First Battle of Fort Fisher

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Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. The First Battle of Fort Fisher was a naval siege in the American Civil War, when the Union tried to capture the fort guarding Wilmington, North Carolina, the South's last major Atlantic port. Led by Major General Benjamin Butler, it lasted from December 23–27, 1864.

The Union navy first attempted to detonate a ship filled with powder in order to demolish the fort's walls but this failed; the navy then launched a two-day bombardment in order to demolish the fort and compel surrender. On the second day, the Union army started landing troops in order to begin the siege. But Butler got news of enemy reinforcements approaching, and in the worsening weather conditions, he aborted the operation, declaring the fort to be impregnable. To his embarrassment, he was relieved two weeks later by Major General Alfred H. Terry.


After the failed Bermuda Hundred Campaign, Major General Benjamin Butler and his Army of the James were assigned to an amphibious expedition against Fort Fisher. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had originally designated one of Butler's subordinates, Major General Godfrey Weitzel, to lead the expedition, but Butler, as the commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, demanded that he lead the troops himself and Grant acquiesced[1] Units for the expedition were selected from the Army of the James and included the 2nd Division of the XXIV Corps and the 3rd Division from the XXV Corps, along with two battalions of heavy artillery and engineers. Colonel Cyrus B. Comstock from Grant's staff went along to serve as chief engineer. The Union naval expedition under Rear Admiral David D. Porter comprised the largest Union fleet of the war, nearly 60 warships along with the transports to carry the army troops.[2]

Butler also planned to bring the USS Louisiana, which had been packed with 200 tons of powder and disguised as a blockade runner, down to Fort Fisher, run it aground about a hundred yards from the fort's seawall, and blow it up, hoping the explosion would demolish the fort as well. Although many in the Union high command (including Grant and Gideon Wells) doubted the plan would work, but it was approved by Lincoln.[3] The final Union plan was for the ships to gather at Hampton Roads, where the army troops would board the transports. Because the monitors used in the attack had to be towed to Fort Fisher, the navy would leave with a twelve hours head start over the transports. The warships would refuel at Beaufort, then meet the transports at Fort Fisher, when the Louisiana would be detonated and the troops landed under the fire of the warships.[4]

Fort Fisher, on Confederate Point, nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the Confederacy",[5] was a formidable target commanding the Cape Fear River. It encompassed 14,500 ft.² and was surrounded by a 10-foot parapet and a network of bombproofs, most of which were 30 feet high. Many obstructions were laid around it, including land mines (called torpedoes in this era), abatis, and deep ditches. There were more than 50 heavy cannon, including 15 Columbiads and a 150-pounder Armstrong gun, behind a 60-foot mound of earth near the sea, named the Mound Battery. The fort's garrison of 1,400 men was commanded by Colonel William Lamb. Additional reinforcements were available from General Braxton Bragg at Sugar Loaf, 4 miles away. This force consisted of Major General Robert F. Hoke's division from the Army of Northern Virginia, which arrived on December 13.[6]

Union order of battle


Expeditionary Corps (Army of the James) - MG. Benjamin F. Butler, MG Godfrey Weitzel (second-in-command)


North Atlantic Blockading Squadron - Rear Admiral David D. Porter:

Confederate order of battle

  • District of Cape Fear - MG. William H.C. Whiting
    • Fort Fisher Garrison - Col. William Lamb
      • 10th North Carolina - Ltc. John P.W. Read (w), Maj. James Reilly
      • 36th North Carolina - Col. William Lamb
      • 40th North Carolina
      • 1st Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves - Maj. D.T. Millard
      • 1st Battalion North Carolina Heavy Artillery, Co. D - Cpt. James L. McCormic
      • 3rd Battalion North Carolina Light Artillery, Co. C - Cpt. John M. Sutton
      • 13th Battalion North Carolina Light Artillery, Co. D - Cpt. Zachariah T. Adams
      • Confederate Navy Detachment - Lt. Robert T. Chapman
      • Confederate Marine Corps Detachment - Cpt. A.C. Van Benthuysen
  • Hoke's Division (Army of Northern Virginia) - MG. Robert F. Hoke
    • Hagood's Brigade - BG. Johnson Hagood
      • 7th South Carolina Battalion - Ltc. James H. Rion
      • 11th South Carolina - Col. F. Hay Gantt
      • 21st South Carolina - Col. Robert F. Graham
      • 25th South Carolina - Cpt. James Carson
      • 27th South Carolina
    • Kirkland's Brigade - BG. William Kirkland
      • 17th North Carolina - Ltc. Thomas H. Sharp
      • 42nd North Carolina - Col. John E. Brown
      • 66th North Carolina - Col. John H. Nethercutt
    • Connally's Brigade, North Carolina Reserves [7] - Col. John K. Connally
      • 4th Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves - Maj. John M. Reece
      • 7th Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves - Maj. William F. French
      • 8th Battalion North Carolina Junior Reserves - Maj. James Ellington
      • 8th Battalion North Carolina Senior Reserves - Col. Allmond McKoy
    • Artillery
      • Southerland's Battery - Cpt. Thomas J. Southerland
      • Paris's Battery, Staunton Hill Artillery - Cpt. Andrew B. Paris


The Union forces prepared to leave Hampton Roads on December 10, but a winter storm hit the fleet for three days, preventing the fleet's departure until the 14th. The transports carrying Butler's force arrived at Fort Fisher first, since the navy took longer to refuel at Beaufort than expected. When Porter's ships arrived on the 19th, another storm hit the fleet, causing some ships to scatter and forcing the army transports to return to Beaufort.[8] After the storm subsided on the 23rd, Porter decided to start the attack without Butler, ordering the Louisiana to be blown up that night. Near midnight, the ship was towed close to the fort's seawall and set on fire. However, the Louisiana was farther out to sea than the navy thought, perhaps as far as a mile offshore; as a result, Fort Fisher was undamaged by the blast.[9]

The following morning (December 23), the Union navy moved closer to shore and began a bombardment of the fort, hoping to damage the earthworks and forcing the garrison to surrender. Despite firing close to 10,000 shells that day, only minor damage was caused, with four seacoast gun carriages disabled, one light artillery caisson destroyed, and 23 casualties in the garrison. Meanwhile there were 45 Union casualties from exploding guns aboard ships, and the Confederates were able to score direct hits on three ships.[10]

The transports carrying the Union soldiers arrived that evening. Initially, Butler thought that by exploding the Louisiana and starting the bombardment without the army, Porter had given the Confederates warning that the Union assault was coming and would therefore have time to contest the landings. However he was convinced to land a reconnaissance party to determine if an attack was still feasible.[11] The landings started Christmas morning, with Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames' division the first to be ashore, while the navy continued bombarding the fort. The Union troops captured a battery protecting the beach north of Fort Fisher, and accepted the surrender of the 4th and 8th North Carolina Junior Reserve battalions, which had been cut off by the Union landings.[12] After setting up a defensive line, Ames sent the brigade of N. Martin Curtis towards the fort to see if it could be attacked. Curtis found the land wall lightly defended and was prepared to attack, but was prevented from doing so by Ames. Butler was convinced that the fort was undamaged and too strong for an assault; he had also received word that Hoke's division was a few miles north of the fort, and another storm was forming in the area. All this convinced him to halt the landings and order the troops on the beach to return to the ships; the entire Union fleet then returned to Hampton Roads.[13]


The fiasco at Fort Fisher, specifically Butler's disobeyance of his direct orders—orders which Butler failed to communicate either to Porter or to Weitzel—gave Grant an excuse to relieve Butler, replacing him in command of the Army of the James by Major General Edward Ord. President Abraham Lincoln, recently reelected, no longer needed to keep the prominent Republican in the Army and he was relieved on January 8, 1865. To Butler's further embarrassment, Fort Fisher fell one week later when Major General Alfred H. Terry led a second assault against the Confederate stronghold; while defending his decision to break off the attack before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Butler had deemed the fort impregnable.[14]

Confederate losses amounted to five killed and mortally wounded, fifty-six wounded, and six hundred captured, while the damage caused by the bombardment was quickly repaired. Blockade runners continued using the port, the next ships to arrive did so the very night the Union fleet withdrew. Although Whiting and Lamb were convinced that the Union force would shortly return, Bragg withdrew Hoke's Division back to Wilmington and started making plans to recapture New Bern.[15]

See also


  1. Gragg, p. 36-37.
  2. Gragg, p. 35-36.
  3. Pelzer, p. 41-42; Fonvielle, p. 101-102.
  4. Fonvielle, p. 108.
  5. Gragg, p. 14.
  6. Gragg, p. 18-21.
  7. 4th, 7th and 8th Battalions Junior Reserves at Fort Fisher from 25 December
  8. Fonvielle, p. 110-113.
  9. Pelzer, p. 43-44.
  10. Fonvielle, p. 133-134, 138; Gragg, p. 67-70.
  11. Gragg, p. 73-74.
  12. Fonvielle, p. 166-167.
  13. Gragg, p. 87-89.
  14. Foote, pp. 739-740.
  15. Fonvielle, p. 178-182.


External links

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