Amid a bombardment from hundreds of U.S. naval guns, the Confederate soldiers of Colonel William Lamb’s Fort Fisher garrison hunkered down in bombproofs on 15 January 1865. They had endured a similar barrage by the same powerful Union fleet less than a month earlier on Christmas Eve, but that was cold comfort on this gray January day. Suddenly, an odd sound was heard—a cacophony of steam whistles. It could mean only one thing: The Union land assault was coming.
The successful second attack on Fort Fisher was the culmination of a number of trajectories. Of immediate importance, it neutralized the last significant Confederate blockade-running port. Located on a peninsula near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the fort guarded the seaward approach to Wilmington, North Carolina. Fisher’s capture was also the culmination of a long and painful evolution of U.S. combined operations—the synchronization of army and navy forces in combat to achieve an objective. Such operations are now termed “joint,” and among the most difficult are amphibious assaults. Accordingly, the fall of Fort Fisher offers insight into the difficulty of developing joint teamwork, no matter what the era, level of technology, or political context.
First Failed Attempt
By late 1864, Wilmington was one of the last remaining Union strategic objectives of the war, almost equal to Richmond in importance. General-in-Chief of the Union Armies Ulysses S. Grant was lukewarm about committing troops to the capture of Fort Fisher when the Navy first proposed the idea. He gave the final go-ahead once Major General William T. Sherman’s troops neared Savannah, Georgia, and Grant began planning their advance north through the Carolinas. Sherman would eventually need to establish a seaward supply base, and Wilmington could serve this purpose.
On 24–27 December 1864, a joint force under Army of the James commander Major General Benjamin Butler and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, conducted a poorly coordinated operation to capture Fort Fisher that collapsed under a cloud of recrimination and ignominy. An attempt to blow a breach in the works by detonating a powder ship failed, and the subsequent lengthy naval bombardment was relatively ineffective. Thousands of troops were put ashore, but poor relations between Porter and Butler resulted in a hasty, unilateral decision by the latter to cancel an assault against the fort and to re-embark the soldiers. During the withdrawal, poor weather stranded 700 Union troops on the beach. But the Confederates did not attack the isolated force, which later made it safely back to their ships.
The fiasco resembled a naval version of the Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, Virginia. In the upshot, Grant sacked Butler; Porter remained commander of the North Atlantic Squadron. Although the first attack failed, it did provide important lessons for the next attempt. Butler and Porter had rarely communicated with each other before or during the December attempt and had acted more independently than jointly. There was no such thing as a “joint task force” commander in that era, but it was clear that someone had to be in overall charge of the second operation. And there was a precedent for one of two service commanders deferring to the other: During the Vicksburg campaign, Porter had deferred to Grant.
Prelude to the Second Try
For the second attempt to capture Fisher, Grant replaced Butler with Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry, to whom he gave explicit orders to cooperate with Porter. A new attack plan emerged out of recommendations from Porter and the brigade commanders who had participated in the first try. Moreover, Porter and Terry quickly developed a solid working relationship. While the admiral was the operation’s senior commander, once Terry was ashore, he would be in tactical control of the land assault.
On the Confederate side, Colonel Lamb and his commanding officer, Major General William H. C. Whiting, believed that their repulse of the December effort had been due in large part to luck. Whiting notified his superiors of the inevitability of another attempt and asked that more obstructions be placed in the Cape Fear’s channel just west of the fort and that Lamb’s garrison be reinforced with 1,200 troops. These requests, however, had not been acted on by the time Union forces reappeared.
The failure of the first attempt had allowed an attitude of overconfidence to creep into the calculations of Department of North Carolina commander General Braxton Bragg, who withdrew Major General Robert Hoke’s infantry division from the vicinity of Fisher to Wilmington, a day’s march away. Lamb’s garrison was only 800 strong and ill-equipped to man the entirety of Fort Fisher’s works, the Confederacy’s most extensive. Bragg remained positive despite Lamb’s requests for reinforcements and recent intelligence indicating that Terry’s force had set sail. The return of the Union fleet off Fort Fisher shocked the general out of his complacency. He suggested Whiting assume command of the fort, but the Cape Fear district commander declined the offer, agreeing instead to go there as an adviser to Lamb. Bragg also ordered Hoke’s division back to the vicinity of Fort Fisher.
Porter’s 58 ships had arrived throughout the night of 12 January. At about 0830 on the 13th, the fleet’s five ironclads steamed closer to the fort than in December, opposite its massive Northeast Bastion—where the land and sea sides met. As the monitors approached, Lamb directed his batteries to open fire, which proved to be a tactical error. After the ships dropped anchor, their gunners registered their weapons on the muzzle blasts emanating from the fort’s landside embrasures and then opened a sustained bombardment. Within an hour the ironclads had silenced the main guns there.
Meanwhile, Porter’s wooden ships, organized into four divisions (Line Nos. 1, 2, and 3 and the reserve division), were supporting the Union troops’ landing four to five miles up the coast from the fort. Shortly after 0700, Line No. 1, led by its flagship, the Brooklyn, had opened fire on the woods behind the landing beach. Ships of the other two lines later joined in the bombardment. Terry’s men began debarking at 0830. Despite Porter’s best efforts, accurate fire from Confederate sharpshooters made the landing hazardous for the first hour. Additionally, several of the boats capsized in heavy surf, and most of the soldiers and sailors in the first wave ended up washing ashore cold and wet.
The soldiers were members of Colonel Louis Bell’s 3rd Brigade of Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’ division. Once ashore in sufficient numbers, they quickly secured the area and established a rudimentary defensive perimeter. General Terry arrived ashore shortly after Bell and assumed command. Ames’ 1st and 2nd Brigades soon followed and helped man the perimeter. By 1400, 8,000 troops had landed and Porter’s wooden gunboats were taking position off Fort Fisher to add their gunfire to that of the ironclads. The wooden ships kept up their bombardment until after dark, when they hauled off to deeper water, but two of the armored vessels kept pounding away at the fort throughout the night.
Meanwhile, Terry, who delayed landing his artillery until the following morning, advanced most of his troops once darkness fell. At about 0200, they reached a point on the Cape Fear River about two miles from the fort. There he had his men begin constructing a line of entrenchments to protect his rear against attack from Wilmington while he assaulted Fisher.
By 1400 on the 14th, the Union troops had established the line of breastworks stretching from the sea to the river. That afternoon, Terry; his engineering officer, Lieutenant Colonel Cyrus Comstock; and one of his brigade commanders, Colonel N. Martin Curtis, moved down the peninsula to reconnoiter Fisher and assess the damage inflicted by Porter’s ships. After returning to his command post, Terry met with his subordinates and decided to assault the fort the next day. That evening he made a quick trip out to Porter’s flagship, the Malvern, to coordinate with the admiral.
Earlier that day, because his ships were still encounting some return fire from the fort, Porter had ordered his small gunboats armed with 11-inch guns to resume a methodical bombardment of the fort, and at 1300 the vessels opened fire on its landside. The devastating barrage continued to late in the day, and the fort received periodic shelling throughout the night.
During their meeting on board the Malvern, the admiral agreed with Terry’s decision to assault the fort’s landside the next day. In a surprise, Porter proposed that a naval assault force simultaneously attack the seaside, a battle-plan wrinkle to which the general assented. The warships would commence a heavy bombardment in the morning, and Terry would use signal flags to alert Porter when the Army troops were prepared. The admiral then would signal for his ships to divert their fire from the point of attack to other parts of the fort. The two commanders settled on a collective blast from the ships’ steam whistles at 1500, initiated by the Malvern, as the signal to launch the attack. With the plans solidified, Terry returned to his headquarters ashore.
Porter designated Lieutenant Commander Kidder Breese, his chief of staff, to lead the naval assault, which would consist of approximately 2,000 sailors and Marines drawn from the squadron’s ships and organized into four divisions (three Navy, one Marine). While the Marines would serve as sharpshooters, the sailors would charge the fort. The last-minute addition of the assault would have a bloody, but important, result.
On the Confederate side, Hoke’s division had arrived approximately 4½ miles north of Fort Fisher early on the morning of the 13th. There his troops established a blocking position in the event the assault on Fort Fisher was a feint to cover an overland campaign to seize Wilmington. Hoke did send 700 assorted infantrymen and artillerymen to assist in the fort’s defense, which increased Lamb’s garrison to just over 1,500 troops.
Colonel Lamb later wrote that the Union naval bombardment had a demoralizing effect on the garrison. It prevented preparation of food, made sleep impossible, and inflicted casualties. No more than three or four of the fort’s landside guns were left serviceable. On the afternoon of the 14th, about 24 hours after his arrival at the fort, Whiting sent Bragg a blunt assessment of the urgent situation in which he described the heavy and accurate naval gunfire and impressed on his superior the necessity of driving the Federal troops from their position if the fort was to hold out.
Directed by Bragg to probe the Union forces early on the 14th, Hoke reported that he did not have enough troops to expel the enemy and defend the land routes to Wilmington. After making his own reconnaissance that day, Bragg agreed. He did order Hoke to dispatch one more brigade to the fort, and Brigadier General Johnson Hagood’s South Carolina troops, about 1,000 men, set out for Fisher.
The next morning, as Hagood’s men were debarking from a steamer below Fort Fisher near Battery Buchanan, the Union Navy’s heavy bombardment resumed. The transport promptly departed with many reinforcements still on board. The troops who had come ashore were pinned down by shell fire almost two miles from where they were needed, at the fort’s landside wall. They nevertheless pressed on, and some 350 of the South Carolinians survived a harrowing march to arrive near the Northeast Bastion. There, and along the landside wall, Lamb’s forces were preparing for the coming attack.
The Naval Assault
Terry had selected Ames’ division, led by Curtis’ brigade, for the Army assault, which would target the westernmost battery along the fort’s landside, Shepherd’s Battery. Colonels Galusha Pennypacker’s and Louis Bell’s brigades would support Curtis’ men. Colonel Joseph Abbott’s brigade would be held in reserve, and Brigadier General Charles Paine’s division of U.S. Colored Troops would serve as a rear guard to deal with Hoke’s troops if they attacked. When he saw Union troops on the fort’s parapet, Commander Breese was to order his naval force to support the Army attack. While Marines armed with Sharps breech-loading rifles and carbines provided covering fire, the sailors were to charge across the beach, past the Northeast Bastion, and assault the fort’s seaside.
Breese and his naval detachment anticipated a prolonged transit to shore, but the seas proved calmer than they had for the Army landing. That had the unintended effect of complicating the timing of the naval assault. The fleet maneuvered to begin the landing at approximately 0900 and completed it in only four hours—leaving another two hours until the assault. Neither the sailors nor the Marines understood the overall plan, and each ship had dispatched men ashore under her own officers, who were not aware that Breese had overall command of the naval assault.
Moreover, the sailors and Marines lacked the training to maneuver in formation under fire. Unbeknown to Breese, Lamb had observed the naval landing and resigned himself that Confederate reinforcements would not arrive in time to thwart the impending assault. The colonel directed his few remaining guns to concentrate on the new threat. Meanwhile, Colonel Curtis watched the naval force’s preparations with concern and offered sound tactical advice to a Navy officer who had come to learn of the Army’s attack plan. Curtis told the officer, whom he thought was Lieutenant Benjamin Porter, the 19-year-old commander of the Malvern, that he regretted the naval force’s compact formation. But the young officer failed to pass the information on to Breese.
At 1500, Breese, having sent forward the Marine division and organized his remaining force into three columns, was anxiously anticipating the attack signal. When the fleet finally ceased fire at 1525 to redirect its guns, he thought the Army assault had begun and ordered his force to attack. As the charging sailors neared the fort, the ships’ steam whistles sounded—the signal Terry’s forces had been waiting for to launch their attack. The plan’s careful synchronization had broken down.
The sailors, mainly armed with pistols and cutlasses, had effective weapons for boarding a warship but not for storming fortified defensive works. Moreover, Lamb exercised patience, holding his troops’ fire until the enemy advanced to within 200 yards of the fort. The beach was devoid of cover, and Breese’s men fell to a withering fire from the defenders. Within minutes, the assault columns degenerated into a mob. Only a small contingent arrived at the log palisade, which ran parallel to the fort’s landside, past the Northeast Bastion to the ocean. Some of the attackers discovered a breach through which they charged. All were cut down, although a color-bearer managed to make it halfway up the fort’s parapet before he received a mortal wound. Other sailors and Marines fanned out and desperately searched for cover, tripping over exposed wires that led to buried mines. Several of the men realized what they were and systematically cut the heavy lead wires.
The naval assault lasted about 45 minutes and failed completely. The butcher’s bill was heavy—nearly 400 casualties. The attack, though, had focused Lamb’s attention myopically on the seaward corner of the works. As most of the surviving sailors and Marines retreated back down the beach, the colonel looked to his left and was shocked to see Union battle flags atop the western end of his defenses.
Capturing the Fort
When the whistles from Porter’s warships had sounded, Colonel Curtis rose to his feet and waved his hat as he shouted “Forward!” to his troops, who surged toward the western end of the Confederate works. Pioneers wielding axes hacked openings in the palisade for some of the attacking soldiers to squeeze through; others dashed straight up the Wilmington road, which entered the fort between Shepherd’s Battery and the river. The Union troops endured murderous fire from the battery, but weight of numbers enabled the attackers to penetrate the defenses. After scaling the parapet, they engaged in savage hand-to-hand fighting with the battery’s defenders. Once Curtis’ men had a foothold, Ames ordered Pennypacker’s brigade to join the fray.
Meanwhile, two of Battery Buchanan’s heavy guns opened up on the west end of the land face, firing indiscriminately on both Confederate and Union forces alike. General Whiting, who was near the Northeast Bastion when he had seen the enemy battle flags, quickly began assembling troops for a counterattack. Fort Fisher’s landside wall consisted of 15 enormous mounds of sand, or traverses, between which were elevated “gun chambers,” sandbagged platforms for heavy artillery. To capture the wall, each of the high traverses would have to be taken in turn. Carrying the flag of the 97th Pennsylvania Regiment, Pennypacker led his men atop the third traverse when he was felled by a point-blank Confederate volley. For several minutes no one was in charge of the tip of the Union spear.
Moments later, Whiting’s counterattack slammed into the advancing Federals on the fourth gun platform and forced them back up the third traverse. There, near where Pennypacker had fallen, the general went down with two gunshot wounds. But the Confederates were able to stall the Union advance. Lamb meanwhile gathered a group of defenders to man a set of low earthworks behind the landface wall. From this position they opened an effective fire on Yankee troops assembling inside the fort behind Shepherd’s Battery.
The Confederates were seemingly holding their own when Porter ordered the New Ironsides to direct her fire back to the landface wall. The experimental ironclad’s guns soon silenced two 12-pounder Napoleon cannon that had been firing on advancing Federals from just outside the wall’s central sally port and drove Rebels from the tops of the parapet except where the shell fire would have endangered Union soldiers. Meanwhile, Ames, who had made his way to the fort, called for his third brigade. As he led his charging men toward the fort’s riverside entrance, Colonel Bell was mortally wounded, but with his troops’ arrival, more than 3,000 Federals were on or inside the works. There simply were not enough defenders.
After gathering as many soldiers as he could, Lamb was seriously wounded leading them in a desperate but feeble counterattack against the Union troops inside the fort near the river. Some of his soldiers carried him to the hospital bombproof under the seaface’s Pulpit Battery, placing him next to Whiting. Command of Fort Fisher fell to Major James Reilly, who faced an impossible task and whose attempt at another counterattack was quickly repulsed.
Assisted by naval gunfire, Curtis meanwhile led a grueling advance, slowly capturing traverse after traverse, but as he peered over the top of the ninth traverse the colonel was seriously wounded by a shell explosion. It was now quickly growing dark, and General Ames favored halting his troops and having them entrench. But because Hoke had failed to attack the Union fieldworks manned by Paine’s division, Terry ordered his reserve brigade, commanded by Colonel Abbott, into the confusing fight. As night settled in, the Union troops captured the rest of the landside wall and pushed pockets of defenders toward the south end of the peninsula.
At 2130 the advancing Federals arrived at the boat landing below Battery Buchanan. General Terry and his staff arrived there about 30 minutes later and accepted Fort Fisher’s surrender from Lamb and Whiting. The “Gibraltar of the South” had fallen.
The Union Navy and Army had gained a long-sought objective without having recourse to the sort of prolonged siege operations that President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox had come to abhor. Union operations at Fort Fisher highlighted the importance and need for amphibious-warfare doctrine, training, and tactics. Moreover, the victory was directly attributable to the services relying on keys to successful joint operations: careful planning, mutual cooperation, and professional leadership between the Army and Navy. “Jointness” in the Civil War had come of age at Fort Fisher.
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Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991).
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David Dixon Porter, Naval History of the Civil War (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1984).
Newton Martin Curtis, “The Capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, January 15, 1865,” Personal Recollections of the War of the Rebellion: Addresses Delivered Before the Commandery of the State of New York, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907).