January 16, 1865 (Monday)
“I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher,” wrote Braxton Bragg to General Lee, “with most of its garrison, at about 10 o’clock to-night. Particulars not known.” Bragg was writing at 1am, shortly after learning that Fisher had fallen. Copies of the message went not just to Lee, but also to President Davis. It was Davis who soon replied.
“Yours of this morning received. The intelligence is sad as it was unexpected. Can you retake the fort? If anything is to be done you will appreciate the necessity of its being attempted without a moment’s delay.”
But Bragg was not convinced that it could be even attempted. “The enemy’s enormous fleet alone would destroy us in such an attempt were we unopposed by the land force,” he replied to Davis. “The most we can hope to do will be to hold this line. We are accordingly concentrating for that purpose.”
Lee also responded to Bragg’s initial message, though made no mention of regaining Fisher. Bragg then relayed scant particulars to their position. “The fall of Fisher renders useless our forts below. I am accordingly concentrating on this point [Sugar Loaf – a battery north of Fisher] and at Fort Anderson, directly opposite, and will endeavor to hold this line. May not be able to save heavy guns from below; in which even a supply will be necessary.”
Supplies were, of course, in short order. But with 7,000 men at Sugar Loaf and 2,500 at Fort Anderson, artillery wasn’t their only need. Guns were available, but only if the Federals would give the forts south of Fisher time to evacuate. By 11:30am, this seemed to be the case.
“There are no indications of any movement by enemy,” wrote Bragg to one of his commanders at the forts below. “I hope, therefore, you will be able to save your steamers tonight. If possible take to Fort Anderson some of your heavy guns. Do not destroy the others, as it is possible we may get them by land. Use every effort to do this.” For the Rebels, the entire day was spent loading up steamers and wagons with supplies and entrenching tools, ammunition and guns.
For the Federals, it was a day of accounting. Fort Fisher had given them 169 pieces of artillery, though many had been damaged. 2,000 stand of small arms, full supplies and loads of ammunition came also with Fisher’s capture. They also gathered with them 112 officers and 1,971 enlisted men.
But this was before the explosion.
“I regret to report,” began General Alfred Terry, commanding Federal land forces now inside Fort Fisher, “that shortly after sunrise on the 16th instant, the day following the assault, the magazine of reserve ammunition in the fort exploded, killing and wounding 130 men. The cause of the explosion has not yet been ascertained.”
Terry threw together a board of officers to suss out the reasons. Quickly they learned that there were camp rumors that drunken black soldiers “were seen going into the magazine.” Though the magazines were ordered to be guarded, this one had escaped notice. But also, there was suspicions of sabotage. Another officer found “two wires, one solid copper, the other, I should judge, a submarine wire, composed of seven small ones inclosed in rubber, leading from the magazine toward the Cape Fear River in a northwesterly direction.” However, this same officer noted that the soldiers and sailors “went around the fort at liberty… some of the marines were intoxicated, and firing off their pistols.”
Still another officer examined the explosion and found a detonated torpedo, which he thought might have been the culprit. But he also “saw a great many marines and sailors about the works, who were passing in and out of the magazines in search of plunder. They would light matches inside and let them burn to see what was in the magazine…. A great many marines were intoxicated.”
This officer had stopped one of the drunken marines coming out of a different magazine, and asked him how he could see in the dark. “He replied that he had lighted a match.” He also saw the wires, but made little of them.
But the surgeon in a New Hampshire regiment spoke on behalf of the accused Confederates. On the 16th, Major James H. Hill, one of the Confederate officers under the now-captured General Whiting, “wished me to say to General Terry that, it having been reported to him that the explosion was the result of wires intentionally placed at the magazine, that such was not the fact; and also, on his honor as an officer and gentleman, that no wires connected with the magazine; that the only torpedoes were outside the fort, which fact was communicated to General Terry by General Whiting immediately after the surrender.”
A New Hampshire officer actually spotted “some [men] in the magazine, and one had a candle, apparently searching round, and a few minutes after the explosion took place.” And another officer echoed these statements with a story of his own:
“I came near the magazine, and saw several soldiers standing around the entrance, overhauling some old stuff that had been pulled out. One says, “Have you got all out?” The other replied, “I have – perhaps not; they’ve got a light in there now” (meaning inside the magazine). I then stepped to the entrance and inquired what it contained. Some one inside said, “Boxes of power.” I then ordered if they had a light to put it out, and cautioned them not to have any more, as it was very careless and dangerous. I then left the fort, and ten or fifteen minutes afterward the explosion took place. This was the main magazine.”
When he was asked who these men were, he replied, “They were white soldiers, and were not at work under orders.”
The findings were obvious. Since the wires were not actually seen going into the magazine, they concluded “that the explosion was the result of carelessness on the part of persons to them unknown.”
With so many drunk men going in and out of the magazines with torches, candles and matches, it was impossible to tell who was to blame. The offenders were, no doubt, disintegrated in the explosion. At least 150 bodies were removed from the fort immediately after the explosion. Another fifty were wounded. This included not only Federal troops, but some Confederate prisoners of war not yet removed to the transport ships.
General Bragg was correct in his assessment that since Fisher had fallen, the forts below were useless. This also meant that the port to Wilmington was now closed. It was the South’s last open sea port. The blockade, which had been attempted since the beginning of the war, was now complete.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 1, p399, 426-431; Part 2, p1074, 1078-1082; Hurricane of Fire by Charles M. Robinson. [↩]