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American Civil War: Second Battle of Fort Fisher

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American Civil War: Second Battle of Fort Fisher

Bombardment of Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - Conflict:

The Second Battle of Fort Fisher occurred during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders:

Union

Confederates

  • General Braxton Bragg
  • Major General William Whiting
  • Major General Robert Hoke
  • Colonel William Lamb
  • 1,900 men

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - Date:

The second Union attack on Fort Fisher took place from January 13 to January 15, 1865.

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - Background:

By late 1864, Wilmington, NC became the last major seaport open to Confederate blockade runners. Located on the Cape Fear River, the city's seaward approaches were guarded by Fort Fisher, which was situated at the tip of Federal Point. Modeled on Sevastopol's Malakoff Tower, the fort was largely constructed of earth and sand which provided greater protection than brick or stone fortifications. A formidable bastion, Fort Fisher mounted a total of 47 guns with 22 in the seaward batteries and 25 facing the land approaches.

Initially a collection of small batteries, Fort Fisher was transformed into fortress following the arrival of Colonel William Lamb in July 1862. Aware of Wilmington's importance, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched a force to capture Fort Fisher in December 1864. Led by Major General Benjamin Butler, this expedition met with failure later that month. Still eager to close Wilmington to Confederate shipping, Grant sent a second expedition south in early January under the leadership of Major General Alfred Terry.

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - Plans:

Leading a provisional corps of troops from the Army of the James, Terry coordinated his assault with a massive naval force led by Rear Admiral David D. Porter. Comprised of over 60 ships, it was one of the largest Union fleets assembled during the war. Aware that another Union force was moving against Fort Fisher, Major General William Whiting, commander of the District of Cape Fear, requested reinforcements from his department commander, General Braxton Bragg. While initially reluctant to reduce his forces at Wilmington, Bragg did send some men raising the fort's garrison to 1,900.

To further aid the situation, the division of Major General Robert Hoke was shifted to block a Union advance up the peninsula towards Wilmington. Arriving off Fort Fisher, Terry began landing his troops between the fort and Hoke's position on January 13. Completing the landing unmolested, Terry spent the 14th reconnoitering the fort's outer defenses. Deciding that it could be taken by storm, he began planning his attack for the next day. On January 15, Porter's ships opened fire on the fort and in a prolonged bombardment succeeded in silencing all but two of its guns.

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - The Assault Begins:

During this time, Hoke succeeded in slipping around 400 men around Terry's troops to reinforce the garrison. As the bombardment wound down, a naval force of 2,000 sailors and marines attacked the fort's seaward wall near a feature known as the "Pulpit." Led by Lieutenant Commander Kidder Breese, this attack was repulsed with heavy casualties. While a failure, Breese's assault drew Confederate defenders away from the fort's river gate where Brigadier General Adelbert Ames' division was preparing to advance. Sending his first brigade forward, Ames' men cut through the abatis and palisades.

Overrunning the outer works, they succeeded in taking the first traverse. Advancing with his second brigade under Colonel Galusha Pennypacker, Ames was able to breach the river gate and enter the fort. Ordering them to fortify a position within the fort's interior, Ames' men fought their way along the north wall. Aware that the defenses had been breached Whiting and Lamb ordered the guns at Battery Buchanan, at the peninsula's southern tip, to fire on the north wall. As his men consolidated their position, Ames found that his lead brigade's attack had stalled near the fort's fourth traverse.

Second Battle of Fort Fisher - The Fort Falls:

Bringing up Colonel Louis Bell's brigade, Ames renewed the assault. His efforts were met by a desperate counterattack which was personally led by Whiting. The charge failed and Whiting was mortally wounded. Pressing deeper into the fort, the Union advance was greatly aided by fire from Porter's ships off shore. Realizing that situation was grave, Lamb attempted to rally his men but was wounded before he could organize another counterattack. With night falling, Ames wished to fortify his position, however Terry ordered the fight to continue and sent in reinforcements.

Pressing forward, Union troops became increasingly disorganized as their officers were wounded or killed. All three of Ames' brigade commanders were out of action as were a number of his regimental commanders. As Terry pushed his men on, Lamb turned over command of the fort to Major James Reilly while the wounded Whiting again requested reinforcements from Bragg. Unaware that the situation was desperate, Bragg dispatched Major General Alfred H. Colquitt to relieve Whiting. Arriving at Battery Buchanan, Colquitt realized the hopelessness of the situation. Having taken the north wall and most of the seawall, Terry's men outflanked the Confederate defenders and routed them. Seeing Union troops approach, Colquitt fled back across the water, while the wounded Whiting surrendered the fort around 10:00 PM.

Aftermath of the Second Battle of Fort Fisher

The fall of Fort Fisher effectively doomed Wilmington and closed it to Confederate shipping. This eliminated the last major seaport available to blockade runners. The city itself was captured a month later by Major General John M. Schofield. While the assault was a victory, it was marred by the death of 106 Union soldiers when the fort's magazine exploded on January 16. In the fighting, Terry suffered 1,341 killed and wounded, while Whiting lost 583 killed and wounded and the remainder of the garrison captured.

Selected Sources

  1. About.com
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  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1800s
  6. Civil War
  7. Civil War in the East
  8. Second Battle of Fort Fisher - Civil War Second Battle of Fort Fisher - David Porter

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