Retreat and Failure
Encouraged by the apparent lack of enemy troops on the works Curtis continued to urge his men to find a way into the fort. LT William Walling of Co. C 142nd New York Infantry braved the friendly naval fire to grab the downed enemy flag. Scampering through a gap in the palisades the intrepid LT took up the banner and escaped unscathed. Other parties searching for a way to enter the fort on the river side also had interesting encounters. PVT Henry Blair, Co. F 142nd NY crept close to enough to look inside of Shepherd’s Battery, the western most point of Fort Fisher’s land face, only to find a group of Confederates near the bombproof. As he beat a retreat the Confederates, obviously unaware of his presence, sent out a courier. The unfortunate young man, PVT Amos Jones, stumbled into Blair who immediately shot and killed him. In Jones’ possession was a message from the fort’s chief of artillery. Blair secured the couriers horse and rode back with his intelligence bonanza. CPT John Thomas, of Co. F 117th NY, had the most unusual occurrence of all. While supervising his men a Confederate officer appeared out of nowhere and offered to surrender his command. A startled Thomas escorted MAJ John Reese to the rear. Skeptical of his story the Union officers demurred. Sensing their doubt Reese asked if there was a Freemason present. CPT Almond Stevens, of Co. H 117th NY, stepped forward and the two exchanged Masonic code words. Convinced of Reese’s sincerity Stevens offered to go with Reese. They returned to near the river where Reese surrendered 224 members of the 4th and 8th North Carolina Junior Reserves. Reese explained that they had been denied space in the bomb proofs and he had marched the boys to the relative safety of Camp Wyatt, an old training facility, a mile north of the fort. After the shelling found them there they moved again and again until the boys could take no more. Reese wanting to spare his young charges decided to surrender them. The boys appeared so harmless that Stevens did not even disarm them before he marched them, by himself, to the rear.
While his troops were gathering their prizes Curtis was showering the Union command with requests for troops to conduct an assault. He also used Walling’s captured flag in an effort to signal the fleet to stop the bombardment so he could attack. He got neither a cessation of the shelling or the requested reinforcements. Seeing no troops being forwarded Curtis stormed down the beach to find the reason for the delay. He was flabbergasted when informed that Butler’s order was for retreat not attack. Undeterred Curtis scrawled out a message to Butler that he was holding the order in “abeyance” until Butler could learn the “true condition” of things at the fort. He sent the courier on his way and returned to battery Holland. He needed troops to make his assault and waited for a response to his message. The reply he got was another order from Butler to retreat. Butler had been convinced by Weitzel and the intelligence gathered from deserters that the fort was heavily defended and Hoke’s division was in his rear. He determined that an assault was impractical and he should remove his men from the dangerous position at once. Curtis was not as ready to give up the fight. He dashed off another note insisting that an attack would be successful.
Shortly after sending his note, Curtis was joined by BG Ames and reinforcements from the 1st Brigade. Ames was in a foul mood. He felt that both Weitzel and Curtis had circumvented him with their correspondence directly to Butler. Nevertheless, he listened to Curtis explain the situation. The irate division commander authorized the attack by grunting out to Curtis that he could “go ahead and make it.” Curtis quickly made his deployments in the growing darkness. He had misjudged the Confederates willingness to defend the fort. As the naval fire slackened Lamb rushed 800 defenders to the land face. As the Federal skirmishers came into range they were greeted with a storm of musketry and artillery fire. Curtis reconsidered his earlier assessment of easy victory and called back the charge. He planned to regroup and try again in the morning. Ames would have none of it and marched off. At 2000 a messenger arrived with written orders for Curtis to retire. Disappointed and upset Curtis reluctantly marched his men back to the landing site. The first attempt at taking Fort Fisher was over.
The delay waiting for authorization for the aborted attack allowed not only darkness to settle in over the field but a change in the weather as well. As Curtis moved his men back the rain started and the growing strength of the wind made transportation in the launches impossible. There would be no movement back to the fleet. About 170 troops of the 142nd New York were stranded on the beach. The men were set out in a defensive perimeter to spend a dreary night in the wet sand. The storm also caused havoc in the fleet. One transport collided with the Baltic and was nearly sunk. The foul weather did not abate on the 26th and another miserable night was spent ashore. To provision the shore party food, water and even whiskey were loaded onto rafts or simply thrown overboard to be washed ashore. The desperation effort was ample to feed not only the Union troops but the grateful Confederate prisoners as well. To keep Hoke’s division from swarming over the federal position 14 gunboats peppered the nearby tree line with artillery fire. Fortunately, Bragg dallied again and the opportunity to bag the small force and release the prisoners went by the wayside. Finally on the morning of the 27th the evacuation began. At 1137 Curtis became the last to leave the shore. The transports headed for Hampton Roads ending the first operation to take the fort. The Union toll for the incomplete mission was one man drowned, two killed on the field,
As the Confederates celebrated their victory the blame game started in the Federal ranks. Curtis cursed Butler. Ames was insulted by Weitzel and Curtis abusing his authority. Butler blamed Porter. Porter attempted to distance himself from the failure. He went so far as to tell Welles that he never supported the powder boat experiment. Saying he “never gave a fig” for the idea he laid its failure at Butler’s feet. Grant immediately began to look into the root causes of the poor showing. Curtis was personally interviewed by Grant while Weitzel took statements from six 142nd NY soldiers. All stated that the fort should have been taken. Others including Ames, Comstock, and Paine fell into line with Butler. The press was quick to capture the growing controversy. The public interest finally led to an investigation by the Committee on the Conduct of the War. After two months of testimony Butler was exonerated with the statement that his actions were “fully justified.”
The outcome of the investigation did not satisfy Grant who stated two primary reasons why the failure was Butler’s fault. First, grant contended that his orders “never contemplated that Gen. Butler should accompany the expedition” and that having done so he assumed the responsibility. Second that as the commander Butler had disobeyed orders. Grant insisted that his “instructions contemplated no withdrawal” once the landings had been accomplished. To fortify his condemnation Grant attached 13 enclosures to Butler’s report backing up his accusations. Grant asked President Lincoln to relieve Butler from duty. On January 7th, 1865 Butler was sent home to Lowell, Massachusetts in disgrace. He would spend the rest of the war there waiting for orders that never came.
As might be expected Butler did not take his embarrassment well. He accused Grant and the others of conducting a witch hunt and set out to clear his name. In an unusual move he wrote to his enemy for support. On 22 February of 1865 he sent Whiting, then a prisoner, a letter asking the answer to 24 questions. Butler then dedicated an entire chapter of his memoirs of the war, including the response, to his defense in the matter. It did little good the stain of his failure could not be removed.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)