[Editor: The following letter was written by Col. Nathan J. Johnson, 115th New York Regiment, to Col. John S. Crocker in White Creek, New York on January 30, 1865, just two weeks after Union forces captured Fort Fisher. Colonel Crocker had earlier commanded the 93rd New York Regiment. I am indeed grateful to Alice Begley and the New York State Library, Albany, Documents and Manuscripts, for allowing us to reproduce this letter in our newsletter.]
“My Dear Colonel: The thought has just struck me that you might possibly while away a lonesome moment in your snowbound home in that lonesome town of yours by perusing a letter one of your old Captains who wandered away the old 93rd to seek his fortunes among other scenes other men. I have seized a pen and here goes.
As you see by the heading, I am at Ft. Fisher which the 2nd Division took a notion to take one day and they took it. That is, a portion of the 2nd Div. for we one regiment which has a large amount of that discretion which enables one “to fight another day” together with all those who were new recruits and those who are usually effected by shell fever and brought down only the reliables which amounted to about 2,500. There were about 4 to 5,000 other troops brought down for the purpose of protecting our rear and acting as a reserve in case they were needed, but to the 2nd Div. was allotted the work of attacking Ft. Fisher.
Well we landed on the 13th, in the surf on the beach above the fort and that night built a line of entrenchments across the peninsula or neck of land facing towards Wilmington in order to be protected in our rear. This was finished and the other troops placed in there on the 14th. The Navy meanwhile bombarding the fort “right smart,” although when we took a look at it through our glasses at sunset we could not discover that any portion of it had been knocked down but that it still loomed up against the evening sky with all its formidable proportions of gigantic strength.
On the morning of the 15th we began to prepare for work and get ready to move and about 12 o’clock we got orders to advance which we did, the Navy away as if the dogs of War did “delight to bark & bite” in the meantime. We moved up to within 3/4 of a mile of the fort and then laid us down to sit and wait the cessation of the bombardment.
This finally ceased and we were about to charge when we saw the Marines advancing on the fort with pistols and cutlasses from the east. (we were advancing from a northerly direction) Great Caesar’s ghost! Didn’t we look with some amazement at such a performance. Pistols and cutlasses to storm the strongest work in America with!
Well we looked and onward, onward, onward ran along the lines we started for Ft. Fisher, and before we got half the distance the Marines were running back terribly cut up and defeated, but the 2nd Div. moved in, shot and shell musketry raining down from those devilish parapets like hail but it was no stranger to those troops and not for a singe instant did it retard the advance.
On to the stockade which is cut down in places and up the slopes along the traverses and on the terra plain swarmed the 2nd Div. and inch by inch traverse to traverse from bomb proof to bomb proof did we drive the stubbornly resisting rebels who held their ground with a courage and obstinacy that only brave men can possess.
But when we had got into the fort at the north end we found that our job was only begun and at it we met with a determination and coolness rarely if ever evinced. To show you the difficulties of the undertaking, I will briefly describe the shape of the fort and the position of the guns. The fort is semicircular in form with a battery (Buchanan) half or even 3/4 mile in rear of southern end like this [hand sketch included of fort]. The bomb proofs of course opened in the interior.
Now when we had got in at the north end where I have marked an entrance [shown on sketch] a portion of the troops went up the slope out side and a portion went along the terra-plain, as soon as we had gained possession of a few traverses (in each of which was a gun mounted and full of men with muskets) the guns of the battery in the rear began on that portion of the works in our possession.
They could tell by our flags which we planted on each mound as fast as we got a traverse. There were also in the plain back some distance from the works, large numbers of rebs in rifle pits who could enfilade us both on the traverses and on the terra-plain. You will then see that we had our hands full and we got no help from the navy as they dare not fire. But we held on fought on, they were nearly as many as we and better protected but we were going to take that fort and “fight it on that line” if it took all winter and we kept on struggling bleeding dying we kept on until victory rewarded our labors.
We lost heavily especially in officers. Col. Bill Armory in my brigade was killed. Col. [Galusha] Pennypacker of the 2nd was mortally wounded and Brig. Gen. [N. Martin] Curtis commanding 1st, slightly. I lost my adjutant or rather acting adjt. he was standing near me while I was giving him orders about the disposition of a portion of the regiment which I desired to move to another point.
I got out of this engagement all right mainly knocked down by the explosion of a shell but not seriously hurt. 300 officers and 1,000 men killed and wounded.
I had just got back to the regiment and was really unfit for duty for I could not raise my right arm high enough to draw my sword and carried it all day in the scabbard in my left arm.
When we had obtained possession of the fort we were surprised at what we had done. It is the strongest and largest work in America if not in the world. Col. [William] Lamb told me that it was the strongest work in the continent.
The mounds are from 30 to 40 feet above the level plain and the guns are at least 20 feet above the plain. The mound battery is 50 ft high and the guns are placed on the top and all of them are on carriages so you can form some estimate of the size of the type of a mound which is large enough for two guns and carriages when I tell you that those guns are ____ and throw thirty two lb shot.
These works built up as they are upon a level beach to that height and size make one think as he looks at them of the work of the Titans. The next morning we had a magazine explode which maimed in its fallen debris about one hundred men. We got out some alive, but about sixty were killed, some were actually blown to atoms. We found a leg here and an arm there and entrails in another place. It was an awful sight.
There were three officers killed and seven badly hurt among the latter probably mortally, was Col. [Alonzo] Alden of the 169th N.Y.V. The loss of Col. Bill and wounding of Col. Alden put me in command of the brigade and a short time after I came in command I received an order from Gen. [Adelbert] Ames who commands our division that the 3rd Brig. would garrison at Ft. Fisher.
Hence a man of old Washington County was the first Union Commander of Fort Fisher NC. and he took his first lesson in the art of War in the gallant old 93rd under Col. John S. Crocker.
But I must close this long written epistle. I have one request nay, command to enjoin upon you that is not to show this about. Between old friends such egotism may be pardoned but not by the public.
Yours fraternally, Nathan J. Johnson.
[Text was originally published in the January 1997 – FPHPS Newsletter]
Colonel Nathan J. Johnson – 115th New York Infantry
Col. John S. Crocker and Lt. Col. Benjamin C. Butler, 93d New York Volunteers