January 15, 1865 (Sunday)
On Sunday the fire of the fleet reached a pitch of fury to which no language can do justice,” wrote Confederate General William Whiting, commanding at Fort Fisher. “It was concentrated on the land front and fort. In a short time nearly every gun was dismounted or disabled, and the garrison suffered severely from the fire.”
The Federal troops under Alfred Terry had been landed two days prior, and now occupied trenches between the fort and one of its outposts, Sugar Loaf. It was in Sugar Loaf where Braxton Bragg made his headquarters, overseeing a division of infantry under Robert Hoke. Since the landing, Hoke’s troops had done literally nothing, and Whiting was wondering if they ever would.
Late the previous night, Bragg had called for a council of war to be held between himself, Hoke, Whiting and Charles Lamb, commanding inside Fisher. They were all to meet at Sugar Loaf. But on the morning of this day, Whiting declined. “Too late to do anything about obstructions. I will try to confer today, but the chances are against it. Enemy still keeping heavy fire. They will try their passing this morning, unless you whip them off the land.”
Whipping them off the land was no easy task. Bragg believed the landing force to be 12,000, which was over-estimated by 5,000. Still, a division attacking 9,000 entrenched men was really no attack at all.
Through the morning, the firing continued from the Union Navy and there was nothing at all anyone could do to prevent it. Just after noon, Bragg complained to Whiting that he did “not mention damage to the work or armament” in his sporadic communications from the fort. “Has there been any?” And soon after, Bragg again ordered Whiting to come to Sugar Loaf after nightfall.
Whiting replied to Bragg’s question with a question: “Is Fort Fisher to be besieged, or you to attack? Should like to know.” He then explained that the casualties had been low, but made no mention of the fort’s condition.
Union General Terry had spent much of the previous day trying to figure out the same thing – was he going to besiege the fort or attack it? Scouts were sent here and there, and Terry himself go in on the action. “As a result of this reconnaissance,” he recorded in his report, “and in view of the extreme difficulty which might be expected in landing supplies and the material for a siege on the open and often tempestuous beach, it was decided to attempt an assault the next day [the 15th – this day], provided that in the meantime the fire of the navy should so far destroy the palisades as to make one practicable.”
Terry made known his decision to Admiral David Dixon Porter, commanding the fleet, who immediately pitched into the fort with a fury no language could apparently tell. First would come the bombardment, and then, at 3pm, would come the assault. His infantry would attack on the western half of the land face, while the marines assaulted the northeast bastion.
“At 2 o’clock [PM] preparations for the assault were commenced. Sixty sharpshooters from the Thirteenth Indiana Volunteers, armed with the Spencer repeating carbine, and fort others, volunteers from Curtis’ brigade … were thrown forward at a run to within 175 yards of the work. They were provided with shovels and soon dug pits for shelter and commenced firing at the parapet. As soon as this movement commenced the parapet of the fort was manned, and the enemy’s fire, both of musketry and artillery, opened.”
The Federals formed into three lines, snaking their girth across the entire neck of land upon which the fort was built. “On this force,” wrote one of the officers in the fort, “we brought to bear our one available gun and three mortars, which had been mounted during the night, and these repeatedly broke their line and temporarily checked the advance.”
General Whiting continued: “As the enemy here slackened his fire to allow the assault to take place, the men hastily manned the ramparts and gallantly repulsed the right column of assault. Portion of the troops on the left had also repelled the first rush to the left of the work. The greater portion of the garrison being, however, engaged on the right, and not being [able] to man the entire work, the enemy succeeded in making a lodgment on the left flank, planting two of his regimental flags in the traverses.”
It was now when Whiting was looking for Bragg and Hoke to make their attack. “Hoke is moving on the enemy,” came a message from Bragg, “but I am confident you will repel him with your infantry.”
Though the Federals had gained a foothold, they were repulsed in all others, and Col. Lamb found Whiting in a bombproof and told him as much. What guns remained were turned on them with canister. As for the foothold, Whiting himself had gathered an array of men to make an attack, hoping to drive them from the fort itself. But in this failed attempt, Whiting was wounded, as was Col. Lamb.
Lamb found the bleeding Whiting in a bombproof, still directing whatever troops remained. Lamb had also tried to launch a counter-assault, but his men refused to follow him. It was then that one of Whiting’s staff officers rushed into the bombproof and told him that some officer had tied a white handkerchief to a ramrod and surrendered 300 of his men, allowing at least a regiment of Federal troops into the fort.
But reinforcements, believed Whiting, were near, and he continually ordered them to come into the fort to engage the enemy. But in the end, there came nobody to their assistance. Before long, the entire sea face and land face of the fort were occupied by the Federals.
“We were overpowered,” wrote Whiting, “and no skill or gallantry could have saved the place, after he [the Federals] effected a lodgment, except attack in the rear.”
In a follow up report, Whiting lamented: “Then was the time for the supporting force, which was idly looking on only three miles off, which could see the columns on the beach, to have made an attack upon the rear of the assaulting columns; at any rate, to have tried to save Fort Fisher, while the garrison had hurled one assaulting column, crippled, back, and were engaged for six hours with 5,000 men vigorously assaulting it.”
But Bragg and Hoke had called off the attack. The last word they had received from the fort was that the enemy was repulsed. Bragg received, at 7:30pm, Whiting’s message: “Their infantry outnumbers us. Can’t you help us? I am slightly wounded.” For the next two and a half hours, Bragg did nothing except order Whiting to come to his headquarters. Reinforcements had been ordered to the fort, but they would not arrive until midnight. Hoke’s command did not move.
Then, at 10pm, came another message: “We still hold the fort, but as sorely pressed. Can’t you assist us from the outside?” This message, written before 8pm, took over two hours to reach Bragg. When it did, it was too late.
The reinforcements were commanded by General Alfred Colquitt, who was to take over for Whiting upon arrival. When he landed, he was without any additional force. He found first a small shanty, “with several negroes and one or two white men in it. They reported that Fisher was taken, which, as I distructed, I required one of them to come out and go with me as a guide. I was about starting when an officer, representing himself as Captain Munn, with a dozen or fifteen men, without arms, came up. These I took for a fatique detail, until the captain informed me that the fort was evacuated; that he had just come from it, and that General Whiting and Col. Lamb were already at Battery Buchanan. I still doubted whether it could be true, but concluded to go first to Buchanan before trying to enter the fort.”
Battery Buchanan was located between the rear of Fort Fisher and the water. If Fisher had been evacuated, this was where Whiting was to reform to hold off the enemy and leave the neck of land.
Upon entering Buchanan, he first found Col. Lamb laying on the ground. Colquitt asked if anything more could be done to save Fisher. He replied, “that a fresh brigade might then retake the fort.” But Colquitt had no such brigade with him, and asked to the condition of the garrison. It was, however, “utterly disorganized, and that no further efforts could effect anything with the resources then available.”
Colquitt then when looking for General Whiting. This was cut short when a couple of Colquitt’s staff officers came rushing up to him, yelling that the Federals were soon upon them, and that if they did not leave now, they would be captured.
“Walking in the direction of the boat, which was lying about fifty yards from the battery toward the enemy, I perceived a line of his troops advancing with two colors flying. They were not more than 100 yards from the battery. The night was bright, with a full moon. I had just time to reach the boat and shove off as the line advanced to the battery, its right flank passing within thirty or forty yards of me.” Colquitt when to Battery Lamb on the mainland, and telegraphed Bragg the news.
“Fort Fisher evacuated,” reported Colquit, “There is no mistake in this information.”
Though Colquitt could not find Whiting, Union General Terry, arriving at Battery Buchanan, did. “I surrender, sir, to you the forces under my command,” said Whiting to Terry, “I care not what becomes of myself.” Terry assured him that he and his men, including Col. Lamb, would be treaded with kindness.
While Bragg would relay to Richmond “the courage and devotion of Major-General Whiting and Colonel Lamb,” Whiting was no so kind in return. “I charge him [Bragg] with this loss; with neglect of duty in this, that he either refused to neglected to carry out every suggestion made to him in official communications by me for the disposition of the troops….” In a follow up, Whiting put it all in perspective. “In all [Bragg’s] career of failure and defeat from Pensacola out, there has been no such chance missed, and no such stupendous disaster.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p398, 433-434, 438-440; Part 2, p1060-1064; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat by Judith Lee Hallock; Hurricane of Fire by Charles M. Robinson III. [↩]