Fort Fisher Civil War Battle

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Battle of Fort Fisher
Fort Fisher Civil War History

 Fort Fisher Civil War Battle History, by D. H. Hill, Jr.*

After Hoke's division was recalled from New Bern [North Carolina] to engage with Beauregard's army at Drewy's Bluff [Virginia], there was no military operations, except of minor importance, in North Carolina, until the first attack on Fort Fisher. Colonel Lamb, the heroic defender of the fort, thus describes his works:
"At this time Fort Fisher extended across the peninsula 682 yards, a continuous work, mounting 20 heavy guns, and having two mortars and four pieces of artillery. The sea face was 1,898 yards in length, consisting of batteries connected by a heavy curtain and ending in the mount battery 60 feet high, mounting in all twenty-four heavy guns, including one 170-pound Blakely rifled gun and one 130-pound Armstrong rifled gun. At the extreme end of the point was Buchanan with four heavy guns."

Fort Fisher Civil War Battle Map
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Fort Fisher Civil War Battlefield Map

Fort Fisher, North Carolina, Civil War
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Fort Fisher Civil War Marker

General Whiting and Colonel Lamb had both expended much labor and ingenuity in perfecting the defenses of this fort. Wilmington was the port into which the blockade runners were bringing so large a portion of the supplies necessary for the Confederacy that General Lee said if Fort Fisher fell he could not subsist his army. This thought nerved Lamb to prolonged resistance.

The garrison, when the Federal fleet arrived on December 20th, consisted of five companies of the Thirty-six North Carolina (artillery) regiment. General Whiting, in command of the department, entered the fort as soon as it was threatened. Major Reilly, of the Tenth [North Carolina] regiment (artillery), with two of his companies also reported there. Colonel Lamb states that the total effective force on December 25th was 1,431, consisting of 921 regulars, about 450 Junior reserves, and 60 sailors and marines.

The "powder-ship" Louisiana, loaded with 250 tons of powder, was headed for the fort, and exploded on the night of the 23d. This explosion, however, proved harmless. Then, on the 24th, the [Union] fleet approached for bombardment. Colonel Lamb thus tells his experience under that fire:

"The fleet consisting of the ironclads, four monitors and forty-five wooden steam frigates, commenced a terrific bombardment....For five hours a tremendous hail of shot and shell was poured upon the works with but little effect. At 5:30 the fleet withdrew....Some 10,000 shot and shell were fired by the fleet. The fort being obliged to husband its ammunition, fired only 672 projectiles....Only 23 men were wounded."

General Porter determined to make a second attempt. So on Christmas day at 10:30 a.m., the fleet, reinforced by one more monitor and some additional wooden steamers, began another bombardment. Colonel Lamb tells the result:

Civil War Fort Fisher Memorial
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North Carolina and Confederate Fort Fisher

"At 5:30 p.m., a most terrific enfilading fire against the land face and palisade commenced, unparalleled in severity. Admiral Porter reported it at 130 shot and shell per minute, more than two every second. The men were required to protect themselves behind the traverse; the extra men were sent to the bombproofs with orders to rally to the ramparts as soon as the fire ceased. As soon as this fire commenced, a line of skirmishers advanced toward the works. When the firing ceased, the guns were manned and opened with grape and canister, and the palisade was manned by two veterans and Junior reserves. No assault was made. Our casualties for the day, were, killed 5, wounded 33,. In the afternoon both of the 7-inch rifles exploded....five other guns were disabled by the enemy....There were only 3,600 shot and shell exclusive of grape and shrapnel in the works....Except when special orders were given the guns were only fired every half hour. In the two days, the frigates Minnesota and Colorado fired 3,551 shot and shell, almost as many as were in all the batteries of Fort Fisher."

Fort Fisher Civil War Map
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(Map) U.S. Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher, NC

With this second experience, General Butler retired, and the the fort had a respite until January. The expedition had been fitted out elaborately and was unusually strong. Captain Selfridge, who commanded one of Butler's ships, says:

"The navy department was able to concentrate before Fort Fisher a larger force than had ever before assembled under one command in the history of the American navy--a total of nearly sixty vessels."

The total number of guns and howitzers, according to the computation of the editors of "Battles and Leaders," was over 600, and the total weight of projectiles at a single discharge of all the guns was over 22 tons. The retirement of this great armament without accomplishing anything was a great disappointment to the Federal authorities. Captain Selfridge says: "Words cannot express the bitter feeling and chagrin of the navy."

Battle of Fort Fisher Map
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Civil War Fort Fisher Battle Map

Civil War Fort Fisher Map
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Fort Fisher Civil War Map

Battle of Fort Fisher, 1865
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Depiction of Fort Fisher Battle

When it became evident to the Confederate government that Fisher was to be attacked, General Hoke's division was ordered to its relief, reaching Wilmington on the 24th of December, and the advanced regiments arrived at Fisher on the same day. Butler, having landed a force on the ocean side, the Seventeenth North Carolina was withdrawn from the fort on the 25th and ordered to attack.

(Left) Period art showing the struggle between two determined armies engaged in a conflict that had already endured nearly four years. Once Fort Fisher fell to the Federals in January, the war would end three months later in April 1865. 

As General Butler withdrew his men, only a skirmish occurred. General Bragg was in chief command in the State [North Carolina]. Evidently not expecting a second attack, he withdrew Hoke from Sugar Loaf, and the division went into camp near Wilmington, sixteen miles from Fisher.

But General Terry, with about the same force that General Butler had commanded, except that it was reinforced by two negro brigades, was ordered to retrieve the first reverse. On the 14th of January, Terry landed 8,500 men without opposition, and that night, moving across the peninsula, constructed a line of field works from the ocean to Cape Fear River, thereby cutting off all land communication between the fort and General Bragg's command.

No effort of any importance seems to have been made by the commanding general [Bragg] to assist the doomed fort.

Civil War Battle of Fort Fisher Monument
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Fort Fisher, North Carolina

2nd Battle of Fort Fisher History
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Fort Fisher Battle History

After the first bombardment, five companies of the Thirty-six regiment (artillery) returned from Georgia and took their old place in the garrison. The total force there, after the return of these men, was about 1,900.

"All day and all night on the 13th and 14th [of January]," says Colonel Lamb, "the fleet kept up a ceaseless and terrific bombardment....It was impossible to repair damage at night. No meals could be prepared for the exhausted garrison; the dead could not be buried without new casualties. Fully 200 had been killed during these two days, and only three or four of the land guns remained serviceable."

Then the land forces approached nearer and nearer by pits and shelter, and Colonel Lamb, and all their officers and men fight for the important fort; frequently did they signal for the aid they sorely needed. General Whiting and Colonel Lamb were both severely wounded. On the 15th, after exhausting every energy, the fort was surrendered. The Federal loss is stated at 1,445. The garrison lost about 500. Few more gallant defenses against such odds are recorded. General Whiting died shortly after in a Northern prison.

Fort Fisher North Carolina Map
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Map of Fort Fisher: Guardian of Wilmington

(Map) Eastern portion of the military department of North Carolina compiled from the best and latest authorities in the Engineer Bureau, War Department, May 1862.

*D. H. Hill, Jr., son of Confederate Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr., was the author of Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865 -- which is a welcome addition to the North Carolina Civil War buff. North Carolina native Daniel Harvey Hill, Sr. -- commonly referred to as D. H. Hill -- was one of only two lieutenant generals from the Tar Heel State. (Lieutenant general was the second highest rank in the Confederate Army.) Hill was also brother-in-law to the renowned "Stonewall" Jackson.
Sources: Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865, pp. 214-217; map courtesy Library of Congress; Fort Fisher map courtesy renowned Cartographer Mark A. Moore; Fort Fisher map courtesy NARA; Fort Fisher map courtesy NPS; Fort Fisher Historical Marker courtesy North Carolina Office of Archives & History**.
**In 1935 the General Assembly authorized the establishment of the official North Carolina Highway Marker Program, which is also the only authoritative Civil War Marker Program to represent the State of North Carolina. Its mission is to educate and to preserve the heritage and history of North Carolina through historical and interpretive markers in coastal, piedmont, and mountain regions. Its photos and pictures of Civil War markers are also always free to the public and are the only markers online that officially represent the Civil War in North Carolina. As a disabled military veteran with the loss of use of both legs and who can no longer visit the Civil War markers, I applaud the NC historical marker program for its preservation efforts and for allowing us the opportunity to freely educate classroom students of Fort Fisher in the Civil War.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher. From Publishers Weekly: Late in the Civil War, Wilmington, N.C., was the sole remaining seaport supplying Lee's army at Petersburg, Va., with rations and munitions. In this dramatic account, Gragg describes the two-phase campaign by which Union forces captured the fort that guarded Wilmington and the subsequent occupation of the city itself--a victory that virtually doomed the Confederacy. In the initial phase in December 1864, General Ben Butler and Admiral David Porter directed an unsuccessful amphibious assault against Fort Fisher that included the war's heaviest artillery bombardment. Continued below…

The second try in January '65 brought General Alfred Terry's 9000-man army against 1500 ill-equipped defenders, climaxing in a bloody hand-to-hand struggle inside the bastion and an overwhelming Union victory. Although historians tend to downplay the event, it was nevertheless as strategically decisive as the earlier fall of either Vicksburg or Atlanta. Gragg has done a fine job in restoring this important campaign to public attention. Includes numerous photos.

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Recommended Reading: Hurricane of Fire: The Union Assault on Fort Fisher (Hardcover). Review: In December 1864 and January 1865, Federal forces launched the greatest amphibious assault the world had yet seen on the Confederate stronghold of Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina. This was the last seaport available to the South--all of the others had been effectively shut down by the Union's tight naval blockade. The initial attack was a disaster; Fort Fisher, built mainly out of beach sand, appeared almost impregnable against a heavy naval bombardment. When troops finally landed, they were quickly repelled. Continued below…

A second attempt succeeded and arguably helped deliver one of the death blows to a quickly fading Confederacy. Hurricane of Fire is a work of original scholarship, ably complementing Rod Gragg's Confederate Goliath, and the first book to take a full account of the navy's important supporting role in the assault.


Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher, by Mark A. Moore. Description: Full campaign and battle history of the largest combined operation in U.S. military history prior to World War II. By late 1864, Wilmington was the last major Confederate blockade-running seaport open to the outside world. The final battle for the port city's protector--Fort Fisher--culminated in the largest naval bombardment of the American Civil War, and one of the worst hand-to-hand engagements in four years of bloody fighting. Continued below…

Copious illustrations, including 54 original maps drawn by the author. Fresh new analysis on the fall of Fort Fisher, with a fascinating comparison to Russian defenses at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. “A tour de force. Moore's Fort Fisher-Wilmington Campaign is the best publication of this character that I have seen in more than 50 years.” -- Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus, National Park Service


Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign: Last Departing Rays of Hope. Description: While prior books on the battle to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, have focused solely on the epic struggles for Fort Fisher, in many respects this was just the beginning of the campaign. In addition to complete coverage (with significant new information) of both battles for Fort Fisher, "The Wilmington Campaign" includes the first detailed examination of the attack and defense of Fort Anderson. It also features blow-by-blow accounts of the defense of the Sugar Loaf Line and of the operations of Federal warships on the Cape Fear River. This masterpiece of military history proves yet again that there is still much to be learned about the American Civil War. Continued below…

"The Wilmington Campaign is a splendid achievement. This gripping chronicle of the five-weeks' campaign up the Cape Fear River adds a crucial dimension to our understanding of the Confederacy's collapse." -James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom


Recommended Reading: Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. Description: Even before the rest of North Carolina joined her sister states in secession, the people of the Lower Cape Fear were filled with enthusiasm for the Southern Cause - so much so that they actually seized Forts Johnston and Caswell, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. When the state finally did secede, Wilmington became the most important port city of the Confederacy, keeping Robert E. Lee supplied with the munitions and supplies he needed to fight the war against the North. Continued below…

Dedicated soldiers like William Lamb and W.H.C. Whiting turned the sandy beaches of southern New Hanover and Brunswick Counties into a series of fortresses that kept the Union navy at bay for four years. The mighty Fort Fisher and a series of smaller forts offered safe haven for daring blockade runners that brought in the Confederacy's much-needed supplies. In the process, they turned the quiet port of Wilmington into a boomtown. In this book that was fifteen years in the making, James L. Walker, Jr. has chronicled the story of the Lower Cape Fear and the forts and men that guarded it during America's bloodiest conflict, from the early days of the war to the fall of Wilmington in February 1865.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.

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