Grant on the Fort Fisher Fiasco

Monday, December 29, AD 2014

Fort Fisher



Examples of gross military incompetence were not rare in the Civil War.  Perhaps the most outstanding example is the bungling of Major General Benjamin Butler in his handling of the first assault on Fort Fisher, the fort that guarded the last major port open in the Confederacy, Wilmington.  Grant in his Personal Memoirs gives us the details:


I selected General Weitzel, of the Army of the James, to go with the expedition, but gave instructions through General Butler. He commanded the department within whose geographical limits Fort Fisher was situated, as well as Beaufort and other points on that coast held by our troops; he was, therefore, entitled to the right of fitting out the expedition against Fort Fisher.   

  General Butler conceived the idea that if a steamer loaded heavily with powder could be run up to near the shore under the fort and exploded, it would create great havoc and make the capture an easy matter. Admiral Porter, who was to command the naval squadron, seemed to fall in with the idea, and it was not disapproved of in Washington; the navy was therefore given the task of preparing the steamer for this purpose. I had no confidence in the success of the scheme, and so expressed myself; but as no serious harm could come of the experiment, and the authorities at Washington seemed desirous to have it tried, I permitted it. The steamer was sent to Beaufort, North Carolina, and was there loaded with powder and prepared for the part she was to play in the reduction of Fort Fisher.   

  General Butler chose to go in command of the expedition himself, and was all ready to sail by the 9th of December (1864). Very heavy storms prevailed, however, at that time along that part of the sea-coast, and prevented him from getting off until the 13th or 14th. His advance arrived off Fort Fisher on the 15th. The naval force had been already assembled, or was assembling, but they were obliged to run into Beaufort for munitions, coal, etc.; then, too, the powder-boat was not yet fully prepared. The fleet was ready to proceed on the 18th; but Butler, who had remained outside from the 15th up to that time, now found himself out of coal, fresh water, etc., and had to put into Beaufort to replenish. Another storm overtook him, and several days more were lost before the army and navy were both ready at the same time to co-operate.  

  On the night of the 23d the powder-boat was towed in by a gunboat as near to the fort as it was safe to run. She was then propelled by her own machinery to within about five hundred yards of the shore. There the clockwork, which was to explode her within a certain length of time, was set and she was abandoned. Everybody left, and even the vessels put out to sea to prevent the effect of the explosion upon them. At two o’clock in the morning the explosion took place—and produced no more effect on the fort, or anything else on land, than the bursting of a boiler anywhere on the Atlantic Ocean would have done. Indeed when the troops in Fort Fisher heard the explosion they supposed it was the bursting of a boiler in one of the Yankee gunboats.    



  Fort Fisher was situated upon a low, flat peninsula north of Cape Fear River. The soil is sandy. Back a little the peninsula is very heavily wooded, and covered with fresh-water swamps. The fort ran across this peninsula, about five hundred yards in width, and extended along the sea coast about thirteen hundred yards. The fort had an armament of 21 guns and 3 mortars on the land side, and 24 guns on the sea front. At that time it was only garrisoned by four companies of infantry, one light battery and the gunners at the heavy guns less than seven hundred men with a reserve of less than a thousand men five miles up the peninsula. General Whiting of the Confederate army was in command, and General Bragg was in command of the force at Wilmington. Both commenced calling for reinforcements the moment they saw our troops landing. The Governor of North Carolina called for everybody who could stand behind a parapet and shoot a gun, to join them. In this way they got two or three hundred additional men into Fort Fisher; and Hoke’s division, five or six thousand strong, was sent down from Richmond. A few of these troops arrived the very day that Butler was ready to advance.  

  On the 24th the fleet formed for an attack in arcs of concentric circles, their heavy iron-clads going in very close range, being nearest the shore, and leaving intervals or spaces so that the outer vessels could fire between them. Porter was thus enabled to throw one hundred and fifteen shells per minute. The damage done to the fort by these shells was very slight, only two or three cannon being disabled in the fort. But the firing silenced all the guns by making it too hot for the men to maintain their positions about them and compelling them to seek shelter in the bomb-proofs.    

  On the next day part of Butler’s troops under General Adelbert Ames effected a landing out of range of the fort without difficulty. This was accomplished under the protection of gunboats sent for the purpose, and under cover of a renewed attack upon the fort by the fleet. They formed a line across the peninsula and advanced, part going north and part toward the fort, covering themselves as they did so. Curtis pushed forward and came near to Fort Fisher, capturing the small garrison at what was called the Flag Pond Battery. Weitzel accompanied him to within a half a mile of the works. Here he saw that the fort had not been injured, and so reported to Butler, advising against an assault. Ames, who had gone north in his advance, captured 228 of the reserves. These prisoners reported to Butler that sixteen hundred of Hoke’s division of six thousand from Richmond had already arrived and the rest would soon be in his rear.  



  Upon these reports Butler determined to withdraw his troops from the peninsula and return to the fleet. At that time there had not been a man on our side injured except by one of the shells from the fleet. Curtis had got within a few yards of the works. Some of his men had snatched a flag from the parapet of the fort, and others had taken a horse from the inside of the stockade. At night Butler informed Porter of his withdrawal, giving the reasons above stated, and announced his purpose as soon as his men could embark to start for Hampton Roads. Porter represented to him that he had sent to Beaufort for more ammunition. He could fire much faster than he had been doing, and would keep the enemy from showing himself until our men were within twenty yards of the fort, and he begged that Butler would leave some brave fellows like those who had snatched the flag from the parapet and taken the horse from the fort.  



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4 Responses to Grant on the Fort Fisher Fiasco

  • Interesting that Butler latched onto the same idea Burnside used to disastrous effect a few months earlier at Petersburg, the idea that a massive explosion would create a hole in the defenses of the enemy which could be quickly exploited by federal troops. Butler is also the general that squandered the opportunity to likely end the war a year earlier when he landed in strength a half mile from where I’m writing, at Bermuda Hundred south of Richmond. If he had advanced boldly, there would have been no stopping him. His over-caution, however, gave the defenders of Richmond the opportunity to bottle him up on the Bermuda Hundred peninsula for the remainder of the war.

  • As a general Butler was a disaster from the beginning of the war to the end Tom. The Confederates had a song satirizing Butler’s incompetence and he deserved every syllable of it.

  • As a general, Butler was rather incompetent. If the Federal government had had a few more like him, the South might have won the war. Of course, we had our incompetent generals too. If we could have traded Bragg for one of the better Union generals . . . .

  • The Army of Tennessee was a fine force that never had a commander worthy of it after Albert Sidney Johnston died at Shiloh, with the possible exception of Joe Johnston.

May 16, 1864: Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

Friday, May 16, AD 2014


 “It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as [Nathaniel P.] Banks, [Benjamin F.] Butler, [John A.] McClernand, [Franz] Sigel, and Lew. Wallace, and yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”

General Henry W. Halleck, letter to General William T. Sherman, April 29, 1864


Butler during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May of 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.

While Grant was occupying Lee in the Overland Campaign, Butler was to take his 33,000 man Army of the James and strike at Richmond.


The above map is of the 1862 Peninsula Campaign, but it is useful for understanding the geography of the 1864 Bermuda Hundred Campaign.  Butler’s army steamed up the James to the fishing village of Bermuda Hundred and disembarked on May 5, 1864 the same day that fighting began in the Wilderness.  Richmond was only a short distance away and it appeared to be merely a matter of marching for Butler to take it.

Butler was opposed by General P.G. T. Beauregard who now had the finest hour of his mixed record during the Civil War.  Stripping the Richmond garrison and bringing into his ranks militia consisting of men too old, and boys too young, to be conscripted into the Confederate Army, he assembled a force of 18,000 men.  After a week, Butler’s slow motion advance on Richmond came to an end at the Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, also known as the battle of Proctor’s Creek, where Beauregard’s ragtag force launched an attack which convinced the demoralized Butler to withdraw to Bermuda Hundred.

Beauregard constructed the Howlett Line, a series of Confederate fortifications that kept the Army of the James bottled up at Bermuda Hundred until Lee withdrew from Richmond on April 2, 1865.  In the Civil War there were defeats, debacles and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, where Butler made bad generalship almost an art form.

Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:

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5 Responses to May 16, 1864: Second Battle of Drewry’s Bluff

  • Halleck was right about everyone except Wallace.

  • L’audace! L’audace! Tujours l’audace!

  • The only War Between the States campaign in Virginia to be waged entirely in one county, my own Chesterfield. Drewry’s Bluff is just up the street from my office and is a remote but pretty well maintained NPS site. Standing on the bluff you can see just how formidable it was a river defense.

  • I envy you your easy access to Civil War battlefields Tom!

  • Toujours l’audace — always audacity

    Corporal John T. Hunt was my great, great uncle. He served in the 55th Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War.

    On May 16, 1864, he was captured at the battle near Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia, along with the commanding officer of the 55th, Colonel Richard White and 164 other members of the 55th. They were initially taken Libby Prison and then on to other prisons deeper in the south.

    On October 10, 1864, John died of starvation and disease at prisoner of war camp in Savannah, Georgia.

    May the peace of God be with you Uncle John throughout eternity +

June 10, 1861: First Battle of the War: Big Bethel

Friday, June 10, AD 2011

The first battle of the Civil War, Big Bethel was a classic example of the hazards awaiting untrained troops attempting to take offensive action.  The first of many defeats of Union Major General Benjamin Butler in the War, Big Bethel started off the War in the East with a humiliating little defeat for the Union, an ominous portent of things to come over the next four years.

Placed in charge of Fortress Monroe on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula on May 23, 1861, Butler began operations to extend Union control into areas near Monroe.  On the night of June 9-10, Butler ordered 3500 Union troops in two columns marching from Hampton and Newport News, to perform a night march,  and launch a surprise attack on Confederate positions at Little Bethel and Big Bethel.  Butler’s plan would have tasked the abilities of well-trained veteran troops, as a coordinated surprise attack by converging columns after a night march is the military equivalent of brain surgery.  Expecting the raw troops he commanded to carry this out was simply absurd and an invitation to disaster.

The disaster ensued.  A friendly fire incident between the two columns gave the Confederates ample warning of the attack.  The 1200 Confederates easily beat off the piecemeal Union attacks.  Union casualties were 18 killed and 51 wounded.  Confederate losses were 1 killed and 7 wounded.  The Confederate press made much of the victory, although it had little meaning other than as the first example of the gross military incompetence of Benjamin Butler that would hamper Union operations for almost the entire war.  Here is Butler’s self-serving report of this fiasco:

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11 Responses to June 10, 1861: First Battle of the War: Big Bethel

  • This should be an interesting four years. I might actually learn something by 2015.

  • One of the good byproducts of my blogging hobby Pinky, is that I learn a lot, especially from the comments to my posts.

  • Well, I won’t be educating anyone with my comments on Civil War posts, but I’m thankful that I found a site populated by history buffs just in time for the sesquicentennial. It’ll be like the Bicentennial Minutes that used to be on TV. Oh, man, we’re within spitting distance of the country’s 250th anniversary. That makes me feel so old.

  • I knew you were old when you mentioned “Bicentennial Minutes.” I had forgotten about those. 😉

  • I clearly remember the Civil War centennial years.

    I am not old.

  • Keep saying that T.Shaw! It is the mantra of the proud USOCC! (United States Old Coots Corp) 🙂

  • I also refuse to grow up. Ask my wife.

  • T Shaw.

    You have those two problems too, huh?

  • Not me. The wife has those problems.

    Thank God, I don’t need to live with me. She’s a saint.

  • “Thank God, I don’t need to live with me. She’s a saint.”

    Yeah, but we have to put up with you here and we’re not saints. 😉

  • Two of the Spiritual Works of Mercy: “Bear wrongs patiently” and “Forgive all injuries.”

    CW military history is replete with “general” incompetence for which the private soldier paid with his life.

    The weaknesses were tactical, operational, and complete inability to adapt formations/tactics to new, more lethally accurate/efficient weaponry and large volume, massed fire-power made possible by RR transportation.

    No general seemed to understand that the attacking formation was at a fatal disadvantage.

    Yeah, on her way to sainthood she was expelled from the gestapo . . . for cruelty.

    Now, I’m in trouble.

Most Incompetent Union General

Wednesday, December 1, AD 2010

“It seems but little better than murder to give important commands to such men as Banks, Butler, McClernand, Sigel, and Lew Wallace, yet it seems impossible to prevent it.”  Henry W. Halleck

There are of course several generals in the running for this title:  Ambrose Burnside, Don Carlos Buell, John Pope, Henry Halleck, Nathaniel Banks, Franz Siegel and the list could go on for some length.  However, for me the most incompetent Union general clearly is Benjamin Butler.  A political general appointed by Lincoln to rally War Democrats for the war effort, Butler in command was a defeat waiting to happen for any Union force cursed to be under him.  Butler during the Bermuda Hundred campaign in 1864 threw away chance after chance to take Richmond, with a timidity that rose to astonishing levels and an ineptitude at leading his forces that defies belief.  Grant summed up Butler’s generalship well in his Personal Memoirs when he recalled a conversation with his Chief of Engineers:

He said that the general occupied a place between the James and Appomattox rivers which was of great strength, and where with an inferior force he could hold it for an indefinite length of time against a superior; but that he could do nothing offensively. I then asked him why Butler could not move out from his lines and push across the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad to the rear and on the south side of Richmond. He replied that it was impracticable, because the enemy had substantially the same line across the neck of land that General Butler had. He then took out his pencil and drew a sketch of the locality, remarking that the position was like a bottle and that Butler’s line of intrenchments across the neck represented the cork; that the enemy had built an equally strong line immediately in front of him across the neck; and it was therefore as if Butler was in a bottle. He was perfectly safe against an attack; but, as Barnard expressed it, the enemy had corked the bottle and with a small force could hold the cork in its place.

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6 Responses to Most Incompetent Union General

  • Butler was horrible, but I can’t get past the sheer mind-numbing awfulness of Ambrose Burnside, and at multiple levels of command–division, corps, and army.

  • If we are talking about incompetence on the field alone, arguments can be made for any number of northern generals. However, if we factor in such things as Butler’s “General Order Number 28”:

    By my reckoning the combination of incompetence and an order such as that would secure the title of most incompetent or worst northern general to Benjamin “Beast” Butler.

  • No list of incompetent Union generals would be complete without Gen. George McClellan — if not the most incompetent Union general, at least a very strong contender for that title. Why Lincoln put up with his dilatory tactics as long as he did is a mystery to me. Since McClellan actually ran against Lincoln for president in 1864, I’d very strongly suspect that he was actively trying to undermine the Union war effort. But McClellan was a master of the blitzkrieg compared to Butler, I suppose.

    From “Lincoln’s New Salem” by Benjamin Thomas comes this illustrative anecdote: Lincoln once refereed a cockfight between two of his New Salem buddies. One of them, Babb McNabb (yes, that was his name) bragged incessantly about the fighting ability of his rooster, but when the bird was placed in the pit, the bird immediately ran away, mounted a fence, preened his feathers and crowed lustily. McNabb then said to his bird, “You’re great in a dress parade, but not worth a damn in a fight.” Years later, Lincoln compared McClellan to McNabb’s rooster.

  • McClellan was a superb organizer and trainer of troops Elaine. He also had the essential gift of a top commander of inspiring troops to follow him into a campaign against Hades if he wished to lead them there. He was also not a bad strategist: his peninsula campaign plan was quite good. However, as you noted, he was very dilatory in his movements. Even after he got Lee’s plans during the Antietam campaign, the best he could manage was a drawn battle, and he allowed Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to get across the Potomac although they were vastly outnumbered. In battle he had almost no ability to coordinate attacks and he was worse than no commander at all.

  • I’m basically with Elaine, though as Donald notes, his troops would have followed him to the netherworld and back. But his complete refusal to take on the enemy even though he outnumbered them tremendously is frustrating to read about even 140 years later. As Lincoln once asked of him, if you’re not going to use the army, may I borrow it?