>Maj McClellan's article appeared in the Marine 1920 issue of the MCG
Fort Fisher, which kept the port of Wilmington, N C, open for the Confederates, was captured on January 15, 1865, by a combined force of Soldiers, Bluejackets, and Marines, under the fire of the guns of a large fleet, in seven hours after the attack commenced in earnest.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter described the defenses of Fort Fisher as being "really stronger than Malakoff Tower, which defied so long the combined power of France and England," at Sebastopol, Crimea, in 1855, and further stated that "even an engineer might be excusable in saying that they could not be captured except by regular siege."
Twenty-three hundred Confederates formed the garrison of this impressive fortification, and that some of them were American Marines who wore the Confederate Gray is shown by a letter written by Major General W. H. C. Whiting, of the Confederates, dated December 31, 1864, in which he commended "the company of Marines under Captain Van Benthuysen, which reinforced the garrison."
The Marines of the Confederate States
It will be profitable, as well as interesting, to dwell for a few moments upon the subject of the Marine Corps of the Confederacy. Before the first attack on Fort Sumter, the Confederate States began the organization of a Marine Corps, the first appointment bearing date March 25, 1861. The Confederate Secretary of the Navy cordially welcomed all seceders from the United States service, and generally gave them precedence over other appointees. The organization was that of an infantry regiment of ten companies, numbering one thousand men, with a Colonel Commandant and three staff officers with the rank of Major. Its Headquarters were in Richmond, VA., and Major Lloyd J. Beall, who had been a Paymaster in the United States Army, and was an old friend and classmate at West Point of Jefferson Davis, was appointed Commandant.
The principal command --four companies, under Captain John D. Simms-- was stationed during the war, when not engaged in expeditions, at Drury's Bluff, on the James River, as a permanent garrison. When it was believed in Richmond that the Federal ironclads intended to force an entrance into Charleston Harbor, Captain Simms was sent with 200 Marines to that point, where they were provided with liquid fire in bottles and then distributed among the different blockade runners in port, with orders to board the ironclads upon their approach and pour the combustible into any apertures which might be accessible. The Marines remained at Charleston about a month, and then returned to Drury's Bluff, which they held until Richmond was abandoned, and later were captured as a part of Ewell's Corps, after a three hours' fight at Sailor's Creek, and sent to the Prison Camp at Johnson's Island.1
Other companies served at the Naval Depots in Richmond, VA; Savannah, [GA] and Mobile, [AL]; at Pensacola, [FL] and Norfolk, [VA] until those places were captured, and at Fort Fisher. Captain R. T. Thom commanded the Marines of the Merrimac in her fight with the Monitor at Hampton Roads, and Lieutenant B. K. Howell, a brother-in-law of the Confederate President, was on the noted raider and commerce destroyer Alabama until she was destroyed by the Kearsarge. The Marines of Tattnall's fleet, at the Battle of Port Royal, were commanded by Captain George Holmes and Lieutenant Raney, and the Guard of the Naval Depot at Mobile by Captain Meiere. Other officers were assigned to vessels in the river and harbor flotillas, and some were on duty with the Armies. Captain Tattnall was for a time Colonel of an Alabama regiment, and Captain Hays a Lieutenant Colonel on the staff of General Bragg. Lieutenant Sayre was also with the Army. Major Allison had been a purser in the United States Navy.2 In a report to the Secretary of the Navy dated November 23, 1861, Colonel Commandant John Harris stated in part:
Since the commencement of the existing Rebellion, one Adjutant and Inspector, five Captains, nine First Lieutenants, and four second Lieutenants have resigned in consequence of their unwillingness to serve against the South. The loss of so many officers of military experience has made it quite embarrassing to me to detail officers for the various guards and detachments required for immediate and important services, and in some instances I have been compelled to select young Second Lieutenants of a few months' experience for commands which, under other circumstances would have been assigned to Captains of fifteen or twenty years' service.
In the beginning when the defections from the Army and Navy occurred, the United States Marine Corps, being largely composed of Southerners, lost a large number of its officers and men. There were in all, about six resignations and fourteen dismissals (those who tendered their resignations after May 1, 1861, being summarily dismissed). Among those who answered the call of home and principle were Israel Green, who under Colonel Robert E. Lee captured John Brown; John D. Simms, who fought in the Mexican War and on the San Jacinto at the destruction of the Barrier Forts near Canton, China; Robert Tansil, who fought at Guaymas in the Mexican War; Henry B. Tyler, Jr., who was on the Levant at the reduction of the Barrier Forts near Canton, China; Algernon S. Taylor, who was present on board the Toey-wan when Commodore Josiah Tattnall exclaimed: "Blood is thicker than water"; Adam N. Baker, Julius E. Meiere, J. R. F. Tattnall, George H. Terrett, George P. Turner, Thomas S. Wilson, George Holmes, and many others.
Desire of Navy to Attack Fort Fisher
It had been the endeavor of the Navy Department, from the winter of 1862, to obtain the consent of the War Department to conduct joint operations against the defenses of Cape Fear River, of which Fort Fisher was the principal, but the War Department decided that no troops could be spared for the purpose.
In view of the vital importance of closing the port of Wilmington, N C, the last open port of the Confederates, the Navy Department continued its urgings and finally Lieutenant General [Ulysses S.] Grant gave the subject his attention and concluded that an Army force could be spared for this work and ready to move by October 1, 1864.
The First Attack on Fort Fisher
To place the naval force under command of the "first officer of the Navy" was, by the Secretary of the Navy, considered a duty, and Vice Admiral David G. Farragut was selected to conduct the enterprise, but impaired health rendered it imprudent for that distinguished and energetic officer to enter upon this service, and Rear Admiral David D. Porter was designated in his stead.
A fleet of naval vessels, surpassing in numbers and equipment any which had assembled during the war, was collected with dispatch at Hampton Roads, VA. Various causes intervened to delay the movement, and it was not until the early part of December, 1864, that the expedition departed for Beaufort, NC, the place of rendezvous. Some further necessary preparations were there made, which, together with unfavorable weather and other incidents, delayed the attack until December 24, 1864.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler was in command of the Army troops.
Prior to the main bombardments of December 24-25, 1864, a powder magazine was to be exploded so close to the fort that it was hoped that the entire fort would be leveled to the ground, either by the explosion itself or that the magazines of the fort itself would be detonated and thus destroy the fort. On the night of December 23d, the Louisiana, called "the powder vessel," loaded with an immense charge of powder, was towed as close as possible to Fort Fisher and the powder exploded, but had but small damaging effect upon the fortifications.
On December 24, 1864, Rear Admiral David D. Porter, with a bombarding force of thirty-seven vessels, five of which were ironclads, and a reserve force of nineteen ships, attacked the forts at the mouth of Cape Fear River, and silenced them in one hour and a quarter; but there being no troops to make an assault or attempt to possess them, nothing beyond the injury inflicted upon the works and the garrison was accomplished by the bombardment.
In this bombardment, guns burst on the Ticonderoga, Yantic, Juniata, and Quaker City, killing and wounding several officers and men. On board the Juniata, Second Lieutenant of Marines Jones Pile was knocked overboard by a piece of a Parrott gun which burst, and was probably killed by concussion of the brain, while William Kennedy, a private of Marines, received a fracture of the right tibia. On board the Ticonderoga Private Cornelius Collins received an abrasion of the left hip when a Parrott gun of large calibre burst. Marines were on board practically all of Porter's vessels and performed their duty in a commendable manner. In this engagement of the 24th the Marines of the Wabash, under First Lieutenant Louis E. Fagan, manned a ten-inch gun and a thirty-pounder Parrott, firing a total of 120 shells.
Major General Benjamin F. Butler arrived off Fort Fisher from Beaufort, N C, at sunset on December 24, 1864. On Christmas day, 1864, all the transports had arrived and Major General Butler sent Major General Weitzel to confer with Rear Admiral Porter and arrange a program for the attack. It was decided that the fort should be attacked again by the Navy while the Army landed and assaulted the fort, if possible, under a heavy naval bombardment. Seventeen gunboats were sent to cover the troops and assist with their boats in landing the soldiers, while one hundred small boats, in addition to twenty already in possession of the Army, were also used to land the troops.
At 7.00 A.M., December 25, 1864, the ships got under way and formed in line of battle. The guns on the naval ships fired very slowly and only sufficiently, to "amuse the enemy," while the Army landed five miles to the eastward of the fleet.
About three thousand soldiers had landed when Major General Butler decided that the assault was impracticable and withdrew the troops. Major General Butler reported to Rear Admiral Porter:
Upon landing the troops and making a thorough reconnaissance of Fort Fisher, both General Weitzel and myself are fully of the opinion that the place cannot be carried by assault, as it was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the Navy fire.
He then ordered a reembarkation, and returned to Hampton Roads, VA.
On December 26, 1864, Rear Admiral Porter reported that he had attacked Fort Fisher on December 24, 1864, hoping â€œto be able to present to the nation Fort Fisher and surrounding works as a Christmas offering, but regretted to say that it had not been taken."
Rear Admiral Porter in an additional report dated December 27, 1864, stated that his dispatch of the day before would scarcely give an idea of his disappointment of the conduct of the Army authorities "in an attempt to take possession of the forts which had been so completely silenced by our guns, that were so blown up, burst and torn up, that the people inside had no intention of fighting any longer."
The Commanding Officer of the Little Ada reported on December 31(1864, that "the most complete silence of the guns in the northeastern face of the fort induced me to think that they were disabled or were 'Quakers.'"
Conduct of Marines in First Attack Commended
The conduct of the Marines in this engagement was commended. Commodore Joseph Lanman said that the behavior of the Marines on the Minnesota was entirely satisfactory. Everyone performed his duty to the utmost of his ability. The working and practice of the guns could not have been better. Many excellent shots were made, and in this respect the two guns worked by the Marines were equal to any other division. Captain George Butler of the Marines, commanding his battery, being upon the sheer-pole of the mizzen rigging, pronounced the practice excellent.
Commodore S.W. Godon, commanding the Susquehanna, reported: "First Lieutenant William Wallace, with his fine company of Marines, handled most effectively two extra nine-inch guns." Similar testimony was borne by other naval officers to the bravery and efficiency of the Marines on the various vessels connected with the fleet.
First Lieutenant Louis E. Fagan, of the Wabash, reported: "During the terrible bombardment of Fort Fisher on the 24th and 25th of December, 1864, my guns took an important part, and the skill and coolness with which my men worked and served the heavy pivot gun, won me recognition and praise of Captain Smith and the excellent officer, Lieutenant Commander Cushman, and proved that as artillerists (as well as infantry), United States Marines rank with the best in any service."
The following is a complete list of the officers of the Corps who were engaged in this affair: Colorado, Captain L. L. Dawson and First Lieutenant E. P. Meeker; Minnesota, Captain George Butler and Second Lieutenant George M. Welles; Powhatan, First Lieutenant F. H. Corrie; New Ironsides, First Lieutenant Richard S. Collum and Second Lieutenant Albert B. Young; Susquehanna, First Lieutenant William Wallace; Wabash, First Lieutenant Louis E. Fagan; Vanderbilt, Captain W. H. Parker; Juniata, Second Lieutenant Jones Pile; Brooklyn, Captain G. P. Houston; Ticonderoga, First Lieutenant C. F. Williams. The following vessels carried Sergeant's Guards: Santiago de Cuba, Fort Jackson, Shenandoah, Tuscarora, Rhode Island, Mohican, Keystone State, Malvern, Onondaga, Shamrock, Chicopee, Nereus, Mendota, Iosco, Osceola, Pawiuxet, Mackinaw, R. R. Cuyler, Mattabessett, Massasoit, Agawam, Quaker City, Pontoosuc, Eutaw, Mercedita, and Miami.
Plans for Second Attack on Fort Fisher
Rear Admiral Porter, confident that the forts could be carried by assault, so reported to Washington, and:
...earnestly requested that the enterprise should not be abandoned. In this the Department and the President fully concurred. On the suggestion of the President, Lieutenant General Grant was advised of the confidence felt by Rear Admiral Porter that he could obtain complete success, provided he should be sufficiently sustained. Such military aid was therefore invited as would insure the fall of Fort Fisher.
A second military force was promptly detailed, composed of about eight thousand five hundred men, under the command of Major General A. H. Terry, and sent forward.
Major General Terry arrived at Beaufort, N. C., on January 8, 1865, conferred with Rear Admiral Porter, and a plan of action was agreed upon.
A gale blew very heavily for two days and nights, but the ships-of-war all held on and rode out at their anchors, except the Colorado, which vessel was obliged to go to sea, having only one anchor left.
The fleet accompanied by the transports steamed away from Beaufort, NC, on January 12, 1865, for Fort Fisher. The plan was to have the troops landed by 10.00 P.M. that night, but the wind changing to southwest, the fleet was obliged to anchor off Half-Moon Battery for the night without landing the soldiers.
The Troops Land
At 8:30 A.M., January 13, 1865, signal was made to the fleet to send boats to transports to land troops, and by 2.00 P.M. eight thousand men had landed with twelve days' rations and all their entrenching tools.
Rear Admiral Porter, on January 14, 1865, reported to the Secretary of the Navy that operations against Fort Fisher and the other forts at the entrance of Cape Fear River had been resumed on January 13, 1865, when he had bombarded them.
Fort Fisher "Reduce to a Pulp"
The bombardment was continued on January 14, 1865, and by "sunset the fort was reduced to a pulp; every gun was silenced, by being injured or covered up with earth, so that they would not work," In the evening Major General Terry again conferred with Rear Admiral Porter to arrange the plan of battle for the next day, the 15th. Rear Admiral Porter detailed sixteen hundred Bluejackets and four hundred Marines to accompany the Army troops in the assault, the Bluejackets and Marines "to board the sea face, while the troops assaulted the land side." The hour agreed upon for the assault was 5:00 P.M.
Attacking Orders Not Obeyed
The outstanding feature of the capture of the casemated work of sand known as Fort Fisher was the attack on the sea face by the Naval Landing Force before instead of after the Army moved to the assault on the land side. This variation was directly contrary to the written orders of Rear Admiral Porter, but it so completely diverted the attention of the garrison that the Army troops assaulting on the land side, at the very moment that the Confederates sanguinely believed they had repulsed the main attack, secured a foothold on the parapet from which they could not be ejected and from which they eventually swept on into the fort and captured it.
The Plan of Attack Was Very Simple
The plan of attack was a very simple one, the fleet was to continue bombarding the fort until Rear Admiral Porter, who remained afloat, received the signal for the vessels to change their fire so that the troops might assault. The Naval Landing Force including the Marine Battalion was to "assault the sea or southeast face of the work," but the Landing Orders stated that "no move is to be made forward until the Army charges." It readily can be seen that if this plan had been carried out, as directed by Rear Admiral Porter, the Army troops in attacking the land side before the Navy assaulted would have diverted the attention of the Confederates from the sea face and the Naval Landing Force would have attacked under favorable conditions and possibly achieved the distinction of having captured the fort. Regarded as a feint the operation of the Naval Landing Force was a most important part of the action.
General Order No. 81, dated on board the Flagship Malvern on January 4, 1865, signed by Rear Admiral Porter, is given in full below:
Before going into action the commander of each vessel will detail as many of his men as he can spare from the guns as a landing party.
That we may have a share in the assault, when it takes place, the boats will be kept ready, lowered near the water on the off side of the vessels. The sailors will be armed with cutlasses, well sharpened, and with revolvers. When the signal is made to man the boats, the men will get in, but not show themselves. When signal is made to assault, the boats will pull around the stern of the monitors and land right abreast of them, and board the fort on the run in a seamanlike way.
The Marines will form in the rear and cover the sailors. While the soldiers are going over the parapets in front, the sailors will take the sea face of Fort Fisher.
We can land two thousand men from the fleet and not feel it. Two thousand active men from the fleet will carry the day.
Two boat-keepers will be kept in each boat.
Rear Admiral Porter's Landing Orders, dated on board the Flagship Malvern, January 15, 1865, off New Inlet, N C, stated that "when the men are landed they will be formed and kept together, the Marines forming by themselves," and that:
no move is to be made forward until the Army charges, when the Navy is to assault the sea or southeast face of the work, going over with cutlasses drawn and revolvers in hand. The Marines will follow after, and when they gain the edge of the parapet they will lie flat and pick off the enemy in the works.
The details of this order went so far as to instruct that:
. . . if, when our men get into the fort, the enemy commence firing on Fort Fisher from the Mound, every three men will seize a prisoner, pitch him over the walls, and get behind the fort for protection, or into the bomb-proofs.
Another report stated the orders of Rear Admiral Porter directed "that the Naval Party should not move to the assault until the Army were seen going in over the northwest parapet of the fort."
In his report of January 17, 1865, Rear Admiral Porter stated in part: "Most of the sailors were armed with cutlasses and revolvers, while a number had Sharpe's rifles or short carbines."
On the night of January 13, 1865, the Army threw up entrenchments clear across from the ocean to the river, to prevent a rear attack.
Fleet Again Shells Fort Fisher; Marines and Bluejackets Land
On the morning of January 15, 1865, the fleet severely shelled the fort and about noon the Naval Landing Parties, including the Marines, shoved off from the ships for the beach. The Marines of the Wabash under Lieutenant Fagan preceded the other Marines landing about 10.00 A.M.
Organization of Naval Landing Force
The Naval Landing Force was formed into a regiment of four battalions, the Marines from the fleet forming the Fourth Battalion.
Fleet Captain K. R. Breese was in command of the entire Naval Landing Force
The Marine Battalion was organized into four regular companies, a skirmish line, and a small detached company from the Wabash under Lieutenant Fagan, as follows:
Captain L.L. Dawson, Commanding.
First Lieutenant E.P. Meeker, Adjutant.
Captain George Butler.
First Lieutenant F.H. Corrie.
First Lieutenant William Wallace.
Captain W.H. Parker.
First Lieutenant Louis E. Fagan.
First Lieutenant C.F. Williams.
The assaulting party of the Naval Landing Force was composed of about 1600 Bluejackets and 400 Marines, divided into the four lines, or battalions, as described above. The First Line was composed of Marines, under Captain L. L. Dawson; the Second Line was composed of the landing party of the First and Fourth Divisions of the Squadron; the Third Line was composed of the landing party of the Second Division of the Squadron; and the Fourth Line was composed of the landing party of the Third Division of the Squadron.
Prior to the assault by the Naval Force a detachment of Bluejackets had constructed, within 600 yards of the fort, a well-protected breastwork and from that had gradually advanced to within 200 yards of the fort a succession of rifle pits, which were most promptly occupied by a line of skirmishers composed of Marines under First lieutenant Louis E. Fagan.
In a report dated in January, 1865, Captain Dawson stated:
As soon as I reached the shore I organized four companies of one hundred each, under Captain Butler, Lieutenant Corrie, Lieutenant Wallace, and Captain Parker, Lieutenant Meeker acting as Adjutant.
Lieutenant Fagan was immediately sent to the front with some sixty men to occupy the rifle pits, etc.
I gave Lieutenant Williams command of the skirmish line, covering my force, armed with Sharpe's rifles.
In a report dated January 19, 1865, Captain Dawson said: "I have mentioned all the officers that were on shore, and I missed the services of Captain Houston, Lieutenants Collum and Young very much, as one officer to an hundred men is insufficient."
In reporting upon his operation in occupying the trenches, Lieutenant Fagan, on January 19, 1865, reported:
I marched my company by the flank up the beach until within a mile of Fort Fisher, when finding that the firing was severe, I deployed my men as skirmishers across the plain, and continued to advance. Arriving at the entrenchments I ordered my men to cover themselves as much as possible from the enemy's fire, which they partially did by throwing up heaps of sand with their bayonets and hands. After the Sailors had completed their breastworks, I was ordered by Lieutenant Commander Breese (Fleet Captain N.A. Squadron) to advance my command to the extreme parallel of entrenchments, which I did-my men marching to the front across a plain swept by the enemy's fire with alacrity and spirit. In this advance I frequently ordered my skirmish line to lie down, and as soon as the shower of grape and canister had swept by, they would jump to their feet and advance at the "double quick." After a toilsome march through the sand we reached a line of entrenchments about 40 yards from the fort, when I found a line of the 147th New York volunteers.
During this advance two of my men were badly wounded and sent to the rear. I now ordered a few of my men (crack shots) to employ themselves as sharpshooters and it was owing to their skill that a field piece inside the Palisade of the Fort was forced to be abandoned by the rebel artillerists.
I now awaited further orders, but finding the trench filling up with soldiers, and supposing that the attack was about to be made, I collected my men and marched them by the flank across the plain towards the beach, where I saw the column of Sailors and Marines advancing to the front. Seeing no officer to report to, I formed my men with the rest of the Marines (who were in the center of the column, the advance being composed entirely of Seamen, with Naval Officers at their head).
In this manner we marched with great steadiness under a severe musketry fire from the fort, towards the northeast angle of the work, until the front of the column halted, when I ordered my men to lie down and pick off the rebels on the parapet of Fort Fisher. My men opened fire, doing good execution, but they had only been at work some minutes when I ordered them to cease firing and prepare for the assault.
Therefore, at this time, we have the Army troops standing by to assault Fort Fisher from the land side and the Naval Landing Force, including Captain Dawson's Battalion of Marines, awaiting the word of Fleet Captain Breese to move to the assault. This word depended upon the movements of the Army troops.
Assault by Bluejackets and Marines
Fleet Captain Breese reported:
It was intended that the men should assault in line, the Marines acting as sharpshooters, and the different lines were to charge over them; but from the difficulty I had of informing myself of the time when the Army was to assault, which was to guide our movements, that moment found us too far off to move to the attack unless under cover. When I discovered that the Army was moving to attack the fort, I ordered the men to advance by the flank, along the beach, hoping to be able to form them for the assault under cover of the Marines.
Of this operation Captain Dawson reported:
I received two or three orders from Captain Breese to ' bring up the Marines at once; that we would be late;' so that I had to move off without time to equalize the companies; to number them off for pacing and marching; to select sergeants to replace officers; or post the guides of a single company or platoon. I took the Marines up and filed across the peninsula in front of the Sailors, with skirmishers thrown out. Captain Breese pointed out some light entrenchments towards the main bastion of Fort Fisher, which were dug and being completed under cover of the fire of the fleet. He ordered me to advance to those that were finished, and as soon as those nearest the fort were completed, to occupy them; and when the assault was made, that I should keep up a full fire, when the Sailors would rush by me, and, when well past, the Marines follow them into the fort.
Thus, in the event of a repulse, we would have had cover to fall back to, and a point to rally upon. I had advanced to the second line of cover, and was waiting for the nearer entrenchments to be finished, when I received an order from Captain Breese "to take the Marines down to the beach about 150 yards to the left, and that he would bring up the Sailors"; that there was splendid cover on the beach, and that Captain Breese was going that way.
I was surprised at this order, and asked the gentleman who delivered it if he was not mistaken; but he replied "No." I immediately obeyed the order, and in a few minutes the Sailors were brought up. My men were formed by the right flank when the Sailors came up, the First Division passing the Marines, and the whole command lying down by the right flank; Marines abreast of the Second Division, Sailors on the upper side of the beach. While at this point I received no orders. I had read the Admiral's order to Captain Breese respecting the assault, and was watching the Army, knowing that agreeable to that order the 'Army were to be seen going in over the northwest parapet of the fort before we were to move to assault the sea face. â€˜When I heard the order "Charge, Charge," every one rose up and dashed forward, yelling and cheering so loudly that no order could either be heard or passed.
The Confederates, believing this to be the main assault, concentrated against it their principal forces. The sea-face parapet of Fort Fisher was lined with one dense mass of defenders, and their fire easily repulsed the assault, despite the courageous and energetic efforts of both officers and men of the Naval Landing Force. Acting Ensign George H. Wood, of the Chippewa, reported: "The parapets of the fort seemed to be lined with men, and one Rebel officer stood up there clapping his hands, singing out to his men to kill the Yankee ____ ____."
That the assault of the Bluejackets and Marines failed should not have been a surprise, for several reasons. Rear Admiral Porterâ€™s testimony as to the strength of the fort furnishes the reason for having the assault of the Naval Landing Force after instead of before (as actually occurred) the Army attack. A wholly unorganized force of about 1400 men rushing along an open beach for six hundred yards, under fire by the flank, armed with pistols and cutlasses and a few carbines, were at the mercy of the fort defended by about 2000 muskets behind a parapet. Surely it would have been a miracle if 350 muskets fired from an open beach could have gained the superiority of fire over 2000 behind parapets, assisted by an occasional canister and grape.
At the moment the Bluejackets and Marines were repulsed their real work and difficulties had not commenced, for they still had a stockade eight feet high consisting of strong timbers to get over, besides a deep and wide ditch, commanded by two guns, and a steep side of the fort of loose sand, over forty feet in height to escalade, all ploughed up by the shells of the fleet, (before they could defend themselves.
Captain Dawson's report of February 15, 1865, describes what occurred subsequent to the commencement of the charge:
I maintained the same position I had started in, abreast of the second division of Sailors, and as the sand was much | heavier on the upper side of the beach, I could gain nothing on the first division until they got under the heavy fire of the fort, when the first company of Marines got abreast with the center of the first division of Sailors. I had just reached the head of my iron, after a hard run, when I saw the head of the line of Sailors, who had reached the end of the stockade, begin to falter and turn back, and was myself about forty or fifty yards from the end of the stockade, on the beach. I saw some six or eight men go around the end of the stockade, but immediately return, and it was at this instant that the whole line commenced doubling tip and flying, everybody for themselves, except some thirty officers and men at the head of the line, who took cover under an angle in the stockade.
The efforts of the officers to rally the men were wholly un-, successful, the order to retreat being passed along generally. At the moment when the head of the line gave way, the Marines were not near enough to open fire effectually, and were on the double-quick, and quite exhausted; nor was there the slightest cover this side of the stockade, except a few sand-hills very near the stockade. I saw that the men were hopelessly repulsed. I looked to the rear of the line, which was breaking, as well as the front, * * * so that I at once ordered the Marines to "lie and fire at the parapet," with a view of decreasing the rebel fire, and to prevent the confusion and exposure incident to such a crowd retreating to an open beach. Nearly all the Marines of the first and second companies obeyed this order; the two rear companies I could not see, but as few were to be seen after the retreat was effected, I take it for granted that they went also.
As soon as the panic was over, I ordered those men who had lain down, and were firing, to retreat in squads, as I supposed the fleet would soon open on that bastion of the fort. I did not retreat myself, but stayed on the beach about fifty yards from the end of the stockade, until sunset, watching the progress of the Army.
When I went to the rear, a staff officer informed me that General Terry desired all the Marines and Sailors who had arms to occupy the right of General Paine's line; that the rebels were demonstrating there. Though it was nearly dark, I succeeded in getting about one hundred and eighty (180) Marines behind the breastworks, near General Terry's headquarters, where they remained until morning. The rebels, from the manner in which they met the assault, evidently regarded it as the main attack, as it was the first.
Assault Failed but Brought Success to Army
While the assault of the Bluejackets and Marines, on the sea face or northeast bastion, failed, as should have been expected, it most effectually aided the main storming party of Army troops by diverting the attention of the garrison and enabling them to gain a footing on the parapet not far from the river.
The Army troops did not actually attack until after the assault of the Naval Force had been repulsed.
Now commenced the terrible struggle. Up to this time the national loss had been comparatively small, for the Navy had kept the garrison quiet. Now it was compelled to cease firing at that part of the fort, for its shells would be as hurtful to friends as to foes. Instantly the garrison sprang to its guns, and musketeers swarmed upon the parapet. But General Curtis, who had effected a lodgment on the parapet, held his own until General Pennypacker came to his support. The latter advanced rapidly to General Curtis's right, drove the Confederates from the palisades, extending from the west end of the land face of the fort to the river, and captured a number of prisoners. The brigade broke through the palisades and joined General Curtis.3
The Confederates used the huge traverses of the land front for breastworks, and over the tops of these the combatants fired in each other's faces, while the fleet kept up a continuous fire farther to the southward, to prevent reinforcements reaching the fort from the Mound Battery, or Battery Buchanan. The struggle was desperate. The Confederates were steadily pushed back until, at dusk, they had lost nine of these traverses. At six o'clock Abbot entered the fort with his little brigade, and at 9.30 o'clock, when two more traverses had been carried, the contest ceased. Two thousand and eighty-three prisoners were captured.4
Rear Admiral Porter, on January 17, 1865, reported in part as follows:
Thus ended one of the most remarkable, battles on record, and one which will do more damage to the rebel cause than any that has taken place in this war. Twenty-three hundred rebels manned Fort Fisher; 1900 were taken prisoners; the rest were killed or wounded.
Major General Terry reported that the assault of the Bluejackets and Marines, although it failed, undoubtedly contributed somewhat to the capture of Fort Fisher.
"I trust that everyone," reported Captain Dawson of the Marines, on January 27, 1865, "like the nation, is fully satisfied."
Explosion of Magazine After Capture
On the morning after the capture of Fort Fisher, while the exultant Soldiers, Marines, and Bluejackets were swarming into the fort, its principal magazine, buried deep in the earth, at the center of the parade, exploded, killing and wounding many men.
Marines With Both Army and Navy
The Marines were not only represented in the Naval Landing Force, but were also with the Army in its assault. One Sergeant and six privates became detached from Lieutenant Fagan's company while in the Army entrenchments at the front, and charged with the Army, participating with gallantry and coolness in the hand-to-hand encounter that ensued.
The Marines, before they landed, participated in the bombardment of the fort by the fleet, and also some remained on board the vessels and took part in the operations afloat.
Captain Lucien L. Dawson, on January 19, 1865, reported: "My men fought the XI-inch Pivot and one IX-inch before landing, and the Commodore expressed himself much pleased with the manner they performed their duty."
The list of officers of the Corps attached to vessels in this engagement was as follows: Colorado, Captain Lucien L. Dawson and First Lieutenant E. P. Meeker; Minnesota, Captain George Butler; Brooklyn, Captain G. P. Houston; Vanderbilt, Captain W. H. Parker; Powhatan, First Lieutenant F.H. Corrie; New Ironsides, First Lieutenant Richard S. Collum and Second Lieutenant A.B. Young; Susquehanna, First Lieutenant William Wallace; Ticonderoga, First Lieutenant C.F. Williams; Wabash, First Lieutenant Louis E. Fagan. Captain Houston and Lieutenants Collum and Young did not land. A great many of the other vessels carried Sergeant's Guards of Marines, and most of them were landed for the assault.
Plea for Medals for Officers
In his report of January 28, 1865, Rear Admiral Porter stated in part:
When it is remembered that the surrender of the defenses of Cape Fear River is one of the most, if not the most, important events of the war, in which the largest stronghold of the enemy was captured under adverse circumstances, the justice of promotion will be seen. Its importance will be soon felt in the fall of Richmond, to which it is as necessary now as the main artery is to the human system. I trust the Department will be liberal in its promotions. This is almost a naval affair entirely, for the idea originated in the Navy Department, and until the reputation of the Army became in danger of being reflected upon we met from that branch of the service little or no encouragement. Few promotions have taken place during this war, and it would be most gratifying to the friends of all concerned to see the advancement of those who have worked so patiently for three years, and have made so handsome a "denouement." I have heard a matter freely discussed among the officers, to which I beg leave to draw the attention of the Department. A distribution of medals to officers would be a most popular thing. This is so common a thing among modern nations, and so universally accepted as a reward for eminent services among officers and men, that I recommend its adoption in our naval service. Anyone who has seen the pride with which sailors wear the medals bestowed upon them for gallant conduct can readily imagine how grateful it would be to officers. Trifling as such a mere bauble may be in intrinsic value, yet the history of war tells how valuable they are as inducements to perform gallant deeds. I trust the Department will not think me presuming in recommending what no doubt they already intend to adopt.
Medals of Honor
Six Marines were awarded Medals of Honor for acts of gallantry during the capture of Fort Fisher. Sergeant Richard Binder of the Ticonderoga, for personal valor as captain of a gun at Fort Fisher, 1864 to 1865. Orderly Sergeant Isaac N. Fry, of the Ticonderoga, for coolness, good conduct, and skill as captain of a gun in the attacks on Fort Fisher, January 13 to 15, 1865. Corporal John Rannahan, and Privates John Shivers and Henry Thompson, all of the Minnesota, for bravery in the assault on Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865. Corporal A. J. Tomlin, of the Wabash, was awarded his Medal of Honor on the following citation:
During the assault on Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865, he advanced under a heavy fire from the enemy's sharpshooters into an open space close to the fort and assisted a wounded comrade to a place of safety.
Marine Officers Brevetted
The following Marine Officers were brevetted for gallant and meritorious services at the attack upon Fort Fisher, January 13, 14, and 15,1865; Majors by brevet; Captains Lucien L. Dawson, George Butler, and W. H. Parker; Captains by brevet: First Lieutenants Frederick H. Corrie, William Wallace, E. P. Meeker, and Louis E. Fagan.
Rear Admiral Porter, on January 28, 1865, reported in part:
Captain L. L. Dawson, Captain George Butler, and First Lieutenants William Wallace, Charles F. Williams, and Louis E. Fagan were found in the front and fought gallantly. I recommend them to the favorable notice of the Department.
Fleet Captain Breese stated on January 28, 1865:
I wish also to bear witness to the handsome manner in which Lieutenant Fagan, of the Marine Corps, did his duty with his sharpshooters, and to the gallantry he exhibited in advancing his men so close to the enemy's works.
Commodore James F. Schenck, on January 16, 1865, reported concerning the Powhatan Marines: "It is due to the Marines of this ship, and to their commander, First Lieutenant F. H. Corrie, that the utmost alacrity and cheerfulness was shown in the performance of their duty."
Lieutenant Commander F.B. Blake, of the Susquehanna, said:
Two of our men were killed in the assault- Thomas Scott, seaman, and Theo. Minkoff, Private Marine. Private Marine Brennan has since died of his wounds. We had fourteen wounded, among them I regret to state, Lieutenant Wallace, whose gallantry was conspicuous, especially in his efforts to rally his men. * * *
I wish to express my entire satisfaction with the conduct of all under my command.
Commodore S. W. Godon, commanding the Susquehanna, said: "Lieutenant Wallace was wounded severely in the charge on the fort. I particularly regret the injury to this officer, as he cannot well be replaced by his Corps in the affections of this ship."
Commodore Joseph Lanman, commanding the Second Division, N.A.S., reported on January 17, 1865:
The conduct of Captain Butler * * * is represented as having been highly commendable." Commodore Lanman further reported: "As in my report of the action of the 24th and 25th of December, it gives me great pleasure to state that in the recent engagement the conduct of all the officers, men, Marines, and boys on board the Minnesota was entirely satisfactory. Everyone performed his duty to the utmost of his ability.
Lieutenant Commander James Parker, of the Minnesota, refers to Private Henry Thompson being well to the front, and states: "I desire to name Captain George Butler and Lieutenant Wil-Ham Wallace as being at the front." He also reported: "Captain George Butler, of the Marines, also deserves mention for coolness and bravery. He reached and remained near the palisades, and a short distance inside them." He also stated that the following Marines greatly distinguished themselves by their bravery and deserve promotions and medals: "Corporal John Rannahan and Privates John Shivers and Henry Thompson, all behaved bravely. * * * Thompson got nearer the fort than any one from our ship by a few yards."
Privates Charles Smith, Adolph Burton, Wilmer D. Lyne, James White, and Thomas Brown, of the Shenandoah, were mentioned for "gallant conduct in the assault."
The bravery and efficient service of C.P. Porter, the son of Rear Admiral Porter, who at the time held a clerkship, won for him a commission in the Marine Corps. Fleet Captain Breese reported: "To your secretary, Mr. C.P. Porter, acting as my aide, I am very much indebted. Though frequently sent to the rear with orders, he was most promptly back, and at the assault he was found at the front."
A description of honors awarded would not be complete without a reference to the heroism of Private Henry Wasmuth, of the Powhatan Marine Guard. A greater number of officers and men volunteered to land from the Powhatan than were needed. "Acting Ensign Robley D. Evans founded his claim upon the fact of the other members of his family being actively engaged among the rebels." At any rate, both Evans and Wasmuth landed. Evans was severely wounded and dropped in an exposed position, and he describes his rescue by Wasmuth in these words: "One of the Marines from the Powhatan, a splendid fellow named Wasmuth, came through the stockade, quickly gathered me under one arm, and before the sharpshooters could hit him laid me down in a place of comparative safety"; and when that location became dangerous:
Wasmuth again picked me up, and, after carrying me about fifty yards, dropped me into a pit made by a large shell. Here I was entirely protected from the rebel fire, and several times called to him to take cover, but he said each time, "The bullet has not been made that will kill me." I was very drowsy and almost asleep when I heard the peculiar thug of a bullet, and looking up, found poor Wasmuth with his hand to his neck, turning round and round, and the blood spurting out in a steady stream. The bullet had gone through his neck, cutting the jugular, and in a few minutes he dropped in the edge of the surf and bled to death. He certainly was an honor to his uniform.
But poor Wasmuth did not die on the beach, for he was picked up and placed on board the Fort Jackson, on which vessel he died January 17, 1865, his death certificate reading as follows: "On the fifteenth day of January, 1865, in an assault on Fort Fisher, the above-named man was wounded in the larynx by a minnie ball which caused his death. Injuries occurred in the line of duty."
A belated recognition of the gallantry of Wasmuth occurred in 1919 when a destroyer of the United States Navy was named in his memory, General Order No. 489, July 17, 1919, reading in part as follows:
Destroyer 338, now under construction at the Mare Island Navy Yard, named in memory of Henry Wasmuth, United States Marine Corps, who saved the life of "Fighting Bob" Evans at the attack on Fort Fisher at the risk of his own and was killed during the engagement.
The Army lost in the attack 681 men, of whom 88 were killed, 500 wounded, and the remainder missing. The fleet lost about three hundred men during the action, among whom were the gallant Lieutenants Preston and Porter. Six Naval officers were killed and fifteen wounded. The total casualties among the enlisted personnel, including Marines, were 74 killed, 213 wounded, and 22 missing.
First Lieutenant William Wallace, of the Marines, was wounded, fourteen Marines were killed or died of wounds received in action, forty-one were wounded, and five were listed as missing, although they were probably killed in action.
Results of the Victory
Seventy-five guns, many of them superb rifle pieces, and nineteen hundred prisoners were the immediate fruits and trophies of the victory; but the chief value and ultimate benefit of this grand achievement consisted in closing the main gate through which the insurgents had received supplies from abroad and sent their own products to foreign markets in exchange.5
Light draught steamers were immediately pushed over the bar and into the river, the channel of which was speedily buoyed, and the removal of torpedoes forthwith commenced. The rebels witnessing the fall of Fort Fisher, at once evacuated and blew up Fort Caswell, destroyed Bald Head Fort and Fort Shaw, and abandoned Fort Campbell. Within twenty-four hours after the fall of Fort Fisher the main defense of Cape Fear River, the entire chain of formidable works in the vicinity shared its fate, placing in Federal possession one hundred and sixty-eight guns of heavy calibre. On February 22, 1865, Wilmington, NC, was evacuated by the Confederates.6
1. Cochrane, CAPT Henry C., Hamersly's Naval Encyclopedia.
4. Report of the Secretary of the Navy.
For more photos of Fort Fisher go to www.civilwaralbum.com/misc8/fort_fisher1.htm.