December 25, 1864 (Sunday – Christmas Day)
The assault upon Fort Fisher was to be grand. True, it was not the first plan – that had been little more than a fizzle when a barge loaded with gunpowder was exploded near the fort to no effect at all. This second plan consisted of a landing of 6,000 infantry troop under General Benjamin Butler three miles north of the fort. In the meanwhile, Admiral David Porter’s fleet would continue with their bombardment.
At 7am, all was set, and Porter signaled that it should begin. He sent eighteen gunboats, led by the Brooklyn to cover Butler, while the rest of his ships, helmed by the Ironsides, took again to the fort. The firing began at 10:30am.
“The order of attack was given, and the Ironsides took position in her usual handsome style, the monitors following close after her. All the vessels followed according to order, and took position without a shot being fired at them, excepting a few shots fired at the four last vessels that got into line. The firing this day was slow, only sufficient to amuse the enemy while the army landed, which they were doing 5 miles to the eastward of the fleet.”
It was noon when Butler was ready to lead his men. Two Confederate batteries had been planted above the fort – Flag Pond Hill and Half Moon Batteries. Butler’s men would be landing before Flag Pond Hill, with Half Moon about a mile off on their right, and Fort Fisher about three miles to their left. Being told that the batteries on the shore before them had been silenced by the navy, Butler landed his men. General Butler described this in his memoirs:
“We stood in, the transport fleet lying each side of me. I lay within eight hundred yards of the shore when we commenced debaring the troops. The moment we got on shore skirmishers were to advance and take possession of some woods. This they did, and then the small party moved down upon Flag Pond Hill battery. The enemy held out a white flag as our skirmishers came up, and they navy sent in boats and took the prisoners off.”
Butler first wanted to land 500 or so men, and reconnoiter the area to see if it could be held. When it was found that they could hold it, the landing boats were sent back to the transports to bring along the rest.
In his report and memoirs, Butler insisted that the prisoners were “from the Seventeenth North Carolina, a regiment which lay before my line when I left before Richmond.” If true, this meant that Fort Fisher had been reinforced from General Lee. And it is true that Lee had dispatched Robert Hoke’s Division for the purpose, but it seems that they were not yet on the scene. The men captured by Butler (or, more accurately, by the Navy), according to Porter, were from the Junior North Carolina Reserves, consisting most of old men and young boys. In a note that Butler wrote to Porter that evening, Butler claimed that the prisoners were all Junior Reserves, from whom he learned that Hoke’s men were coming.
The truth, as usual, is nestled somewhere in between. According to Confederate General William Kirkland, commanding the lead brigade of Hoke’s Division, he had arrived the day before, reinforceing both Half Moon and Flag Pond Battieries, as well as other surrounding works. When Butler landed, according to Kirkland (who really had no reason to lie about this), they “captured Captain Koonts and his company.” Koontz led Company A, 42nd North Carolina.
So whether Butler (or the Navy) captured men from the 17th North Carolina, Junior Reserves, or Company A of the 42nd Carolina (or a bit of all three – which was actually possible), is unknowable. Though it’s obvious that Hoke’s Division had already begun to arrive, and that it would not be fully before Butler on this day.
Whatever actually happened, the landing was going as well as planned, Butler, who remained aboard the Chamberlain, claimed to run the boat to within 500 yards of the shore and Fort Fisher. Porter disputed this statement, saying that “he was never within one mile and a half of the fort.”
Inside the fort, Confederate General William Whiting reported the landing to Braxton Bragg in nearby Wilmington: “A large body of the enemy have landed near the fort, deploying as skirmishers. May be able to carry me by storm. Do the best I can. All behaving well. Order supports to attack.”
Fearing he would be overrun by the landing force, Whiting ordered the Junior Reserves remaining in Fort Fisher proper out of the bombproofs and to the guns. He then ordered his reserve artillery into the defenses like infantrymen, reporting:
“The gallant Major Reilly, with his battalion, who had served the guns on the curtain during the entire action, poured with the reserves, cheering, over the parapet and through the sally-port and manned the line of palisades. The enemy had occupied the redoubt (an unfinished outwork) and advanced into the post garden. A fire of grape and musketry checked any further advance.”
Kirkland also deployed to stop Butler, fanning out both the 17th and 42nd North Carolina regiments as skirmishers, leaving a mile gap between the two. “As well as I could judge, I considered the force now on the beach at least three brigades, and others landing all the while.” In reality, Butler landed, perhaps, 3,000 men.
The Confederates under Kirkland advanced toward Butler’s men and “delivered several volleys and a number of them were seen to fall.” They drove the Federal skirmish line back, but not knowing the land, Kirkland feared being flanked and withdrew just before dark.
And dark was coming in. Butler had been warned that if he didn’t land his whole force soon, he might not be able to at all due to worsening weather and surf. Add to this that Butler also claims that a prisoner came to see him. He had apparently captured this same man in 1861, and the man had some affinity toward Butler (which already makes this story hard to believe). The prisoner told Butler that Hoke’s Division was nearing and that Kirkland and another were already there.
“I then determined upon my course of action,” Butler recalled in his memoirs, “bearing in mind the fact that a storm was coming on, and knowing that, if it became necessary to effect a landing again, we could do it any day, in a smooth sea, in two hours without the loss of a man. I thought it a greatly less risk waiting with the men on board the transports than to attempt to get them on shore and have them intrench there during the night in the coming storm.”
There was also Hoke’s Division, of course, which would, when fully up, prevent Butler from landing. Hoke was suspected by Butler to have a force equal to his 6,500. How he planned to get them on shore without losing a man after Hoke was fully deployed, he never said.
“It was evidently impossible to do anything further at that time in the way of landing,” Butler concluded, ordering the troops back to the transports.
In the aforementioned note from Butler to Porter, Butler explained his reasons for calling off the attack, as the fort “was left substantially uninjured as a defensive work by the navy fire.” He continued: “Finding that nothing but the operations of a regular siege, which did not coming within my instructions, would reduce the fort, and in view of teh threatening aspect of the weather, wind arising from the southeast, rendering it impossible to make further landing through the surf, I caused the troops with their prisoners to reembark, and see nothing further that can be done by the land forces. I shall therefore sail for Hampton Roads as soon as the transport fleet can get in order.”
In short – Butler, by his own admission, planned to attack Fort Fisher, landed his troops, saw there was a fort before him, called off the attack, and planned to return to Fortress Monroe.
In this same letter, Butler related that General Godfrey Weitzel had advanced with the skirmish line to within 50 yards of the fort while the Navy’s bombardment kept the Confederate troops in the bombproofs. They came so close to the fort, in fact “that 3 or 4 men of the picket line ventured upon the parapet and through the sally port of the work, capturing a horse, which they brought off, killing the orderly, who was the bearer of a dispatch from chief of artillery of General Whiting to bring a light battery within the fort, and also brought away from the parapet the flag of the fort. This was done while the shells of the navy were flying about the heads of the daring men who entered the work, and it was evident as soon as the fire of the navy ceased, because of the darkness, that the fort was fully manned again, and opened with grape and canister upon our picket line.”
Butler was able to enter the fort, steal a horse, and capture its flag, but could do nothing more.
His troops were marched off the shore and Porter was left gobsmacked. “I wish some more of your gallant fellows had followed the officer who took the flag from the parapet, and the brave fellow who brought the horse out from the fort,” Porter shot back. “I think they would have found it an easier conquest than is supposed. Porter insisted to Butler that he “could keep any rebels inside from showing their heads until an assaulting column was within 20 yards of the works.”
“I shall remain here,” Porter wrote to Naval Secretary, Gideon Welles, the following day, “and keep shelling the enemy’s works on every occasion, whenever the weather will permit.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 42, Part 1, p967, 995, 1020; Official Naval Records, Vol. 11, p250-251, 525, 257, 270; Autobiography and Personal Remembrances by Benjamin Butler; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]