February 19, 1865 (Sunday)
After the victory at Nashville, General Jacob Cox, often the de facto commander of the Twenty-Third Corps, was given a leave of absence to visit his family in Ohio. In his words, he had “spent a week in a delightful visit with my family after two years of absence from them.” But at the end of January, this was cut short. Originally, the orders were for the corps to join the Army of the Potomac before Petersburg, but once Cox reached Washington, he found his division reassigned to Alexandria for the winter.
Since the fall of Fort Fisher, General Sherman had his eye on nearby Wilmington as a base of operations once he burned his way through South Carolina. General John Schofield, Cox’ commander from the Army of the Ohio, was selected as the man for the job. By the end of January, both Grant and Schofield visited Fort Fisher and planned a new campaign. The Twenty-Third Corps would join them shortly, but two other corps would soon be formed.
On February 4th, they disembarked down through the drifting ice of the Potomac River, making Fortress Monroe a day later. It was then through the Chesapeake Bay and into the Atlantic. Their destination, Fort Fisher itself, was reached on the 8th. That day and the next were spent unloaded the troops. By the 10th, all was in order, and Cox led his men to the Union lines two miles north of Fisher.
There, he got a better understanding of the situation. Confederate General Robert Hoke held a line two miles beyond the Federals’. The Rebel line spanned the breadth of the peninsula at Sugar Loaf Hill. Across the Cape Fear River was Fort Anderson, an earthen fort commanded by ten pieces of heavy artillery and two thousand men. The two – Fort Anderson and Hoke’s line – were separated by a river heavily obstructed and mined with torpedoes. This would be no simple task.
The plan was for the Federal Navy to send a few ships to keep Fort Anderson busy while General Alfred Terry, commanding the Union lines, moved forward with Cox’s troops as support. If the Rebel lines were found to be too strong, they would establish their own nearer the enemy’s flanks. This would, at the very least, hold the Confederates in place. The next day, it was done.
Unneeded, Cox’s division, along with one from Terry’s forces, returned to Fort Fisher. For them, there was a different plan. Both divisions, with Cox in command, were to cross the river and move on Fort Anderson. Once Anderson fell, Hoke’s much stronger hold would loosen and all of the Rebels would have to fall back to Wilmington, which they would probably then abandon.
But then, a day later, that plan was scrapped. It was found that perhaps on Hoke’s left, resting on Myrtle Sound, there was a weakness. Myrtle Sound was a wide sliver of water between Hoke’s line and a thin bit of coast before the Ocean. Below its inlet, troops could be landed and ferried across the sound behind Hoke’s position. Outflanked, the Confederates would have to abandon their position without a battle. For two days they tried, but the winds of a noreaster scuttled the plan, which Cox believed would have met with success had the weather cooperated.
So then it was back to the original plan of dividing the forces on either side of the Cape Fear River. From the town of Smithville, Cox would march his troops – his division, along with Adelbert Ames’ – up the west bank of the river to Fort Anderson. On the 16th, they arrived in Smithville, and the morning of the day after saw them on the march.
“About three miles from Smithville, we encountered the enemy’s cavalry outposts, which retired skirmishing,” wrote Cox in his report. “The country being an almost continuous swamp, the march was slow. It was found also that the road did not approach the river near Reeves’ Point [where Cox was to send reports to Schofield], difficult swamps and morasses intervening until the Wilmington road crosses Governernor’s Creek, where it forked, the right fork turning toward the river and the left keeping on to Orton Pond, the two roads meeting at Fort Anderson and then crossing Orton Creek.”
When his troops arrived at Governor’s Creek, a battalion of Confederate cavalry put up a fight, but were really no match. Here, as Cox confusingly described, the road forked. And here, he divided his forces, each small wing taking a prong, which would meet at their objective. Cox took the right, closer to the river, so that he might somehow communicate to Schofield or Admiral David Dixon Porter of the Navy. General Ames and his division took the left. By the end of the 17th, they had made ten tiresome miles.
The day following, Cox arrived near Anderson, where he met a Rebel line held by only vedettes of infantry. This being merely a skirmish line, they were driven back with ease. But before him was a continuous entrenchment filled with Rebels. It stretched from the river bank to Orton Pond, both flanks secured by water.
“The ground in front of the works was entirely open for 200 or 300 yards,” wrote Cox, “and the breast-works themselves were well made, covered with abatis, and commanded by the artillery fire of the fort.”
The Confederates, espying their arrival, opened upon the Federals with that artillery. By this time, General Schofield had arrived and quickly placed the brigades. This line, Schofield concluded, could not be taken. And so he threw forward two brigades to hold it in check, while Cox and his two remaining brigades circled around the south side of the Orton Pond. There, he would come into contact with Ames’ division sent on the left prong at the fork. With these troops, Cox was to then circle around Terrapin Pond, a smaller body to the west of Orton, and tramp for Russell’s plantation.
This route, confused and winding as it was, would, after twenty-fives or so miles, take them to the rear of Fort Anderson. As if the swampy ground wasn’t against them enough, six miles into the march, at the head of Orton Pond, the Rebels met them, holding rifle pits on either side of the road.
“Our advanced guard was deployed as skirmishers and ordered to seek ways through the march considerably right and left of the road,” wrote Cox. Meanwhile, a single regiment was sent forward to perhaps breakthrough the Confederate lines. The skirmish lasted about a halfhour, and by 9pm a bridge was built across the creek feeding Orton Pond. It was there on that night where Cox was joined by the Ames’ division.
The next morning, back at Fort Anderson, the brigades left to hold the enemy in place discovered that dawn brought them an empty fort. Col. Thomas Henderson commanded one of the brigades left behind. “During the night the fort was evacuated,” wrote Henderson, “and on the morning of the 19th, about 5 o’clock, the skirmishers entered the fort without opposition. The evacuation was no doubt induced by the movement of the column under the command of Major-General Cox, which otherwise would have got in rear of the fort and cut off the retreat of the garrison.” Henderson gave chase with his brigade, but was soon halted so they could wait for the rest of the command to catch up.
Cox learned of Fort Anderson’s abandonment when he reached to northern end of Orton Pond. There, he also lost Ames’ Division, as it was ordered across the river to rejoin General Terry. It would be up to Cox to chase down the Rebels, pushing on toward Wilmington.
In his report, General Cox described the pursuit:
Pushing on rapidly, the enemy’s rear guard was reached about three miles above Fort Anderson, but it made no attempt to stand until it reached Town Creek, a very deep, unfordable stream, eight miles above the fort and where a heavy line of field fortifications had been prepared some time before the evacuation of Fort Anderson. This stream, like most in this region, had marshy banks, approached by a causeway of considerable length. The timber and undergrowth had been cleared and three pieces of artillery in the fortifications—one Whitworth rifle and two brass I2 pounders—swept the approaches to the bridge, from which the plank had been removed.
The enemy’s infantry force was learned to be Hagood’s brigade, of Hoke’s division, together with the Fiftieth North Carolina Regiment, reported at from 1,200 to 1,600 men. Henderson’s brigade being in advance occupied a moderate ridge some 500 yards south of the creek, overlooking the marsh, and pushed skirmishers well into the edge of the low ground. The northern bank of the creek at this point is bluff, the enemy’s fortifications being immediately above the water’s edge, upon a gentle elevation from twenty to thirty feet high.
The enemy opened with his artillery upon Henderson’s command [a brigade] as it went into position, but without effect. The other brigades were kept out of sight and under cover in rear of Henderson and encamped for the night. During the night a flat-boat was discovered in the creek about a mile below Henderson’s position, and on his reporting the fact I ordered it carefully secured and guarded by a strong picket, having learned that all the bridges on the stream were destroyed and that there was no ford for fifteen miles above.
The next morning, Cox would attack.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p959-961, 969; Military Reminiscences by Jacob Cox. [↩]