Prompted by Grant, the expedition finally got under way on the 14th. In a surprise meeting on the 13th Butler announced to Grant that he would accompany the fleet. This of course would make him the de facto commander, superseding Grant’s choice of Weitzel.* The operation began with a move up the Potomac. In an effort to confuse the Confederate spies known to be in the area, the transport fleet went up the river 50 miles only to reverse course and return under the cover of darkness. Butler described the covert move as “cleverly done.”
Not so cleverly done was the coordination between the transport fleet and Porter’s warships. Arriving at the rendezvous point on the 15th Butler found nothing but open ocean to greet him. The Navy fleet was nowhere to be found. For three days the sea remained calm while they waited for Porter’s arrival. On the 18th the Du Pont arrived with a message from Porter. It made no effort to explain the absence of the fleet but announced that they would arrive on that evening. By this time the friction between the two commanders had reached a point where they only communicated through intermediaries. The adversarial relations could not help but make matters worse; and it did.
The delay of Porter’s fleet, “for reasons presumed to be satisfactory”, also allowed time for the weather to change. No sooner had the two fleets united than a gale blew in. Already short on provisions and coal and realizing that no landings could be conducted under the current conditions the transports were ordered back to the sheltered waters of Beaufort. The trip in the choppy seas made many of the soldiers seasick but even the most violently ill fared better than the horses on board. When some of the animals reacted poorly to the unsteady ride they were simply shot and thrown overboard. On arrival Butler restricted the men and crews to the boats during resupply and refueling to prevent any word of their plan from leaking out.
As the weather cleared Butler sent a message to Porter on the 23rd stating that the transports would return to the link up point on Christmas Eve. He scheduled the bombardment and landings for Christmas Day. Porter, however, discounted Butler’s plan and announced a schedule of his own. The Louisiana would be exploded at 0100 on the 24th followed by the naval bombardment regardless if the Army was present or not. The surprised messenger hurried back to inform Butler but rough water prevented his arrival at Beaufort until the morning of the 24th. Not surprisingly Butler was irate and immediately sailed for the fleet, leaving orders for the transports to come as soon as possible. Butler believed that Porter was trying to claim the credit of defeating the fort without him and hoped to put a stop to his glory seeking. He had no real chance of arriving on time. Operations would start without him.
*This issue would raise its head later and will be covered in a separate installment.
The Great Explosion
True to his word, Porter moved his fleet further off shore leaving the USS Wilderness to tow the Louisiana toward its final destination. On board the floating bomb were Commander Alexander Rhind and a skeleton crew. Removing any possibility of creating a premature explosion the ship would be towed as near to the shore as deemed prudent without endangering the Wilderness. At 2230 the two ships began moving toward shore. When acting master’s Mate Arey, commanding the Wilderness, estimated that they were within 500 yards of shore the tow line was cast off. As the Wilderness dashed away from the danger area Rhind had the Louisiana’s engines brought up to steam. Suddenly another vessel appeared out of the night. The blockade runner Little Hattie was making a run for New Inlet. Rhind saw the unexpected appearance of Little Hattie as an opportunity. He fell in behind the boat to appear as another blockade runner making for port. The scheme worked perfectly as the Louisiana drew no fire. When the boat reached what Rhind thought was 300 yards from shore he dropped anchor. He believed he had pushed his luck to the limit.
Unfortunately for Rhind he had badly misjudged the distance. Instead of 300 yards the ship was about 600 yards from shore and drifting away. He dropped a second anchor and went to work setting the timing mechanisms and lit the back-up devices. As a final means to ensure detonation he set fire to the ship. The daring crew then manned the launch and pulled for all they were worth for safety. They reached the Wilderness near midnight and left the area at full steam.
Admiral Porter impatiently cruised about his fleet awaiting the results of the grand experiment. The appointed time of 0118 came and went without result. It was obvious that the primary fuses had failed. The secondary fuses also failed as 0130 passed uneventfully. The final hope was that the burning ship, clearly visible in the darkness, would eventually ignite the powder. As 0145 ticked by hope began to fade. One minute later their expectations were answered. The ship exploded. Despite hours of engineering, calculations, and a deafening roar the explosion created no appreciable damage to the fort or its defenders. On board the Wilderness, Rhind proclaimed the experiment a “fizzle” and went to bed.
Not only had the powder boat been a failure but unseen by the Federal fleet another event was occurring that would change the scenario at Fort Fisher. About midnight, or as Rhind was moving the Louisiana into position, the lead elements of MG Robert Hoke’s division , led by BG William Kirkland’s brigade, pulled into Wilmington after a circuitous railroad journey from Virginia. Grant’s worst fear had been realized; the delays had allowed time for the Confederates to take action. The Wilmington garrison was being reinforced.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)