First Battle of Fort Fisher
With the Union closure of the port at Mobile in August of 1864, Wilmington became the only major seaport available to blockade runners in the Eastern Confederacy. As the last remaining supply hub of the Confederacy, it became an essential target of the Union as it stood in the way of securing the Federal blockade and represented the Confederacy’s last major lifeline to foreign support in the form of munitions and provisions which made their way from Wilmington to the Confederate armies, most notably the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Robert E. Lee. (McCaslin 2003, 57) In light of the newfound strategic significance of the port at Wilmington, Fort Fisher became incredibly important as an essential piece to the defense of the port. As such, the capture or destruction of Fort Fisher became a chief goal of the Union, to the extent that Ulysses S. Grant approved the idea of a combined Army and Navy assault designed to neutralize Fort Fisher and close the port at Wilmington. (Robinson 1998, 71)
With Grant’s authorization to assault Fort Fisher in place, the operation was organized with Major General Benjamin Butler acting as the overall commander of the expedition and Rear Admiral David Porter in command of the Navy forces. The Union assault force, consisting of sixty one warships under the command of Porter carrying 6,500 of General Butler’s troops arrived at the rendezvous point twenty miles east of New Inlet on December 18, 1864 (Item 26). However, a severe storm arrived and Admiral Porter was forced to ride out the weather, delaying the attack a number of days (Item 26). Once the storm passed, the Union attack on Fort Fisher began on the night of December 23 when an iron-hulled Union steamship loaded with 215 tons of black powder was exploded near the fort in an unsuccessful attempt to breach the Confederate defenses. (McCaslin 2003, 58) The unsuccessful attempt to damage the fort with the explosion meant that the Union force would have to attack Fort Fisher via a naval artillery bombardment, which began at 11:30am on Christmas Eve. (Item 26) The Union pounded the Confederate fort with artillery fire for five hours on the first day, firing more than 10,000 rounds from 635 guns. (McCaslin 2003, 59) While Admiral Porter believed that the first day’s assault had substantially damaged the fort, exclaiming “the firing of the monitors was excellent, and when their shells struck great damage was done,” Fort Fisher emerged largely unscathed from the first day’s assault. (Item 26) Indeed, the artillery bombardment simply resulted in the destruction of Colonel Lamb’s headquarters building and half of the fort’s garrison quarters while the majority of the Confederate guns were kept intact and only twenty three soldiers were seriously injured in the assault (McCaslin 2003, 61) prompting Lamb to state “never since the invention of gun powder was there so much harmlessly expended as in the first day’s attack on Fort Fisher.” (Robinson 1998, 128)
On December 25, Admiral Porter and General Butler devised a plan for battle which consisted of the Navy resuming their heavy artillery bombardment with the Army forces landing on the beach amidst the cover provided by the assault. (Item 26) In keeping with this plan, the Union Navy resumed their massive shelling on Christmas Day, firing over ten thousand rounds while the Confederates launched only six hundred. (McCaslin 2003, 62) While the Union force took the lack of Confederate return fire as a sign that Fort Fisher’s guns had been effectively silenced, with Admiral Porter believing that “there was not a blade of grass or a piece of stick in that fort that was not burned up” (Gragg 1991, 73), Colonel Lamb, concerned by a pervasive lack of ammunition had ordered that the guns only be fired every half hour unless the fort came under a direct land assault. (Robinson 1998, 124) However, the Union strategy still prevailed in that, under cover of the intense naval bombardment, the Union troops were easily able to land on the beach to the north of the fortification. While the troops landed with little difficulty, upon a thorough reconnaissance of the fort General Butler came to believe that it was left “substantially uninjured as a defensive work” and that it would be butchery to order a land assault against the Confederate bastion. (Item 26) The lessons learned from the brutal and bloody Union assault on Battery Wagner, in which a small contingent of Confederate soldiers were able to inflict a massive amount of casualties on a superior Union force from the shelter of their fortification featured prominently in the mind of General Butler who viewed the possibility of a similar disaster occurring at Fort Fisher as four times more likely. (Gragg 1991, 87) In light of his concerns that assaulting the fort in its undamaged condition would result in a bloody defeat and reports from Admiral Porter that the Union fleet was running low on ammunition, General Butler decided to abandon the assault and signaled the retreat from Fort Fisher on December 25, 1864, much to Admiral Porter’s chagrin. (Item 26)
Due to what Admiral Porter deemed as General Butler’s incompetence, the first battle of Fort Fisher resulted in a Confederate victory and a Union defeat. While the Union assault had succeeded in neutralizing a few of the fort’s many guns, the defensive works of Fort Fisher remained largely intact. (Item 26) With the failure of the Union assault, Fort Fisher was left in place to guard the Cape Fear and thus protect Wilmington. (Gragg 1991, 99) With Fort Fisher still standing, Wilmington remained open to blockade runners, rendering the Union blockade of the Confederacy useless and ensuring that the Confederacy was still able to procure vital supplies, enabling the Confederate armies to continue in their fight against the Union.