Naval Bombardment – 24 Dec 1864
The failure of the gun boat experiment left Porter no alternative but to reduce the fort by standard naval bombardment. He probably reveled in the thought of unleashing his armada. With Butler and his troops still unavailable there was a chance to provide a victory without assistance from the Army. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox, and Porter all felt that the naval contribution to the war effort had been badly undervalued by the administration. To put a major victory on the board for the Navy would certainly be a feather in the cap of that service and for Porter personally. If he could force the surrender of the fort by the weight of his available armament, which was considerable, he could become a national hero. Accordingly, a massive bombardment was planned for around mid-day of the 24th.
Porter arranged his vessels into three lines to conduct the shelling and a fourth line of reserve ships to replace any that might become too damaged to continue. The first line, closest inshore, was comprised of the ironclads, including the USS New Ironsides, USS Monadnock, USS Saugus, USS Canonicus, and USS Mahopac. At 1245 the New Ironsides opened the battle with a 10” solid shot. The fort answered with a Columbiad shot that nearly removed the smoke stack of the USS Susquehanna. The rest of the fleet opened in a continuous thunder that would last until 1730.
Inside of Fort Fisher Lamb’s 800 defenders were ordered to preserve their scarce ammunition supply by maintaining a slow pace of fire. No gun was to fire more than once every half hour or so. The gunners no doubt enjoyed the opportunity to avoid the steel maelstrom by waiting in the bomb proofs between shots. Even at the reduced rate of fire the Confederate gunners experienced some problems with their guns. The first recoil of one 8” gun threw the piece from its mount. Its great weight made it impossible to recover and the piece was lost for the remainder of the fight. In a more serious incident a Federal round found the inside of one gun emplacement and severed the left leg of gunner J. F. Higgins. A courier was also dismembered by an eleven inch shell as he was scurrying through the interior of the fort.
The fort’s gunners could claim some success despite the sparse return fire (only 672 rounds were fired from all guns). Several Union ships were damaged, some badly. The USS Pontoosuc had a shot rip through the hull and was set ablaze. The fire was put out and the ship continued on station. The USS Mackinaw was struck in the boiler and tried to withdraw but was ordered back into line by Porter. The Federals also had problems with some of their guns. The USS Juanita lost five sailors killed and eight wounded when a 100 lb Parrott burst. The USS Ticonderoga also had a Parrott explode killing eight and wounding twelve. The Yantic, Quaker City, and the hard luck Mackinaw also suffered burst guns, all Parrotts. The total casualty count for these incidents was 45 killed and wounded. Despite the incredible amount of ordnance dumped on the fort the defenders suffered amazingly few casualties. Only 23 Confederates were killed or wounded. The fort suffered only superficial damage as the sand absorbed those shots that found the target. Most of the wooden buildings inside the perimeter of the fort were burned to the ground but the all important guns were still viable (only two being completely disabled).
Near the end of the bombardment a furious Butler arrived on his command ship, the Ben de Ford. He still refused to speak to Porter personally but sent Weitzel and Comstock to meet with Porter. Initially Porter refused to see them, begging off with an injury. Finally the sides held a conference and Porter announced that the fort had all but been destroyed and the only action required by the land forces was to go ashore and take possession of the ruins. Returning to the Ben de Ford the duo briefed Butler on the discussions. Incensed by Porter’s actions, Butler wanted to take his fleet and go back to Virginia. Unconvinced by Porter’s assurances Wetzel and Comstock convinced Butler that a reconnaissance was in order. There would be a landing after all.
Christmas Day Attack
On Christmas morning the bulk of Porter’s fleet resumed the shelling of Fort Fisher. The ferocity of the attack was nearly equal to that of the previous day. After about a half hour of preliminary bombardment a small flotilla, consisting of the army transports and 17 warships moved off toward the landing sites. Butler intended to land his reconnaissance in force between Batteries Gatlin and Anderson north of the fort. To clear the way the escorting warships singled out these locations with their supporting fire. These supplemental fortifications proved no match for the opposing firepower. The USS Brooklyn was particularly effective driving the crew away from the 32lb piece at Battery Gatlin before they could issue a shot. At Battery Anderson, CPT Koonts and Company A of the 42nd North Carolina were so swamped by suppressive fire they could do little more than hunker down and hope to survive.
The landings began but not without managing to create more command animosity in the Federal ranks. BG Adelbert Ames, whose division was to conduct the operation, had selected his 3rd Brigade, under COL Lewis Berry, to lead the way but MG Weitzel countermanded the order in favor of the 1st Brigade, commanded by COL N. Martin Curtis. Ames was furious that he had been over ruled, apparently without consultation. Curtis was not a bad choice. He was every bit a warrior and looked the part. At 6’7” tall and 225 lbs he was a physical anomaly for the day. On the battlefield he could be as imposing as his size would suggest. Heroes were not required at the landing site, however. The effectiveness of the preparatory fire left the landings unopposed.
Curtis immediately began leading his men south toward Fort Fisher as the follow on landings were conducted. As they approached Battery Anderson CPT Koonts realized that resistance would lead to unnecessary and fruitless casualties and decided to surrender his men. He had a white flag raised on the parapet and precipitated a comical inter-service race to take them prisoner. On board the USS Britannia the flag was spotted and a landing party was quickly assembled to man the launch. As Curtis dashed his men through the sand the boat crew rowed for shore in an effort to beat them to the credit for receiving the surrender. With strong backs and the assistance of the surf the landing party edged out the advancing troops. Ensign William Bryant greeted Curtis as he led his soldiers, huffing and puffing into the battery. Curtis was not amused.
BG William Kirkland, leading the Confederate defense outside the fort, was not amused either. He was determined to retake the battery using the 17th North Carolina as the assault force. The attack managed to push in the federal pickets but could not be sustained. The assault ended with 34 casualties (3k, 20w, and 11c) added to the 72 men surrendered by Koonts at the battery. Kirkland wisely decided to remove the rest remainder of the force (42nd NC and 17th NC) to the Sugar Loaf line defending the direct route to Wilmington. He reported his decision to the overall Confederate commander in the area, Braxton Bragg, and awaited orders.
The way was now clear for Curtis to advance on the main objective without resistance. Watching the Federal advance Lamb, commanding the fort garrison, realized he needed assistance. He telegraphed his situation to Bragg and asked him to “order supports to attack” the rear of the enemy line. Moments later LT Simpson of the 142nd New York cut the wire connecting the two. Bragg answered Lamb’s plea by seeing to the evacuation of his wife. Curtis moved his men to about 2000 yards from the fort. Here he was joined by MG Weitzel and the two men examined the fort through binoculars. Weitzel was intimidated by what he saw. He felt that the fort was the strongest he had ever seen and was relatively undamaged by the naval bombardment. He despaired of success and left to report his findings to Butler. Curtis was not intimidated and saw no defenders on the works. He continued forward in the belief that a determined assault could take the fort. He left orders for LTC Albert Barney (142nd NY) to assemble troops as they advanced from the beach and went forward to Battery Holland. The small work, about 900 yards from the land face of the fort, had been abandoned by its crew. It gave Curtis another platform to view the works and consolidate his men. Seeing no one manning the defenses he pushed a 40 man skirmish line to within 75 yards. While the main works were not significantly damaged, the wooden palisades fronting them had taken a heavy beating from the naval gunnery. There were gaps that allowed his men access to the main parapet. He was even more convinced that the fort could be taken.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)