‘We Could Walk Right Into the Fort’ – Porter Unloads about Butler

December 27, 1864 (Tuesday)

Admiral David Porter was not over-happy with General Benjamin Butler’s performance two days prior. Rather than stewing silently in his own anger, on this date, he vented to Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. What follows is his complete letter.

David Dixon Porter
David Dixon Porter

Sir: My dispatch of yesterday will give you an account of our operations, but will scarcely give you an idea of my disappointment at the conduct of the army authorities in not attempting to take possession of the forts, which had been so completely silenced by our guns; they were so blown up, burst up, and torn up that the people inside had no intention of fighting any longer. Had the army made a show of surrounding it, it would have been ours, but nothing of the kind was done. The men landed, reconnoitered, and hearing that the enemy were massing troops somewhere, the order was given to reembark.

They went away as soon as the majority of the troops were on the transports, and it coming on to blow rather fresh, about 700 were left on shore; they have been there ever since without food or water, having landed with only twenty-four hours’ rations. I opened communication with them this morning, and supplied them with provisions.

To show that the rebels have no force here, these men have been on shore two days without being molested. I am now getting them off, and it has taken half the squadron (with the loss of many boats in the surf) to assist.

I can’t conceive what the army expected when they came here; it certainly did not need 7,000 to garrison Fort Fisher; it only required 1,000 to garrison all these forts, which are entirely under the guns of Fort Fisher; that taken, the river is open. Could I have found a channel to be relied on in time, I would have put the small vessels in, even if I had got a dozen of them sunk, but the channel we did find was only wide enough for one vessel, turned at right angles, and we were not certain of the soundings. There never was a fort that invited soldiers to walk in and take possession more plainly than Fort Fisher, and an officer got on the parapet even, saw no one inside, and brought away the flag we had cut down.

A soldier goes inside through the sally port, meets in the fort, coming out of a bomb proof, an orderly on horseback; shoots the orderly, searches his body, and brings away with him the horse and communication the orderly was hearing, to send up field pieces.

Another soldier goes in the fort and brings out a mule that was stowed away; and another soldier, who went inside while our shells were falling, shot his musket into a bombproof, where he saw some rebels assembled together; he was not molested. Ten soldiers who went around the fort were wounded by our shells. All the men wanted was the order to go in, but because every gun was not dismounted by our fire, it was thought that the fort was not injured as a defensive work, and that it would be to lose men to attack it. It was considered rash to attack the works with wooden ships, and even the officers who have been on the bar for a long time (and witnessed the building of the works) thought that half of the ships would be destroyed, and it was said that the only hope we could have of silencing the batteries was in case the powder vessel did the damage expected. We silenced the guns in one hour’s time, knocked the fort all to pieces inside and out, and had not one man killed (that I have heard of), except by the bursting of our own guns, in the entire fleet.

We have shown the weakness of this work. It can be taken at any moment; in one hour’s time, if the right man is sent with the troops. They should be sent here to stay, land with a month’s provisions, intrenching tools, guns, and Coehorn mortars. Ten thousand men will hold the whole country. The rebels have been able to send here, all told, about 4,000 men; 75 of them that were sent to observe us gave themselves up to the Navy. Two hundred and eighteen men sent on the same duty, gave themselves up to our reconnoitering party, and this would have been the case all the way through!

Interior view of Fort Fisher
Interior view of Fort Fisher

I trust, sir, you will not think of stopping at this, nor of relaxing your endeavors to obtain the right kind of troops for the business, the right number, and the proper means of taking the place, even if we fail in our assault.

Every attack we make we will improve in firing, and if the weather would permit I could level the works in a week’s firing, strong as they are, but there is only one day in six that a vessel can anchor so close. We had a most beautiful time, and the weather for the attack was just what we wanted.

If General Hancock, with 10,000 men, was sent down here, we could walk right into the fort.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Porter would soon find that he was not along in these feelings.1

  1. Sources: Official Naval Records, Vol. 11, p261-262. []
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