Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.
The loss of the North Carolina sounds, the capture of New Orleans, the closing down of Savannah as a port, the continuous bombardment of Charleston, the general tightening of the Yankee blockade transformed Wilmington, North Carolina, into the chief supply center for Lee's army operating in Virginia. Fleets of blockade-runners moored alongside the wharves, where stevedores, black and white, discharged rifles, cannon, ammunition, steel, tin, zinc, leather, tools, hardware, medicine, and saltpeter. On the western side of the Cape Fear River, near the Market Street ferry, a cotton press ran day and night supplying the runners with cargoes for the West Indies. Hatches battened down and cotton piled high on the deck, the runner steamed •twenty-eight miles down the Cape Fear River, exchanged signals with Fort Fisher or Caswell, guarding the Atlantic approaches, waited until nightfall, then dashed through the Federal dragnet for the open sea.
The aorta of Confederate commerce, Wilmington with its miserable defenses outbluffed Yankee gunboats. p202 W. H. C. Whiting, a hard-drinking general with a drooping mustache and unkempt hair straggling over his ears, arrived at Wilmington to take command in November 1862. He discovered no gun emplacements in town, was sickened at the sight of the worst field batteries in the Confederate service, and drove his men relentlessly to spin out rope obstructions across the channels and to lay mines near Fort Fisher on the Atlantic. Yellow fever raged in the city. Conditions were so bad at Fort Caswell that the men considered themselves inmates. They were all whipped. "May God help and deliver us!" a man pleaded. Duty there was no bed of roses. Pickled mule and wormy crackers were enough to try any man, bellyached a private, and "I don't thank no secessioner to advise me not to run away."
Two years passed. The port flourished. Whiting complained that if attacked, neither General Lee nor Napoleon nor General Anybody could save Fort Fisher and Wilmington, and whispered to friends that the Old North State was in a precarious condition. The constant concern over the emasculated fortifications, the gloom over the dwindling strength of Confederate arms on all fronts in 1864, the fear of the Yankee shadow hovering in the North Carolina sounds were infectious. Going over the head of his military superior, a farm lad in the ranks wrote directly to the governor, warning that if conditions did not improve, the men would desert. Five hundred women signed a peace pledge. Complaints piled up at Raleigh. One woman begged His Excellency: "for the sake of suffering p203 women and children, do try and stop this cruel war. . . . For God's sake . . . make peace on some terms." The governor, insisting that Wilmington was more important than Richmond, pleaded for more troops, demanded that the legislature do something, anything, and censured Whiting for drinking too much. President Davis berated the Tarheels for having failed to co‑operate with the over‑all war effort but, to show good faith, shunted General Braxton Bragg into Wilmington, relegating Whiting to second in command. The Richmond Examiner tersely commented: "Good‑bye Wilmington!"
Washington regarded each escape by a runner as a blow to naval prestige. The Union Navy Department blushed at every bottle of whiskey, every bunch of cigars sent to Jefferson Davis through the cordon of gunboats off Wilmington. Many considered the Cape Fear River blockade a farce, a "Bull Run for the Navy." One lieutenant was ashamed and disgusted. Federal agents at Nassau needled the Department with reports that traffic through the blockade was as brisk as ever. Rumors circulated that naval officers connived to their financial enrichment with Confederate cargo ships. A congressional committee and the Northern press launched a probe. A few demanded Welles's resignation. "If I was Secretary," rasped a politician, "I would take every possible means to capture Wilmington."
The Navy had both the means and the opportunity. When Roanoke Island collapsed in 1862, Goldsborough's guns had terrified coastal residents and started the antagonism between the Confederate and state p204 governments. Wilmington tottered. Goldsborough or his even more inert successor should have struck. Upon assuming command of the North Atlantic Squadron, Sam Lee refused to budge. He lounged in his cabin, totting up his greenbacks, while Wilmington lay helpless. Old Triplicate piled up a huge chunk of prize money from the capture of blockade-runners. He declined to move against the port without powerful military co‑operation. Lee, who, by this time, was referred to by his men as "that insignificant thing," contented himself with minor smash-and‑run commando raids along the coast.
By the spring of 1864, Sherman was pushing toward Atlanta and Grant was meeting severe opposition in the Wilderness. Defending Richmond against Grant, the Rebels depended upon Wilmington for whatever foreign supplies they needed. General Lee reported that if the port were taken, he could not save the capital.
A presidential election neared in the North, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., son of the American minister to Great Britain, wrote from Maryland that on the issue of Wilmington stood the question of whether the November election would be a struggle or a landslide for Lincoln.
The heat was excessive in Virginia that September. It was dusty. The countryside was parched. A perspiring Gus Fox visited General Grant at his headquarters at City Point. A council of war was held through a haze of rancid tobacco smoke. The grizzled p205 Army chief nodded approval. Union guns must capture Wilmington to sever supplies to Lee and to insure the speedy end of the war. Take Wilmington, you take Richmond. Twelve thousand troops would be ready by October.
To win in North Carolina, the Navy Department knew that it had to replace Sam Lee. It skipped over Goldsborough, Du Pont, and Dahlgren and assigned Admiral Farragut to command the Wilmington expedition. Physically broken down after the capture of Mobile Bay, suffering from stomach cramps, the Old Bulldog begged off.
Welles hastily rechecked the officer list, finally selecting Dave Porter, then commanding the Mississippi Squadron. The lively Porter was in Washington. Endowed with energy, professional skill, confidence, and a dash of the rowdy, this swarthy, large-boned, and big‑chested skipper had risen rapidly during the war. Considered as an upstart by the top brass, he inspired either devout loyalty or bitter hatred in his subordinates. Summoned to the home of Francis P. Blair, the Postmaster General, the Admiral discovered Welles and Fox looking over charts of the Cape Fear River spread out on a table. The Secretary questioned Porter on the Wilmington project. Declining a snap decision, the Admiral departed, loaded with reports, charts, and intelligence summaries. After intense homework, Porter boasted to Welles that he could flatten Fort Fisher in three days. His charts proved conclusively that warships could approach that bastion to within •one mile. p206 What did he need? Three hundred guns, the heaviest frigates in the Navy, 13,000 men. The Department agreed. Porter took command.
Courtesy Huntington Library
David D. Porter
October came and went. Grant reneged on his promise of troops. He argued that the expedition was now so thoroughly advertised North and South that the Confederates were alerted. Porter accused the Army of stalling, concentrating on Richmond, and not entering into the spirit of the Wilmington project. The Navy Department was stymied. The expedition could not move without troops.
At Hampton Roads Porter reorganized his ships and men. The Department stripped the other squadrons of their best frigates and gunboats and hurried them to the Admiral. Ericsson's mammoth Dictator, the most powerful but also the most unseaworthy monitor afloat, was brought down to the Norfolk Navy Yard. Night and day, carpenters worked, reconditioning vessels which had not been inside a yard for more than a year.
Off in Virginia, the "smartest damn rascal that ever lived," Ben Butler, then commanding the Army of the James, dipped into his bag of tricks and pulled out a gimmick. He had read somewhere — when, he could not remember — about a gunpowder explosion desolating a small English town. Grinning like a diabolical genie in his embroidered uniform, the fatty of Lowell proposed to detonate a boat stuffed with explosives at the side of Fort Fisher. "I can wipe out . . . Fort Fisher at one blow, and march into Wilmington after the frightened and retreating enemy," the General gleefully exclaimed. To the suggestion that p207 the blast might kill off all the men, women, and children in the neighborhood, Butler scoffed: "That is their look out, not mine."
The Navy Department, checked by Grant's refusal of troops, pressured by an angry public, hamstrung by runners cavorting off Wilmington, embraced Butler's scheme. Any plan was better than none. Fox viewed the idea with optimism, although Welles was not so hopeful. The pyrotechnic-crazy Porter envisioned houses collapsing, guns capsizing, Wilmington and Charleston in ashes, and the rebellion crushed by giant torpedoes. Grant was dubious. Army engineers considered it bosh, predicting that it would have the same effect on the fort that firing feathers from muskets would have on charging Rebels. Deaf to such advice, anxious to get the expedition under way, Fox and Porter staked their reputations and backed Old Cockeyed Ben.
The Admiral found the right ship — the rickety and worn‑out 250‑ton Louisiana. Deck gangs disemboweled and converted her into a vast powder magazine with complicated clock devices. Porter cautioned Louisiana's skipper to make sure that his men had no opportunity to get drunk and prematurely detonate the contraption.
November witnessed a vast fleet lying at anchor at Hampton Roads. Porter formulated his attack plans, lithographed them on large charts, and issued them to his captains. Reconnaissance missions combed the waters off the Cape Fear River. Yankees executed commando raids, harassing the enemy and gaining information.
At City Point, Grant still hesitated. "I hope," snarled p208 the angry Porter, "never to see the Army again as long as I live. . . . I have nearly worked my liver out to organize . . . this Squadron, and it puts me out of spirits not to be on the spot now." He swore and blamed the Army for hogging the limelight with its push to Richmond. To hurry Grant, Welles asked Lincoln to intervene.
Suddenly, Grant telegraphed Porter. Troops would be ready. Intelligence reported that General Bragg had been shipped on to Georgia with 2700 troops to head off the advancing Sherman. Grant concluded that this left only the junior reserves, men too old or too young, in the Wilmington sector. Godfrey Weitzel, a nondescript major general on duty with the Army of the James, was tapped for command of the expedition's military unit. Grant gave him 6500 infantry, 2 batteries of artillery, 2 pack mules, 500 shovels, 250 axes, 100 picks, and three days' cooked meat plus field rations. Ben Butler was not assigned to the attack force.
Porter and Butler had detested each other since the battle for New Orleans, when the Navy had high-tailed it to the city, leaving the General sloshing around in the slime of the bayous. Their mutual antipathy resulted p209 in their failure to prepare a co‑ordinated attack doctrine against Fort Fisher. Acting independently, the Army and Navy maneuvered in total ignorance of each other's plans. Porter was also distressed about Weitzel, whom he regarded as timid, nervous, and a slave of Butler's. "Poor General Weitzel," Porter lamented, "had not more say than one of the Negro sergeants under his command."
On 12 December 1864 the army transports, tenders, and small craft nosed out of Hampton Roads for the Navy's staging area at Beaufort, North Carolina. Once Hampton Roads was cleared, transport captains tore open envelopes containing a muddled set of secret sailing directions from General Butler. Sail north up the Chesapeake Bay, enter the Potomac River, and head for Mathias Point. This maneuver having been executed, captains ripped open a second envelope, ordering them back down the Potomac River into Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic Ocean. A third envelope was opened off Cape Henry. Damning the envelopes, one skipper wondered whom Butler thought he was fooling. Porter?
Against this comic-opera backdrop Porter's force took departure from Hampton Roads on 13 December and steamed southward. The Admiral was annoyed not to find Butler and the Army at Beaufort. Explosives experts loaded the powder boat Louisiana. Seamen went ashore for liberty, heading for the bowling alleys or the two shacks which served as saloons. To the men, the naval station at Beaufort was neither New York nor Boston, but rather a sleepy, gone-to‑seed, fishing-p210smack town. Three days later, Porter's force got under way and set a course for Fort Fisher.
Steering in various directions, Butler and his hodge-podge blundered into Beaufort with bands playing "Hail Columbia." They were two hours late. Porter had left. The General and his ships then began a frantic search up and down the Carolina coast for the Yankee gunboats. Below decks in the stinking hellholes, men stumbled over muskets, blankets, soup kettles, and lumps of food as the ships buckled in the heavy seas.
From the bridge of his flagship, Porter spotted Butler through the foul weather. The Admiral was livid. A Butler transport crashed into his flagship and, although no one was injured, Porter cursed that it was his luck that the General was not sunk. The storm screamed for two days. The army ships banged up, leaking, and with dwindling supplies were forced to withdraw to Beaufort on 20 December to recoal. Porter's squadron remained on station and rode out the storm.
The Admiral was sure that Butler's ridiculous antics had alerted the Rebels. But there was still the Pet, the powder boat. Looking at her fondly, Porter grew confident, believing that the explosion would be severe, knocking Wilmington to kingdom come.
When the storm cleared, the Admiral dispatched information to Butler at Beaufort that the powder boat would be exploded the following morning. Immediately after the upheaval, the squadron was to stand in toward shore and clean up the rubble.
In the darkness of 23 December, Louisiana, towed p211 by Wilderness, sneaked toward the Carolina beach. At 11:30 P.M., Wilderness cast off the powder boat, which slid slowly inshore until she was 300 yards from the fort. The crew set the clockworks, ran out the anchor, and climbed into a waiting tug.
•Twelve miles out to sea, sailors peered through spyglasses or placed their hands over their ears and waited. There was deadly tension. The exact minute for the explosion arrived. Nothing happened. Five, ten, fifteen minutes passed. Flames shot upward. Seamen heard a roar; the concussion broke two drinking glasses. One officer mumbled to another: "There's a fizzle."
It was cold that night. The 13,000 Confederates inside 47‑gun Fort Fisher, after downing their usual fare of salted fish, sat around campfires listening to a violin playing "Lorena" and "My Maryland." Little groups read their Bibles. All North Carolina knew that Porter's fleet would strike. Out over the telegraph wires hummed the message: "Disasters all around. Our position . . . precarious."
Up on the parapets, a heard an explosion, saw a red flash. He reported to his relief that he "reckoned one of them Yankee gunboats off thar had done busted her biler." An officer inside the fort dozed. At 1:40 P.M., he felt a gentle rocking, heard a "right smart noise," rolled over, and went to sleep, thinking that the rumble was from a "gun bursted in one of the ships." The explosion, reported a Johnnie, did no more harm than a Chinese firecracker. At Wilmington, New Bern, Hatteras, and other North Carolina communities, residents complained of a slight earthquake.
p212 At the state capital in Raleigh, the governor urged all Carolinians to descend on Wilmington. He would meet them at the front. Off in the trenches at faraway Petersburg, Virginia, a soldier worried about his brother at Fort Fisher. "Those old gunboat shells," he said, "are the worst that can be found. . . . If a man is wounded by them he is sure to be badly mangled." General Lee, sensing real disaster, ordered 5200 men to pull out, head for North Carolina, and report to Bragg, who had just returned from Georgia without his troops.
Porter was hopping mad. Both he and Fox had believed that the powder boat would end the war. The Pet was now a laughable failure. The Admiral swore that the 2000 tons of powder had not moved a grain of sand in Fort Fisher. He did not have to search far for a scapegoat. That "lubberly son of a sea cook," Ben Butler, would be back fouling things up as soon as he coaled his foul-smelling, wretched transports.
The Admiral's instructions to his squadron were for his monitors, headed by New Ironsides, to get under way after the explosion, head toward shore, anchor, and fire. Divisions of wooden frigates, double-enders, and the small fry of the fleet were to anchor in an arc outside the ironclads, directing their broadsides against the sea face of the fort. Particular targets for each individual ship were assigned. Not trusting his charts, Porter preferred not to run past the fort and chance grounding.
The landing of troops was set for 8 A.M., 24 December. At 8 A.M. Butler was nowhere in sight. Porter waited; he waited until noon. He decided to start the p213 bombardment without the troops. His sailors, eating hardtack and drinking strong coffee, rolled up their sleeves and readied their guns. Porter ran up the red flag. New Ironsides, Monadnock, Canonicus, Mahopac, and forty-five wooden ships moved in.
Guns blazed from the fort. During the barrage Porter in his flagship Malvern steamed in and out of the battle line. The commander of one gunboat, maneuvering the wrong way, sang out: "My hundred-pounder has exploded."
"Then why in hell don't you go back and use your other guns?"
To another, which steamed out of danger, Porter bellowed: "Where are you going now?"
"To repair a damage in my side."
"Go back to your place, or I will send you and your boat to the bottom."
An hour, two hours passed. The Confederates ceased firing. The Admiral signaled to keep up the barrage. At sunset, ten hours late, the army transports began dribbling in, but it was now too late to land. Porter ordered his ships to retire for the night. Not a Yankee had been injured by the enemy, although overheated cannon had exploded on the decks, killing or wounding thirty‑six men of the squadron.
Night fell. It was Christmas Eve. Out at sea, tugs and tenders worked all night supplying the squadron with coal and ammunition. On board the army transport Weybossett, men in the berthing compartments sang, jotted notes home, and, in the wardroom, an infantry captain pulled out champagne bottles from his knapsack p214 and toasted: "This Christmas Eve we'll ne'er forget." •A mile away, General Weitzel, dog‑tired and seasick, climbed on board Porter's flagship to discuss the next day's operation. He expected that the Navy would obliterate the Rebels, and it would be easy for the Army to land, assault, and wrap up Fort Fisher for Lincoln's Christmas present.
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