‘But a Question of Time’ – Fort Fisher’s Fate is Sealed

January 14, 1865 (Saturday)

Following the utterly botched attempt to take Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina by Benjamin Butler, the Union was not ready to abandon the idea. Grant had replaced Butler with General Alfred Terry, sending him with the same troops who had tried before, along with an additional brigade. This brought the total to nearly 9,000 men.

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It wasn’t lack of men assembled that caused Butler’s failure, but Butler himself. Grant figured with anyone but Butler in command, its chances of success were greatly expanded.

As for the Navy, Admiral David Dixon Porter commanded more or less the same fleet as before. This fleet had been bombarding the fort since to previous morning. What’s more – shortly after the beginning of the naval artillery opened, Terry began landing troops a few miles north of the fort.

By the very end of the day, Terry’s entire force was upon the land, pushing back the Rebel skirmishers. Through the night, they marched south toward Fort Fisher. Along the way, lines of entrenchment were dug by the Federals so that their heavy artillery could be landed and placed to begin a proper siege of the Confederates.

Before the close of day, Braxton Bragg, commanding the Southern troops in the Wilmington area, arrived at Sugar Loaf, an earthen work north of the fort. There, he met with General Robert Hoke, whose division had been sent by Robert E. Lee as reinforcements.

At the fort, William Whiting was convinced that his garrison troops could not hold against the Federals, and sent a message to Bragg explaining as much. He repeated inquired why Hoke could not attack them from his position at Sugar Loaf. Still, by the end of the 13th, nothing happened.

Bragg, from his position, could not see well his enemy’s lines, but sent scouts to reconnoiter. An entire regiment of cavalry was sent forward to make certain that the Federals did not move closer to the fort. Come the morning of this date, it was discovered that most of the enemy force had somehow slipped between Sugar Loaf and the fort. Bragg and Hoke were effectively cut off – or rather, the fort was cut off. Either way, one could now no longer aid the other.

“I will hold this place till the last extremities,” wrote Whiting to Bragg, “but unless you drive that land force from its position I cannot answer for the security of this harbor. The fire has been and continues to be exceedingly heavy, surpassing not so much in its volume as in its extraordinary condition even the fire of Christmas. The garrison is in good spirits and condition.”

Bragg promised a brigade of 1,000 men to arrive at the fort by nightfall, and declared that the fort would then be “impregnable against assault.” He also vowed that once the Federals moved a bit closer to the fort, “we will make a corresponding movement [from Sugar Loaf] and, if opportunity occurs, attack.”

Map showing the Naval Bombardment.
Map showing the Naval Bombardment.

The reinforcing troops came from a fort across the inlet from Fisher. However, these were only several hundred, not the 1,000 as promised. They were landed and sprinted from their landing to the fort, all the while under an intense bombardment from the Federal Navy. Most were terrified by the time they got to the fort and refused to leave the bombproofs.

All the while, the Union fleet continued their bombardment, battering the fort into a shadow of its former glory. William Lamb, commanding inside the fort, was running low on ammunition, and so ordered his guns to fire only once every half hour. The rounds were to be saved for an obviously-coming assault.

Both Lamb and Whiting had expected Bragg to make some move come nightfall. Lamb had even gathered a few companies of artillerists to join in if Bragg did so.

“To have assaulted the enemy behind his intrenchments, covered by his fleet, with inferior numbers,” wrote Bragg in his report, “would have exhausted our means to aid the fort, and thereby no only have insured its ultimate fall, but have opened the country behind it. To make him the assaulting party, considering our means for attack and defense, seemed to me the only policy, and it promised his early and complete discomfiture, as the first change of weather would drive off the fleet and leave him supported and cut off from supplies.”

This was Bragg’s overall strategy – wait for bad weather. But neither Whiting nor Lamb could wait. As soon as the Federals had landed with no effort made by Bragg and Hoke, made “the fate of Fort Fisher, under the circumstances, but a question of time.”1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p439, 443; Part 2, p1057-1058; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat, Vol. II by Judith Lee Hallock; Hurricane of Fire by Charles M. Robinson III. []
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‘But a Question of Time’ – Fort Fisher’s Fate is Sealed by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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