In 1860 peace time Wilmington, North Carolina was the state’s largest city. The 10,000 or so residents lived prosperous lives centered on maritime activities and a small but productive industrial base. Two ship building concern, two iron works, fishing, and the all important cotton trade benefited not only from ocean access but the availability of three rail lines radiating from the city. The Wilmington, Charlotte& Rutherford Railroad serviced the export trade in cotton by transporting that commodity into the city from the surrounding areas. The Wilmington & Manchester Railroad connected to Charleston, South Carolina and points further south. The Wilmington & Weldon Railroad linked the city with points north as far as Petersburg, Virginia. Oddly this important transportation hub had been ignored by Federal war planners as late as autumn 1864.
By late summer of that year Union military operations coupled with an increasingly effective naval blockade had shut down nearly all the major southern ports bringing Wilmington to greater prominence. Blockade running became the sole means of receiving goods from the outside. With New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, Pensacola, and Norfolk rendered useless any port that could still accept vessels grew more important. Wilmington was ideally situated to facilitate the bold mariners that challenged the Union Navy blockaders. The unique dual entry sheltered harbor had been frustrating the Federal efforts from the very beginning of the blockade. The lack of vessels made it impossible to cover both approaches. The southern authorities were quick to recognize the value of Wilmington facilities. The limited enemy presence also allowed for the construction of land based defenses to protect them.
By the fall of 1864 an impressive set of defenses were in place to protect the vital supply line. Under the watchful eyes of BG W. H. C. Whiting and COL William Lamb the Cape Fear area had been transformed into the most fortified place in the Confederacy. At the tip of the peninsula formed by the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean was Old Inlet. The passage there between Big Head Island and Oak Island was protected by Fort Holmes on Bald Head Island, Fort Caswell and Battery Shaw on Oak Island, and Fort Pender located on the mainland at Smithville. New Inlet, as the passage between Zeke’s Island and the tip of Cape Fear was called, was guarded by Battery Buchanan and Fort Fisher. The imposing works there mounted no fewer than 20 pieces of ordnance. Additionally defenses at Battery Lamb, Fort Anderson, Batteries Lee, Campbell, and Meares stood watch over the passage up the Cape Fear River to the docks near Wilmington. These were supported by obstructions and torpedoes (mines) that reduced the navigation into narrow channels that were known only to a small number of pilots and the blockade runners.
Despite the obvious obstacles to success proponents of the operation were insistent. If the Union could interdict the flow from this last supply line the fate of the Army of Northern Virginia, holding out at Petersburg, would be sealed. A Bizarre Plan Despite the apparent advantages that a strike at Fort Fisher offered Grant was unenthusiastic about the project. Closely entwined with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg Grant was loathe to lose any of his combat power to the endeavor. He found an ally in his disagreement in MG Henry Halleck, but the political stakes involved forced President Lincoln to allow Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and MG Quincy Gillmore to present a case for the plan to Grant. The parties met in early September, 1864. Under pressure from the administration to support the proposal Grant grudgingly gave in and lent tepid support to the idea.
Having accepted the concept Grant immediately impacted the command structure by discounting Gillmore as commander because he found him too “timid.” Grant nominated MG Weitzel, from the Army of the James, to lead the expedition. Unfortunately, the area of operations fell in the district commanded by MG Benjamin Butler. As an expected military courtesy Grant funneled all his orders to Weitzel through Butler. Butler immediately used this connection to interject into the planning the campaign in a very innovative way. On reading of the devastation created by an accidental “explosion of gunpowder” in England, Butler determined to examine the possibilities of using an intentional blast to reduce Fort Fisher. He believed “a large mass of explosives” detonated simultaneously at a distance of “four or five hundred yards” would paralyze the garrison and shock waves would destroy the sand based fortifications. While visiting Washington in early November he laid out the plan to the President and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Amazingly the farfetched plan “received so much favor at Washington” that it was included in the design for capturing Fort Fisher. Grant was less convinced by the idea stating;
“I had no confidence in the success of the scheme” but as the “authorities at Washington seemed desirous to have it tried, I permitted it.”
When intelligence reports indicated “that most of the forces from about Wilmington” had departed with Bragg to confront Sherman, Grant warmed to the proposed expedition, although he still doubted the usefulness of the powder boat. He sent a message to Butler that it was “therefore important that Weitzel should get off during his (Bragg) absence.” He was worried that the missing Confederate forces would return before the attempt could be made. On December 4th he again prodded Butler to get moving stating that he felt “great anxiety to see the Wilmington expedition off”. But Butler was still gathering his troops and preparing the powder ship for the great experiment. The lucky vessel was the USS Louisiana, a 295 ton shallow draft steamer. She was stripped down and modified to carry 200 tons of powder as well as take on the look of a blockade runner. Major Thomas Casey, of the US Army Corps of Engineers, lent his expertise in explosives to the project. An intricate set of fuses, timing devices and back-up systems was installed in the hope of securing a simultaneous detonation of all the powder.
An increasingly impatient Grant sent another message to Butler that was less suggestive. On December 7th he told him that it was essential that “Gen Weitzel get off as soon as possible.” Finally the boats departed on the 14th with 6500 men aboard. The mix of troops included 3400 from 2nd Division of XXIV Corps. This primary assault force was led by BG Adelbert Ames and had brigades led by BVT BG N. Martin Curtis, COL Galusha Pennypacker, and COL Louis Bell. About 3000 USCT soldiers from 3rd Division of XXV Corps, under BG Charles Paine were also boarded on the boats. Filling out the force was two batteries of artillery, about 50 engineers, 50 cavalry, and a contingent of couriers drawn from Co I and L of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery. The more orthodox part of the plan called for a landing north of Fort Fisher at the base of Masonborough Sound. Ames men were assigned this duty while Paine’s men would provide security at the landing site and prevent an attack on the rear of Ames advancing column from Wilmington. If everything went according to plan they would walk into the devastated fort and capture the stunned defenders. The final element of the expedition was the naval gunnery. To add this fire support Admiral David D. Porter assembled the largest fleet of the war. An astounding 64 warships mounting a total of 633 guns would accompany the transports to Cape Fear.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)
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