December 23, 1864 (Friday)
Since the blockade began with the start of the war, Cape Fear, along the North Carolina shore, had been more or less continually open. Contraband flowed freely into Wilmington, thirty miles up the Cape Fear River. The port was protected under the guns of Fort Fisher.
Over the course of the war, slaves, as well as Native Americans, were forced to build this earthen fortification, finished late in 1863. Within its embattlements were placed twenty-five guns, with nearly as many in batteries flanking the fort itself.
By November of 1864, when Braxton Bragg took command of Fisher, 2,400 soldiers manned its defenses. But these men were hardly veterans. The tried and true in the ranks were quickly siphoned off to other more important fronts, while the garrison was replenished with state militia. When William Tecumseh Sherman marched from Atlanta, Bragg and 2,000 of the men from Fisher were ordered toward Savannah.
The Federal plan to assault Fort Fisher had been kicked around since summer. General Benjamin Butler was to lead the expedition, which involved a strange plan to fill a barge with gun powder and detonate it near the fort. President Lincoln, as well as General Grant and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, thought it unlikely to work. Nevertheless, it was the only plan anyone had, and Butler was sent forward.
On December 18, Butler met with Admiral David Porter, commanding the fleet which would accompany the infantry. Two days later, Bragg, now returned to the fort, spotted the fleet.
General William Whiting, commanding at Wilmington, described the fleet: “Wabash and Colorado in advance, painted white, with Confederate flag. Troops concealed under deck. Two double-enders, eleven iron-clads, five torpedo raisers, twelve mortar-boats, the remainder transports, there being eight-five in all, and all steamers. The land forces to consist of 20,000 men under Butler, the naval forces under Admirals Lee and Porter.”
The next day, Whiting was even more worried. “The troops ordered away cannot return,” he wrote to Richmond, “if not helped, the forts may be turned and the city goes. The reduced garrisons are not able to hold this extended position without support.”
It was over these days that a storm brewed. This was a relief for the Confederates. Bragg noticed on the 20th that there was “no disposition made as yet by the enemy to attack on land.” This was due, of course, to the weather, which was “unfavorable to a landing on the outside of the bar now.”
Bragg was set even more at ease when he learned the same day that General Lee had actually agreed to send troops outside of Virginia. Robert Hoke’s Division was just starting to get underway, but the lack of rail transportation was a huge hindrance. Thus far, but one brigade had embarked.
While Bragg’s outlook brighten some, Whiting was still doubtful. “I think the citizens should be notified of the imminence of attack,” he wrote to Bragg, “and all business should be suspended except that of transportation and that purely connected with the defense. It should be decided what is preferable to save and that at once, for stripped as we are of forces, we shall have little time before the enemy will be upon the city.”
The Confederate policy through the war had been to save cities, ground and forts at the expense of armies. Though this was now changing, at Fort Fisher, there was hardly any army to save, and so it was the fort that must be held at all costs. In a December 21st letter from James Longstreet to Lee, the former voiced his opinion on what must be done.
Whiting, wrote Longstreet, must be ordered “to hold his position as long as he has a man. If his guns are knocked down, to hold on with his infantry and field batteries.” Longstreet reasoned that garrison troops placed too much faith in their artillery, and once the guns fell, they would have no drive to remain. “If they are prepared for such an emergency beforehand, they will meet it as they should.”
The storm had sent the Federal fleet for safer ports, but as it calmed, they began to return. All the while Whiting was doing everything he could to obstruct the river with broken blockade runners and torpedoes. But on this date, they were assembling once more.
“The fleet which drew off in the rough weather is again assembled,” Bragg relayed to Richmond, “seventy vessels now in sight on the coast.” Even the infantry transports were present.
Whiting was completely falling apart. “We seem to be in the midst of disasters all around,” he wrote to James Gilmer, Chief Engineer in Richmond. “Our position here is very precarious, and as the enemy’s fleet are off New Inlet in heavy force, in our present depleted condition it may be carried at any moment unless the enemy delay until Hoke shall have arrived.”
He allowed that the fleet was obviously waiting for calm, but soon after, he just knew that the troops would be landed and the batteries easily overrun. In that case, “the best course would be to save the troops.” He lamented that his troops had been pulled away to Georgia, as well as the lack of lighthouses, which would allow the artillery to spot the enemy fleet at night and destroy them.
“Many indications lead me to think the enemy have hit upon this plan, so fraught with danger to us and so promising to them, with small risk. […] A successful coup de main would give them at an expense of no very large number of troops a position most formidably secure against any effort of ours to repossess it should we be re-enforced after the event.” His writing grew choppy and disjointed. His sentences ran on from topic to topic, from lamentations to panic.
An attack was certain, a landing was certain, and Whiting was useless to prevent it. This was, in his mind, already concluded. “Heavy weather may save us,” he wrote to another, “but every night fills me with anxiety.” He was putting it mildly.
In the meanwhile, Benjamin Butler was in Beaufort, coaling his ship and the transports. He sent a messenger to Admiral Porter, off of Fort Fisher, explaining that “on the evening of the 24th I would again be at the rendezvous with the transport fleet for the purpose of commencing the attack, the weather permitting.”
As Butler wandered back to the fleet. Porter acted on his own. The barge filled with gunpowder (named the Louisiana) was to be exploded “right under the walls of Fort Fisher. His scouts had informed him that the vessel could be placed right on the edge of the fort. With such a blast, it would trigger a similar blast in the fort’s magazine.”
At 10:30pm [of this date] the powder vessel started in toward the bar, and was towed by the Wilderness until the embrasures of Fort Fisher were plainly in sight. The Wilderness then cast off and the Louisiana proceeded under steam until within 200 yards from the beach and about 400 from the fort.
Commander Rhind anchored her securely there, and coolly went to work to make all his arrangements to blow her up. This he was enabled to do owing to a blockade runner going in right ahead of him, the forts making the blockade runner signals, which they also did to the Louisiana.
The gallant part, after coolly making all their arrangements for the explosion, left the vessel, the last thing they did being to set her on fire under the cabin. Then taking to their boats, they made their escape off to the Wilderness lying close by. The Wilderness then put offshore with good speed, to avoid any ill effects that might happen from the explosion.
And the waiting would not be long.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p965-967; Part 3, p1279, 1281, 1283, 1286, 1295, 1296-1297; Official Naval Records, Vol. 11, p254-255; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat Vol. 2 by Judith Lee Hallock; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]