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." 

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