Second Battle of Fort FIsher
With the failure of the first Union assault against Fort Fisher, Admiral Porter placed the majority of the blame for the failure on General Butler’s incompetence and complained to Ulysses S. Grant that the operation would have succeeded in capturing Fort Fisher if Butler had not canceled the planned assault. Grant, due to his larger strategic goals of sealing the isolation of the Confederacy and securing a coastal base to support Major General William T. Sherman’s march into North Carolina, recognized the importance of capturing Fort Fisher and replaced General Butler with Major General Alfred H. Terry as the commanding officer of the assault and increased the size of the assault force in the hopes that a larger force and more competent commander would succeed in severing the last lifeline of the Confederacy. (McCaslin 2003, 66) Indeed, prior to the second Union assault on Fort Fisher, General Robert E. Lee informed Colonel Lamb, the commander of Fort Fisher, of the structure’s importance in protecting the port at Wilmington, explaining that he would not be able to continue the war without the vital supplies which passed through Wilmington and that if Wilmington were to fall, he “could not save Richmond.” (Robinson 1998, 150) It was in this context, with the Confederacy’s armies running dangerously low on munitions and essential supplies, that the second Union assault on Fort Fisher commenced.
The Union assault force, increased to 8,897 troops from the original 6,500 and newly armed with forty four cannons and mortars with which to engage the fort (McCaslin 2003, 67) arrived with the Union fleet on January 13, 1865 and, much like the first assault, the Union began the engagement with a heavy artillery bombardment directed at damaging the fort’s defensive works and neutralizing its guns. (Item 45) This time, however, the newly appointed General Terry wasted no time in landing his assault force and the first Union soldiers began to land shortly after the beginning of the artillery bombardment. (McCaslin 2003, 67) The Union bombardment was significantly more accurate and of a larger scale than those which occurred during the first battle of Fort Fisher and the Union fleet, aware of the location of the Confederate artillery due to their muzzle flashes, began to destroy Confederate gun emplacements with concentrated fire. (Robinson 1998, 153) The artillery bombardment had a terrible effect on the fort, with Colonel Lamb stating that “it was impossible to repair damage on the land face at night, no meals could be prepared for the exhausted garrison and not more than three or four of my land guns were serviceable.” (Robinson 1998, 155) Coupled with the lack of adequate reinforcements, the Union bombardment made the situation extremely untenable for the Confederate garrison. (McCaslin 2003, 71) By January 15, 1865, after two days of heavy bombardment, the Union artillery assault had killed several hundred soldiers and disabled sixteen of the twenty artillery weapons on the fort’s land face, preparing the way for the Union assault force to commence with the land attack on Fort Fisher. (McCaslin 2003, 73)
After three hours of heavy Naval firing, the Union fleet signaled a halt to the bombardment and the land assault commenced at approximately 3:00pm on January 15. (Item 50) While a force consisting of marines and navy sailors bravely tried to secure the east end of the land face, they were pushed back amidst heavy Confederate fire which resulted in a tremendous loss of life amongst the attackers. (Item 50) However, in the face of fierce combat, the Army troops under the command of General Terry were able to secure the west end of the land face with Union soldiers successfully injuring both Colonel William Lamb and Major General William Whiting, the leaders of the Confederate forces at Fort Fisher. (Item 50) Though the Union assault force had succeeded in breaching the walls, the brutal hand to hand fighting had resulted in significant Union losses as well and stalled the progress of the assault, prompting General Terry to consider calling off the assault and entrenching the troops to begin a siege of Fort Fisher. (Gragg 1991, 210) Terry’s advisors, however, believe that victory was within reach and advised the Union General to risk everything in a final assault to overrun the wavering defenders and successfully finish the job. (Gragg 1991, 212)
By 8:00pm on January 15, the Union bombardment and land assault had so devastated the fort and its garrison that the wounded Lamb was advised to surrender the fort in order to prevent further bloodshed, but due to Robert E. Lee’s dependence on the crucial supplies coming through Wilmington, Lamb vowed that the fort would hold as long as he was alive, with Whiting echoing his sentiments. (Robinson 1991, 179) With the two commanders of Fort Fisher injured, the defense of the Confederate stronghold fell to Major James Reilly who organized a desperate counterattack in an attempt to force the Union soldiers from the walls. (McCaslin 2003, 84) This counterattack failed, however, and with the failure of his desperate counterattack, Major Reilly realized that the Confederates could no longer hold the fort and offered his sword to Union Captain E. Lewis Moore in a traditional gesture of surrender. (McCaslin 2003, 88) However, it was not until approximately 10:00pm on January 15, 1865 that the Confederate surrender of Fort Fisher was made official when Major General William Whiting relinquished control of the fort to Major General Alfred Terry (Robinson 1998, 180) which represented the equivalent of the closure of the port at Wilmington by the Union fleet, preventing the arrival or departure of future blockade runners and severing the Confederate grasp on one of its most essential supply hubs. (Item 50)