The First Battle of Fort Fisher

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Pictures Photographs of The First Battle of Fort Fisher History Details

"The first shot fired by the enemy was from the [USS New] Ironsides . . . . Soon after the bombardment commenced in earnest, shot and shell, shrapnel, &c., flying thick as hail, but perhaps a little hotter." — Capt. Samuel B. Hunter, Company F, 36th North Carolina Regiment


• 1:40 a.m. — The Union "powder vessel," USS Louisiana, explodes harmlessly off Fort Fisher.

• Dawn — A thick fog shrouds the ocean as the grand Union armada begins moving into battle position off Federal Point.

• 12:40 p.m. — The Union fleet (64 warships) opens the first bombardment of Fort Fisher. The U.S. Navy's five largest frigates—Susquehannah, Wabash, Colorado, Powhatan, and Minnesota—are on hand for the attack. The USS Colorado alone, with 52 guns, has more armament than all of Fort Fisher (which mounts a mere 47 heavy guns and mortars). The Federal fleet boasts more than 600 cannons.

• 1:00-4:30 p.m. — Confederate Brig. Gen. William W. Kirkland's Brigade (of Hoke's Division)—having reached Wilmington around midnight on December 23—reaches the Confederate defensive line at Sugar Loaf, north of Fort Fisher. At Sugar Loaf, Kirkland (arriving with roughly 1,300 men), joins about 1,200 men and boys of the North Carolina Junior and Senior Reserves, a regiment of cavalry, and two batteries of artillery.

• 1:00 p.m.-Dusk — The Union fleet pounds Fort Fisher with an unprecedented naval bombardment, firing roughly 10,000 rounds of solid shot and explosive shell. Colonel Lamb's headquarters building is destroyed, and Confederate barracks and various outbuildings are set ablaze. Confederate return fire finds its mark among the vessels of the fleet, and the massive shot-torn fort weathers the storm intact.

• Late Afternoon — Confederate Maj. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting enters Fort Fisher and confers with Col. William Lamb.

• Dusk — The Union fleet hauls off, and returns to positions further out to sea.


"I saw plainly that [Fort Fisher] had not been materially injured by the heavy and very accurate shell fire of the navy . . . and having a distinct and vivid recollection of the two unsuccessful assaults on Fort Wagner [South Carolina], both of which were made under four times more favorable circumstances than those under which we were placed, I returned [to Gen. Benjamin F. Butler aboard the gunboat Chamberlain] and frankly reported to him that it would be butchery to order an assault on that work under the circumstances." — Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, commanding XXIV Army Corps

• Morning — About 20 Union vessels shell the beach north of Fort Fisher (near Kirkland's position). The warships, led by the USS Brooklyn, shell Confederate positions at Sugar Loaf, Battery Gatlin, and Battery Anderson in an effort to carve out a safer landing zone for Federal infantry forces.

The incessant naval bombardment of Fort Fisher resumes and Union warships hurl another 10,000 rounds upon the beleaguered bastion.

• 2:00 p.m. — A Union naval party—in small boats, and led by Lt. Cmdr. William B. Cushing—endeavors to find the channel and take soundings at New Inlet. Adm. David D. Porter is anxious to plot a safe course across the bar, prior to sending his lighter draft gunboats through the inlet into the Cape Fear River behind Fort Fisher. Porter hopes to silence the Mound Battery and adjacent installations prior to crossing the bar.

• 2:00 p.m. — Union infantry hits the beach, as the amphibious assault force rows ashore in john boats. Bvt. Brig. Gen. N. Martin Curtis is the first Union soldier to set foot on Federal Point. Curtis is joined by Gen. Godfrey Weitzel and about 500 men of the First Brigade, 2nd Division, XXIV Army Corps. The Federals spar with Kirkland's skirmishers as they strive to secure a beach head.

Curtis strikes southward with elements of the 142nd and 112th New York Regiments. Kirkland's skirmishers are overwhelmed, and the Confederate brigadier opts to withdraw to Sugar Loaf, to assure the protection of the main Rebel defensive line (guarding the road to Wilmington) until reinforcements from Hoke's Division can arrive.

• 3:00 p.m. — Curtis and Weitzel advance, with about 250 men of the 142nd New York, to within one and one-half miles of the land face of Fort Fisher.

Curtis moves a reconnaissance force southward to Howard's Hill. A command post is established at the abandoned Battery Holland, and Curtis pushes his men to within 75 yards of Shepherd's Battery, opposite the fort's western salient.

• 3:20 p.m.-Dusk — Lt. William Walling, 142nd New York, pilfers a large Confederate garrison flag, knocked down by the naval bombardment, from the outer wall of Shepherd's Battery.

Lt. George Simpson climbs a telegraph pole and severs the telegraph line with a hatchet, thereby cutting a line of communication running northward from the fort. Perched high atop the telegraph pole, Lieutenant Simpson spies the interior of Fort Fisher. Here, Simpson confirms for the Union that Fort Fisher is indeed a two-sided work, and not a four-sided bastion as previously conjectured.

Curtis is excited by the news that the rear of the fort is wide open; and he is convinced the bastion can be taken by an infantry assault. Weitzel and General Butler, however, fear that the fort is too strong to be taken with such a small attacking force. Moreover, they fear for the safety of their troops after nightfall, as the Federals are sandwiched between two strong Rebel positions—Fort Fisher to the south, and the Sugar Loaf line to the north. Butler calls a halt to the operation.

• Dusk — Dark clouds gather over Federal Point, and the wind picks up considerably.

• Nightfall — Federal Chief Engineer Cyrus Comstock and Second Division commander Adelbert Ames reach Battery Holland. Ames encourages the eager Curtis to make an assault. Comstock agrees.

As night falls, Curtis advances a skirmish line composed of elements of the 3rd, 117th, and 142nd New York Regiments.

• Dark — The Union naval bombardment abruptly ceases.

Inside Fort Fisher, Lamb and Whiting hurry Confederate troops from their bomproofs on both faces of the fort to man the northern battlements and the low berm behind the fort's palisades.

As the Union line advances on Fort Fisher in the darkness, Colonel Lamb gives the order for his men and artillery to open fire.

Encouraged by the seeming lack of Confederate manpower just a short time earlier, Ames and Comstock are shocked by the sudden blast of Rebel fire. After a brief period of confusion and indecision, Ames and Comstock heed Butler's orders and return to the Federal landing zone north of Fort Fisher.

Troops from the First Brigade remain at the front until a staff officer arrives to tell a disappointed Curtis that most of the Federal landing force has returned to the transports offshore. By the time Curtis reaches the landing zone, the weather has deteriorated to a point that precludes a safe departure for his troops. Thus Curtis—with more than 600 men of the First Brigade and several hundred Rebel prisoners captured by the 117th New York—will be stranded on the beach for the next two days.


• Fort Fisher—with its garrison—remains intact.

• Gen. Benjamin Butler departs for Hampton Roads, Virginia.

• 12:00 p.m.-Late Afternoon — Shortly before noon, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg arrives at Sugar Loaf. Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke reaches Sugar Loaf with Hagood's Brigade and the rest of Kirkland's men later in the afternoon.


• Instead of overwhelming Curtis's vulnerable troops, Bragg is content to let them escape; and the Federals are soon rescued from the beach.

• As the Union fleet sails away from Cape Fear, Colonel Lamb orders his Confederate gunners at Fort Fisher to fire a defiant parting volley toward the "beaten" enemy.

• Night — The steamer Wild Rover runs the blockade at New Inlet.

• Lamb and Whiting are greatly dissatisfied with Bragg's inactivity and failure to crush the enemy near Sugar Loaf.

• Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles are infuriated to learn of the failure of the expedition to capture Fort Fisher.


• Morning — The steamer Banshee runs the blockade at New Inlet.

• 5:30 p.m. — President Abraham Lincoln queries Grant: "If there be no objection, please tell me what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present and prospective."

• An exasperated Grant replies: "The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Many of the troops are now back here [in Virginia]. Delays and free talk of the object of the expedition enabled the enemy to move troops to Wilmington to defeat it. After the expedition sailed from Fort Monroe [Va.] three days of fine weather were squandered, during which the enemy was without a force to protect himself. Who is to blame I hope will be known."


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