December 24, 1864 (Saturday – Christmas Eve)
The idea to destroy a fort via a nearby explosion was hardly something new in the annals of warfare. When trying to convince the Lincoln administration to allow him to do just that against Fort Fisher, North Carolina, General Benjamin Butler’s Chief Engineer came up with a dozen examples from history, both recent and ancient. The most important happened in London this past October. Two powder magazines and two powder barges exploded, killing nine and wounding many more.
In that disaster, over 50 tons of gun powder had been detonated, utterly destroying much around it. “The embankment was destroyed,” read the report, “forming a crater of seventy-five feet in length and thirty feet in depth.” A full twenty acres of buildings and fortifications were leveled, and the shock reverberated throughout London.
Studying this report, Butler believed they could do the same to Fort Fisher by steaming a barge filled with powder up to the side of the Rebel works and detonating it. This would not have 50 tons, but 200. This, he figured, would decimate the seawall of the fort, and even hoped that it would trigger the magazine to explode. With that, he would land his men.
But on the night of the 23rd, Butler was still away from the fleet which had gathered before Fort Fisher. Even his men aboard transport ships were still en route. Nevertheless. Admiral David Porter, incredibly skeptical of the whole endeavor, decided to go ahead with the experiment.
The USS Louisiana, a converted steamer, was driven as close to the side of the fort as possible and anchored. Everything was arranged and carefully set. And then, at 1:45am, came the explosion.
Major Thomas Lincoln Casey of the Engineer Corps described the event: “As viewed from the desks of the US steamer Rhode Island at a distance of some twelve miles, the first thing observed was a bright flame, which suddenly leaped into the air at a height that would subtend some 6 or 8 degrees of arc. This flame was filled with bright points or coruscations that made its appearance very beautiful. Some ten seconds after the appearance of the flame two sharp and ringing reports, about as loud as those from a 6-pounder brass gun, and following each other in rapid succession, were heard directly over the point of observation. At the same instant the vessel was sensibly garred and shaken, and upon one of the vessels of the squadron some window glass was broken by the concussion. Immediately following this, a low, rumbling noise like distant thunder was heard in the direction of the explosion, and all was then quietly. The jar and noise of the explosion were apparent at points from 60 to 100 miles removed from it – namely, at Beaufort and New Berne, N.C.”
Inside the fort, and at nearby Wilmington, none of the Confederates were really certain what had happened. Though it was heard in the town, they could not tell what it was. At the fort, it was reported that “enemy’s gun-boat blown up,” though just how was any body’s guess. Strange at it might seem, there is almost no mention of the explosion in any of the official records given by the Confederates.
In all, it was a non-event, but just how uneventful this was would not be seen until the dawn. Major Casey then observed:
“Upon an examination of the fort the next morning, no perceptible effects could be seen to have been produced upon the works. The edges and crests of the parapets and traverses remained as sharp and well-defined as ever. The grass covering their surfaces had not been stripped from them. No slides or craters in the parapet could be observed. The stockade from the north-east bastion was intact, and the wooden barracks and other buildings about the fort were still standing.”
Admiral David Porter was completely unimpressed – “the shock was nothing like so severe as was expected. It shook the vessels some, and broke one or two glasses, but nothing more.”
As the morning whiled away, the fleet drew closer to the fort. If it could not be exploded all at once, it would have to be battered into submission. The battle began with the Ironsides, a large ironclad steamer with eighteen guns blazing. “The Ironsides,” wrote Porter, “took her position in the most beautiful and seamanlike manner, got her spring out, and opened deliberate fire on the fort, which was firing at her with all its guns, which did not seem numerous in the N.E. face, though we counted what appeared to be 17 guns; but 4 or 5 of these were fired from that direct, and they were silence almost as soon as the Ironsides opened her terrific battery.”
It was soon joined by several monitors, and then an older style screw frigate, the USS Minnesota, leading a second line of much larger vessels. “By the time the last of the large vessels anchored and got their batteries into play but one or two guns of the enemy were fired, this feu d’enfer driving them all to their bombproofs.” Other ships joined the fray, enfilading the Rebel fort, and still more ships joined the battle. In all, thirty-seven Federal ships added their iron to the bombardment.
“In one hour and fifteen minutes after the first shot was fire,” continued Porter, “not a shot came from the fort; two magazines had been blown up by our shells and the fort set fire in several places, and such a torrent of missiles were falling into and bursting over it that it was impossible for anything human to stand it.”
Even fully human, the Rebels withstood it, and the damage wasn’t nearly what Porter had anticipated. “They destroyed about one-half our quarters, including headquarters,” reported Col. William Lamb, commanding the fort itself. “They damaged, more or less, some of our parapets and traverses, but no part of the work was greatly injured, except in front of Blakely gun, on right of northeast salient. They disabled one 10-inch carriage, one 8-inch carriage, and two 32-pounder carriages. The 10-inch in the pulpit and the 8-inch in the left of the northeast salient were dismounted by recoil; they will be mounted tonight.”
One Confederate solider was mortally wounded, three were severely so, and nineteen, but slightly. Lamb had no way of telling what damage his gunners caused the Federal fleet, but upon looking around at his fort still very much standing, he concluded “I am certain the injury inflicted upon them far exceeds the injury their bombardment did us.”
On this, Lamb was mistaken – “not an officer or man was injured,” reported Porter. But there was certainly casualties. A 100-pounder Parrott gun exploded, severely injuring several. Six were killed and seven wounded when a gun burst aboard the Ticonderoga. One of the guns on the Yantic burst, killing one officer and two men. The same on the Juniata, which killed at least four and wounded eight.
In all, five 100-pounder Parrott had burst, and it was clear they were not to be trusted. Forty-five were killed and wounded in this “friendly fire.”
Porter concluded that there was little they could do alone against the fort, and decided to wait until Benjamin Butler and his 6,500 troops arrived. It was during the bombardment when Butler arrived. It was decided that Butler would land his men at 8am the next morning about three miles north of the fort – if a few of the Rebels batteries could be silenced.
“Admiral Porter was quite sanguine that he had silenced the guns of Fort Fisher,” Butler contended. But then an argument apparently ensued. According to Butler, he suggested that if Porter was so certain that the fort was disabled, he could “run by the fort into Cape Fear River, and then the troops could land and hold the beach without liability of being shelled by the enemy’s gun-boats.”
Again according to Butler, “the Admiral replied that he should probably lose a boat by torpedoes if he attempted to run by.” Butler claimed that he then reminded Porter “that the army might lose 500 men by the assault, and that his boat would not weigh in the balance even in a money point of view for a moment with the lives of men.” Porter still declined.
Curiously, Admiral Porter insisted that no such conversation ever took place. It was, he wrote a few weeks later, “false from beginning to end. I never had any conversation of the kind with anyone; indeed, the whole report is a tissue of misrepresentations….”
Meanwhile, at the fort, the 900 or so Rebels poked their heads out of their bombproofs. General Whiting arrived just as the bombardment was ending, and his presence gave whatever hope that with their number, the fort could be held.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p967, 979, 991, 994, 997, 1003; Part 3, p644; Official Naval Records, Vol. 11, p255-256, 270. [↩]