By Sandy Jackson
[Originally published in the July, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]
Federal forces began plans for a joint army-navy attack on Fort Fisher during the fall of 1864.
Shortly after the southern forces learned on October 24, 1864, of the impending attack, Confederate general Braxton Bragg assumed command of the defenses of Wilmington. He superseded Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, who remained his second-in-command.
The Confederates assembled 1,430 men at Fort Fisher in preparation for the assault. An additional force of 6,000 veterans from Lee’s army under the command of Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke were located 5 miles up the river at Sugar Loaf.
The expected Federal fleet finally arrived off Fort Fisher on the morning of December 20 under the command of Admiral David Porter. Aboard the fifty-six warships that gathered New Inlet was an army unit of 6,500 infantrymen under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler.
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The first attempt the Federals made to take the fort began on the night of December 23, when the powder ship Louisiana, with more than 215 tons of powder, was exploded within 200 yards of the fort. It was hoped that the blast from the vessel would create a gap in the earthen defense. After a lengthy delay, however, the ship finally exploded at 1:52 AM. doing no damage.
For two days, December 24 and 25, Fort Fisher came under a heavy bombardment that did little destruction.
During the afternoon on Christmas day, 2,000 troops under General Butler made an unopposed landing at Battery Anderson, 3 miles up the coast. Unable to advance upon the fort because of artillery fire, General Butler withdrew his troops.
On December 27 the Federal vessels sailed north along the coast to Beaufort, North Carolina, having been unsuccessful in their initial effort to capture Fort Fisher.
The Confederates were jubilant at having withstood the land attack of General Butler and the naval bombardment from Admiral Porter’s ships. General Bragg, not expecting a renewed attack from the Union forces, ordered Hoke’s 6,000 troops into Wilmington in preparation for a move against occupied New Bern.
Disappointed with the failure of General Butler to take Fort Fisher, General U. S. Grant replaced Butler with Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry and ordered an additional 1,500 troops to ready themselves for a second attack on the fortification within the following weeks.
The Federal fleet, then numbering warships mounting 627 guns, reassembled at Beaufort, and proceeded back to Fort Fisher. On the night of January, 12, 1865, the Federal fleet reappeared off Confederate Point. The following morning, the second attack on Fort Fisher commenced when the five ironclads began bombarding the land defenses. The rest of the fleet, which joined in the bombardment of the fort that continued day and night from the thirteenth to the fifteenth. More than 50,000 shells and roundshot were directed at Fort Fisher during this period-the heaviest shelling of any fort during the war.
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On January 14 Federal troops again landed above Fort Fisher, in the vicinity of Battery Anderson. There the infantry entrenched from the sea to the river and were supported by light artillery brought ashore. To prevent Gen. Braxton Bragg from arriving from Wilmington to enforce the fort, 4,700 men were placed along the entrenchment.
The remaining 3,300 men under the command of General Terry moved against Fort Fisher. At the pre-arranged hour of 3:00 PM. on January 15, the assault began under a covering fire from the Federal vessels.
In an effort to draw the fire away from General Terry’s troops, 400 marines and 1,600 sailors, landed near the fort the evening before and, armed with pistols and cutlasses, attacked the northeast bastion on the beach side.
The main attack by General Terry and his men came along the river at the end battery. During the ensuing battle, General Whiting was mortally wounded and Colonel Lamb severely wounded. The Confederate survivors of the battle fled to Battery Buchanan in hopes of finding boats as a means of escape.
The assault finally ended at 10 o’clock on the evening of January 15 when the last of the Confederate defenders, finding boats no longer there, could do nothing but surrender. Federal casualties had been costly, with nearly 1,300 men lost, but the expedition had finally been successful.
The “last major stronghold of the confederacy” had fallen. Blockade-runners could no longer enter the safety of the Cape Fear River to unload at Wilmington, and in the following month even the city would be occupied by Union forces.
Fort Fisher State Historic Site
1974 “Fort Fisher State Historic Site Master Development Plan”. North Carolina Department of Natural and Economic Resources and North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Lamb, William Colonel
1896 “Defense of Fort Fisher, North Carolina” In Operation on The Atlantic Coast 1861-1865, Virginia 1862-1864.
Vicksburg: Papers of The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts“, Vol. IX, 1912 Boston: The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts.
Powell, William S.
1968 “The North Carolina Gazetteer“. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
1992 “Chronicles of The Cape Fear River 1660-1916“. Second edition. Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Co. Originally published, Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Co., 1916.
The Wilmington Campaign (Dr. Chris Fonvielle)
Fort Fisher I: Folly
North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial – Maps
July, 1995 (pdf) – FPHPS Newsletter