The Assault On Fort Fisher

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By Robert B. Asprey - Originally Published November 1965

An earlier gunfire gap that resulted in heavy casualties for the landing force.

The US Marine Corps, along with America's other armed forces, was not prepared for the Civil War. In the 15 years that followed the Mexican War, the size of the Corps varied between 50-60 officers and 500-1,200 enlisted men, the bulk going to ship detachments.

In 1861, the Corps totaled only 1,892 officers and men. Archibald Henderson, who had served as Commandant for over 38 years, had died; his successor, John Harris, had already served for 45 years at the time of his appointment. Senior officers were all over 60, quite unfit for the field. Majors, captains and lieutenants were seemingly fit enough, but now the question of loyalty entered. In the end, one or two field officers resigned, about half of the captains, nearly two thirds of the first lieutenants and about half of the second lieutenants. (Some of these officers joined the Confederate forces which organized their own Marine Corps that eventually counted ten companies or about a thousand officers and men.)

The Lincoln administration tried to repair the loss by giving the Corps 38 generally inexperienced young officers. In July, 1861, Congress authorized an increase of 28 officers and 750 enlisted to give a total strength of just over 3,000; the President increased this to nearly 4,000-the maximum strength of the Corps throughout the Civil War.

The major contribution to the war by Marines came from detachments serving aboard ships. Beginning in August, 1861, with the capture of Fort Hatteras, the Marines were represented in virtually every subsequent naval action of any significance. By the end of 1864, Marine detachments were serving on nearly 100 Union ships. This meant a lack of Marines trained in land warfare. The two actions in which Marines served in this capacity-the Battle of Bull Run and the Broad River campaign-were not highly successful.

A final action remained.

By the end of 1864, the Union blockade had almost accomplished its mission. The only Confederate port still open to blockade runners was that of Wilmington, North Carolina. The navy had been wanting to capture Wilmington for some time, but had decided that the army must help. Only in October 1864 was Gen Grant finally persuaded to support the attack with a force under MajGen Ben Butler. Early in December, Butler turned up at Hampton Roads with a force numbering about 6,500. RAdm David Porter, commanding the naval side of the operation, loaded the soldiers on transports of a fleet "surpassing in numbers and equipment any which had assembled during the war." The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, as Porter's force was called, consisting of more than 50 ships, sailed for its rendezvous area, Beaufort, North Carolina, where it spent a couple of weeks waiting for good weather and straightening out last-minute details.

The capture of Wilmington meant seizing two forts that guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear river: the small Fort Buchanan and the larger Fort Fisher. These stood on a tongue of land between the ocean and Cape Fear River. Fort Fisher's garrison numbered over 1,000, including some Confederate Marines, manning 44 large-caliber guns. These commanded the main landing beaches on the east as well as the land approach from the north which was further blocked by small outposts and by a palisade of sharpened logs fronted by a field sown with high-explosive "torpedoes." Fort Fisher was obviously the key to the peninsula and thus to Wilmington.

The plan of attack called for Porter's squadron to bombard the forts while Butler's troops landed a few miles north to attack overland. Porter kicked off his bombardment with an ingenious tactic involving a "powder vessel" crammed with 150 tons of powder and detonated close to Fort Fisher, the theory being that the explosion would either level the fort or explode its magazines. Neither proved the case, and on 24 December Porter opened a normal bombardment with his big guns -many manned by Marine crews-that quickly silenced the guns of the two forts. By plan, Butler's soldiers should now have attacked: in fact, they had not yet arrived in the area, nor did they arrive until late afternoon.

At 0700 on Christmas day, Porter's guns again opened fire on Fort Fisher. Butler's force landed and in late morning about 3,000 soldiers had advanced to the north face of the fort. Several soldiers made it to the outer parapets and captured a Confederate flag and an officer's mount. Butler decided, however, "that the place cannot be carried by assault, as it was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the Navy fire." He ordered his troops to re-embark and sail back to Hampton Roads. Porter was furious, the more so since he believed that Fort Fisher's guns "were so blown up, burst and torn up, that the people inside had no intention of fighting any longer." He recommended a new attempt.

Gen Grant agreed, and this time sent MajGen A. H. Terry with 8,500 soldiers to rendezvous with Porter at Beaufort. The force arrived off Fort Fisher on 12 January 1965. In the interim the fort's outer defenses and damaged guns had been repaired, and Gen Braxton Bragg had substantially reinforced the garrison. On 13 January, Porter turned his guns on the fort while Terry's force debarked. By mid-afternoon Terry had landed 8,000 troops with ammunition, rations and supply, and had effectively sealed off the peninsula from the north. Porter's ships fired throughout the night and the following day until Porter judged "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."

That evening Terry and Porter worked out an attack plan for the 15th. Porter's ships would continue to fire while Terry's people worked into the north parapet. At a signal from Terry, Porter's guns would shift, the soldiers would attack the fort's northern face and a joint force of sailors and Marines would strike the northeastern portion or "sea face."

This latter force-1,600 sailors and 400 Marines-were ashore about a mile and a half from the fort by noon. The landing force commander, LCdr Randolph Breese, organized three lines or "battalions" of sailors and one of Marines, the latter under a Marine captain, Lucien Dawson, whose orders were to "form in the rear and cover the sailors." Once the sailors had gone over the walls ("armed with cutlasses, well sharpened, and with revolvers"-what Porter thought was a boarding party), the Marines would "follow after, and when they gain the edge of the parapet they will lie flat and pick off the enemy in the works."

Neither Marines nor sailors were ready when Terry's attack began on their right. Breese ordered the sailors "to advance by the flank, along the beach, hoping to be able to form them for the assault under cover of the Marines." Dawson was not ready to move but did so, an action further confused by Breese's orders, which put the Marines out of position for support fire. The sailors meanwhile converged into a ponderous column which "rose up and dashed forward, yelling and cheering so loudly that no order could either be heard or passed." The Confederates were firing into this mass at only 40 yards. The sailors wavered and then stopped, "the whole line commenced doubling up and flying, everybody for themselves." Dawson managed to provide a semblance of a rearguard for the broken assault force.

Abortive as was this assault, it immensely aided Terry's attack on the northern face. While the Confederate garrison concentrated on beating off the sailors, the soldiers pushed through the palisades and over the parapet and outer traverses. At 1800 Col Abbott's brigade entered the fort, which surrendered its garrison of over 2,000 a few hours later. The attack cost Porter and Terry 198 killed and some 850 wounded.

The capture of Fort Fisher forced Gen Bragg to evacuate his remaining Cape Fear defensive positions. Wilmington soon fell. The loss of this port, this final line of communication, meant nothing less to the Confederacy than loss of contact with the outside world. This was a major defeat.

The real meaning of Fort Fisher may be seen in a story told on the late Winston Churchill. Shortly before World War I, someone asked him if a modern battleship could destroy a modern fort. The wise man thought a moment, then growled, "It depends on the ship-it depends on the fort." He might have gone a step further: it also depends on the landing force.