150 Years Ago This Week: Major developments

January 1865

The flamboyant career of a gallant, hard-fighting but often unsuccessful combat officer came to an inglorious end when Gen. John B. Hood, the commander of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, resigned the same day the Union assault on Ft. Fisher near Wilmington, N.C., began.

President Jefferson Davis appointed Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor, commanding most of the Confederate forces in northern Mississippi, to be the new army commander, working directly under the supervision of Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. On Sunday, Jan. 15, at 8 a.m., Adm. David Porter’s powerful U.S. Navy armada opened up again on Ft. Fisher, and poured a withering fire on the Confederate fortification. In mid-afternoon, Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry ordered a bi-lateral attack against the fort; one attack by 2261 sailors and marines, struck from the ocean side while the other, composed of 3,300 soldiers, sailors and marines, assailed the fort from the northwest side.

An additional 4,700 soldiers remained entrenched north of the fort, and held off a feeble attack by Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederates coming south out of Wilmington. Col. William Lamb and his besieged Confederates inside the fort repelled the assault from the sea but, by 10 p.m., were unable to resist the land attack, and surrendered the fortress. Some 500 Confederates were casualties; the Union forces sustained 1,300 casualties, and captured more than 1,900 Southerners, including Col. Lamb and Maj. Gen. William H. Whiting.

In a move that was widely seen as a direct challenge to President Davis’s control over military matters, on Jan. 16, the Confederate Senate in Richmond passed a measure by a vote of 14-2 advising Davis to appoint Robert E. Lee as general-in-chief of the Confederate Armies, to give Gen. Joseph E. Johnston his old command of the Army of Tennessee and to appoint Gen. Beauregard overall commander in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.

The same day, at Ft. Fisher, two drunken U.S. Navy sailors stumbled and fell into a powder magazine with their torches, exploding more than six tons of gunpowder. Twenty-five Federals were killed in the blast, 66 were wounded and 13 were missing. Several Confederate soldiers, captured in the previous night’s battle, were also killed in the explosion. Learning of the loss of Ft. Fisher, President Davis wired Gen. Bragg a message urging him to retake the fort if at all possible.

After some prodding by President Davis, Gen. Lee reluctantly agreed to accept the position of general-in-chief on Jan. 19, his 58th birthday. He told the president that he “would undertake any service of which you think proper to assign me. But, if named as general-in-chief, I must state that with the addition of the immediate command of this army [Army of Northern Virginia] I do not think I could accomplish any good. If I had the ability I would not have the time.”

The president was anxious to fend off mounting criticism of his control of the armies by agreeing to the Confederate Congress’s “advice” to appoint Gen. Lee as overall military commander. The same day, in Savannah, Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman issued orders commanding units of his army to begin their march north into South Carolina. Heavy rains, high rivers and swamps, and icy conditions were to delay most of the troop movements for two weeks.

Edward Everett, clergyman, teacher, congressman, writer and the famous orator who spoke at Gettysburg prior to President Abraham Lincoln, died in Boston at age 71. He had also been a witness in Boston in February 1852 to the marriage of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to Otto Goldschmidt during her American concert tour. In Washington on Jan. 20, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reported to the Cabinet his findings of his visit to Savannah and Ft. Fisher. As a few of Gen. Sherman’s troops began moving into South Carolina on Jan. 21, the attitude of the Federal troops had changed. The Union soldiers were much more vindictive toward South Carolina than they had been toward Georgia; to the Federals, South Carolina had been the birthplace of the rebellion. They intended to exact serious revenge on the citizens of the Palmetto State as they marched north towards the capital of Columbia.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.