Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Death Knell of the Confederacy -- The Surrender of Fort Fisher

On January 15, 1865, the Confederacy surrendered Fort Fisher, North Carolina.
During the early days of the Civil War, the Confederacy built the "L" shaped earthen Fort Fisher in a strategic location near the mouth of North Carolina's Cape Fear River. The fort was there to make sure that the port of Wilmington remained open. The earthen stronghold mounted 39 large-caliber guns that were augmented by several mortars. The fort's nine feet high and 25 feet thick walls were thought to be formidable and able to repel any invader.

The fort was the primary defense for the Wilmington supply line which was in fact the central supply artery that brought food and munitions to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. By January of 1865, that fort safeguarded the Confederacy's last operational Atlantic port.

On December 14, 1864, the morning saw a fleet of 75 Union warships and transports commanded by Admiral David Dixon Porter steamed south from Hampton Roads, Virginia, toward Fort Fisher. Aboard the troopships were 6,500 Union Army soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler.

Because of a storm, the Union Armada didn't start its bombardment of Fort Fisher until Christmas Eve, December 24. During that bombardment, the Union Navy fired over 20,000 shells of all calibers at the fort.

Believe it or not, even after such a barrage, the Union landing party of 2,500 troops came to within only 75 yards of the fort when their assault started on Christmas Day. Seeing his men chopped to ribbons and driven back, General Butler called off the attack. By that night, Admiral Porter realizing that his ships were in danger withdrew the fleet out of range of Fort Fisher's artillery pieces. No, I could not find out how many Union Soldiers died during that first attempted landing. Butler's action there resulted in him being replaced by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry.

In early January of 1865, Gen. Terry and Adm. Porter decided to launch a second landing. What would take place would be the largest amphibious attack during the Civil War. An attack that combined land and naval forces. And here's something else, that amphibious assault would remain the largest U.S. amphibious attack until D-Day in World War II. 

There were nearly 10,000 Union troops and 58 Union naval ships involved in the attack. Of those, it is said that an 8,000-man landing force of Union troops went ashore after two days of naval bombardment. Among those making that landing would be a detachment of 400 Marines and 1,600 Sailors.

Let's keep in mind that at the opening of the Civil War in 1861, the U.S. Marine Corps' total strength numbered at 63 officers and 1,712 enlisted personnel. While U.S. Navy ships had Marines stationed aboard them, many located around the world and far from the chaos that was the Civil War, there were Marines at the landing of Fort Fisher for that amphibious assault.

Of the 8,000 Union troops there that day, were 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines divided into four companies under the command of Marine Captain Lucien L. Dawson. All were armed with rifles, revolvers, and cutlasses. Union Navy Commander Randolph Breeze led the Sailors during the attack.

For some unknown reason, Union Army Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry held back his Army troops in reserve on the Confederate left. So instead of simultaneous attack, Marines and Sailors fought hand-to-hand with Confederate defenders at Fort Fisher in what was a completely uncoordinated assault. That hand-to-hand fighting lasted for six hours.

Captain Dawson reported later that during the fighting he "received two or three orders from Captain Breeze to ‘bring up the Marines at once. That we would be late if not." Dawson went on to say, "I took the Marines up and filed across the peninsula in front of the Sailors with skirmishers thrown out."

Dawson rallied two companies of Marines to provide cover fire. After Gen. Terry committed the Army's troops, it was reported that several of the Marines aided the Army's attack on the main parapet and helped overrun Fort Fisher. It is interesting to note that on the last day of fighting as Union forces began to make their way through the defenses of the Fort, Confederate Col. William Lamb began to roust the injured and sick Confederate soldiers from the fort's hospital in a desperate last attempt to get the upper hand.

As a result of the surrender of Fort Fisher, 400 Confederate troops were killed or wounded, and more than 2,000 were taken prisoner of war.

The Union Army lost 900 men. The joint Navy-Marine force lost 200 men with 46 wounded or missing. Of those killed, 14 were Marines. Of the 54 Medals of Honor that were awarded for their actions at Fort Fisher, six were Marines. By the way, among the reinforcements were the Union Army's USCT (United States Colored Troops). One of those USCT Soldiers was awarded the Medal of Honor.

With its surrender of Fort Fisher, Union troops took control of Wilmington and severed the supply lines leading to Robert E. Lee's Army. Wilmington's fall eliminated any sort of protection for Confederate blockade runners bringing in needed supplies. This little know battle was in fact one of the defining battles of the Civil War.

The fall of Fort Fisher meant the Confederacy was even more vulnerable to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman's advancing troops. But it meant more than just that. For months, Condferate supply lines were already in trouble. It is said that starving Confederate soldiers had already been deserting Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. And even though Confederal President Jefferson Davis approved the arming of African slaves as a means of augmenting those deserting the shrinking Confederate Army, they were losing manpower because of the lack of food and supplies.

So, while there are those who will say that it was Sherman's march or their loss at Gettysburg that toll the end of the Confederacy, I believe that the surrender of Fort Fisher was truly the death knell of the Confederacy. Nothing at that stage of the war had such an impact on the Confederacy's ability to wage war than the fall of Fort Fisher and those severed supply lines. 

With its great importance to keep Gen. Lee's Army fed and supplied, losing Fort Fisher meant the war for the Confederacy was lost. In fact, with the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee struggling to keep the war going with their limited supplies running out, they would ultimately surrender within 90 days of losing Fort Fisher.

Tom Correa