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gathered evidence of his Army counterpart’s obstinacy and incompetence before the last of his troops had even been withdrawn from their temporary beachhead just north of the fort on December 27, and he focused his energies into getting the word out to Butler's immediate superior, Lt.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.     

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