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1865 January 28: The First Battle of Fort Fisher

January 31, 2015

This article comes from The Prescott Journal issue of January 28, 1865.

The First Battle of Fort Fisher took place December 23-27, 1864, outside Wilmington, North Carolina, when Benjamin F. Butler led the Union attempt to capture the fort.  Sometimes referred to as the “Gibraltar of the South,” Fort Fisher  was the last major Atlantic coastal stronghold of the Confederacy.  It had tremendous strategic value during the War, providing a port for blockade runners supplying General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  The fiasco at Fort Fisher and Butler’s disobedience of his direct orders gave General Ulysses S. Grant the excuse to relieve Butler of command of the Army of the James.

THE WILMINGTON EXPEDITION. 

General Butler’s Report and Grand Endorsement. 

We give below a full abstract of General BUTLER’s report of the Wilmington expedition.  The endorsement of Gen. GRANT on the report makes one or two revelations which throw considerable light on the cause of Gen. BUTLER’s removal from command.  It seems that he crowded himself into the Wilmington expedition without authority, when it was not intended he should accompany it, and disobeyed instructions by re-embarking the troops after a landing had been effected.

GEN. BUTLER’S REPORT.

The force composing the expedition amounted to about 6,600 men, consisting of Gen. Orme’s¹ division of the 24th corps and Gen. Paine’s² division of the 25th corps, under command of Maj. Gen. Weitzel.  [Godfrey Weitzel]

Gen. Butler states that after embarking his forces on the transports they were detained from the 9th to the 18th of December, waiting for Porter’s fleet [David D. Porter].  He joined the transport fleet off Cape Henry on the 11th, arriving at the rendezvous off New Inlet on the evening of the 15th, where they waited until the evening of the 18th, having the fairest weather possible.  On the evening of the 18th Porter came from Beaufort, to rendezvous, when the sea became rough, and on the 19th the wind sprang up, making it impossible to land the troops, and by the advice of Admiral Porter the troops were landed at Beaufort.—This was necessary, as the transports were coaled for ten days, and that time had been then consumed.

For four days the wind blew a gale, during which time the transports were coaled and watered.  At 4 o’clock P.M., on the 25th, Butler came in sight of Fort Fisher, and found the naval fleet bombarding it, the powder vessel having been exploded the morning previous.  Arrangements were made to land the troops next morning, under cover of the gunboats, as soon as the fire of the Half-moon and Flag Pond Hill batteries had been silenced, which were up the shore, two or three miles above Fort Fisher.

Porter was sanguine that he had silence Fort Fisher.  He was urged, if that were so, to run by the fort into Cape Fear river, and then the troops could land and hold the beach without fear of being shelled by the rebel gunboats, the Tallahassee being seen in the river.  Gen. Butler argued that if Porter would put his ships in the river, the army could then be supplied across the beach, and that at least the blockade of Wilmington would be thus effectual, even if they did not capture the fort.  Porter replied that he should probably lose a boat by torpedoes in an attempt to run by, and was reminded that the army might lose five hundred men by an assault, and his boat would not weigh in the balance, even in a money point of view, with the lives of these men.  Porter declined going by, and the expedition was deprived of that essential element of success.

On the noon of the 25th the batteries were reported silenced, and the transports successfully landed their troops.  Finding that the reconnoitering party landing could hold the shore, Butler determined that the land force should attempt an assault.  Curtis’ brigade was pushed within a few hundred yards of Fort Fisher, capturing the half-moon battery and its men.  This skirmish line advanced to go within seventy-five yards of the fort, the garrison being kept in their bomb-proofs by the naval fire.  When the fire of the navy ceased, the parapet was fully manned, and personal examination by Butler, within a few hundred feet of Fort Fisher, showed it to be well protected by extensive stockade bastion, fifteen feet high and fifteen wide near the west ditch, and that no material damage had been done to the fort by the navy.—Seventeen heavy guns tore up a breach.  The flag which had been cut down by a shell, was captured on the edge of the ditch, and an orderly killed about a third of a mile from the fort.  The report that any soldiers entered is a mistake.

During this time, Ames’¹ division had captured 218 men and 10 commission officers of the North Carolina Reserves.  Butler learned from these prisoners that two brigades of Hoke’s division were within two miles of the rear of his force ;  their skirmishers were actually engaged, and the remainder of Hoke’s division had arrived the night previous at Wilmington, and were on the march, thus forming a force outside the works superior to Butler’s.  [Robert F. Hoke]

Meantime the weather had become bad, the surf was rolling into the shore, so that landing had become difficult.  At this time Weitzel reported to Butler that to assault the works, in his judgement and that of experienced officers of his command, would be impossible with any prospect of success.  This opinion coincided with Butler’s, but as much as he regretted the necessity of abandoning the attempt, he yet considered his duty plain.  No works as strong as Fort Fisher, had been taken by assault during the war, and he referred to the slaughtered thousands in the assaults on Fort Hudson and Wagner.  Butler says I therefore ordered that no assault should be made, and the troops to re-embark.  While preparations to re-embark were making, the firing of the navy ceased.  The guns of the fort were fully manned, and a sharp fire of musketry, and grape and canister swept the plain over which our column must have advanced.  It was found impossible to get our troops all aboard before the sea ran so high as to render further embarkation or even the sending of supplies ashore impossible.

On the 26th, having made all proper disposition for getting the troops on board, General Butler gave orders to transport the fleet as fast as ready to sail, to Fortress Monroe, in obedience of orders from the Lieutenant General.

General Butler states he learned from deserters and prisoners that the supposition, when the expedition was planned, that Wilmington was denuded of troops to oppose Sherman [William T. Sherman] was correct, and so at the time of the arrival of the army off Wilmington, there were less than 400 men in Fort Fisher, and less than 1,000 within twenty miles ;  but the delay of three days waiting the arrival of the navy, and the further delay by the storm of the 21st, 22d and 23d, gave time for reinforcements to arrive from Richmond.  The instructions of the Lieutenant General did not contemplate a seige [sic] ;  we had neither seige [sic] trans nor supplies for such contingencies.

Gen. Butler here says :  “The exigency of possible delay for which the foresight of the commander of the armies had provided, had arisen, to-wit :  Large reinforcement of the garrison, with the fact that the navy had exhausted their supply of ammunition in bombardment, left me with no alternative but to return with my army to the James.—The loss of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 16th, 17th, and 18th, was the immediate cause of the failure of the expedition.  It is not my province, even to suggest the blame to the navy.  For their delay of four days at Beaufort, I know none of the reasons which do or do not justify it, but it is to be presumed they are sufficient.”  Gen. Butler then refers to the excellent behavior of the troops, and the assistance afforded him by certain naval officers.

The report of Gen. Weitzel states that after getting a full survey of Fort Fisher, he frankly informed Gen. Butler that it would be butchery to order assault on that work under the circumstances.  Gen. Curtis’³ and Gen. Ames’ reports are appended, confirming all the above essential points, and copies of Gen. Grant’s telegraphic orders to Gen. Butler, conclude the document.

GEN. GRANT’S INDORSEMENT.

Gen. Grant, in his indorsement of Butler’s report, says : “It was never contemplated that Butler should accompany the expedition, Major General Weitzel being specially named as commander.”  Gen. Grant thinks the delay in the moving of the expedition can be charged to waiting for the gunpowder boat to be prepared.  Grant says :  “Butler is in error in stating that the embarkation of troops was by his instruction, as his instruction never contemplated a withdrawal after a landing had been effected.”

The following is the letter of instructions from Gen. Grant to Butler, which is appended to Butler’s report of the Wilmington expedition :

HEADQUARTERS ARMIES OF THE UNITED STATES, }
CITY POINT, Dec. 6, 1864. }

To Maj. Gen. Butler, Commanding Army of the James :

GENERAL :  The first object of the expedition under Gen. Weitzel is to close to the enemy the port of Wilmington.  If successful in this, the second will be the capture of Wilmington itself.  There are reasonable grounds to hope for success if advantage can be taken of the absence of the great part of the enemy’s forces now looking after Sherman in Georgia.  The directions you have given for the number and equipment of the expedition are all right except in the unimportant ones of where they embark and the amount of entrenching tools to be taken.

The object of the expedition will be gained by effecting a landing on the main land between Cape Fear River and the Atlantic, north of the north entrance to the river.  Should such landing be effected, whether the enemy hold Fort Fisher or the batterys [sic] guarding the entrance to the river there, the troops should entrench themselves and by co-operating with the navy effect the reduction and capture of those places.  These in our hands the navy could enter the harbor, and the port of Wilmington by a forced march and surprise.  If time is consumed in gaining the first object of the expedition, the second will become a matter of after consideration.  The details for the execution are entrusted to you and the officer immediately in command of the troops.  Should the troops under Gen. Weitzel fail to effect a landing at or near Fort Fisher, they will be returned to the army operating against Richmond without delay.

(Signed,)   U. S. GRANT,
Lieutenant General.

1.  William Ward Orme (1832-1866) contracted tuberculosis in Mississippi and resigned April 20, 1864. The 2nd Division (24th Corps) of the Expeditionary Corps of the Army of the James was led by Adelbert Ames (1835-1933). Ames entered West Point in 1856 and graduated in 1861, after the Civil War started. He participated in the First Battle of Bull Run (received the Medal of Honor), the Peninsula Campaign, seeing action at Yorktown, Gaines’ Mill, and Malvern Hill. In 1862 he became colonel of the 20th Maine Infantry and fought in the Maryland Campaign. Ames volunteered as an aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and was promoted to brigadier general in May 1863. Ames performed well under difficult circumstances at the Battle of Gettysburg. In 1864, Ames’s division, now part of the X Corps of the Army of the James, served under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. In the future, he would become Butler’s son-in-law. He led the successful assault in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher and received a brevet promotion to major general in the Union Army for his role in the battle.
After the War, Ames served as the 27th governor of Mississippi (1868-1870), U.S. senator from Mississippi (1870-1874), and 30th governor of Mississippi (1874-1876). In 1898 he served as a U.S. Army general during the Spanish-American War.
2.  Charles Jackson Paine (1833-1916) made a considerable fortune in railroads before the Civil War. When the War started he volunteered and was a captain in the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. In October 1862 he was promoted to colonel of the 2nd Louisiana Infantry and during the siege of Port Hudson (May 24-July 8, 1863) he commanded a brigade. In July 1864 he became a brigadier general and led a division ob black troops at New Market Heights. Paine participated in both expeditions against Fort Fisher, but his troops played only a minor role. His division was more actively engaged during the following battle of Wilmington (February 11-22, 1865). After the War, he served briefly as the district commander at New Berne and in January 1866, he was brevetted as a major general of Volunteers.
3.  Newton Martin Curtis (1835-1910) stood an impressive 6′ 7″ tall and it became an issue of concern to his family when the Civil War began as they felt he would surely be an easy target for enemy bullets. On May 15, 1861, Curtis volunteered in the Union Army as a captain in Company G of the 16th New York Infantry. He fought in the Peninsula Campaign and was wounded in a minor engagement at West Point, Virginia. On October 23, 1862, he transferred to the 142nd New York Infantry, serving as a lieutenant colonel until his promotion to colonel on January 21 of the next year. As commander of the 142nd, he fought in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign of May 1864. He took command of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, X Corps, during the Siege of Petersburg. Curtis received a brevet promotion to brigadier general on October 28, 1864, for his actions at the Battle of New Market Heights. His brigade became part of the expedition against Fort Fisher in December 1864. Curtis’ brigade was among the few troops to go ashore. He also took part in the second attack in January 1865, in which his brigade played a key role in the Union victory and he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He remained in the army until January 1866, receiving a brevet to major general of Volunteers. After the War, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from New York (1891-1897).

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