Saturday, January 31, 2015

Remembering the Sailors and Marines Sacrificed at Fort Fisher

The monument marking the spot where Confederate Colonel William Lamb's headquarters stood at Fort Fisher, looking southwest from roughly where the Land Face spanned Federal (then-Confederate) Point.  During a joint attack made 150 years ago, a Naval Shore Contingent made up of Sailors and Marines of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron approached the fort at its' heavily-fortified Northeast Bastion, about 200 yards to the left (now underwater), while an Army expeditionary force fought their way into the fort over a bridge leading past Shepherd's Battery, the only section of the fort easily identifiable today, at the opposite edge of the Land Face, nearly 280 yards to the right.    

Kure Beach, North Carolina, is home to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site, about five-hours' drive south of Norfolk, Virginia.  It is located near the southeast end of the Federal Point peninsula, a narrow ribbon of land separating the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic covered in beaches, thick grasses, briars, fire ants, and cacti.

Hundreds of giant boulders have been trucked in to form a revetment, keeping this part of the peninsula from disappearing into the ocean.  There are luxury beachfront houses in need of protection just to the northeast, not to mention the North Carolina Aquarium about a mile-and-a-half south.  Another compelling reason for preventing nature from taking its course has to do with preserving what is left of a structure that suffered two unprecedented iron rains, followed by a violent human deluge, a century-and-a half ago.  


The restored Shepherd's Battery at the northwest
corner of Fort Fisher's Land Face affords a
commanding view of the Cape Fear River and a
wooden walkway that follows the path taken 
by Union soldiers who rushed the "Bloody Gate"
here on January 15, 1865, while Sailors and Marines
were being repulsed 750 yards away on the
opposite end.  The 32-pounder pivot gun displayed
here was salvaged from the former blockade runner
USS Peterhoff, which was rammed and sunk by
another North Atlantic Blockading Squadron ship
off Kure Beach in a case of mistaken identity in
1864.    
Reenactors clad in gray fought off an inexorable yet imitation tide of blue here during sesquicentennial commemorations earlier this month from the fort's reconstructed northwestern corner, Shepherd's Battery.  It stands overlooking the old entrance to the fort on the battery's northeast side facing the Cape Fear River, the Wilmington Road Sally Port.  The site is more commonly known as the "Bloody Gate," standing today as a reminder the sacrifices made by the Union Soldiers who poured through it under withering artillery and musket fire on the afternoon of January 15, 1865.  By late that same evening, the fort was theirs. 

So Desperate a Service

Monuments located about 450 yards away, at the site of the fort's former headquarters, attest to the bravery of Ft. Fisher's Confederate defenders, most prominent among them Norfolk native William Lamb, who designed and commanded it.  No similar structure or monument, however, mentions the sacrifice of a Naval Shore Contingent, made up of Sailors and Marines of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, on the now-vanished far side of the fort's Land Face.  Their disastrous attack, which began just before the Army's, against the most fortified corner of the fort, diverted Colonel Lamb, his garrison and their reinforcements just long enough for their US Army counterparts to fight their way through the less-secure Bloody Gate, establishing a foothold within the fort before Lamb realized that the naval shore assault had been a feint. 

This hand-drawn overlay found at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area offices, near the site of the fort's telegraph station, shows both its massive scale and how much has been lost to erosion or demolition.  Fort Fisher's palisade, a 9-foot-high fence constructed of sharpened pine tree trunks (as opposed to the recreated cedar version that girds Federal Point today) spanned the Land Face from Shepherd's Battery to the Atlantic shoreline.  It would have extended beyond the lower right-hand corner of the photograph.  Dams constructed in the late-1800s by the US Army Corps of Engineers, spanning where blockade runners once rounded Federal Point (then Confederate Point) just southwest of the fort at New Inlet, as well as road construction during the 20th Century, altered the peninsula's shoreline.       

The sea swallowed up any trace of the corner, known as the Northeast Bastion, decades ago.  There is nothing to restore.  No site to place a monument.  If a structure of some kind, however, could be engineered a few hundred feet off the beach to properly commemorate the site where over 2,000 Sailors and Marines were deliberately sacrificed to make that inadvertently effective feint, few could produce more appropriate words to adorn it than the man who conceived the idea of the improvised naval assault unit in the first place, Rear Admiral David D. Porter.

On January 27, 1865, Porter, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, sent Navy Secretary Gideon Welles his hyperbolic appraisal of his brainchild's significance:

Nowhere in the annals of war have officers and sailors undertaken so desperate a service, and one which was deemed impossible by a former general and an engineer having a high reputation in the service.  Twenty-one officers were killed and wounded in this service, and twenty officers and sixty men were kept for four hours under fire from the enemy's sharpshooters, not being able to escape until night set in.  The courage of these officers deserves the highest reward.  Their efforts, though unsuccessful, gained the day, as the enemy considered this the main attack, and brought superior numbers from a superior position to bear on it.        

Of course, the former general was Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, Porter's Army counterpart during the abortive attempt to capture Fort Fisher in December and his fiercest public critic.  Just two days after the second attack took place, Porter testified in his own defense before Congress against Porter's widely published claims that his naval force had made victory possible for his Soldiers the first time around.  Butler's second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, was a senior military engineer and accomplished combat veteran who, unlike either Porter or Butler, actually saw the fort up close during the first attack.  Weitzel had also disagreed with Porter's confidence that his squadron had rendered Fort Fisher ripe for the picking in December.  He testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that after inspecting the fort at the conclusion of the first bombardment, "I went back to General Butler and told him I considered it would be murder to order an attack on that work with that force."  

As it happened, Porter's lightly-armed and inexperienced Bluejackets, the brave yet uncoordinated officers leading them, and the Marines assigned to support and protect them despite inconsistent orders, were indeed sacrificed while trying to perform the impossible service Porter had assigned them. 
The term "sacrificed" is not used lightly in this blog post.  It accurately describes what was done to the members of the Naval Shore Contingent when they made their almost suicidal attempt to storm the fort's Northeast Bastion, marring what was otherwise a well-planned and executed joint operation to capture the fortress guarding Wilmington, the last functioning Confederate seaport and lifeline to the outside world.  Although the Army expeditionary force detached from the Army of the James in order to attack the opposite side of the fort's Land Face at Shepherd's Battery that day outnumbered those in the Naval Shore Contingent more than four-to-one, the Sailors and Marines accounted for almost forty percent of the Union casualties sustained during the operation.    

Despite evidence that some officers within the squadron were under no illusions that the bastion could be taken using the personnel, tools and tactics assigned to them, no dissent bubbled to the surface within the North Atlantic Squadron's ranks.  The officers enthusiastically went ashore and threw themselves and their men at the Confederate Great Wonder of the World, following the spirit of the admiral's orders, if not the actual guidelines.  As a result, the contingent was decisively and dramatically routed.  Porter, as if prepared for the outcome in advance, deftly deflected blame and in short order rebranded the debacle as a necessary expedient contributing to the success of the larger operation.  As a result, no ill effects from the ill-conceived naval ground assault were felt on the part of its progenitor.

A Share in the Assault

Porter's idea for forming an organized naval unit ashore to attack in concert with the Army was spelled out in General Order No. 81, which was distributed to the ships of the squadron on January 4, 1865.  It directed each commander to "detail as many of his men as he can spare from the guns as a landing party....That we may have a share in the assault...."  "The sailors will be armed with cutlasses, well sharpened, and with revolvers," the short directive specified.  As for tactics, the Sailors were to "board the fort on the run in a seamanlike way," while the Marines were to "form in the rear and cover the sailors."

"Two thousand active men from the fleet will carry the day," the order prophesied.

After the joint effort to capture Fort Fisher less than ten days earlier ended in failure, Porter had argued stridently and convincingly that his squadron's bombardment had all but destroyed the fort and eliminated all effective resistance, and that the roughly 6,500 Soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Butler could have merely moved in to occupy it.  This uninformed, unsubstantiated argument won out over Butler's indignant insistence, supported by the experienced military engineers at his disposal, that the naval bombardment had achieved little, and that taking the fort would require a longer, more sustained siege than his expeditionary force, lacking any field artillery, was prepared to carry out.  Butler lost the very public argument and was relieved from his command, ostensibly for failing to follow to the letter Lt. Gen. U.S. Grant's orders to hold the ground that he abandoned.  Butler also lost his job because his superiors found Porter's can-do view of reality more compelling, believing that Butler should have cast aside his own convictions about avoiding unnecessary loss of life and boldly attempted what Porter insisted could be done, whatever the cost.

Porter had retained his position as commander of the North Atlantic Squadron after the masterful campaign of blame deflection, retaining responsibility for once again softening up the fort's 30-foot-high, 25-foot-thick traverses protecting its heavy seacoast Columbiads, mortars, rifled guns, and mobile field cannons, also ensuring the safe landing of the Army's over 9,500-strong expeditionary force detached from the Army of the James.  This he would do, and do much more effectively than before.  But to Porter, accomplishing this mission merely meant enabling Soldiers to plant their regimental standards upon the smoking ruin his guns would deliver to them, and that would not do.  By seeking a "share" in the ground assault for his men this time around, he sought to establish definitive proof of the efficacy of his bombardment, not to mention a more equitable share of the glory.

“It is strange but true,” Porter wrote to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox on January 7, “that the desire to kill and destroy grows on a man, the oftener he hears shot whistle, and I must confess I and all hands are itching to go to work again at Fort Fisher.”  This was not entirely empty bravado.  During the December attack, his Sailors proved just as hungry for close, hand-to-hand combat ashore as their Army counterparts.  During the opening stages of the ultimately abortive assault, Union Soldiers and Sailors had practically raced one another to reach a surrendering Confederate battery northeast of Fort Fisher, and the Sailors won.  Porter further boasted to Fox, "I can do anything with them, and you need not be surprised to hear that the webfooters have gone into the forts." 

With Perfect Safety

Brevet Major General Alfred Terry, appointed on the third of January by Lt. Gen. Grant to replace Butler in command of the Fort Fisher Expeditionary Force under the Army of the James, met up with Rear Adm. Porter in Beaufort, North Carolina on January 8, only one week before the attack began.  Unlike the enmity that developed between Porter and Maj. Gen. Butler during the Christmastime attack, the two developed a quick rapport.  Grant wrote that "the most complete understanding should exist between yourself and the naval commander," within Terry’s sealed orders.  "I suggest, therefore, that you consult with Admiral Porter, and get from him the part to be performed by each branch of the public service, so that there may be unity of action.”  

 Terry, an experienced combat veteran who, unlike Maj. Gen. Butler, knew the difference between caution and capitulation, would draw up a highly-organized plan of attack.  In tacit recognition of Butler’s seemingly disregarded insistence that nothing short of a conventional siege would deliver the massive earthwork into Union hands, Maj. Gen. Terry's landing plan specified that his attack would not begin until his 9,632 men were ashore with artillery pieces, siege guns, and 12 days' rations. His  22 Army transports landed five miles northeast of the fort on January 13, farther away than the 2,300 of Butler's 6,500 Soldiers who made it ashore during the December attack.  He also ordered a defensive line constructed against a possible counterattack from Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's forces stationed further up the peninsula.

Before going ashore, Terry had also worked out a signaling system to enable instant communication between his headquarters ashore and Porter's flagship Malvern In contrast, Porter's landing orders, which were dated January 15, the day of the landing and attack, were fairly vague.  This turned out to be of little consequence because so few of the officers assembling on the beach that day seemed to possess a copy. 

The brief orders were replete with generalities.  "The object is to get as close to the fort as possible and with perfect safety," Porter's orders cautioned, "so that the men will have shelter to go in case of the enemy firing grape and canister....not showing themselves until the signal is made and the army moves to the assault."  There was no elaboration on how this was to be accomplished.  Virtually every move the Sailors and Marines made after the landing itself, directed to be made "out of gunshot of the fort," was done on cleared ground under continuous fire. 

Some helpful instructions were given, such as the depth of the trenches to be dug, and it identified the officer chosen to lead the contingent as well as the officer "in charge of the men with shovels."  Other specific orders such as, "No move is to be made forward until the army charges," "The marines will follow after [the Sailors]," and "Officers are directed not to leave their companies under any circumstances, and every company is to be kept together," would prove difficult to follow or to reconcile with other instructions such as, "The sailors will charge at once on the fieldpieces...," and "the sailors when they start to board are to go with a rush, and to get up as fast as they can."  Again, only a few in the contingent seem to have read, much less followed, Porter's orders as the afternoon of attrition wore on.

This illustration credited to the US Coastal Survey shows how close Fort Fisher appeared from the perspective of the gunboats and ships of Line Number Two (extending left foreground out of view, starting with USS Wabash) and Line Number One (extending to the right out of view, slightly farther away, beginning with the broadside ironclad New Ironsides, which also led the group of smaller monitors).  Rear Adm. Porter's flagship Malvern is steaming north, aligned with Line Number One, arranged in a north-south line paralleling the shoreline.  The smaller ironclads are positioned between the southern end of Line One and the shoreline, as close as 1,000 yards from their primary target, the Northeast Bastion.  Not including the group of ironclads led by New Ironsides, Line One consisted of 13 vessels, mainly smaller gunboats, stretching between three-quarters of a mile and a little over a mile directly northeast of Fort Fisher's Land Face. 
In the Light of a Lark

The first part of the operation went exceptionally well.  During a sustained bombardment that lasted from January 13 through the afternoon of the 15th, the 58 North Atlantic Squadron vessels expended an estimated 19,682 shells.  Applying lessons learned from the first attack, Porter moved his three main lines of ships and a small detachment of ironclads much closer to the fort than before, achieving much greater accuracy.  Almost all of the 44 guns of the fort, including all 20 atop the Land Face overlooking both Union lines, were neutralized before the land assault began.  

On the evening of January 14th, Terry met Porter on his flagship and the two decided that the ground attack would begin at two in the afternoon the following day, or at least that was the time Porter believed the attack was to take place.  The ensuing uncertainty over just when the Soldiers were scheduled to make their attack and how long they would take to appear after they signaled the squadron, compounded by the inability for the naval contingent and the Army's expeditionary force to signal one another, sealed the fate of the shore contingent the following afternoon.       

By the morning of the 15th, Terry's Soldiers had already been ashore for a day and were positioned in the woods along the Wilmington Road.  They had completed a solid breastwork to protect their rear, and they were reasonably well-rested.  The Sailors and their officers who had volunteered (or had been volunteered) to make the assault, along with the Marines assigned to cover them, were notified only after the meeting on the 14th that they were to go ashore the following morning 

Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, then commanding USS Huron, later described the scene on the morning of the 15th:

Before noon the signal was made for the assaulting column of sailors and marines to land.  From thirty-five of the sixty ships of the fleet boats shoved off, making, with their flags flying as they pulled toward the beach in line abreast, a most spirited scene.  The general order of Admiral Porter required that the assaulting column of sailors should be armed with cutlasses and pistols.  It was also intended that trenches and covered ways should be dug for the marines close to the fort and that our assault should be made under the cover of their fire; but it was impossible to dig such shelter trenches near enough to do much good under fire in broad daylight.   

The sailors as they landed from their boats were a heterogeneous assembly, companies of two hundred or more from each of the larger ships, down to small parties of twenty each from the gun-boats.  They had been for months confined on shipboard, had never drilled together, and their arms, the old-fashioned cutlass and pistol, were hardly the weapons to cope with the rifles and bayonets of the enemy.  Sailor-like, however, they looked upon the landing in the light of a lark, and few thought the sun would set with the loss of one-fifth of their number.

Porter's naval bombardment as seen from the Mound Battery is depicted in this enlargement of James Madison Alden's print Bombardment of Fort Fisher, featured in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Civil War Gallery.  Alden, Adm. Porter's secretary at the time, would have had excellent access to charts showing where ships were deployed during each stage of the bombardment, and this view seems consistent with the illustration above as to where the lines of the squadron were deployed before the cease fire signal was given. The Columbiad pictured remained operational for a time after the Union bombardment and took shots at around 200 Sailors and Marines who had made it around the palisades (not pictured) to the right of the Northeast Bastion before it was finally silenced by Porter's guns.             
Porter selected his flag captain, Lt. Cmdr. K. Randolph Breese, to lead the contingent.  This arrangement, however, had not been disseminated among the other officers leading their respective ships' forces ashore, many of whom were senior to Breese.  After arriving on the beach a little after noon and showing his orders to more senior officers who until then believed they would be leading the contingent, Breese began assembling the groups of officers and men into three "divisions" of around 600 men each.  Lieutenant Commanders Charles H. Cushman, James Parker, and Thomas O. Selfridge led the First, Second, and Third Divisions respectively, while Marine Corps Captain Lucien L. Dawson led a Fourth Division made up of Marines, who were assigned to provide covering fire for the Sailors.  Instead of the 1,600 Sailors and 400 Marines Porter had initially intended to contribute, it was later determined that 2,261 Sailors and Marines went ashore.

Not a Very Pleasant Job

To lead the way, Breese dispatched Flag Lt. Samuel Preston with about ten firemen from each ship to dig breastworks for the Marines.  During the prelude to the attack, the working parties led by Preston and an assortment of junior officers managed to dig three successive trench lines, the first being about 600 yards from the fort, for the Marines to occupy while providing cover to the three divisions as they moved closer to the Northeast Bastion, their heavily-fortified 43-foot-high objective.

The firemen, armed only with coal shovels, toiled out on the open ground that had been cleared for a half-mile up the peninsula by the Confederates, well within range of an undamaged 8-inch Columbiad, which happened to be on the side of the bastion facing them, as well as two 12-pounder Napoleon field pieces positioned at an elevated battery outside the sally gate (tunnel entrance) in front of the parapet, at the base of the land face midpoint.  And since they had not yet received the order from Gen. Terry's signalmen to divert their fire from the Land Face, nearly half the Line One gunboats were firing directly over the beach where the Naval Shore Contingent awaited what they thought was the imminent signal to advance, stemming from Porter's mistaken belief that the attack would begin at 2 pm.  

Acting upon this incorrect assumption, Breese ordered his divisional lines into the shallow trenches made more than 30 minutes ahead of the scheduled joint advance, and an hour before the Army advance actually took place, exposing them to friendly fire as they crouched in their hastily-dug trenches.  "Together with musketry, canister and grape fired by the enemy in front of us, and fragments of bursting shell fired by our ships at the rear and left of us," recalled Acting Ensign Joseph Simms, leading a party of the ersatz sappers, "intrenching [sic] near the face of Fort Fisher was not a very pleasant job."

Lt. Cmdr. Parker, USS Minnesota's executive officer and one of the officers senior to Breese who graciously stepped aside to lead the contingent's Third Division, recalled to a group of Brooklyn schoolchildren in 1894, "While the army was fully protected from the fire of the fort, we were fully exposed to it as well as to the shells from our own ships."

This predicament was not unforeseen.  General Order Number 78, Porter's plan of attack issued to the squadron on the second of January, identified 11 of the Line One gunboats that would potentially be firing over the heads of the contingent.  "To avoid accidents by firing over our troops by these last-mentioned vessels," Porter wrote, "the patches will not be taken off the shells until the assaulting column is in the works."  This remedy, as well as lengthening fuses, was intended to prevent the Naval Shore Contingent from taking friendly fire by mitigating the possibility of premature shell detonation.  The longer fuse setting was also designed to "tear away the traverses," stripping away the protective covering of the fort's bomb-proofs where the garrison waited out the bombardment.  

While the order provided remedies in one respect, another instruction within the same order possibly elevated the risk of friendly fire.  During the December bombardment, the squadron sustained 37 casualties on five ships from exploding 100-pounder Parrot rifles.  One of the Line One gunboats, USS Yantic, lost the commander of her gun division as well as the rifle's gun captain when her 100-pounder exploded.  Within Order #78, Porter directed gun captains using the 100-pounder rifles to reduce their propellant charges from 10 pounds to seven in order to mitigate the chances of another catastrophic failure.  As a result, however, the range and velocity of the shells being fired from the 100-pounder Parrots, particularly from the Line One gunboats farthest from their targets on the Land Face, were drastically affected.

Though Yantic was no longer using that weapon for the January bombardment, three other gunboats at the farthest end of Line One were still equipped with the unstable weapons.  The side wheel gunboats USS Pontoosuc and USS Pawtuxet were equipped with two apiece.  The smaller screw steamer USS Maumee was equipped with one.  Reports made after the attack indicate Pawtuxet stowed its two 100-pounders, yet Pontoosuc's report isn't clear whether theirs were used.  The smaller screw steamer USS Maumee's report indicated 117 rounds were fired from from her 100-pounder Parrot rifle, the heaviest armament the gunboat carried.  No definitive claim is made here as to whether the Parrots were the source of the friendly fire, but the primary sources merely add to the accumulation of evidence that the Naval Shore Contingent itself was conceived by Porter as an afterthought.  No adjustments to the overall plan, from tactics to weapons to provisions, were made to give the Sailors and Marines a real chance at success. 

Within this illustration showing the deployment positions and gunnery targets of lines one, two and three, several of the 14 gunboats at the northern end of Line One could have accidentally shelled the Naval Shore Contingent, even if they hunkered down in improvised breastworks beyond the half-mile of cleared land north-northeast of the fort's Land Face (within the red area shown) as they awaited the Army's attack.  In particular, the double-ender side wheel steamers USS Pontoosuc and USS Pawtuxet (second and third from top) were armed with two of the unstable 100-pounder Parrot Rifles each, while the steamer USS Maumee was equipped with one.  USS Yantic, the next gunboat down, had been equipped with one 100-pounder as well, but it had exploded during the December bombardment, killing two and wounding three.  As a result of the substantial accidents, commanding officers were given discretion whether to use the rifles.  Pawtuxet ceased using its 100-pounders in December 1864, while Maumee fired 117 rounds using its 100-pounder during the January bombardment. 
As they hugged the sands, the hapless Sailors and Marines also dealt with another foe as a result of their ill-preparedness: hunger.  None of them had brought any food.  "We were getting very hungry, as we had taken our breakfast at daylight," recalled one survivor, Lieutenant John Bartlett.  "I was anxious to get into the fort to try some rebel provisions."

By 2:30 that afternoon, Lt. Cmdr. Breese began to fear that the precarious situation the Sailors and Marines were enduring in the sand trenches was becoming untenable as they continued to draw fire.  He crossed over the peninsula, leaving Lt. Cmdr. Selfridge temporarily in charge, and discovered the Soldiers had been told their attack would take place at 3 pm.  He returned to his own divisions at around 2:45 and made the decision to move them from the exposed shallow trenches to the beach, where the shoreline sloped down towards the water, affording marginally greater concealment and protection.  While this immediately took some of the pressure off the Sailors, the Marines now had to relocate from the rifle pits they had been prepared to use to cover the Bluejackets' advance and dig new ones.  As it turned out, there would not be enough time to dig new pits to cover the Sailors' new route along the beach.  The die was then cast for what would happen during the attack to come.

Moving the three columns onto the beach made them harder targets for the Napoleons, but the threat from their own guns actually became worse.  Lt. Bartlett, leading the second of three companies within the contingent's First Division, described his experience on the beach about half a mile from the fort.  "While here the fleet were firing directly over our heads," he wrote a couple of days later, "which was far from pleasant, as some of them fell short and right among us, wounding several."     

Might As Well Have Had Broomsticks

After the Sailors and Marines moved from more central trenches facing Ft. Fisher's Land Face to the ocean's edge, they were in less danger from Napoleon field guns firing from the Main Sally Port in Land Face.  They were still threatened by the one remaining Columbiad on the Northeast Bastion's northern corner and the remaining operational guns on the Mound Battery.  Thanks to the naval bombardment, however, none of the large electrically-actuated torpedoes buried near the Land Face worked.   

The state of paralysis continued until nearly 3:25, when Gen. Terry's Signal Corps Soldiers finally signaled the fleet that they were ready to attack, and Porter's flagship Malvern gave the signal to change the direction of fire away from the land face; a steam whistle repeated by every vessel in the squadron.  Despite the fact that Gen. Terry's troops hadn't actually approached the other end of the Land Face when the whistles blew, Breese ordered a charge.  The Sailors emerged in a line but devolved into an unruly mass, dashing at varying paces across anywhere from a few hundred yards to a half a mile of empty sand.  Breese's decision not to wait for the Army contravened Porter's standing orders and ensured that the naval contingent would draw fire first.  Whether by accident or design, the naval contingent's mission became a diversionary feint at that moment. 

Many of the Marines still providing cover fire with their rifles from trenches were then ordered by Breese to keep up with the sprinting seamen, whose ranks had by then broken down.  Yet somehow they were expected to provide covering fire as they closed in on the Northeast Bastion.  Unfortunately, the Confederate garrison taking shelter in the bomb-proofs also heard the squadron's whistles and immediately took their positions atop the bastion, right when the Sailors needed covering fire the most

Lt. Bartlett, who had advanced "double-quick" in the middle of the first division, wrote, "When we started on the charge the fleet ceased its fire, but the rebels opened on us a most murderous fire of musketry, with now and then a round of grape and canister."   
 
The 32-foot-high Northeast Bastion was the scene of carnage and sacrifice for the Naval Shore Contingent.  Few Sailors or Marines made it through the entire half-mile of sand to the palisades at its base.  Fewer still made it around or through the palisade's gaps and up the fort's 45-degree ramparts, and those who did were killed.  After the collapse and disorganized retreat of the contingent under unrelenting fire, many who had been at the front hid behind the palisades until nightfall. Afterward, they made individual retreats.         
Both the Army and Navy paths of attack were supposed to parallel one another on opposite sides of the narrow peninsula, approaching opposite ends of the same northeast wall simultaneously.  Quickly, yet orderly, both forces were supposed to divide the portions of the garrison defending the Land Face.  Not only did the naval contingent monopolize the attention from Col. Lamb and the other Confederates manning the parapets, but in their haste, some of the officers leading the Navy companies didn't seem to notice that they and only portions of their Sailors had left the main body far behind.  Some officers ran so fast, in fact, that they reached the jagged nine-foot-high sharpened pine trunk palisades in front of the Northeast Bastion without their troops at all.    

The young officers in dress uniform, particularly those carrying unfurled ship's flags in violation of Porter's order to keep them rolled until the objective was reached, were singled out for special attention by the Confederate defenders, who were filthy, beleaguered and battered, yet still very much alive.  Col. Lamb ordered the first musket volley from atop the bastion delayed until the contingent's vanguard was only 150-yards away.  "The whole mass of men went down like a row of falling bricks," one survivor recalled as the first volley split the air.  Another volley followed in quick succession.  The entire contingent seemed to sputter and halt under the sustained fire.  

"There was a halt at the foot of the palisades till the sailors in the rear should come up," recalled John Bartlett.  "I stopped close to the end of them.  Oh, such a fire as (we) were under.  Sailors and officers were dropping all around me."

A detail from the J.O. Davidson's painting Marines Charge the
Traverse, a part of the Beverly R. Robinson Collection, US Naval
Academy Museum.  The painting makes the Northeast Bastion
look lower than it actually was and the North Atlantic
Squadron's Naval Shore Contingent look more successful than
it actually was.  At least 284 Sailors and Marines were killed or
wounded in the 25-minute assault, followed by a disorderly flight
back up the beach by many of the Sailors in the rear who thought
they heard the call to retreat.       
Only one Sailor was confirmed to have successfully reached the parapet of the bastion, but even he was dead by the time he made it over the parapet's sandbags, his body falling into the rebels' midst.  

"The rush of the sailors was over.  They were packed like sheep in a pen," recalled another survivor, "while the enemy were crowding the ramparts not forty yards away, and shooting into them as fast as they could fire.  There was nothing to reply with but pistols."

"The sailors might as well have had broomsticks for the good [pistols and cutlasses] done," recalled survivor Thomas Richardson, a Yantic volunteer.

Lt. Cmdr. Parker, one of the few officers to make it through the battle unscathed, recalled decades later:

The fort was forty feet high, and the fire from the parapet was terrific. We had only pistols to return the fire directed at us.  Finally, we had to scatter to save ourselves.  All around us men were falling dead and wounded.  It was a regular slaughter. 


"The sailors were behind the marines in the rear.  I was just aiming at a rebel when I heard a shout behind," wrote Lt. John Bartlett. "I looked around.  The sailors were all on the run down the beach.  The marines broke and ran, the sailors following.  Poor Jack," wrote Bartlett.  "He could not stand the fire of bullets with nothing to fire back, as they were armed with cutlasses and revolvers."

Bartlett continued:

When the sailors started to run, they were shot down like sheep; over fifty lay dead at the foot of the palisades.  Now and then a wounded man would raise his head; a dozen bullets would fly towards him in an instant.  It was low tide when we made the charge and a few fell close to the water.  Before dark the tide rose and the waves washed up on the poor fellows, some only wounded.  It was hard to look on and not be able to give them any help.

One officer whose request to join the shore contingent had been turned down watched from about three-quarters of a mile away.  George Dewey, then executive officer of the steam frigate USS Colorado, described the debacle that unfolded in his memoirs many years later, after securing his own less-costly and more spectacular victory in the Spanish-American War:

We could see very clearly the naval detachment which had landed under the face of the fort.  The seamen were to make the assault, while the marines covered their advance by musketry from the trenches which they had thrown up.  For weapons the seamen had only cutlasses and revolvers, which evidently were chosen with the idea that storming the face of the strongest work in the Civil War was the same sort of operation as boarding a frigate in 1812.  Such an attempt was sheer, murderous madness.  But the seamen had been told to go and they went. 

In face of a furious musketry fire which they had no way of answering they rushed to within fifty yards of the parapet.  Three times they closed up their shattered ranks and attempted another charge, but could gain little more ground. How Flag- Captain [sic]Breeze, who was in command, leading his men and waving his sword, escaped death, is one of those marvels that almost make one accept the superstition that some men do lead a charmed life.

Our losses in the assault in officers alone were four killed and fourteen wounded, which is proof enough of how unhesitatingly they exposed themselves, following Breeze’s example.  The falling figures of the killed and wounded and the desperate rallies of the living were as clear as stage pantomime to their shipmates on board the fleet, who witnessed a piece of splendid folly of the same order as the charge of the Light Brigade, in which, however, it was not a case of one wild ride but of repeated attempts at the impossible.  We may be proud of the heroism, if not of the wisdom, of the naval landing force's assault on Fort Fisher, which, no doubt, did serve some purpose in holding the enemy's attention while the army pressed in from the rear.

As the mass of  Bluejackets subsided from the Northeast Bastion's defenders like a broken rogue wave, Col. Lamb observed that he and around 300 Confederate defenders posted on that side of the Land Face "witnessed what had never been seen before, a disorderly rout of American sailors and marines."  His feelings of triumph and relief quickly subsided as he noticed Union standards flying over Shepherd's Battery on the far side.  The vanguard of Brig. Gen. Terry's vastly larger expeditionary force had driven back the 200 or so Confederate defenders stationed there.     
 
Although the fort finally fell to Terry's Soldiers about six hours after the naval contingent's repulse, after fierce close quarter combat, no one could conceal the shockingly dismal performance of the naval contingent.  It had inflicted only a handful of casualties while acting as a massive blue target on the vast ribbon of sand.   After such an obviously botched operation, Porter had a reason at the ready: The Marines.

Porter's attempts to lay blame for the disaster at the feet of the Leathernecks proved to be tougher than his last feat; faulting an unpopular general.  No single Marine could be singled out as having failed in his duty or deserting his post, and the accounts of those present seemed to agree that the Marine division's greatest mistake was being just as disorganized as the Navy divisions of the contingent, which coalesced into a amorphous mass during the charge, and scattered under intense fire from the parapets.  

Within days, the effort to spin the rout of the Navy as being the fault of the Marines, spearheaded by Adm. Porter, changed through the reports of other senior leaders into the slaughter being an unpleasant yet necessary outcome of the feint made by the Navy in support of the Army.  

On January 17, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reported the following to President Abraham Lincoln upon his return to Fortress Monroe:

The assault was made on Sunday afternoon, at half-past three o'clock.  The sea front of the fort had been greatly damaged and broken by a continuous and terrible fire of the fleet for three days, and the front was assaulted at the hour mentioned by a column of seamen and marines, one thousand eight hundred strong, under command of Captain Breese.  They reached the parapet, but after a short conflict this column was checked, driven back in disorder, and was afterwards placed on the defensive line, taking the place of a brigade that was brought up to reinforce the assaulting column of troops.  Although the assault on the sea front failed, it performed a very useful part in diverting the attention of the enemy, and weakening their resistance to the attack by the troops on the other side.

This change in the narrative drew attention away from the abysmal tactics employed by the hapless Sailors, negating what could have easily become grist for the ongoing Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. 

Senator B.F. Wade, chairman of the committee, expressed the opinion four months after the attack that, "the assault by the sailors and marines, though novel in its character and unsuccessful in its immediate results, doubtless proved of great advantage to the army by its very novelty, and the diversion it created in the operations of the garrison of the fort." 

Gallant Officers and Men So Cut Up

The rear of Shepherd's Battery with bomb-proof entrance shortly after the
battle (top), and what it looks like today (bottom).  Just as Colonel William
Lamb and his Confederate garrison atop Fort Fisher's Northeast Bastion
thought they had repelled Union forces once again, they realized Soldiers
here on the far side of the Land Face had already planted their standards.   
On the reverse of the aforementioned nonexistent monument to the Naval Shore Contingent, perhaps a plaque with Porter's reflection, made the evening after the attack, could be affixed:

It is a matter of great regret to me to see my gallant officers and men so cut up, but I was unwilling to let the troops undertake the capture of the works without the Navy's sharing with them the peril all were anxious to undergo, and we should have had the honor of meeting our brothers in arms in the works had the sailors been properly supported.

Some might wonder why only the words of Rear Admiral David D. Porter should appear on a proposed monument to the Naval Shore Contingent.  The answer would be fairly straightforward: The attack itself was a monument to Porter's dogged insistence that his "webfooters" could achieve any impossible service assigned to them.  That is, if they were "properly supported."  Perhaps that support could have originated with Porter himself.    

In an attempt to secure what he thought would be the Navy's fair share of the credit for the triumph at Fort Fisher, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron once again paved the way for the Army, securing instead an ignominious footnote in the annals of Navy-Marine Corps history.  The unintentional feint taken by the Navy and Marine element of this amphibious operation 150 years ago unquestionably provided a valuable diversion, giving the Army element the breathing room it needed to quickly gain access to the fort on the far side of the land face, forcing Fort Fisher's surrender that night, effectively sealing the Confederacy off from the rest of the world.  But in order to play what Secretary Stanton called "a very useful part" of the battle, a high percentage of the Navy and Marine Corps volunteers paid a very high price.

Casualty statistics from North Carolina Historic Sites:

The Union Army’s official total of 9,632 involved in the battle racked up a casualty count of 664, or about seven percent, with 111 killed, 540 wounded, and 13 missing.
The Navy and Marine Shore Contingent’s total of 2,261 sustained 393 casualties, with 88 Sailors (six of them officers) and Marines killed, a percentage of over 17 percent.   




Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Battle Between the Battles of Fort Fisher

Rear Admiral David D. Porter and Major General Benjamin F. Butler. Source: Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War

It takes the confidence of military superiors and civilian leaders, and in many cases the confidence of the public at-large, to be invested with the authority to lead as a flag officer.  In order to maintain that confidence, such a military leader must aggressively conduct reputational damage control when things go wrong.  Those who lose perception management battles often lose the chance to win on the battlefield.

There is a well-worn Civil War axiom on how to win a battle credited to the Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest: “Get there firstest with the mostest.”  This principle also applies to the perception management campaigns one must undertake to protect one's career.
A salient example can be found in the recriminations between Rear Admiral David D. Porter and Major General Benjamin F. Butler in the wake of their unsuccessful December 1864 attack on Fort Fisher, North Carolina.  The battle between the two men came to a head 150 years ago this week, after which only one would continue leading the campaign to capture the southern redoubt.  

Each blamed the other for the initial failure to take the fort, and, of course, neither accepted any of the blame.  Both proffered plausible yet irreconcilable arguments as to why they returned to Hampton Roads empty-handed.  In their day, and in ours, those who get their side of the story out first, regardless of the actual circumstances, have the advantage.  A clear, consistent message is required to win the battle of public perception, keep a professional reputation intact, and retain the confidence of superiors in order to fight another day. 

As was mentioned in our post about the first attack on Fort Fisher, Porter swiftly gathered evidence of his Army counterpart’s obstinacy and incompetence before the last of his troops had even been withdrawn from their temporary beachhead just north of the fort on December 27, and he focused his energies into getting the word out to Butler's immediate superior, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, his superiors in the Navy Department, and the press.  Butler did not move quite as swiftly. 

By spreading the word far and wide, particularly into the ever-yawning maw of the press, it is clear that Porter was way ahead in getting his side of the story out. His message was clear, straightforward, and succinct.

The first paragraph of a New York Herald editorial on December 31 entitled, “The Fort Fisher Fiasco - Admiral Porter vs. General Butler,” shows that Porter’s message struck home:


The clear and circumstantial report of Admiral Porter of
his late operations against Fort Fisher and its supporting
rebel batteries leads us to these conclusions: that one
has blundered; "that the fort on Christmas Day could have been
easily captured by the land forces under General Butler, and
that in failing to make the experiment he lost a fine
opportunity for a great success."


Another Herald report dated January 2, 1865, entitled “The Wilmington Affair - Who is Responsible for the Failure,” reiterated the thrust of Porter’s argument in the absence of a parry from Butler.   

The naval fleet had only to silence the guns, and thus open the way for the
assault.  That work was fully accomplished.  Therefore the navy
cannot be held responsible for the failure.  The army did not
make the assault when the guns were silenced, notwithstanding a
sufficient force was upon the beach. Therefore the army failed
of accomplishing its part.  Why it failed is another matter, in
relation to which more light would be very acceptable.  We
shall probably have it when General Butler makes his report (emphasis mine).

In reality, the guns of the fort were far from silenced after the bombardment and were used to immediate and devastating effect when Porter’s gunboats attempted to get around the fort into the Cape Fear River during the assault.  After an estimated 20,271 projectiles totaling more than one million pounds of iron rained down from Porter’s North Atlantic Squadron, more than any naval bombardment in the history of warfare up to that time, only three Confederate soldiers had been killed, two mortally wounded, 11 severely wounded, and 45 slightly injured, while only three of the fort’s cannons were disabled.  Within hours of the Union withdrawal on December 27, blockade runners resumed their rounds between Nassau and Wilmington as if no battle had even taken place. 
Butler’s claim that Fort Fisher’s effectiveness remained undiminished after the bombardment was essentially correct.  Months later, the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War would vindicate Butler, concluding, "the determination of General Butler seems to have been fully justified by all the facts and circumstances then known or afterward ascertained."  But ascertaining these facts held little pertinence at that particular moment in January 1865, when depriving the Confederacy of its last effective port as quickly as possible trumped conducting long investigations into acrimonious recriminations.  What was and is pertinent is that Porter’s argument carried the day with his superiors in Washington and the literate masses of the nation, first, and without effective refutation from Butler or his supporters.     
And Butler still had many supporters.  James Parton, Butler’s contemporary biographer, assured the general, “The malign bluster of that incomparable ass who commanded the fleet has harmed no one but himself.  One of the Harper Brothers made the remark on the day of the publication of his report: ‘To withdraw the troops without making an assault was a much braver action than to have ordered an assault.’” 

While biographers and publishers are capable of making astute observations on the conduct of the war, they do not conduct the war.  And this brings us back to Lt. Gen. Grant, who by January 4 had made up his mind how to solve the dispute between the two commanders.  He submitted a request to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to have Butler reassigned, citing “a lack of confidence in his military ability, making him an unsafe commander for a large army.”  Two days later, Grant also telegraphed President Lincoln informing him of his request to Secretary Stanton.
At noon on January 8, a sealed envelope reached Butler from Grant’s headquarters: 

War Department, Adjutant General’s
Office, Washington
January 7, 1865

I.                  By direction of the President of the United States, Major General  Benjamin F. Butler is relieved from the command of the Department of North Carolina and Virginia.  Lieut. Gen. Grant will designate an officer to take this command temporarily.

II.                Maj. Gen. Butler on being relieved, will repair to Lowell, Mass., and report by letter to the Adjutant General of the Army.

By order of the Secretary of War

W.A. Nichols, Asst. Adjt. Gen’l.  

Butler, despite his reputation as a "political” general, was outmaneuvered by Porter.  He therefore lost the confidence of Grant and President Lincoln.  This victory scored in the press and in the halls of power gave Porter the opportunity to retain his key role in the upcoming second attack upon Fort Fisher, which promised to be not only the last great naval battle of the war, but it would be the largest amphibious operation undertaken by American forces until the Second World War.     

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

CSS Florida: Symbol and Substance

The front page of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper of December 24, 1864, currently displayed in the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, shows the defeat of an antiquated, moribund Confederacy symbolized by the submerged Florida, under the guns of the modern Union Navy in the form of a Passaic-class ironclad, possibly USS Sangamon.  In reality, the Confederate commerce raider and the Union ironclad were both launched in 1862.  
At the close of 1864, two different messages were being broadcast to two different audiences concerning the sinking of the captured Confederate commerce raider Florida.  The image shown by the Northern press to its domestic readership was one of triumph. 

The accompanying story above the illustration did not refer directly to the Florida, its capture from Brazil in October or its sinking near Newport News Point the following month.  It was an editorial on Abraham Lincoln's state of the union address, made on December 6.  It read in part, "There is something almost marvelous in the positive proofs thus furnished that the great loyal section of the Union, in the fourth year of this stupendous civil war, is vastly more powerful in men, materials, resources, all the elements of strength, wealth and prosperity, than at the beginning of the struggle."  The vanquished rebel steamer and victorious Union ironclad merely served as a useful illustration of the state of affairs between the Union and the Confederacy during what would prove to be the latter's final winter.

Within his state of the union address to Congress, Lincoln himself made mention of the international backdrop to the Florida affair; the contentious relations between the US government and those nations granting the status of belligerents to Confederate vessels, diplomats and agents: 

It is possible that if it were new and open question the maritime powers, with the lights they now enjoy, would not concede the privileges of a naval belligerent to the insurgents of the United States, destitute, as they are, and always have been, equally of ships of war and of ports and harbors. Disloyal emissaries have been neither less assiduous nor more successful during the last year than they were before that time in their efforts under favor of that privilege, to embroil our country in foreign wars. The desire and determination of the governments of the maritime states to defeat that design are believed to be as sincere as and can not be more earnest than our own. Nevertheless, unforeseen political difficulties have arisen, especially in Brazilian and British ports and on the northern boundary of the United States, which have required, and are likely to continue to require, the practice of constant vigilance and a just and conciliatory spirit on the part of the United States, as well as of the nations concerned and their governments.
William H. Seward (Wikimedia Commons) 

As with such speeches made today, the state of the union address is an important way for the chief executive to communicate policies and intentions to foreign powers.  A way to send a more direct message, of course, is through the Secretary of State.  A message sent on December 26 from William H. Seward to the Brazilian charge d' affaires in Washington reflected the uncompromising stance Lincoln's cabinet took towards the Confederacy.  In response to an official protest made on December 12 against the US government over Florida's seizure by USS Wachusett from the port of Bahia, Seward replied:

This Government disallows your assumption that the insurgents of this country are a lawful naval belligerent, and...it maintains that the imputation of that character by the Government of Brazil to insurgent citizens of the United States who have been hitherto been, and who still are, destitute of naval forces, ports, and courts is an act of intervention in derogation of the law of nations.... 

So also the Government disallows your assumptions that the Florida belonged to the aforementioned insurgents, and maintains... that the vessel, like the Alabama, was a pirate belonging to no nation or lawful belligerent, and therefore the harboring and supplying of these piratical ships and their crews in Brazilian ports were wrongs and injuries for which Brazil justly owes reparation to the United States as ample as the reparation which she now receives from them.

Seward then declared that, although the Florida's crew were "enemies of the United States, and as they contend, enemies of the human race," they had been unlawfully brought into custody and therefore "could not lawfully be subjected to the punishment which they had deserved."  They would then "be set at liberty to seek a refuge wherever they may find it...."  

"The Florida was brought into American waters and was anchored under naval surveillance and protection at Hampton Roads," Seward continued.  "While awaiting the representation of the Brazilian government, on the 28th of November she sunk, owing to a leak which could not be seasonably stopped."  Seward announced that a naval court of inquiry had submitted its report, concluding that "...it is assumed that the loss of the Florida was a consequence of some unforeseen accident which casts no responsibility upon the United States."   

Because CSS Florida and the men who sailed upon her were considered the unlawful combatants of their day by the United States Government, the laws of warfare, such as there were, did not apply to them.   The demands of the Brazilian government that the United States government abide by international laws and treaties by returning the steamer were met by the insistence that Brazil was abrogating those same laws and treaties by recognizing Florida as a lawful combatant in the first place.

Seen in this light, Seward's alleged suggestion to Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter that Florida be surreptitiously sunk is perfectly plausible.  And if this was the real reason for her demise, it would be far from the first or last time international laws and conventions were skirted, bent or broken in the interest of defeating an enemy perceived as illegitimate.  

Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Defective Christmas Gift to Fort Fisher Fizzles

Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, given command of the North Atlantic Blockading 
Squadron in October 1864, managed to dash the expectations of virtually everyone 
involved in the first expedition against Fort Fisher.
Despite this, he would not pay the price for the costly mistake. 
One hundred and fifty years ago today, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, the innovative, daring, sometimes reckless commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, spent an extraordinarily frustrating Christmas off the coast of North Carolina.  From his flagship, the captured blockade runner USS Malvern, he was shocked to see boats full of soldiers from the Army of the James already returning from the "Confederate Gibraltar" of Fort Fisher at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, only three hours after they departed.  

From the time the combined Army and Navy force began landing at about two in the afternoon, the venture had appeared successful.  Sailors from USS Britannia had even captured about 70 prisoners shortly after coming ashore.  At about four, Porter had hailed Major General Benjamin Butler's flagship Ben De Ford after coming alongside, asking him how many of his 6,500 troops he planned to land that day.  

"All I can," came Butler's reply.  


And without further word from the general, the attack, months in the making, on the largest fortification either side had built during the war, was cancelled an hour later.  



Fort Fisher's Atlantic side stretched nearly 2,000 yards and contained 10 batteries mounting 24 heavy guns, 
including a 10-inch Columbiad and a 6.5-inch rifle atop a 43-foot-high earthwork known simply as The Mound. 



Butler informed the admiral afterward that the reason for his unilateral decision to withdraw back to Hampton Roads was that Confederate prisoners had reported two brigades of reinforcements were approaching from Wilmington.  The weather had also deteriorated that afternoon, hampering his ability to send more troops ashore.  He also added that, despite the naval bombardment made in preparation for the landing, "My engineers and officers report Fort Fisher to me as substantially uninjured as a defensive work."  And since his orders did not encompass "the operations of a regular siege," Butler concluded, "I see nothing further that can be done by the land forces."  

Butler also believed Porter had created the necessity of laying siege to begin with and fatally undermined the mission to take Fort Fisher before it even began, because of the way his secret weapon was mishandled.  

The centerpiece of the naval strategy to deal a death blow to Fort Fisher was not with the main body of 80 Army and Navy ships that began their journey south around the Outer Banks from Hampton Roads on December 13.  The decisive move would be the first one, made by just one ship.  

Maj. Gen. Butler, intent on redeeming himself after failing to cut off Petersburg from Richmond during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign in May, conceived of an audacious opening move that would shock Fort Fisher’s defenders, cause the fort's magazine to explode and its bombproof shelters to cave in, knock their 44 potent barbette guns and rifles off their mounts, and send the Confederate survivors, if there were any, fleeing the 18 miles back towards Wilmington as his troops moved in.  



The plan originally consisted of packing 150 tons of powder into a barge and detonating it close to the massive earthwork’s northeastern angle, with the force of the explosion designed to set off the fort’s powder magazine.  Porter and Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox committed the 295-ton steamer USS Louisiana and an additional 150 tons of powder to the scheme.  

At Craney Island, Louisiana was stripped of her masts and all other extraneous weight, and Butler’s contribution of powder was loaded aboard.  She was then towed to Beaufort, North Carolina, where Porter had only another 90 tons of powder available.  After 85 tons were loaded, however, Porter feared that any more would sink the floating bomb right there at the dock.  So with only 235 tons in place,  Porter placed Commander Alexander C. Rhind in charge, instructing him to anchor her in the surf outside the fort, and that “if the Rebels fight after the explosion, they have more in them than I gave them credit for.” 


Three different methods had been devised for detonating the powder, including an elaborate system of fuses attached to timers, but Porter also gave Rhind instructions for a fire to be built at the stern before leaving the vessel, cautioning that, “there may be something yet unthought of that will affect the clocks and fuses, but there will be no mistake in a fire.” 

The original plan was for the powder vessel to masquerade as a blockade runner, running aground and exploding before the Confederates knew what was in the offing, followed by naval bombardment by Porter's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to destroy what was left of the fort.  Butler’s troops would then disembark from their transports to overrun what little would be left of the fort and its defenders.   

A map made to detail the second Union advance on the fort in January 1865 shows how far off 
Cmdr. Rhind was from his calculations when he set Louisiana to explode on December 24, 1864.

The actual operation that played out bore no resemblance to Butler and Porter’s aspirations.  Rhind and his powder vessel arrived off Fort Fisher on December 18 and at 9:30 that evening, he reported that he was ready to make his run.  Rough weather set in within hours, however, and Butler made the call to take his troop transports back the following day to Beaufort, 90 miles away, to reprovision and recoal.  With the weather improving on the 23rd, Porter decided he could wait no longer, despite there being no sign of Butler or his transports.  He gave Rhind the order to blow up Louisiana at 2 am on the 24th.  

Beginning at 8 pm, the side-wheel steamer USS Wilderness towed Louisiana towards Fort Fisher on the moonless night of December 23rd.  Hearing the sound of breakers, Rhind cut loose from Wilderness, dropped anchor and set the timers to detonate at 1:18 am.  Setting a fire on the stern as he left, he and his small crew of volunteers escaped back to Wilderness on small boats.  They withdrew further offshore and waited.    

As expected, the timers did not work.  At 1:40 am, the fire set by Rhind finally succeeded where the fuses failed, but the bags of powder detonated piecemeal as the fire spread from compartment to compartment.  With nothing confining the explosions, nothing more than large fires and a sulfurous cloud one witness described as "assuming the shape of a monstrous water-spout" could be seen by the Sailors watching offshore.  Rhind had also greatly misjudged his distance from the fort, and it went off more than 800 yards away.  Fort Fisher’s bemused defenders could only assume that a Union vessel had become stranded somewhere off in the distance and been blown up by her own crew.  In the morning, no trace of Louisiana remained, in contrast to Fort Fisher, which hadn’t suffered a scratch.  

As the naval bombardment began at 11 am on the 24th, Porter still believed that he had dealt a deadly blow to the fort, which fell silent about an hour and a half later.  He sent a message to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles reporting that its guns had been silenced at 2 pm, complaining, “There being no troops here to take possession, I am merely firing at it now to keep up practice…and all that is wanted now is the troops to land.” 


The Union Army commanders who finally arrived at Porter’s flagship late in the afternoon were not persuaded by the admiral’s claims that the fort had been “demolished,” instead correctly deducing that its defenders had merely hunkered down, saving their ammunition to repel an expected frontal assault.  They returned to Ben De Ford convinced that such an attack would be impossible.  Butler agreed, believing Porter had deliberately robbed him of victory by prematurely setting off the powder boat, obliterating the element of surprise more than anything else, and launching the bombardment before his transports could return and make good on the damage they caused.  Butler originally intended to call off the operation entirely, but then decided to restrict the Christmas Day landing to a reconnaissance in-force of around 500 troops.


Benjamin Butler expected vindication for canceling his  
attack on Fort Fisher.  He was to be sorely disappointed. 
Porter's squadron had lobbed nearly ten thousand shells at the fort throughout Christmas Eve and again the following morning, destroying nearly every exposed building, and the Soldiers and Sailors that made it ashore that afternoon reported little resistance, yet Butler had made up his mind that Porter had already ruined the operation and accepted any excuse to discontinue it.  

Porter had wasted no time collecting comments from Soldiers who believed that, had they been reinforced on Christmas, the fort would have fallen, and sent them to Secretary Welles.  "SIR," the admiral wrote Welles on the 26th, "I was in hopes that I should have been able to present to the nation Fort Fisher and the surrounding works as a Christmas offering, but I am sorry to say it has not been taken yet.”  He then went on to praise Cmdr. Rhind and his effort to blow up the fort with a "torpedo on a large scale," yet admitted, "The shock was nothing like so severe as expected; it shook the vessels some, and broke one or two glasses, but nothing more."  


If Butler expected General Ulysses S. Grant, who had only reluctantly signed off on his powder boat plan in the first place, would be sympathetic towards his plight and understand why he did not hold the ground he had temporarily gained at Fort Fisher, he was mistaken.   

Grant wrote Porter from City Point, his headquarters just outside Petersburg, on the 30th, telling him to "hold on where you are for a few days and I will endeavor to be back again with an increased force and without the former commander."