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At precisely 1:40 a.m. on the chilly morning of Christmas Eve 1864, Confederate soldiers asleep in their blankets at Sugar Loaf, a sandy bluff just south of Wilmington, are jolted

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At precisely 1:40 a.m. on the chilly morning of Christmas Eve 1864, Confederate soldiers asleep in their blankets at Sugar Loaf, a sandy bluff just south of Wilmington, are jolted

The South’s Gibraltar: Fort Fisher

At precisely 1:40 a.m. on the chilly morning of Christmas Eve 1864, Confederate soldiers asleep in their blankets at Sugar Loaf, a sandy bluff just south of Wilmington, are jolted out of their slumber “like pop-corn in a popper” by a booming concussion.

Farther south, on the parapets of Fort Fisher overlooking the channel into the Cape Fear River from the sea, artillerymen stare, entranced, at a display of pyrotechnics half a mile offshore — serial explosions and flames shooting high into the cold night for more than an hour.

Upriver in Wilmington, district commander Maj. Gen. William H.C. Whiting — a dashing but diminutive officer affectionately known to his men as “Little Billy” — is awakened by the blast. He telegraphs the 29-year-old commander of Fort Fisher, Col. William Lamb, for an explanation. Lamb replies, “A blockader got aground near the fort, set fire to herself and blew up.”

In fact, the burning ship is a secret weapon gone awry: the hulk Louisiana, stuffed with 215 tons of powder and detonated by a small band of volunteer daredevils. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler and Rear Adm. David D. Porter, the feuding commanders of the Army and Navy forces massing offshore, expect that the concussion will level the walls of the fort — but it does no damage at all.

The bomb ship is a noisy farce that nonetheless signals the opening salvos against Fort Fisher.

• • •

Reinforcing Fort Fisher

Nine forts and batteries guard the lower Cape Fear River, anchored by Fort Fisher — the “Gibraltar of the South” — at Confederate Point, the sandy spit where the river meets the sea. The river has two outlets: the main channel past Smith’s Island, and the shallower New Inlet preferred by the fast blockade runners. Fort Fisher is the guardian of New Inlet.

With New Orleans and Norfolk in Union hands, and Charleston harbor bottled up by a close blockade, the port of Wilmington has taken on more and more importance as the gateway to the Confederacy for seaborne commerce. Despite the blockade, more than three-quarters of the blockade-running ships successfully reach Wilmington harbor.

In one year alone, beginning in November 1863, they bring into the struggling Confederacy more than 6 million pounds of meat and 400,000 pounds of coffee — as well as war matériel: 1.5 million pounds of lead for musket balls; close to 2 million pounds of saltpeter for making gunpowder; tons of iron, tin, and zinc; and hundreds of thousands of rifles, carbines, boots, shoes, buttons, buckles, tools, blankets, and other gear.

The bulk of this precious cargo steams past Fort Fisher and into Wilmington, there to be loaded onto freight cars of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad and hauled to the battlefields of Virginia.

In a single five-week period, 19 ships make it through, carrying tons of the supplies needed to keep the war going. During the course of the war, nearly 100 of the sleek side-wheel steamers slip in and out of Wilmington, usually by night. The port is ideally located to take advantage of transshipment of European goods from neutral ports such as Nassau, in the Bahamas, not quite 600 miles southeast, and Bermuda, 100 miles farther to the east.

One shipload can maintain a fighting regiment in the field for a whole month.

During this critical period, Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, does his best to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to attack Fort Fisher. “Could we seize the forts at the entrance of the Cape Fear and close the  illicit traffic,” he argues, “it would be almost as important as the capture of Richmond on the fate of the Rebels, and an important step in that direction.”

Unlike Fort Caswell across the channel, a typical masonry fort that could be reduced to rubble by heavy-caliber cannon fire, Fort Fisher is made of sand and soil.

During the first year and a half of the war, 10 different commanders worked to create the fort. One of those officers was Seawell Fremont, a West Point friend of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who, as a young lieutenant, attended a wedding in Wilmington along with Lt. Abner Doubleday. It is Fremont who names the peninsular bastion Fort Fisher, in honor of Col. Charles Frederick Fisher, who died leading the troops of the 6th North Carolina Regiment at first Manassas.

But during that time, the fort remains a shambles of unconnected ramparts and missing armaments. It requires an officer with vision and practical skill to turn the sandy outpost into a true fort.

That man turns out to be Col. William Lamb, a young artillery officer with no previous engineering experience. He is a Virginia native, born to a prominent and wealthy slaveholding family. His father was once mayor of Norfolk, where the family’s estate, Kenmure, occupies an entire block along the waterfront.

His military experience consists of a stint at the Rappahannock Military Academy and commanding a company of local militia, the Woodis Rifles. As an officer in the state guard, he was present at the hanging of the abolitionist John Brown. When war comes, he is the editor of a secessionist newspaper, The Southern Daily Argus.

Fair-haired and charming, handsome, with a stylish mustache and wispy goatee, he looks more poet than warrior.

Confederate soldiers on Fort Fisher’s 43-foot-tall Mound Battery prepare to battle the advancing Union armada. The fort survives pounding from the Union’s ships, but the majority of its seaside batteries are claimed by the ocean during the next 150 years. photograph by David Stanley

But in the design and construction of military fortifications, he turns out to be a prodigy — mentored by his commander, General Whiting, considered by Gen. Robert E. Lee to be the finest engineer in the Confederacy. But many of Whiting’s superiors find him arrogant and intemperate. Lee respects and admires him but does not like him. President Jefferson Davis finds him insufferable — and persistent rumors about his drunkenness sabotage his prospects. Thus Whiting has been moved from a combat command in Virginia to the relatively quiet Cape Fear district.

Colonel Lamb’s other inspiration comes from books. He has carefully studied the accounts of the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War and the details of its defensive forts, and he intends nothing less formidable for his own fort.

When he arrives at his new post on July 4, 1862, he is appalled by the lack of preparedness he finds. The fort is only partly constructed. Many of the guns have not been mounted. The garrison — cut off from Wilmington by nearly 20 miles of sunbaked sand, marsh — is ill-disciplined and prone to desertion.

Lamb instills a sense of purpose in his men, and they respond with enthusiasm. One writes, “I like him splendid, and all the rest of the men like him.” They build a small, private cottage just north of the fort on the river for Lamb, his wife, Daisy, and their children.

The garrison is too small for the giant fort. The two battalions of heavy artillery — the 1st and 3rd — are augmented by gunners from the 10th and 40th North Carolina Troops and the 13th Battalion, along with companies of the 36th North Carolina. And four battalions of junior reserves — teenage boys, many of them barely tall enough to load and aim a musket.

All in all, Colonel Lamb commands just 800 troops.

Using the conscripted labor of 500 slaves and Lumbee Indians, along with his own troops, Lamb sets about re-designing the fort into the shape of a number 7 on a grand scale. The short stroke of the 7 extends for about 500 yards across the peninsula, forming the land face. The long leg of the 7 constitutes the sea face. On the river side, the fort is open. Rifle pits south of the land face, inside the fort, offer a line of defense from amphibious landings on the point, as well as a fallback position for the gunners on the land face.

The ramparts rise from a base that is 25 feet thick to a height of 20 feet, anchored by marsh grass to keep them from blowing away in the incessant blustery winds.

At the foot of the land face, Lamb builds a stubborn nine-foot-high palisade out of ax-sharpened pine logs. He orders half a mile of trees and shrubs cleared from the approach to the land face, then plants a minefield on the cleared land. The mines can be detonated electrically from inside the fort.

His engineers tunnel a sally port into the land face so sharpshooters can deploy outside the fort to rake advancing enemy troops.

The firepower of the fort is massive: In its 16 gun chambers are mounted an assortment of eight- and 10-inch cannons called Columbiads, each weighing many tons and heaved into place by teams of sweating slaves and white laborers; seven-inch Brooke rifled cannons; and 24-pound Coehorn mortars — backed up by smaller mortars and field pieces.

Thus Fort Fisher rises out of the sandy peninsula, separating the river from the ocean as a line of thick, sandy berms, with gun emplacements carved into the earthworks in a line from river to sea on the north side and another facing the sea to the east. To the south, Battery Buchanan mounts its two massive 10-inch Columbiads and two 11-inch Brooke Smoothbore cannons to cover the channel through New Inlet.

The hundreds of tons of piled sand can absorb artillery blows that would flatten a conventional brick or stone fortress. Bombproof caverns tunneled into the sandy berms and reinforced by thick timber can shelter troops from harm during the shelling.

The capacious powder magazine is also safely secreted under many tons of sand.

The ongoing fortification of Confederate Point is no secret — spies and escaped slaves bring word north. One Union officer writes that, based on what he has heard, the fort “is a work of more labor than the pyramids.”

It is an unfortunate metaphor, since Fort Fisher is not intended as a tomb. One of the engineers at work on its battlements reports, “I have seen no works anywhere in the Confederacy that can compare with them.” He claims they can “withstand an indefinite hammering from any ordnance now known.”

That test is now at hand.

• • •

The battle begins

In the gray light of dawn, the defenders of the far-flung garrison on the edge of the sea witness a sight for which they have been preparing for more than three years: an armada of 64 vessels, including the dreadnoughts of the Atlantic fleet — the Colorado, Minnesota, Powhatan, Susquehanna, and Wabash. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant calls it “the most formidable armada ever assembled for concentration upon one given point.” The ordinarily flat horizon has become a cityscape of masts and superstructure.

And all at once, it blooms with fire.

For the next five hours, the ships unleash a bombardment of 10,000 projectiles on the fort, including 15-inch cannonballs that weigh 300 pounds each. There has been nothing like it in history.

By midafternoon, the wooden barracks inside the fort are burning, and Colonel Lamb’s brick headquarters is reduced to rubble. The gunsmoke hangs so thick over the fort that ships’ gunners have a hard time tracking their targets and fire blind — often undershooting their marks, or overshooting the fort completely and lobbing their shells harmlessly in the river beyond.

One witness recalls, “The ironclads and their consorts thundered away at Fort Fisher with such stunning violence that the ocean fairly trembled.”

Meanwhile, the outgunned defenders fire back, but only once every half hour, by Colonel Lamb’s order, so that they can preserve their precious stock of ammunition, a total of just 3,600 rounds. Firing the massive 10-inch bore Columbiads is a dicey business. The gunners stand on tiptoes with their mouths wide open. Pvt. George Washington Benson later explains, “If you didn’t, it would knock you silly and jar your teeth out.”

Aboard the bombarding ships, the gunners fare even worse, at least those assigned to the wrought-iron Parrott rifled cannons, their barrels reinforced with iron bands. Several blow up in their gunners’ faces, killing or maiming close to 45 sailors.

The firing continues long after dusk, the brilliant flashes lighting up the sea.

As Christmas morning dawns gray and windswept, wooden gunboats pound the shoreline three miles north of the fort in advance of a landing by army troops. Dr. David W. Hodgekins, a surgeon aboard the Ben De Ford, observes, “How sadly have we fallen that the anniversary of the day of the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to declare peace on earth and good will to men, should be spent in endeavors to take the lives of our fellow creatures in war.”

Upriver at St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, congregants flinch at the steady concussions of the great naval guns while their minister prays, “From battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.”

Opposing the landing are troops at Sugar Loaf — regiments of Brig. Gen. William Kirkland’s brigade, force-marched from Wilmington after a long train journey from Virginia, and 800 junior and 400 senior reserves — teenage boys and men well beyond the age of conscription. One of them is William Pettigrew, brother of Brig. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, the scholar-soldier killed in action in the retreat from Gettysburg.

Scores of them fall under the terrific pounding of the naval guns. One of Kirkland’s staff officers observes, “It was pitiful to see some of those gray-haired patriots dead in the woods, killed by shells from the fleet.”

Some 80 boatloads of troops snake toward shore, fanning out to make landfall. First to step ashore is Brig. Gen. N. Martin Curtis, who cuts a heroic figure among the blue throng: 6 feet 7 inches tall, well-muscled with a thick black beard, leader of 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames’s division.

Cut off from the Sugar Loaf line to the north and Fort Fisher to the south by waves of blue troops storming ashore, Battery Anderson surrenders.

Hot skirmishing drives away the rest of the Confederate defenders, some of whom are killed or captured, but Curtis’s forces are stopped a few hundred yards from the fort. The fleet turns its guns on the fort once again, delivering two shells per second against its sandy ramparts.

Colonel Lamb knows an infantry assault is imminent.

Only 2,300 of the 6,500 troops in the armada have made it to shore. As the afternoon wears on, the weather worsens — the wind kicks up steep, heavy seas. Thousands of troops remain stranded on their transports. Curtis is undaunted — confident he can take the fort, even as the naval barrage ceases and Confederate riflemen begin firing from behind the wooden palisade on the land face.

General Butler, who has carried on a running feud not just with Admiral Porter but also with many of his own subordinates, has remained offshore with the fleet. The new firing from the fort makes him fearful about being blamed for a defeat, and he calls off the attack.

About all Curtis has to show for his brave effort is the capture of 200 malnourished Junior Reserves, who are deemed so harmless that they are allowed to keep their muskets as they are marched off to captivity. One Union soldier recalls, “I never saw such a lot of spindle shanks as they were.”

Curtis and 600 of his men, along with their prisoners, are stranded on the beach without blankets, overcoats, or provisions, while a howling gale thrashes the peninsula.

Unaccountably, Gen. Braxton Bragg, overall commander in Wilmington, does not order the remainder of his nearly 4,000 troops at Sugar Loaf to attack the Federals. They remain on the beach until December 27 — and Curtis, seething at the lost opportunity, is the last to step into a boat.

Colonel Lamb decries Bragg’s inaction as “incomprehensible”: “He had the force and the position.”

When the fleet sails away, leaving the walls of Fort Fisher unbreached despite more than 20,000 rounds of naval gunfire, Colonel Lamb’s gunners fire a parting salute.

But within weeks, the capture of Wilmington takes on greater urgency, and Fort Fisher cannot be allowed to stand.

An even greater armada will return.

This story was published on Oct 28, 2014

Philip Gerard

Philip Gerard was a historian, professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of 14 books, including Cape Fear Rising. He was also a longtime contributor to Our State, and was the author of the Civil War series and the Decades series. In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.