‘I Cannot Go Myself…’ – Grant to Try Fort Fisher Once Again

January 2, 1865 (Monday)

Grant had taken control of the new Wilmington/Fort Fisher expedition, narrowing down the reasons for its failure to Benjamin Butler. For a short time, he even considered accompanying the troops down the coast, but quickly canned the idea for the same reason. Butler had been bypassed in this new assault, but he was still around. In fact, he was back on the field before Petersburg. Not only that, he was the highest ranking officer, even over George Meade.

General Terry is ecstatic to go!
General Terry is ecstatic to go!

“I cannot go myself so long as General Butler would be left in command,” wrote Grant to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

In trying to find troops for the new operation, Grant even considered sending Philip Sheridan and one of his divisions, though they would be late in arriving. But this was quickly becoming a trend. Gustavas Fox, the Navy’s Assistant Secretary, was fresh out of boats. “I am afraid we cannot have many on hand,” he wrote to Grant, “there are only two at this yard [Washington], which will leave immediately.” He suggested that maybe New York could go buy some, but added “such sized boats are scarce.”

Of this new expedition, Butler was purposely kept out of the fold. The officer selected to lead the new assault was General Alfred Terry, a volunteer, to be sure, but one who had proved himself on battlefields since 1861. Since Terry was under Butler, this shroud necessarily had to be lifted. “Please send Major-general Terry to City Point to see me this morning,” Grant wired to Butler, saying nothing more.

“When Terry came,” recalled Grant’s chief-of-staff, Horace Porter, “the general-in-chief told him simply that he had been designated to take command of a transfer by sea of eight thousand men, and that he was to sail under sealed orders. Terry felt much complimented that he should be singled out for such a command, but had no idea of his destination, and was evidently under the impression that he was to join Sherman.”

Much of Terry’s force came from the Twenty-Fourth Corps of Butler’s Army of the James. Adelbert Ames’ Division, which had taken part in the first expedition, was joined again by Charles Paine’s all-black division from the Twenty-Fifth Corps. They were augmented only by a brigade of five regiments (also from the Twenty-Fourth Corps). Sheridan’s troops were to be held at Fortress Monroe so that they might be available at short notice.


“I was instructed to move them from their positions in the lines on the north side of the James River to Bermuda Landing in time to commence their embarkation on transport vessels at sunrise on the 4th instant,” wrote Terry in his report. “In obedience to these orders the movement commence at noon of the 3rd instant. The troops arrived at the landing at sunset, and there bivouacked for the night.”

The Naval operations would again be under the helm of Admiral David Dixon Porter, who was beside himself with ekstasis over a second attempt. “I shall be ready,” he told Grant, “and thank God we are not to leave here with so easy a victory at hand.” Seeing Butler’s failures, Porter had some grievances of his own. The troops, he wrote, “should have provisions to last them on shore in case we are driven off by gales, but I can cover any number of troops if it blows ever so hard. I have held on here through all and the heaviest gales ever seen here. They seem to blow that I might show the commanders that we could ride it out at anchor.”

Porter described the Rebels as having no entrenchments, nor the ability to construct new ones. This was due to his regular bombardments. “We destroyed all their abattis, and made a beautiful bridge for the troops to cross on. They [the Rebels] think they have whipped us. I made the ships go off as if they were crippled, some in tow.” In closing, he vowed to Grant: “We will have Wilmington in a week, weather permitting.”

While Grant’s orders to Terry were sealed and not to be opened until they were past Fortress Monroe (itself only an hour away from Fort Fisher), Grant wrote to Porter, explaining the roll the Navy was hoped to play.

“General Terry will consult with you fully,” explained Grant, “and will be governed by your suggestions as far as his responsibility for the safety of his command will admit of.”

Grant also stepped over his line as General-in-Chief of the Army and dabbled in a touch of Naval strategy. “My views are that Fort Fisher can be taken from the water front only in two ways,” he mused, “one is to surprise the enemy when they have an insufficient force; then the other is for the navy to run into Cape Fear River with vessels enough to contend against anything the enemy may have there. If the landing can be effected before this is done, well and good; but if the enemy are in a very strong force, a landing may not be practicable until we have possession of the river.”

Until then, there was preparation. Ammunition had to be restocked, ships had to be gathered, coaled and watered. This would all take too much time, and Terry’s men would be waiting at the docks for vessels to steam them to somewhere they did not guess.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p394-395; Part 2, p9-11; Official Naval Records, Vol. 11, p401-402, 404; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter. []
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