‘A Gross and Culpable Failure’ – Washington Reacts to the Fort Fisher Fiasco

December 28, 1864 (Wednesday)

Fort Fisher, N.C. Part of land face of fort.
Fort Fisher, N.C. Part of land face of fort.

When General Grant had approved Benjamin Butler’s plan to take Fort Fisher, along Cape Fear, North Carolina, he was specific about what he expected. “My instructions to him, or to the officer who went in command of the expedition,” wrote Grant in his memoirs, “were explicit in the statement that to effect a landing would be of itself a great victory, and if one should be effected, the foothold must not be relinquished; on the contrary, a regular siege of the fort must be commenced and, to guard against interference by reason of storms, supplies of provisions must be laid in as soon as they could be got on shore. But General Butler seems to have lost sight of this part of his instructions, and was back at Fort Monroe on the 28th.”

The news from the previous day did not yet carry the fate of Butler’s expedition with it. Instead, it was several days late, and told of the powder vessel exploded outside of the fort. Word of the landing had not yet arrived.

But late that night, Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles received the message written that same day by Admiral David Dixon Porter. “The information is not altogether satisfactory,” he wrote in his diary entry for this date. “The troops are said to have disembarked above Fort Fisher, to have taken some earthworks and prisoners, and then to have reembarked. This reads of and like Butler.”

Welles wasn’t the only one to get this news, and soon even President Lincoln was in trying to figure out just what happened. Around 5:30pm, he wrote General Grant: “If there be no objection, please tell me what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present and prospective.”

A few hours later, Lincoln had his reply:

The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Many of the troops are now back here. 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 three days of fine weather was squandered, during which the enemy was without a force to protect himself. Who is to blame I hope will be known.”

Later in his life, General Butler remained unmoved in the idea that he had made the right decision. “I believe my withdrawal from Fort Fisher to face the calumny which has rolled its waves over me, and which I calmly looked in the face when I made my decision to withdraw my troops,” he wrote in his memoirs, “was the best and bravest act of my life.” Of course, when he made the decision, he had no idea what kind of storm would befall him.

Further, Butler claimed to believe “that if General Grant had been there he would have been of opinion with me, that the troops should have been withdrawn, under the circumstances, and that his order, although in the letter directing differently, would have been reversed by him.”

This, of course, sounds little like the Grant remembered by history. Also, Grant wasn’t in jest when he told Lincoln that the blame must fall somewhere. Over the next couple of days, all would quickly suss out just where this blame must fall.1


On this date, a letter ran in the Richmond Sentinel supporting Jefferson Davis’ idea that the emancipation of slaves might not be a bad idea. The reasoning, however, wasn’t exactly altruistic.

We think that our late reverses have done much towards preparing the minds of our people for the most extreme sacrifices if they shall be adjudged necessary to the success of our cause. And in truth they are not sacrifices at all when compared with our situation. If subjugated, it is a question simply whether we shall give for our own uses, or whether the Yankees shall take for theirs. Subjugation means emancipation and confiscation.

All our servants, and all our property yielded up to assist in the defense of our country would mean no more, but it would be far more glorious to devote our means to our success than to lose them as spoils to the enemy. Our situation, too, stripped of our property, but master of the government, would be infinitely better than if despoiled by the enemy and wearing his bonds.

We must not raise difficulties; it is no time for that. Shall we withhold our sons and thus reserve them as servants for the Yankees? Shall we send our sons and deny our negroes? Shall we spend our blood and refuse our money? Shall we withhold anything from our country when we should be but saving it for our foe? It is a disgrace to a garrison to surrender before its ammunition is exhausted.

What we ask now, in the name of the people, is that the government strain every energy and develop every resource for the public defense. Remember that to hold back anything is not to save it. The only question is, shall we have the use of it, or shall our enemies? Such a question leaves no room to hesitate. Upon such efforts and such devotion Heaven will surely send its blessing. But if misfortune should still pursue us and our hopes all fail, let us have the election of throwing ourselves into the hands of those who are cold and indifferent rather than to fall under the yoke of malignant enemies raising the wolfs howl for our blood.

In other words, if the South didn’t use the slaves, they would lose the war and slavery would die with it. The North would make the new rules governing the rights of blacks. However, if the South used the slaves, even freeing them, the war could be won. Then, it would be the South that would be making the new laws to govern the black race.

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 3, p1087; Autobiography by Benjamin Butler; Diary by Gideon Welles; Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant. []
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3 thoughts on “‘A Gross and Culpable Failure’ – Washington Reacts to the Fort Fisher Fiasco

  1. Here we go again with Butler!!! Did this man do ANYTHING right in this War? He wasn’t a trained military man. It is my understanding that he was a Mass. politician who led the Mass. Militia, & then was given his command through connections. Another egomaniac glorifying himself on the backs of the common soldier.

    He was hated by the citizens of New Orleans during his 8-month military governorship. After hanging the man who had torn down the Stars&Stripes flag atop his headquarters, he & his brother started confiscating property to line their own pockets while throwing the owners in jail charged with collaboration with the enemy.

    He was known as “Spoons” Butler for stealing so much silver. The only good thing Butler did was have the filthy, garbage lined streets cleaned to avoid another yellow fever outbreak. Even Tocqueville was shocked by what he called the “filthiest city in America” in 1832. A prominent citizen told Tocqueville there were no city services, because of the corrupt politicians pocketing the funds.

    1. I rather liked his ‘contraband’ policy and him outsmarting that no good slave catcher that came to his command. But for the rest, he’s the prime example of why there should never be ‘political’ generals…

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