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January 15, 1864: Fall of Fort Fisher

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With the fall of Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865, the last major port of the Confederacy was sealed.  After Butler’s blundering attempt to take the Fort ended in a disgraceful retreat, the Union wasted no time in outfitting a second expedition.  60 ships under Admiral David Porter made up the naval component while Major General Alfred Terry led a force of 9000 troops from the Army of the James.  Colonel William Lamb commanded the 1900 man garrison of Fort Fisher, while Major General Hoke commanded a division of 6400 men a few miles north of the fort.

On January 13, Terry landed north of the Fort, between it and Hoke’s division.  Scouting the fort on January 14, Terry decided it could be taken by an infantry assault.  The Union fleet opened an intense bombardment of the fort on the morning of the 15th.  The assault did take the fort, in the teeth of a determined Confederate defense, after fighting that lasted until 10:00 PM.  Union casualties were 1341, with the entire Confederate garrison captured in addition to 538 killed and wounded.  Here is Secretary of War Stanton’s report on the battle:

 

FROM SECRETARY STANTON.

FORTRESS MONROE, Tuesday, Jan. 17 — 10 P.M.

The rebel flag of Fort Fisher was delivered to me on board the steamer Spalding, off that place, yesterday morning, Jan. 16, by Major-Gen. TERRY.

To the President:

An acknowledgment and thanks for their gallant achievement was given in your name to Admiral PORTER and Gen. TERRY, from whom the following particulars were obtained: The troops arrived off Fort Fisher Thursday night. Friday they were all landed under cover of a heavy fire from the squadron. A reconnoissance was made by Gen. TERRY on Saturday. A strong defensive line against any of the enemy’s forces coming from Wilmington was established on Saturday, and held by 4,600 men, chiefly colored troops, and an assault was determined on. The assault was made on Sunday afternoon at 3 1/2 o’clock. The sea-front of the fort had been greatly damaged and broken by a continuous and terrible fire of the fleet for three days, and the front was assaulted at the hour mentioned by a column of seamen and marines, 1,800 strong, under command of Capt. BREESE. They reached the parapet, but after a short conflict this column was checked, driven back in disorder, and was afterward placed on the defensive line, taking the place of a brigade that was brought up to reinforce the assaulting column of troops. Although the assault on the sea front failed, it performed a useful part in diverting the attention of the enemy, and weakening their resistance to the attack by the troops on the other side. The assault on the other and most difficult side of the fort was made by a column of 3,000 troops of the old Tenth Corps, led by Col. CURTIS, under the immediate supervision of Gen. TERRY. The enemy’s force in the fort was over 2,200. The conflict lasted for seven hours. The works were so constructed that every traverse afforded the enemy a new defensive position from whence they had to be driven. They were seven in number, and the fight was carried on from traverse to traverse, for seven hours, by a skilfully directed fire thrown into the traverses. One after another they were occupied by the enemy. Admiral PORTER contributed to the success of the assaulting column by signals between himself and Gen. TERRY at brief intervals. This fire was so well managed as to damage the enemy without injury to our own troops.

At about 10 o’clock at night the enemy were entirely driven from the fort, forced down toward Federal Point, followed by a brigade of our troops; and about 12 o’clock at night Gen. WHITING surrendered himself and his command to Gen. TERRY unconditionally as prisoners of war, numbering over 1,800, the remainder of his force being killed and wounded.

Our loss was not accurately ascertained on Monday afternoon, but was estimated at between seven and eight hundred in killed and wounded, beside the naval loss, which was slight, not exceeding one hundred killed and wounded. Not a ship nor a transport was lost.

Col. CURTIS was severely but not mortally wounded. Col. BELL died of his wounds Monday morning. Col. J.W. MOORE and Lieut.-Col. LYMAN were killed. Col. PENNYPACKER was badly wounded, also Lieut.-Col. COAN. A complete list of the killed and wounded will be forwarded as soon as it can be prepared.

Gen. LEROY reported to Surgeon-Gen. BARNES that he had ample provision of surgeons, nurses and hospital supplies for the wounded. They will be sent North to their respective States as fast as they can be placed on transports, of which there was ample supply.

On Monday morning, between 6 and 7 o’clock, the magazine of Fort Fisher exploded, killing and wounding two or three hundred persons.

After the capture of the fort, all the troops were withdrawn, except one brigade left in charge of the works.

How the explosion occurred was not known, but Gen. TERRY believed it was occasioned by accident or neglect.

Gen. HOKE’s division, reported as five thousand, was at Wilmington. A portion of it was thrown into the fort not long before the assault, and while that was going on, a demonstration was made by Gen. HOKE against our defensive, but it was found too stronging for anything more than a skirmishing attack.

About 11 o’clock on Monday morning, a heavy cloud of smoke was observed over Fort Smith, on the south side of New Inlet. The naval officer commanding that station reported that the enemy had fired their barracks, and evacuated that fort.

You will be pleased to know that perfect harmony and concert of action existed between the land and naval forces; and their respective Commanders, Admiral POTTER and Gen. TERRY, vied in their commendation each of the other. Each seemed more anxious to do justice to the other than to claim anything for himself, and they united in the highest commendation of the naval and military officers, and the forces engaged. To this harmony of feeling, and the confident spirit inspired, may, perhaps, be attributed, in some degree, the success of our attack, with nearly equal numbers, against a resolute enemy, in a work unsurpassed, if ever equaled, in strength, and which Gen. BEAUREGARD, a few days before, pronounced impregnable. The armament of the fort was 72 guns, some of large calibre and rifled, and one Armstrong gun. The troops in the fort had rations for sixteen days. Their loss in killed and wounded was between 400 and 500. Gen. WHITING had three wounds in the thigh. Col. LA[???] also who had gone into the fort with reinforcements, and to relieve Gen. WHITING on Sunday, is wounded. On Monday everything was quiet as a Sabbath day. The dead were being buried, and the wounded collected and placed in transports and field hospitals.

EDWIN M. STANTON,

Secretary of War.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

5 Comments

  1. Mr. McClary – How do I find back columns? I want to refer and forward the excellent pieces done on Gen, Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans for some of my Louisiana cousins. We also happen to be descendants of Gen. Morgan. Thanks. Edie Eason

  2. Civil War 150th: On this date in 1865 – a daily feature in Richmond Times Dispatch
    Posted: Friday, January 16, 2015 10:30 pm

    THE NEWS.

    Yesterday morning it was known on the streets that Fort Fisher, our principal defensive work at the mouth of the Cape Fear river, had been taken by the enemy at 10 o’clock on the previous night. The news took the community by surprise, as, at the time, there had been no authentic intelligence that the enemy was menacing the fort with a land force. During the day, the following official report, giving all the particulars that are yet known of the fall of the place, was received at the War Office:

    “Headquarters, January 16, 1865.

    Hon. J. A. Seddon:

    “General Bragg reports that the enemy bombarded Fort Fisher furiously all day yesterday. At 4 P. M., their infantry advanced to the assault — a heavy demonstration at the same hour being made against their rear by our troops.

    “At half-past 6 P. M., General Whiting reported that their attack had failed, and the garrison was being strengthened with fresh troops.

    “About 10 P. M. the fort was captured, with most of its garrison.

    “No further particulars at the time known. R. E. LEE.”

    The fall of Fort Fisher, we presume, closes the port of Wilmington. It commands the main entrance to the Cape Fear river, and will, we fear, enable the enemy to blockade the river completely. Fort Caswell and several other works still guard the southern channel of the river. … Some regard the fall of Fisher as a disaster, while many are disposed to consider it a blessing in disguise. …

  3. Eddie, Mr. McClarely and others who write for this blog do a wonderful job writing on military history. The Washington Times newspaper used to have and may still have a Civil War page. You may be able to find in its archives online some of those pages. Often the articles featured reprints of family letters from that era.The Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper was the Daily Dispatch in Civil War days. I have a difficult time researching www. richmond.com and timesdispatch.com, but you may be more successful. Thought you might enjoy this gossipy excerpt that preceeds the fall of Ft Fisher. Of course, these reprints from 1865 are always from the Confederate point of view though the column has a photo of Grant on the left and Lee on the right. The following was printed in Thursday’s edition, Jan 15, 2015:
    THE CIVIL WAR 150TH From the pages of the Daily Dispatch on today’s date in 1865
    “It is too late now!”
    “Dispatches came last night for ammunition
    ~ to Wilmington, I believe.
    We have nothing yet decisive from Fort Fisher, but I fear it will fall,” John B. Jones
    wrote in his “Rebel War; Clerk’s Diary” on Jan. 15, 1865.
    “Mr. Hunter was in the Secretary’s office this morning before the Secretary
    came …. He is much distressed; but if the enemy prevails, I have no doubt he will
    stipulate saving terms for Virginia. He cannot contemplate the ruin of his fortune;
    political ruin is quite as much as he can bear. Always at the elbow of the Secretary, he will have timely notice of
    any fatal disaster. He is too fat to run, too heavy to swim, and therefore must provide some other means of escape.
    “Last night and early this morning the (merchants) were busy, with hand-carts
    and wheelbarrows, removing barrels of flour from the center to the outskirts of
    the city, fearful of impressment. …
    “I have enough flour, meal, and beans (black) to subsist my family two weeks.
    After that, I look to the kind Providence which has hitherto always fed us.
    “It is now rumored that Mr. Blair came to negotiate terms for the capitulation of Richmond, and that none were
    listened to. Better that, if it must fall, than be given up to pillage and the flames. If burning our cities had been the order in1862, it might have been well; it is too late now!”
    Note: there was no Daily Dispatch on Jan 15th, 1865, because the paper did not publish on Sundays.

    Read more from the Daily Dispatch
    and other Civil War content
    on Richmond.com (search Civil War) also http://www.timesdispatch.com

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