150 Years Ago This Week: Failure at Ft. Fisher

December 1864

On the day before Christmas, 1864, off the coast of Wilmington, N.C., nearly 60 ships of the formidable Union naval armada under Rear Adm. David D. Porter opened fire on Ft. Fisher, garrisoned by some 500 Confederates under Col. William Lamb.

Despite the bombardment, Col. Lamb did not have his men respond to the attack. Several buildings inside the sand fortification were set afire, but no significant damage was done, and casualties on both sides were light. The bombardment was resumed on Christmas morning as part of a diversion for Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler to land his 6,500 troops two miles north of the fort and march south to effect an assault. The Union troops captured the Half Moon Battery as they advanced towards the fort, and managed to reach some 75 yards from the northern parapets of the fort, where they encountered a withering fire from the garrison. Additional Confederate troops moved south from Wilmington, threatening to trap the Union troops.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union Army of the James in December 1864.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union Army of the James in December 1864.

As darkness came on, Gen. Butler decided that further assault would be too costly in lives; he hastily withdrew his troops towards the north and managed to get them back onto the naval warships, with light casualties. Their destination was the return to Hampton Roads and Ft. Monroe in Virginia. The expedition to capture or destroy Ft. Fisher was a complete and ignominious failure; it caused much embarrassment and chagrin in the North, resulting in violent charges and countercharges between Gen. Butler and Adm. Porter, and between the general and his subordinate officers and the government in Washington. The failure at Ft. Fisher was a small and brief morale boost for the South.

Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland in December 1864.
Maj. Gen. George Thomas, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland in December 1864.

In Tennessee, Gen. John B. Hood’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had managed to reach Bainbridge, on the Tennessee River. There was some skirmishing between Gen. Hood’s troops and the advance units of Maj. Gen. George Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland, which had finally crossed Rutherford Creek and other numerous streams behind the Southerners. The Confederates crossed the river at Bainbridge on Dec. 27 and headed towards Tupelo, Miss. In Washington, President Lincoln received the full intelligence of the failure of the Ft. Fisher expedition and wired Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant at City Point, asking “what you now understand of the Wilmington expedition, present & prospective.” Gen. Grant wired back: “The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure. Who is to blame I hope will be known.”

On Friday, Dec. 30, the Ft. Fisher fiasco caused repercussions in Washington; at the Cabinet meeting, President Lincoln indicated that Gen. Butler would be removed from command of the Army of the James. Gen. Butler’s superiors and the general public in the North had long held the view that Gen. Butler was militarily inept, but President Lincoln until now had hesitated to relieve this politically influential general. The expedition to Ft. Fisher was a great embarrassment to the Lincoln administration. Moreover, the reelection in November made Mr. Lincoln’s political position less tenuous, and he could now afford to divest himself of this officer whose primary function seemed to have been to garner political support and votes.

In the same Cabinet meeting, it was discussed whether Francis Preston Blair Sr., a very powerful Maryland political figure, might go to Richmond to talk with President Jefferson Davis. In a letter he had written to Davis, Blair said he wanted to explain “the views I entertain in reference to the state of affairs of our Country.” Although the visit would be unofficial, Blair indicated that he wanted to explore the possibilities of peace.

The last day of this momentous year of 1864 was marked with a skirmish between opposing forces at Sharpsburg, Ky.; at Russellville, Ala.; and at Carruthers, Mo. The military lines and opposing armies of Gen. Lee and Maj. Gen. George Meade at Petersburg, Va., remained the same. The Army of Tennessee was in northern Alabama heading southwest. Gen. Sherman and his troops were in Savannah, Ga. And the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia was firmly in Union hands.

It was likely that, soon into the new year of 1865, along the Gulf Coast, the Confederate city of Mobile, Ala., would be attacked, and another major Union assault made on Ft. Fisher. In Washington, the Lincoln administration and the Congress would be considering the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, and the best way to get the Southern states back into the Union. In the Confederacy, was there to be any chance of an honorable settlement? How much longer could the South hold on, with its manpower depleted and industrial infrastructure in varying states of collapse?

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 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.