In January 1865, the fortunes of war are changing fast.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant supported the first assault on Fort Fisher on Christmas Eve only reluctantly. But now, south of Wilmington at Savannah, Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman has refitted his army of 60,000 battle-hardened veterans.

Instead of embarking them on transports to steam north — the original plan — Sherman has fixed on a bold new strategy: He will march them through the Carolinas, wrecking railroads and supply depots as he goes, aiming for the railroad nexus at Goldsboro. There, he can join his army to troops marching in from the coast, then head north. His army will become the anvil and General Grant’s the hammer, with the Army of Northern Virginia crushed in between.

Grant wants a seaport through which to resupply Sherman, his favorite general. The Cape Fear River is navigable all the way to Fayetteville, 100 miles northwest of Wilmington, and could provide an excellent means of supply and reinforcement.

Now, the taking of Fort Fisher is a prime objective, and an even larger invasion force is assembled, nearly 9,000 soldiers in 22 transports escorted by 58 warships, this time under the competent leadership of Maj. Gen. Alfred Howe Terry, who gets along splendidly with Adm. David D. Porter.

In addition to the brigades from the first assault and an additional brigade of white soldiers, Porter is charged with transporting two brigades of U.S. Colored Troops — U.S.C.T. He complains to his aide, “We want white men here.”

White and black soldiers crowd aboard the hard-used transports, loading light and heavy artillery, and endure a rough, stormy passage down the coast. Off Cape Hatteras, violent storms thrash the leaky vessels, and, confined in the stinking wet spaces below decks, the men endure a misery of pitching and rolling. But the armada sails on.

By now, its target is no secret.

The second attack begins

Both Col. William Lamb, the commander of Fort Fisher, and his mentor, Maj. Gen. William H.C. Whiting, second in command of the Wilmington district, fully expect a second assault to come soon. Yet in the face of this threat, Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the district, withdraws most of his formidable force of 6,000 men up the peninsula beyond Sugar Loaf to Wilmington, leaving Fort Fisher once again vulnerable.

Union gunboats bombard Fort Fisher as Confederate troops futiley return fire. What began on Christmas Eve culminates in two battles — and almost three weeks — later in a rout by Union forces. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Union gunboats bombard Fort Fisher as Confederate troops futiley return fire. What began on Christmas Eve culminates in two battles — and almost three weeks — later in a rout by Union forces. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

Bragg, a striking figure with hooded, brooding eyes and a famous temper, suffers from chronic migraines and is almost universally reviled for his overbearing manner and his inability to make up his mind. When it was announced he would replace General Whiting as commander, the Richmond Enquirer trumpeted, “General Bragg is going to Wilmington. Goodbye, Wilmington.”

Before dawn on January 13, 1865 — just three weeks after the first assault — Union gunboats begin shelling the beach north of Fort Fisher. Two hundred boatloads of assault troops hit the beach, unopposed.

In the rough seas, landing a boat laden with troops and gear requires deft maneuvering. Just shy of the breaking surf line, a sailor heaves out a small anchor behind the craft. Other sailors leap over the side and, with the help of the anchor, steady the boat enough so that the men can then clamber out and wade ashore in “knee-deep water, carrying knapsacks and the sacred ammunition high up on fixed bayonets.”

Out on the uncontested beach, General Terry immediately constructs a defensive line. The 37th U.S.C.T. and the 5th U.S.C.T. march through swampy terrain and dig in two miles north of the fort. Seven other black regiments join them, and soon they have a line stretching from river to sea. Their mission is to beat back any attack from Sugar Loaf to reinforce the fort.

Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s regiments, dug in behind Sugar Loaf just to the north, watch them land. They see U.S.C.T. entrenching in a line across their front. Many of his officers want to attack the Yankees while they are most vulnerable, on the beach, especially the colored troops, but Hoke fears the gunboats will make short work of any Confederate force caught in the open, and he refuses to order an attack. Instead, he will await instructions from General Bragg.

He will wait in vain.

Once the Union assault force is safely ashore, the fleet turns its guns on the fort.

Unlike the bombardment of Christmas Eve, when many shells overshot the fort and fell harmlessly in the river beyond, this time the naval firing is deadly accurate. One after another, the heavy guns, which are in the chambers dug into the sandy ramparts, are wrecked.

Four projectiles per second rain down on the beleaguered defenders, blasting men to bits as they venture out of the bombproofs to return fire. One defender recalls, “It was the most terrible storm of iron and lead that I have ever seen during this war.”

In the first half hour, the shelling knocks out the telegraph connection to Wilmington. But in the midst of the horrific barrage, General Whiting and his staff, aboard a steamer, find their way downriver to the fort, and so do about 700 reinforcements, raising the garrison to a strength of about 1,500 — still outnumbered 6 to 1 by U.S. troops, and by even more, counting the gunners aboard the ships.

General Whiting has no faith that General Bragg, ever indecisive, will commit his troops at Wilmington and Sugar Loaf to aid the defense of the fort. His greeting is not reassuring. He declares, “Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.”

Indeed, the sacrifice has already begun.

In the open sand flats behind the ramparts, the dead and wounded lie everywhere. Severed limbs litter the ground behind the gun chambers. The living huddle in bombproofs under a seemingly endless rain of shells. Colonel Lamb waits for General Bragg to come to his rescue. He knows that Bragg considers the fort impregnable. Both Colonel Lamb and General Whiting understand now that it is not.

As daylight fades, the bombardment slackens, but it keeps up intermittently all through the night, to demoralize the defenders and deprive them of sleep. Next day, the bombardment resumes with full force. By late afternoon, more than 200 Confederates lie dead or wounded. All but three of the land-face cannons have been knocked out of action.

Union troops dig in

Brig. Gen. N. Martin Curtis, the bearded giant who commands the 1st Brigade of Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames’s Division, has landed with his troops for a second try at the fort. He maneuvers his men within 175 yards of the fort and sets them to digging rifle pits. He deploys 40 sharpshooters to a spot where they can pick off any man who shows his head above the ramparts.

All of this is reported to Colonel Lamb. Certain that an assault is imminent, he determines to attack the Federals before they can launch their own attack, thus breaking their momentum. He telegraphs General Bragg at Sugar Loaf to attack from the north while he comes up from the south, trapping the Union forces in the middle. He will lead his regiments out of the fort at the first sound of gunfire from Sugar Loaf.

He waits in vain as Bragg dithers, already planning to evacuate Wilmington. At daylight, Colonel Lamb orders his advance regiment back inside the fort.

The main attack is scheduled to step off at 4 p.m. the following day, Sunday, January 15. The bombardment begins with renewed fury, shells “falling and bursting faster than the ticking of a watch.”

In a deadly show of derring-do, 2,261 sailors and marines — armed with cutlasses and pistols — assault the “pulpit,” where the land and sea faces meet. As they charge along the narrow, open beach, they are cut to ribbons by sharpshooters and cannoneers firing canister shot from the parapets. They never get close enough to fire their pistols with any effect.

In less than half an hour, almost 300 sailors and marines  fall dead or wounded.

But even as their attack dissolves into a rout, it provides a diversion for the main assault, led by General Curtis, reinforced by two other brigades.

At 3:25 p.m., the bombardment abruptly ceases, and every steam whistle in the fleet shrills out the signal to attack.

Curtis orders, “Forward, First Brigade, forward,” and his men follow him in silence, tramping through the deep sand with stubborn purpose. They force a breach at Shepherd’s Battery, flanking the gated sally port to the Wilmington Road — overwhelming the defenders by sheer force of numbers. Many shell-shocked Confederates find refuge in the bombproofs, refusing to come out and fight.

Returning fire

At the sally port, which is defended by half a company from the 36th North Carolina, the attackers are at first cut down by volley fire and case shot from a cannon, earning it the nickname “Bloody Gate.” But Curtis’ men will not withdraw. They fling themselves at the position again and again, and at last they are inside the walls.

The fighting inside the fort is savage. Men clamber across the traverses from chamber to chamber, firing down at the defenders, who are grouped in a mass so thick that the dead scarcely have room to fall and are pinned upright by their living comrades. Men swing their rifles like clubs, hammer each other with fists, stab with bayonets. Any man who reaches the summit is shot down almost at once.

At the third gun chamber, General Whiting fights hand-to-hand with a Union standard-bearer, attempting to wrest away his colors. General Whiting is shot twice in the right leg and is critically wounded.

Colonel Lamb recoils at the carnage he sees: “Great cannon broken in two, their carriages wrecked, and among their ruins the mutilated bodies of my dead and dying comrades.”

On the shell-blasted parade ground, in a remarkable display of coolheaded courage, Colonel Lamb organizes troops to stage a counterattack. Turning to the enemy troops swarming down the back side of the ramparts toward him, he mounts a breastwork and shouts, “Charge, bayonets, forward, double quick, march!”

Hardly are the words uttered when a volley of musket fire rips into his men. A minié ball punches him in the left side and knocks him to the sandy ground, and the counterattack falters — his best officer down, the survivors scattering for cover.

From across the river, a group of soldiers’ wives and mothers — evacuated before battle — watch the hellish spectacle, trying to make out details through the haze of gun smoke.

Mrs. Thaddeus C. Davis, whose husband is a sergeant in the 40th North Carolina inside the fort, recalls, “At times my imagination would tell me that my anxious eyes were resting upon him in that little group of heroic defenders. The next instant a monster shell would explode in their midst, enveloping everything in smoke and dust. At such moments I would feel as if my heart would burst.”

The end appears inevitable, even to those anxious ladies: “When the smoke would lift, we could see distinctly the lines engaged often in hand-to-hand fighting; but O! we could see so distinctly that the thin, gray line was growing thinner, and that the dark, heavy masses were growing heavier.”

As afternoon turns into evening, the battle rolls across the fort. The Confederate defenders are exhausted, but fresh attackers keep joining the fray. Now, to turn the tide, five regiments of U.S.C.T. are ordered into the fort.

The remaining four regiments of black troops facing Sugar Loaf, reinforced by the surviving marines and sailors on the beach, fend off a probing attack by Hoke’s men — too little, too late to save Fort Fisher.

With his commanders out of action, Brig. Gen. James Reilly gathers a band of 32 men and withdraws south across the parade ground to Battery Buchanan, the last redoubt at the extreme end of Confederate Point. Colonel Lamb and General Whiting are sent ahead on stretchers.

Reilly has served on both sides of the conflict. Almost exactly four years before, as a U.S. Ordnance Sergeant, he surrendered Fort Johnston on the Smithville side of the river to the Cape Fear Minute Men. Once North Carolina seceded, he enlisted in the Confederate Army and earned a reputation as one of its best — and toughest — artillery officers. His men call him “Old Tarantula” Reilly.

At Battery Buchanan, Reilly is furious to discover that the naval contingent stationed there has fled, taking its boats, the only means of retreat from the fort. Hundreds of shell-shocked soldiers make their way to Battery Buchanan, but, because most of his men are unarmed, Reilly bows to the fortunes of war and surrenders. He records, “It was a distressing time to me and the brave officers and men under my command.”

Prisoners are rounded up and put under guard. Everyone on both sides is exhausted, thirsty, and cold. Hundreds nurse wounds from bullets, bayonets, and shrapnel, and, in the darkness of full night, men collapse and fall asleep wherever they can find a place.

Guards are posted at the entrances to the bombproofs, but, unaccountably, none has been posted at the entrance to the main powder magazine, in which is stockpiled 13,000 pounds of black powder. A few curious soldiers explore the subterranean cavern, lighting their way with candles.

Fort Fisher falls

At 7:30 the following morning, while most are still asleep, a great explosion rocks the fort.

One witness recalls the scene: “The entire structure, with a dull heavy sound that shook the surrounding country, went up into the air like an immense water-spout, with timbers, debris, and human forms flying against the sky.”

Dr. J.A. Mowris, the surgeon of the 117th New York, which fought in the front line at Shepherd’s Battery at the sally port, has just entered the fort, searching out his regiment’s dead and wounded, and is caught in the blast: “I felt the grave rudely closing round me, and realized the horrors of being buried alive.”

The main powder magazine has gone up, with horrific loss of life — Dr. Mowris is revived, but at least 130 Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners are dead, wounded, or missing, according to General Terry’s official report. A correspondent on the scene reports 265.

The assault that began with the harmless blast of a bomb ship on Christmas Eve has ended with a lethal explosion in the heart of the fort, adding to the roll call of sacrifice. The exact toll is never calculated, but the two battles for Fort Fisher have cost as many as 1,700 dead and wounded from the U.S. Army and Navy, and about 600 Confederates.

Colonel Lamb, the fair-haired young commander of Fort Fisher, is down. General “Little Billy” Whiting is down. The Gibraltar of the South has fallen, and the Cape Fear River to Wilmington — and Fayetteville a hundred miles beyond — is open to the Union gunboats, but closed for good to the blockade runners so vital to keeping the Confederate Army in the field.

The giant has fallen and will not rise again.

The idle troops at Sugar Loaf  watched the debacle unfold, powerless to go to their comrades’ relief while their commander, Gen. Braxton Bragg, dithered. Now they brace for the five brigades that will soon march up the peninsula against them. The war has come home.

From this moment, the Confederate war effort is doomed.

• • •

Fort Fisher Historic Site
1610 Fort Fisher Boulevard South
Kure Beach, N.C. 28449
(910) 458-5538
nchistoricsites.org/fisher

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.

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