Storm of War: The Battle at Fort Fisher Part II

BY Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr.

Not until the midsummer of 1864 was U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles able to convince President Abraham Lincoln to support a combined army-navy operation against Wilmington. The U.S. Navy had proposed several plans for attacking the Tar Heel seaport earlier in the war but none of them had generated the necessary political support. Then on August 5 1864 U.S. naval forces sealed Mobile Bay Alabama the last port on the Gulf of Mexico to fall under their control. That left Wilmington the only major Confederate seaport still open to trade with the outside world.

With Wilmington now the South’s only open port the Confederate commerce raiders Tallahassee and Chickamauga also began using the harbor as a base of operations. This greatly concerned Major General W.H.C. Whiting Confederate commander of the Department of the Cape Fear. He believed that the appearance of commerce raiders in addition to the attention that blockade runners already attracted would provoke an all-out Union attack on the seaport. More than ever Whiting became convinced that an attack at the Cape Fear was inevitable and he warned Colonel William Lamb at Fort Fisher to make ready.

Sure enough in late October 1864 sound intelligence reached General Whiting that Federal forces were indeed planning to strike Wilmington. Rather than leave the important seaport’s protection in the hands of the man most responsible for planning and supervising the construction of the city’s formidable defenses however President Jefferson Davis replaced Whiting with General Braxton Bragg the most vilified officer in the Confederate army. When the Richmond Enquirer learned of the controversial change in command it announced: “General Bragg is going to Wilmington. Goodbye Wilmington.”

The politics of command haunted Federal forces too. General Grant had hand-picked Major General Godfrey Weitzel to lead the 6 500-man expeditionary force in the Fort Fisher operation but Weitzel’s superior officer Major General Benjamin F. Butler commander of the U.S. Department of Southeastern Virginia and North Carolina finagled his way into taking over effective command. There was bad blood between Rear Admiral David D. Porter who was assigned by the Navy Department to command the naval task force that would attack Fort Fisher and General Butler that went back years. Success in the impending Wilmington campaign depended upon cooperation between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army yet the two service branch commanders intensely disliked each other. It did not bode well for the mission.

Admiral Porter was anxious to proceed toward his target but was delayed by the army. General Butler had proposed a novel feature for the attack — a giant floating bomb. His idea was to pack a ship to the gunnels with hundreds of tons of gunpowder steam it ashore at Fort Fisher and detonate it. Butler believed that the simultaneous explosion of such an immense quantity of gunpowder would create tornado force winds that would blow down the sand walls of the mighty fortress stun its defenders and allow the Union army to march in and sweep up the survivors. The USS Louisiana a patrol boat in Pamlico Sound North Carolina was chosen for the suicide mission.

As it turned out the Louisiana did nothing more than make enough noise to awaken Fort Fisher’s slumbering garrison when it was detonated shortly after midnight on Christmas Eve. “There’s a fizzle!” remarked Commander Alexander C. Rhind of the USS Agawam. “The powder boat proved an ignominious failure ” added Lieutenant Commander Thomas H. Selfridge of the USS Huron. Critics later dubbed the failed experiment “Butler’s Folly ” and “Butler’s Toy.”

Admiral Porter then determined to reduce Fort Fisher the old-fashioned way: naval bombardment. For two days December 24-25 sixty-four warships pounded the massive earthwork with 20 271 shot and shell. The air was filled with shrieking projectiles of all types and sizes — from 3-inch bolts to 15-inch cannonballs that weighed more than 300 pounds — clouds of white smoke from exploding shells and the pungent odor of sulfur. The deafening peal of heavy ordnance reverberated across the sea with such stunning violence “that the ocean fairly trembled ” remarked one Federal soldier. Bursting shells soon set barracks on fire inside Fort Fisher and knocked down Colonel Lamb’s brick headquarters but otherwise caused surprisingly little damage to the fort’s ramparts and few casualties among the garrison. As Lamb and Whiting intended both the stout defenses and defenders held their own.

After the failure of his powder boat experiment General Butler was in no mood to cooperate with Admiral Porter who the general believed had deliberately sabotaged the project to make him look foolish. Butler put ashore only one-third of his 6 500-man infantry unit north of Fort Fisher on Christmas Day. A reconnaissance force led by General Weitzel marched down the beach toward the fort but soon reported that despite the intensity of Porter’s naval bombardment neither Fort Fisher nor its armament had been damaged enough to justify a ground assault. A frontal attack against the still-strong defenses Weitzel concluded would be suicidal. Still seething with anger at Porter Butler considered Weitzel’s report and decided to abort the mission altogether. He withdrew his troops from onshore and sailed back to Virginia.

Colonel Lamb and General Whiting were shocked to see the Union army retreat just as it seemingly prepared to attack the fort and just as surprised to observe the withdrawal of the enemy’s fleet by the end of December. The Confederates realized that the battle was over for the time being at least and that they had won. A great celebration followed inside the fort and at Wilmington.

General Bragg who claimed much credit for the victory at Fort Fisher although he had remained in Wilmington during the battle received a new gray uniform from his admirers in the city. He later staged a grand review for civilian dignitaries of Confederate reinforcements that had arrived from Virginia to help defend the city. But Bragg’s overconfidence worried General Whiting and Colonel Lamb both of whom were convinced that the Federals were not yet done with Fort Fisher. They fully expected a renewal of the Union attack at an early date.

Their fears proved prophetic. Admiral Porter’s warships and U.S. Army forces now commanded by Brigadier General Alfred H. Terry arrived again off Fort Fisher late on the night of January 12 1865. Braxton Bragg still ensconced with his soldiers in Wilmington was unprepared to contest the landing of Union troops on Federal Point early the following morning. By the time Bragg and his musket-bearers reached the area the enemy was already entrenched onshore and making preparations to attack Fort Fisher.

The Union warships provided covering fire for General Terry’s troops on the beach while at the same time kept up a fierce bombardment of Fort Fisher. For two-and-a-half days January 13-15 1865 the fleet fired 19 682 projectiles. Porter instructed his artillerists to knock out the fort’s land face cannon that covered the ground across which the army planned to advance. The admiral also determined to share in the army’s attack by putting ashore more than 2 000 volunteer sailors and marines from the now fifty-eight ships in the fleet.

Colonel Lamb and General Whiting (who assisted his young protégé as an advisor and volunteer combatant) kept their men at their cannon as best they could but the intense enemy shelling soon drove many of them into underground bombproofs. During the height of the bombardment on January 15 Lamb counted 100 shells exploding in his fort in one minute’s time. Nothing could withstand that kind of barrage from bursting iron projectiles. Hundreds of Lamb’s men were killed and wounded and all but one of the fort’s cannon in the land face batteries were destroyed or dismounted from their carriages.

General Whiting sent repeated messages for General Bragg whose division of more than 6 400 soldiers was dug in at Sugar Loaf hill four miles north of Fort Fisher to send reinforcements to the fort. Not until after sunrise on January 15 did Bragg make the attempt landing only several hundred men on the riverfront behind the fort and in plain view of the Union fleet. The gunboats immediately redirected their fire toward the Confederate transports and drove them off. No more was heard from Bragg during the battle.

After days of heavy naval bombardment the Union ground assault began late on the afternoon of January 15. The warships simultaneously blew their steam whistles to signal the advance. More than 3 200 blue-uniformed soldiers rushed toward the fort’s battered ramparts near the riverfront while Porter’s naval column pushed down the sea beach. The sailors and marines were met by blistering musketry from Confederate soldiers personally commanded by both Colonel Lamb and General Whiting who quickly mounted the fort at the Northeast Bastion where the land and sea faces intersected. In less than 30 minutes almost 300 seamen lay dead and wounded along the oceanfront while the survivors fled back up the beach.

Although Porter’s sailors and marines failed to breach the defenses their efforts distracted the attention of a large portion of the fort’s garrison and enabled the Union army to establish a foothold on the land front’s weakly defended west end. General Whiting personally led a fierce counterattack in an attempt to drive the Federal troops out of the fort but he was severely wounded in the action and removed from the battlefield.

The battle for possession of Fort Fisher now became a soldiers’ fight. Hand-to-hand combat and firefights of musketry raged for hours. Colonel Lamb rallied his men for one last counterattack late in the afternoon but he too was dangerously wounded only half-an-hour after Whiting went down and taken to the post hospital. He did not return to the battle either.

By 9:00 p.m. the remnants of Fort’s Fisher’s vastly outnumbered and exhausted garrison abandoned the fort and retreated toward Battery Buchanan at the tip of Federal Point. There they hoped to be evacuated by boats to the safety of the west side of the Cape Fear River. But Confederate sailors and marines stationed at Buchanan had already withdrawn from the area taking all of the boats with them.

The garrison including their wounded leaders Lamb and Whiting had little choice but to await their fate. Pursuing Union troops caught up with them about 10:00 p.m. January 15. General Alfred Terry personally accepted the fort’s surrender from General Whiting who was lying on a stretcher in the sand. Taken prisoner General Whiting died of complications from his wounds two months later in a prisoner-of-war facility in New York. On his deathbed Whiting wrote a scathing report of Braxton Bragg’s inaction in the defense of Fort Fisher and the last Confederate seaport. Colonel Lamb survived his severe wound and often returned to the Wilmington area after the war where he was regarded as the “hero of Fort Fisher.”

The Federal capture of Fort Fisher ended blockade running into the Confederacy. No longer were supplies able to reach the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia. As he had predicted if Wilmington fell Robert E. Lee could no longer “maintain his army ” and he evacuated his position along the Petersburg and Richmond lines in early April 1865 and retreated into the interior of the state. General Grant followed close behind catching Lee at Appomattox Courthouse Virginia. There Lee surrendered the remnants of his army on April 9 1865. Two weeks later Confederate forces in North Carolina including Braxton Bragg’s division that had abandoned Wilmington surrendered to Major General William T. Sherman effectively ending the four-years-long war.

The battles of Fort Fisher witnessed the two largest naval bombardments of the Civil War and one of its largest amphibious operations. Today the Fort Fisher State Historic Site is the most visited historic place in North Carolina.

A Father’s Desperate Search for His Dead Son at Fort Fisher

One of the first Union soldiers killed in the ground attack on Fort Fisher on January 15 1865 was Edward K. Wightman a popular and intelligent young noncommissioned officer in Company C 3rd New York Infantry. The Wightman family learned of his death when they saw his name listed among the dead from Fort Fisher in the New York Herald four days after the battle. The family was so distraught over their loss that Wightman’s father Stillman K. Wightman determined to go to North Carolina to try and recover his son’s remains. Despite his advanced age and poor health Mr. Wightman used his political connections as a renowned New York lawyer to make the long arduous journey into the Cape Fear war zone.

Arriving at Fort Fisher in early February 1865 Mr. Wightman alone and cold began the difficult search for his son’s grave among the hundreds of graves that dotted the landscape in front of the fort. Most of the burial markers bore no identification for the soldiers buried beneath them but the second one that Mr. Wightman examined did.

“The grave had a small narrow pine board erected at the head of it ” he later wrote. “Leaning over the grave and looking through my spectacles I read the following words legibly written with a small lamp-black brush upon the board: ‘Sergt Major 3rd N.Y.V. E.K. Wightman.’ O my heart leaped with joy! No tongue or pen can describe my feelings.”

Within several hundred feet of the spot where Edward had fallen in battle his comrades had buried him in a marked grave. Wightman had his son’s remains exhumed and placed in a coffin supplied by the U.S. Army. After a long return voyage he reinterred Edward in the family cemetery in Cromwell Connecticut.