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.
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 ServiceMonuments 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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
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 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.