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.
Christmas Day. It was raw and gray. Ships' cooks, awakened at 3 A.M., lighted the galley fires throughout the Federal fleet. As the strong aroma of coffee penetrated the berthing compartments, the men rolled out of their hammocks and dressed in pitch darkness, grousing about their working hours. Porter's squadron prepared to get under way. New Ironsides, the monitors, the wooden frigates and gunboats, their engines pulsating, their propellers churning, steamed through the dawn mists, took stations, and commenced firing at Fort Fisher.
•Five miles up the coast, 600 battle-tested veterans had already hit the beach. Impatient, cooped up for days on the transports, the second contingent of Butler's force clanked into the landing boats to the tune of "Yankee Doodle." Surf boats were few and Army seamanship was pitiable. Heavy-coated infantrymen were catapulted into icy water waist deep and staggered ashore, the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" lost in the roar of the pounding surf. Thrashing through the breakers, Butler's aide lost his footing, fell, and was washed up on the beach minus his boots, watch, p216 and spectacles. "The whole thing," grunted a naval officer, high and dry on his ship, "was badly managed." By late afternoon, only 2000 men were ashore.
Five hundred soldiers, with the fidgety Weitzel close behind, pushed their way along the flat, marshy coast to within a few hundred yards of the mountainous bastion. Weitzel gazed wild-eyed at the stronghold. It was the most imposing fort that he had even seen. The walls had not been smashed to bits by naval shellfire, but appeared undamaged and impregnable. The General beat a hasty retreat, stepped into a dispatch boat, and reported to Butler that it would be butchery to attempt assault. Butler's chief engineer had earlier reached the same conclusion. The General, his one good eye focused on Fort Fisher, agreed, and ordered his troops to re‑embark. In his haste, he neglected to notify Porter of his decision.
Bursts of flame shot from the muzzles of Porter's batteries. Fagged‑out gunners were half asphyxiated by the smoke and refuse. Noses bled, fingers blistered, eyes stung. The fumes of powder tasted bitter on the tongue. At sunset the squadron drew off, leaving only the monitors to continue the barrage throughout the night. From his position on board Malvern, Porter was certain that Fort Fisher was silenced for good, believing that its guns were "so blown up, burst up, and torn up" that men inside had no intention of fighting. To reassure his chief, a subordinate described the fort as looking like a person pitted by smallpox. An officer on Brooklyn disagreed and reported that he saw no visible effect from the bombardment.
p217 His analysis was correct. General Butler, recalled the fort's commander, could not have captured Fort Fisher Christmas Day. In the two‑day engagement between fort and ships, only thirteen Rebels had been killed, nine severely wounded. Damage to Confederate works was negligible. Naval gunfire was so erratic that one third of the shells exploded in a nearby swamp.
Porter, in a self-congratulatory mood, sat down to his Christmas dinner of roast turkey and champagne, convinced that the fort was demolished. A captain entered. "Well," he told Porter, "you are taking the world quietly. Do you know what is going on?"
"No, what's in the wind?"
"Why, that man, Butler, is re‑embarking all his troops and is going away. He says the fort cannot be taken."
"Does he? Well let him go — we will take the place without him. What part of the turkey will you have?"
After dinner, the very thought of Butler sickened Porter. Even after his twelfth cigar, the Admiral was choleric at having approved the harebrained scheme of the powder boat. If the expedition failed, Porter was ready to shift the entire blame onto the military. The whole squadron was disgusted. Weitzel was yellow. Butler was a thief, a black-bearded traitor, and an imbecile to boot. In the crews' quarters on board Malvern enlisted men tooled a medal for Butler in leather. One side displayed a pair of legs in the act of running, surrounded by a general's straps, and the reverse carried an inscription for the General "in commemoration of his heroic conduct before Fort Fisher."
p218 "What a Christmas Day this has been! What a Sunday!" exclaimed a bluejacket. It rained hard that Christmas night. A heavy surf rolled up the beach. Re‑embarking operations were halted. A thousand soggy, cursing soldiers were left stranded until the following morning, when they were herded on the transports heading northward.
Washington was jittery awaiting the outcome. A Rebel deserter, formerly a telegraph operator in Richmond, reported to Grant's headquarters that Fort Fisher had been captured. An overjoyed Lincoln passed this rumor along to his assembled Cabinet. But there was still no definite news by 26 December. Sherman's legions had marched into Savannah. "Could we get Wilmington now along with Savannah," Welles noted in his diary, "the Rebellion would run low. Where is Porter?"
At 11:50 P.M. on 27 December, Welles was rudely awakened from a deep sleep and handed the Admiral's first dispatch, reporting that troops had landed and re‑embarked without taking the fort. Clad in bathrobe and carpet slippers, Uncle Gideon was frantic, fearing that the Wilmington expedition would become a ridiculous page in history. Just as newspapers were printing the story that Fort Fisher was in Union hands, Grant was damning Butler, as he quizzed troops just returned from the Cape Fear River sector. He hastily wired Lincoln: "The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross . . . failure."
Porter's special aide arrived at Welles's house early the next afternoon. The Secretary interrogated the p219 captain, reread the Admiral's battle reports, and erroneously concluded that naval gunfire had silenced the Rebel bastion. Instead of holding Porter accountable for the failure, Welles reviled Butler, whose inaction against the stronghold he regarded as idiotic as the powder-boat scheme. Like the ill‑fated Pet, the government's outlay in cash and time had gone up in a puff of smoke. The Secretary pondered why Grant had sent Butler in the first place and recalled the gossip that Grant drank excessively.
At a meeting with Stanton, departing for Hampton Roads to "fix matters up," Welles was informed that the blatant, boisterous, bragging Porter had done no better than the General. Welles recommended that Butler be sent to some faraway place where he might exercise his extraordinary talent as a police officer.
This suggestion was mild compared to the abuse Butler received after Porter's dispatches were printed in the newspapers. He was privately cursed and publicly condemned: jackass, viper, impudent bag of wind, damned scoundrel. "God damn you," an antagonist blustered. Porter himself was secretly glad that Butler had failed. If he had succeeded in capturing Fort Fisher, the Admiral pointed out, it might have made him the next President, "the greatest calamity that could have happened to the country." In Savannah, General Sherman declared that Butler should remain in Lowell, Massachusetts, and confine his bellicose antics to factory girls. The New York Herald termed the military phase of the expedition a ridiculous fizzle.
Ben Butler retained a few friends. The New York p220 Beta of the Phi Beta Kappa Society elected him orator for its annual meeting. General Joe Hooker believed that Butler and Weitzel were right in withdrawing. An intense Radical, Butler was the darling of the congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War. This infuriated group launched an investigation into the engagement at Fort Fisher and, after taking reams of testimony, completely exonerated the General and sharply criticized Porter for not co‑operating with the Army and for his ineffective bombardment.
The experience at Fort Fisher was costly. It again demonstrated the defects in a joint command. Neither Porter nor Butler nor their predecessors at Hatteras Inlet, Port Royal, Roanoke Island, and New Orleans had been vested with over‑all authority for their operations. In 1862 Goldsborough pointed out the deficiencies inherent in a joint command. Washington chose to ignore such advice and failed to appoint a supreme commander. After three years, the Secretaries for Navy and War had still not mastered the ABCs of amphibious warfare. Reading the Fort Fisher battle reports, the editor of the Army and Navy Journal exclaimed: "The Navy is not satisfied unless the Army swims all the water in its path; the Army expects the gunboats to waddle ashore like so many huge turtles."
Porter and the Navy made Butler the goat. Historians have held him responsible for the fiasco, too anxious to accept the Admiral's memoirs, too willing to read the spectacular headlines of an anti-Butler press. The General can be blamed for his hasty preparations, his failure to work out a well-organized doctrine, and p221 his over‑all bungling. This does not exonerate Porter. The Admiral's Southern opponents were not hoodwinked by his easy explanations to the Northern press. He erred in not running past the forts. His fire was erratic. Admiral Porter, a Rebel colonel reported, was as much to blame as General Butler for the repulse.
Porter quietly sat out the ruckus on board his flagship off the North Carolina coast. His gun crews were engaged in constant drills and target practices, while he jotted messages to friends clearing himself of any responsibility. The repulse is only temporary, he told Fox, we can take Fort Fisher anytime. General Grant agreed. He realized that the Confederates had been lulled into a false security, urged Porter to hold his position, promised to relieve Butler and send help. A force of rough-looking troops, 8000 strong, most of them veterans of the first Fort Fisher campaign, was assigned to North Carolina. General Alfred Terry was placed in command and told in no uncertain terms to co‑operate fully with the Navy, to act in uniformity with Porter's orders. Grant officially suggested that Terry regard the Admiral as the supreme commander of the joint expedition.
There was no sign of Al Terry and his troops at Beaufort on 7 January. Porter nervously doubted Grant's military genius: if he sends "another volunteer General . . . I'll send him home with a flea in his ear, I will as sure as a gun if he comes here with any of his ifs and buts." Army or no Army, Porter meant to take Fort Fisher. He ordered his commanders to arm volunteers with cutlasses and revolvers for landing parties. p222 Porter explained that two thousand bluejackets would carry the day in a seamanlike manner. "I don't believe in anybody but my own good officers and men," snarled the Admiral. His spirits skyrocketed when he spied the troop transports heading toward Beaufort on 8 January. The two commanders, Porter and Terry, sat down on board Malvern and worked out an attack doctrine. Terry acquiesced as Porter sketched out the operation. The Navy was to take full charge and full responsibility.
Fifty-three naval vessels and nineteen transports stood off the Cape Fear River on 13 January. The day was clear. The surf rolled lazily toward shore. Five ironclad and forty-eight wooden ships steamed to their positions and opened fire. Two hundred boats plus steam tugs under naval direction landed Terry's men up the beach. Approaching the line of surf, boats threw out small anchors, letting themselves wash shoreward on the waves that rushed toward the beach. Once the undertow began to recede, sailors jumped into the water and held the boats' sterns against the seaward wash as infantrymen piled out into knee-deep water. They raced for shore, toting knapsacks and ammunition high upon fixed bayonets.
From Malvern, Porter witnessed the landings. He muttered to a friend: "Now if those soldiers want to get back to their ships, they'll have to swim, for I'll be damned if I'll let them have any boats to come off in."
Six thousand Rebels lurked in a nearby forest. They nervously watched the ironclads and frigates pour shell p223 after shell into Fort Fisher, refused to budge from concealment, and retreated without firing a shot.
Yankees on the beach felled trees, built fires, hung up clothes to dry, lolled in the warm sand, brewed coffee, and cooked oysters. Bayonets glistened in the sunshine. Regimental flags fluttered in the breeze. The cracker flotilla unloaded pork and hardtack. Barges brought in cannon, ammunition, and forage. Blindfolded Army mules were dumped overboard from the transports and tossed ashore; no sooner did their feet touch bottom, than "one couldn't hold 'em more'n he could greased lightning."
By 3 P.M., 8000 soldiers had landed. Terry's main force moved inland toward Fort Fisher •five miles away. To co‑ordinate the attack, Porter and the General worked out a signal system by which a communications officer on Malvern was in constant touch with the General's headquarters.
Porter's guns continued to bark. Target practice had increased their effectiveness. This time the fire was concentrated. Below decks amid the din a seaman wrote:
How the roar deepened, as our guns
Were joined in the fearful sport!
A thousand pieces, armed as one,
That blazed at the crumbling fort.
Across the water inside Fort Fisher, the walls reeled. The earth quaked. Shells howled and flashed. The air became acrid with the smoke of the cannon. Privates crouched in the corners. One Johnny reported that the p224 shells fell "all over and Round us Lick the Roar of many thunders . . . like heven and Earth wer Coming to geather." Cooking meals was out of the question. The men subsisted on uncooked rations and "cornmeal coffee." Urgent pleas went out from the beleaguered fort. Ammunition failed to arrive. Gunners were ordered to hoard their existing supply. Amid the vicious bombardment, General Whiting arrived from Wilmington, shook hands with the fort's commander, Colonel William Lamb, and muttered: "Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed."
Confederates watched the attack from Fort Anderson across the Cape Fear River. "I don't see how they could live at all," drawled a private. An unnerved General Bragg in Wilmington wrote later: "No human power could have prevented the enemy from landing, covered as he was by a fleet of ships carrying six hundred guns."
The fourteenth of January dawned. Porter now regarded the fort reduced to a pulp. Every Confederate gun on the land front was knocked out, every defensive barrier torn up, and not a man dared show his head in that "infernal storm" of gunfire.
The Army unloaded its field artillery, dug trenches, and dispatched reconnaissance units. The attack would come off at 3 P.M. the following day. The Navy was to start a heavy barrage in the morning, continue until the moment of the assault. Terry's soldiers were to storm the rear; Porter's sailors were to strike the sea p225 face. At Fort Fisher, Rebels counted 200 dead and wounded and only four guns that could fire. Three hundred and fifty disorganized and breathless reinforcements arrived.
Morning came. At 10:10 A.M., 15 January, Porter's cannon renewed the bombardment. The Navy's attack force, 2000 bluejackets and marines, landed •two miles up the beach and slogged toward the objective. •A mile was covered. They drew up in three lines, sprawled in the sand, awaited the signal to advance.
The long blast on Malvern's steam whistle signaled the assault. Porter ran up No. 2211 on the signal lanyards, "Change the direction of the fire." On board, sailors watched their mates ashore jump up, cheering, waving banners, and dash down the open beach. The Rebels, deceived into believing that this was the main attack, swarmed to the front wall and poured hot fire into the advancing brigade. The sand flew high; the fragments whizzed past. The air was rent with explosions. The Johnnies huzzahed as they saw the bluejackets, creeping through the defensive barriers, brandishing their cutlasses and revolvers, cut down unmercifully. Wounded seamen limped, crawled, or were pulled out of range. The dead and dying lay strewn across the sand or rolled in the surf. Rallying his men, an officer jumped to his feet and shouted: "Rise and charge!" A handful of sailors in a more exposed position started for the rear. The officer sang out again: "Charge, don't retreat!"
"What does he say? Is it to retreat?"
p226 Panic seized the force. The last word, "retreat," echoed along the beach. Men, petrified, stampeded higgledy-piggledy into the ocean.
This bloody debacle acted as a decoy for the main military assault and permitted the first of Terry's men to reach the rear parapets unmolested. Army officers were the first to admit that had there been no naval attack, their losses would have been severe.
As the steam whistles screeched at 3 P.M., the soldiers, inland in the forest, sprang from their trenches and, stumbling over defective land mines, marched toward Fort Fisher, where attention was focused on the onrushing sailors. Terry's first brigade struggled up the rear parapets and fired into the backs of the Rebels. The defenders spun around too late. The Federals had gained their initial footing. What followed was the "hardest fighting," exclaimed Porter, "that you ever saw, or anybody else ever saw." Other Union brigades rushed to support the first. For an instant, the Rebels gained the upper hand. Terry immediately signaled New Ironsides to fire into the eastern part of the fort and clean out the Confederates before his men moved. The roar was deafening. Colonel Lamb later remembered that just as the tide of battle had turned in his favor, the fleet came to the rescue of the staggering Federals. "While the gunboats were firing over us, a heavy sea was running and the gunboats were rolling up and down," growled a Union veteran, and "I could not help thinking what would happen to us if a gunner should pull the lanyard a little too soon or a little too late."
p227 There was desperate savage fighting on the ramparts. Rebels and Federals fired into each other's faces and fought it out hand to hand. The dead piled up. One last desperate dispatch was sent to Wilmington: "Can't you help us?" General Whiting, rallying his men, faced Terry's troops. Surrender! "Go to hell, you Yankee bastards," he roared, and tried to escape, but was shot down, critically wounded.
By 5 P.M., Union soldiers had gained half of Fort Fisher. The fighting for each traverse continued until 9 P.M., when the Confederates, seeing that further resistance was useless, fled from the stronghold. A brigade with a colored regiment was pushed down the beach to mop up outlying gun emplacements and grab the retreating Rebels. Across the river, Confederates blew up remaining installations.
Fort Fisher captured! The whole beach was broken by holes, craters, and mountains, littered with shell fragments, musketballs, bayonets, cartridge boxes, belts, bits of uniforms, lumps of flesh, dead soldiers and bluejackets. Inside the fort the stench of battle was sickening. A Federal officer chatted with prisoners. He patted Colonel Lamb on the back and complimented him on his spirited defense. "Colonel," he said, "we gave you hell, did we not?"
"If we had not been misled by the sailors and marines into believing that theirs was the main attack . . . we should have given you Army fellows hell."
Late the same night, officers and passengers on board a blockade-runner, tricked by phony signals, celebrated as the ship lay at anchor in the Cape Fear River. In p228 the saloon, stewards served wine and brandy and the party huzzahed for the South. The English captain rapped for attention. "Gentlemen," he said, hoisting his glass, "we have anchored upon the soil of battle-worn, grand old Dixie."
Hip hip hurrah hip huz —!"
Just then, a Union midshipman appeared. "Who commands this steamer?"
"I am that individual," answered the skipper.
"You are a prize to Admiral Porter's squadron. Gentlemen, as paroled prisoners, you are at leisure to finish your repast."
Other blockade-runners fell into the same trap. "We almost kill ourselves laughing," roared Porter. "This is the greatest lark I was ever on. . . . It beats all creation. . . . The victory is the death blow to the rebellion." To General Sherman in Savannah, the Admiral explained: "The door through which the enemy was fed, is closed on them, and all we have got to do, is to watch them starve."
Federal losses at Fort Fisher were severe. Two hundred and seventy-four men were killed or wounded in the naval assault. The Army suffered losses totaling 540. However, said Porter, analyzing the conquest, "the success is so great that we should not complain. Men, it seems, must die that this Union may live."
Near Wilmington, General Bragg, describing the defeat as a stunning blow, scribbled off a note to Lee: "I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher." At Richmond, President Davis, who early in the war had dismissed the seaboard as of p229 secondary importance, now inquired: "Can you retake the fort? " The answer shot back: "The enemy's fleet alone would destroy us."
Ben Butler was in Washington. The General, with a load of charts, was testifying before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He argued that the capture of Fort Fisher was an impossible task. While the General droned on, the sound of artillery salutes and cheers thundered outside. Fort Fisher taken! "Impossible!" declared Butler. "Impossible! It's a mistake, sir." A messenger entered, handed over Porter's dispatches, and left. The committee adjourned. As the members filed out, Butler raised his hand for silence: "Thank God for victory." Off in Cincinnati, General Godfrey Weitzel termed the whole thing another piece of "fool luck" and a useless slaughter of life.
The news flashed to New York. Dragged into the American Club House, a Union private gave the customers evidence of his inebriety by singing an absurd doggerel entitled "Sherry, Terry, and Porter — a Lyric of Mixed Liquors." In Virginia, Federal pickets shouted to Confederate sentinels: "Oh, Johnny, have you heard from Wilmington?" Grant at City Point described the feat as one of the great victories of the war. Applause erupted in the halls of Congress when a dispatch was read telling of the fall of Fort Fisher. A representative from Illinois tried to push through a resolution, thanking the President for relieving Major General Butler from service.
By mid‑February 1865, Porter and the military units had captured Wilmington. Gloom infected the Rebels p230 in the field. "It really seems we are a whipped people," moaned an infantryman. Others hailed the collapse of Fort Fisher with universal joy, for, as one soldier wrote home, "every success of the federals & every defeat of confederate arms shortens the time of this most unholy war." Thousands of Tarheels slipped away from the armies around Richmond and went home. Late in the month, General Lee declared that the despair of the North Carolinians was fast sapping his army and that desertions were frequent.
The blockade-running bases in the West Indies were hit hard. Runners lay idle at the wharves. Speculators in Nassau saw the bottom fall out; stevedores bewailed their misfortune; blockade-running skippers, British and Confederate, shifted their base to Havana for the run to Galveston, Texas, and minor ports along the Gulf coast which still remained open.
Except for policing the coasts and clearing Confederate harbors of mines, the amphibious assault against Fort Fisher signaled the end of naval operations. Four years earlier at the outbreak of war, an ossified Union Navy, rigged for peacetime pursuits, its ships moored listlessly to the docks or anchored off foreign ports, was not in fighting trim or in a position to shoulder the chores of blockading •more than three thousand miles of enemy coast, a coast whose topography included countless inlets and sounds and a well-protected inland waterway. On the muster rolls was a handful of officers and enlisted men. The magnitude of the task of maintaining a blockade and fighting a naval campaign was not recognized by Northerners generally. p231 Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the entire Union had little if any knowledge of naval matters. The Navy Department and the forces afloat, despite the lack of men, ships, precedent, and a sympathetic public, set a course which eventually led to final victory at sea.
When the Navy undertook to establish an effective blockade of the Confederate states, it was confronted with a lack of supply bases near the blockaders' operating areas. The problem of blockade was further complicated by a thriving coastal commerce in the numerous and well-protected sounds of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida and by the depredations of Rebel privateers which sallied forth from the inlets and creeks. To meet the situation, the Navy, in co‑operation with military units, organized and dispatched expeditions to Southern shores.
Unaware of the full potential of land‑sea assaults, Welles and the naval commanders conducted these operations in haphazard and, oftentimes, hesitant fashion. They expended little thought on the subject of amphibious warfare. No consideration was given to large-scale landings which would have forced the Confederacy to divide its armies and fight on a second front. No over‑all plan was sketched for co‑ordinating the movements of the various expeditions. No detailed instructions on how to execute such attacks were handed out to naval commanders. Joint command, communication, supply, and other problems, which were necessary for successful thrusts, were left to the squadron chief to solve. Each battle force was dispatched from Hampton Roads to accomplish a single objective. The p232 Department made no attempt to work out plans on how each specific expedition would affect the others or the total Union war effort. Instead of conceiving an over‑all strategy to co‑ordinate the squadrons' efforts, Washington made only specific suggestions, allowing each squadron to act independently of the others.
Unfamiliar with the power and effect of an amphibious attack, Welles and his men overestimated the strength necessary to capture the puny Confederate coastal installations and to seize secessionist territory. When an expedition's major target had been demolished, the squadron commander, amazed at the ease with which the operation was executed, was uninstructed on pressing his advantage. Federal expeditions failed to grasp their opportunities and conduct vigorous follow‑up operations. Before further action was taken, the advantage of surprise, so vital in successful land‑sea thrusts, was lost, and with it, the chance to capture major ports along the coast.
Most commanders lacked vigor and failed to pursue tactical advantages. Jealously guarding their reputations, ignorant of the might which they wielded, fearful of defeat, the commanders hesitated, alibied, and argued instead of attacking the enemy while he was still off balance. Had the Federals rapidly followed up their initial victories, it is possible that the major coastal towns and cities would have fallen early in the war.
Years of bungling, stalling, bloodletting, and testing capitulated in the conquest of Fort Fisher. Porter had assumed over‑all responsibility. The Navy had supervised the landings. Ship-to‑shore communications had p233 enabled naval gunfire to support advancing troops and clear out nests of Confederates. Profiting from the lesson at Charleston, the Admiral employed the wooden navy together with the monitors to increase the firepower of the fleet.
Dull, rusting in its scabbard in 1861, gradually, haphazardly, Lincoln's terrible swift sword had acquired a burnish, been honed and sharpened, and placed into the hands of men who possessed the finesse and know‑how to drive it home. Unaware, the North had forged tediously, unsystematically, expensively, an effective amphibious doctrine which could, if needed, be employed in the future.
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