Amphibious Warfare: Nineteenth Century

1865 - Second expedition to Wilmington, NC captures Fort Fisher

By late 1864, Wilmington, North Carolina was one of the few remaining ports available to Confederate blockade runners. Throughout the U.S. Civil War, southern forces and the civil populace depended upon these vessels to carry the arms, ammunition, and other supplies that the rebel nation required. These military and commercial goods, most of which were provided by British merchants, were shipped to Bermuda; Nassau in the Bahamas; or Havana, Cuba. From there, they were transported through the Union blockade to those southern ports that had not yet been seized or shut down by Federal forces. With its good rail links to Virginia and other areas of the Confederacy, Wilmington was a particularly critical node in the Confederate logistics system.

In autumn 1864, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles - citing the Confederates' regular success at running the Union blockade off Wilmington - lobbied for an expedition to capture the port and bottle up the Cape Fear River, its outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. Doing so, however, would require that Union forces to first deal with Fort Fisher, a massive rebel earthwork fortress built at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, approximately 27 miles downstream from Wilmington. Fort Fisher's structure consisted of one mile of seaside defenses equipped with 22 guns, and approximately one-third of a mile of land defenses with 25 guns mounted on 15 30-foot high mounds or traverses. Two additional batteries were placed on 45- and 60-foot mounds at the south end of the sea face, providing Confederate gunners with a field of fire covering the New Inlet channel where the river met the Atlantic.

Photo of Fort Fisher’s landward face.

A traverse and magazine on Fort Fisher's landward face.
Library of Congress.

Heavily engaged in the area of Petersburg, Virginia, south of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Union commander-in-Chief, General Ulysses S. Grant was initially hesitant to commit forces to an expedition against Fort Fisher and Wilmington. But in November Grant relented and a force of 6,500 men under General Benjamin Butler was assembled for the attack. The naval component, under Admiral David Porter, consisted of more than 50 warships and transports.

Portrait of Admiral David Porter

Admiral David Porter, naval commander at both Fort Fisher expeditions, 1864-1865.
Naval Historical Center.

Relations between Porter, a brash commander with extensive combat experience, and Butler, who owed his position more to political rather than military considerations, eventually degenerated to the point where the two men barely spoke with each other. This situation drastically hindered assault planning in every area, from the general scheme of maneuver to logistical and naval fire support arrangements. Moreover, General Butler himself seemed to have no clear idea as to how his troops should take the fort and deal with other Confederate forces in the area.

Butler's troops embarked on their transports in Hampton Roads, Virginia on 7 December 1864, but numerous delays and bad weather delayed the start of the joint land-sea assault for two weeks. One of these delays was the result of General Butler's pet project - the loading of the old warship Louisiana with a massive black powder charge. Butler, and Porter to a lesser degree, hoped that detonating Louisiana and its cargo on the beach off Fort Fisher would breach the fortress' sand walls and stun the defenders.

Photo of Union Warships departing Hampton Roads, VA.

Union warships depart Hampton Roads, Virginia for the first expedition to Fort Fisher, December 1864.
Naval Historical Center.

After several more delays caused by confused coordination and winter storms, Navy forces kicked off the assault by on the night of 23 December by beaching Louisiana and setting off her powder. The resulting explosion has little effect on Fort Fisher. Consequently, the next morning Porter's 30 warships commenced a fierce bombardment - reportedly one of the heaviest naval bombardments of the war. Low on ammunition, Confederate guns in the fort occasionally traded fire with the Union warships, striking several of them.

While the naval bombardment did some damage to the fort and its guns, Fort Fisher and its garrison were still ready for any assault. And in addition to the fact that the fort was essentially undamaged, Union commanders also had to contend with an enemy division deployed north of their intended beachhead, and with reinforcements that the Confederates' regional commander, General Braxton Bragg, might muster from surrounding areas.

Uncertain about his operation's prospects, Butler put only 500 men ashore at first, and then slowly reinforced them with two additional brigades, all under the covering fire of Porter's ships. After Union forces moved to within rifle-shot distance of the fort, and despite the pleas of several of his brigade commanders to attack immediately, Butler abruptly ordered his forces to withdraw, and then sailed for Hampton Roads. But the weather had again turned sour, and the last 700 cold, wet and demoralized Union soldiers remained hunkered down on the beach until Porter's men could pull them off two days later. Had Confederate forces realized their foe's true condition, they may have been able to destroy the entire Federal force that remained ashore.

Despite this fiasco, Fort Fisher's commander, Colonel William Lamb, was convinced that Union forces would return soon, and they did. General Grant realized that the first botched attempt to take the fort had humiliated the North's civilian and military leadership. More importantly, he now believed that Wilmington in Union hands offered an excellent support base for another Union army under General William T. Sherman, which was moving northward from Georgia into the Carolinas. Given this, Grant sent more men and - just as critically - a better landing force commander, Major General Alfred Terry, to lead the second expedition.

This time Porter and his Army counterpart got along well. The two dedicated themselves to correcting the mistakes of the first attack. They and their staffs did extensive, coordinated planning on every aspect of the new expedition. In the area of fire support, Porter agreed to place his warships closer to Fort Fisher to increase the accuracy of their fire. Moreover, his ships would conduct another heavy, preliminary bombardment and then place entire fleet's firepower on areas designated by Terry's troops, shifting fires in response to Army semaphore and rocket signals. Meanwhile, Terry's staff developed a better picture of Confederate defenses by interrogating rebel soldiers captured during the first, abortive assault.

Porter's ships and Terry's 8,500 embarked Army troops reappeared off the Cape Fear peninsula on 12 January 1865. The Union soldiers went ashore, and were once again fortunate that local Confederate units did not attack during the landing phase itself and that General Bragg did not rush new reinforcements to the area.
For their part, General Terry's troops formed a northward-facing line across the peninsula to face any Confederate units that did come to the fort's assistance. The Union forces that would actually assault Fort Fisher assembled behind that line. When Terry expressed concern that his defensive works required more troops than he had expected - troops that would not be available for attacking the fort - Porter offered to launch a simultaneous attack with 2,000 sailors and Marines from his fleet.

Porter's ships began another fierce two-day bombardment on 13 January. This time the naval fires were much more effective. The Confederates lost more guns, took heavier casualties, and found it difficult to man their heavy weapons, feed their troops, and even bury their dead. Additionally, Union monitors closed with the beach and continued to shell the fort at night, making damage repair nearly impossible.

Drawing of Union ship positions and lines of fire, Fort Fisher, January 1865

Union ship positions and lines of fire during the second assault on Fort Fisher, January 1865.
Drawn by Walter A. Lane for the book The Soldier in Our Civil War.
Naval Historical Center.

The Union ground attack began on the morning of 15 January, preceded by another massive bombardment. The assault started with a charge across open beach by the naval infantry and Marines - many armed with only cutlasses and pistols. This force was decimated by rebel fire, suffering almost 380 casualties. However, the failed attack did draw Confederate attention away from the principal thrust by Army troops against the main sally port at the northwest end of the fort. Union soldiers forced their way onto fort's walls and then fought a bloody, close-quarters battle from traverse to traverse and gun pit to gun pit. Observing the tough resistance that the Union troops were encountering as they slowly fought their way across Fort Fisher's face, Porter - on his own initiative - ordered his warships to mass their fires ahead of the advancing Union troops. This combined ground and naval effort had the desired effect. Outnumbered and having suffered extremely heavy casualties, a wounded Colonel Lamb ordered Fort Fisher's surrender around 10 p.m. on that night.

Probably the most important lesson the Union learned from the operations at Fort Fisher was the critical importance of close working command relationships between the leaders and staffs of the naval and landing forces. The development and execution of the landing and fire support plan - along with a series of mistakes by Confederate commanders, particularly Braxton Bragg, who did not muster an effective force to come to Colonel Lamb's assistance - were the keys to taking Fort Fisher. The two operations also highlighted the importance of naval fire support to an amphibious operation, particularly when it was coordinated with the scheme of maneuver ashore.

Photo of an interior position within Fort Fisher

An interior position within Fort Fisher in the battle's aftermath.
Library of Congress.


Chris E. Fonveille, Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: The Last Rays of Departing Hope (Campbell, CA: Savas Publishing, 1997)

Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1991)

William R. Trotter, Ironclads and Columbiads (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1989)

Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1988).

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