MOREHEAD CITY —
Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant acted swiftly to send Adm. David Dixon Porter back to North Carolina to finish the job — to capture the Confederate flag at Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River below Wilmington in January 1865 and bring an end to the bloody War Between the States.
Because the first attempt by the Union forces, undertaken over the Christmas holidays in 1864, was a flop, Gen. Grant gave Adm. Porter a different army general. Benched was Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, for he had botched the land assault to storm the fort. Instead, he disobeyed Grant’s orders and retreated.
Porter was livid over Butler’s cowardice. Writing for Warfare History Network, Pedro Garcia reported: “The admiral told Grant that the fort could be taken any time a competent general wanted to take it. The army’s loss of one man drowned and 15 wounded indicated something far less than an all-out effort” by Butler in the First Battle of Fort Fisher.
Adm. Porter touted that he had done his part. His warships “had thrown 20,271 projectiles weighing 1.25 tons at the fort.”
Grant assigned Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry to lead the infantry to accompany Adm. Porter’s fleet during the second go round. Military historian Jamie Malanowski reported that Adm. Porter was delighted to be teamed with Gen. Terry, whom he called “my beau ideal of a soldier and a general.”
“The Union army and the fleet reunited in Beaufort, N.C., on Jan. 8, and were back in front of Fort Fisher on Jan. 12,” Malanowski wrote.
Meanwhile, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg had done absolutely nothing to improve the situation inside Fort Fisher. Col. William Lamb had begged repeatedly for Bragg to send him more troops to help defend the fort. Bragg declined; he did not anticipate the Union to make another move on the fort until spring … so why bother now?
The Second Battle of Fort Fisher started early in the morning on Jan. 13, 1865, with naval guns blasting “pent up fury on Fort Fisher. This time the bombardment was much more accurate, tearing holes in the palisades of the fort and disabling a great number of the Confederate cannons,” wrote Civil War historian and author Dr. John R. Lundberg.
The Union attack plan was for a tiered invasion, led by 4,000 soldiers and followed by 400 Marines and then 1,600 seamen coming off 20 different ships, Malanowski wrote.
“Instead, everyone charged,” he said. The seaman suffered the brunt of it. “About 500 yards from the fort, the whole mass of men went down like a row of falling bricks,” Malanowski reported. “At about 300 yards, they again went down. Each time the sailors hit the ground, fewer rose again, leaving behind the dead, the wounded and those who had seen enough.”
“For weapons, the seamen had only cutlasses and revolvers … such an attempt was sheer, murderous madness. In the face of a furious musketry fire, which they had no way of answering, they rushed to within 50 yards of the parapet. Three times they closed up their shattered ranks and attempted another charge, but could gain little more ground.”
Malanowski’s report included an account of a survivor: “The sailors might as well have had broomsticks for all the good them pistols and cutlasses done.”
Yet, Gen. Terry’s forces — or what was left of them — managed to penetrate the fort.
“The Rebels fought valiantly on throughout the evening, but the northern advantages in manpower and firepower inexorably took effect,” Malanowski said.
The Confederate troops surrendered, and Malanowski’s recap was: The Confederates “lost about 500 men defending Fort Fisher; the Union had lost nearly triple that number taking it.”
Wilmington was occupied by Union troops on Feb. 22, 1865, and the war was almost over, commented historian James L. Walker Jr. of Wilmington.
On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, “marking the beginning of the end of the grinding almost four-year-long American Civil War,” Walker wrote. A profound choice of words.