Federal Point being enfiladed by the ships to prevent reinforcements reaching the rebels.
General Terry himself went into the fort, and I kept up constant communication with him, until three hearty cheers, which were taken up by the fleet, announced the capture of Fort Fisher. Finding that the general felt anxious about the enemy receiving reinforcements, I directed the sailors and marines to relieve the troops in the outer line of our defenses, and a large number of soldiers were thus enabled to join our forces in the fort.
It will not be amiss for me to remark here that I never saw anything like the fearless gallantry and endurance displayed by our troops; they fought like lions, and knew no such word as fail. They finally fought and chased the rebels from traverse to traverse until they reached Battery Lamb, or the Mound–a face of work extending about 1,400 yards in length. At this point the rebels broke and fled to the end of Federal Point. Our troops followed them up, and they surrendered at discretion.
Thus ended one of the most remarkable battles on record, and one which will do more damage to the rebel cause than any that has taken place this war. Two thousand three hundred rebels manned Fort Fisher; 1,900 were taken prisoners; the rest were killed or wounded. I may have stated some inaccuracies with regard to these military matters, which I will leave to General Terry to supply.
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.
I can not say too much in praise of the conduct of this fleet during the time we have been engaged in these operations. I do not know an officer in command who has not performed his duty to the best of his ability. There may be some who have done better than others, but, after all, that may be a mere matter of opinion, or a matter of prejudice or partiality; all did their best, and we can ask no more. To make invidious distinctions in a report of this kind would be causing matter for dispute, and I shall content myself with saying that the Government may well be proud of those whom it has intrusted here with the command of the vessels.
I leave each commander to tell what his subordinates have done, and refer the Department to the reports of divisional commanders for an account of what they saw and did. I will, however, make a special report of what I consider due to those who have been engaged in this contest and have persistently fought for the Union.
I refer you to Lieutenant Commander K. R. Breese, who led the assault. The result was not what I expected when I planned the attack, but it would have succeeded without severe loss had the marines performed their duty. As it is, we have lost heavily, and the country has lost some gallant officers who fell on the enemy’s ramparts.
The success is so great that we should not complain. Men, it seems, must die that this Union may live, and the Constitution under which we have gained our prosperity must be maintained. We regret our companions in arms and shed a tear over their remains, but if these rebels should succeed we would have nothing but regret left us and our lives would be spent in terror and sorrow.
As soon as the forts were taken I pushed the lightdraft gunboats into the river; that is, as soon as I could find and buoy out a channel and take up the torpedoes, which were very thick. We found the wires leading to many, and underrun them with boats. We found the torpedoes too heavy to lift with our ordinary boats, and they must have contained at least a ton of powder. The rebels seemed disposed to pay us back for the famous torpedo Louisiana, which exploded in their harbor and did them no harm.
We had some difficulty in getting the vessels across the bar and into the river, as the channel is very narrow and the bar very shoal A few of them got stuck, but were got off again with the tide. We all came to the conclusion that we had followed the right plan to capture Fort Fisher, one in which the nautical man of any sense will concur. After I got three of the gunboats inside the bar and under the Mound, the rebels prepared to evacuate Fort Caswell. Two steamers near the fort (which I think were the Tallahassee and Chickamauga) were set fire to and blown up after the rebels had set fire to the fort. That blew up last night with a heavy explosion, followed by some minor ones. The barracks were apparently in flames all night and some little works between this and Caswell blown up. I have sent vessels to see what has been done, and shall be governed accordingly. I think they are burning up everything in Wilmington, and are getting away as fast as they can. In the meantime a large force of gunboats occupies the river between Caswell and Wilmington. That place is hermetically sealed against blockade runners, and no Alabamas or Floridas, Chickamaugas or Tallahassees will ever fit out again from this port, and our merchant vessels will soon, I hope, be enabled to pursue in safety their avocation.
I send you a list of killed and wounded; we have lost more than I at first estimated.
We expended in the bombardment about 50,000 shells and have as much more on hand.
I feel much indebted to the Bureau of Ordnance for so promptly supplying us with ammunition and guns. I regret that someone stopped our supply of coal (which should have been doubly increased), for it came very near defeating this expedition. Had we not been supplied by the Army, this expedition would have been a failure.
We shall move along carefully, have no vessels blown up with torpedoes if I can help it, and I think we will be in Wilmington before long.
You may rest satisfied, sir, that the gate through which the rebels obtained their supplies is closed forever, and we can sit here quietly and watch the traitors starve.
I enclose you a number of reports (dry, though necessary details) with which I will not overload my report (already too long) on such an interesting occasion.
The number of guns captured in these works amount to 75, many of them superb rifled pieces of very heavy caliber. All those facing the ships were dismounted or injured so they could not be used, or the muzzles were filled up with sand or dirt, which rendered them useless. I only saw two that were not rendered useless.
I believe we have burst all the rifled guns left in the fleet (one on the Susquehanna, one on the Pequot, and one on the Osceola) and I think the reputation of these guns is now about ruined.
I shall take occasion in another dispatch to call your attention to those officers whom I consider worthy of the most praise and the approbation and notice of the Department.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
DAVID D. PORTER,
Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.
Porter was critical of the Marines for failing to support the sailors during the naval assault, but it’s questionable if that attack would have been successful. The force had been assembled from the crews of the warships, and were not trained for assaulting fortified land positions; attacking the fort with cutlasses, pistols, and carbines was more like boarding an enemy vessel rather than conducting an infantry assault, though the sailors may have done well in close in fighting if they had made it into the fort. Some of those present justifiably felt the naval assault did serve to act as a diversion for the army infantry, and was successful in keeping the Confederates busy while the soldiers got into position. From his perspective, Colonel Lamb would later write that he felt the sailor’s assault would have been successful if it had been supported better by naval gunfire.
In a separate dispatch to Navy Secretary Welles, Porter went out of his way to praise Major General Alfred H. Terry, the commander of the army in the expedition. Porter noted that throughout the campaign Terry’s “conduct has been marked by the greatest desire to be successful, not for the sake of personal considerations, but for the cause in which we all alike are engaged.” Practically anyone would have been an improvement over Major General Benjamin Butler, the army commander in the failed December First Battle of Fort Fisher, but Terry was indeed a very good field commander.
By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War
by Bern Anderson
The Civil War in North Carolina
by John G. Barrett
The Defense of Fort Fisher by William Lamb. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume IV.
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 11.
The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope
by Chris E, Fonvielle, Jr.