Wilmington Part 5

Assessment of First Attack

As a military operation the first effort to take Fort Fisher was a disaster. It suffered from a multitude of problems, any one of which alone could lead to failure, but together left little chance for a successful outcome. The list of difficulties that the attackers heaped on themselves is nearly endless but can be categorized under three headings.

1. Poor Inter-service cooperation.

Instead of combining forces and conducting a joint operation the commanders of the two services were intent on claiming plaudits for themselves and their respective service. Porter, although he later escaped the glaring spotlight of failure, seemed particularly guilty. Butler, although he was certainly desirous of the credit that would be due the victor at Fort Fisher, knew that he was reliant on the navy for key portions of the plan and could not cut them out completely. Porter, on the other hand, felt that he could do it by himself with his naval assets. It is entirely possible, as Butler would later suggest, that Porter intentionally left the transport fleet alone through the 16th, 17t, and 18th, knowing they would eventually have to return for fuel and provisions. If so his plan was destroyed by the onset of foul weather and any chance of the two leaders cooperating with it.

2. Command dysfunction in the land component.

While Porter ruled his fleet with an iron fist the Army component could claim no such solidarity of command. Butler usurped Weitzel who was bitter at losing his chance at glory. Ames felt his authority was being bypassed by Weitzel above him and Curtis below him. Curtis had no faith in any of those above him and began operating on his own plan. It was a sad mix and it played out as could be expected on the field. 3.

3. Over reliance on unproven technology.

While the application of new technologies and the innovative use of existing assets can be difference makers on the battlefield this was not the case here. Entirely too much emphasis was placed on the expected results of the boat explosion. Calculations indicate a radius of roughly 500 feet of total destruction should have been anticipated for the amount of powder involved. Unfortunately, the maximum blast could not be had due to several variables that were not fully taken into consideration. Among these are:

A. Age and moisture content affecting the explosive force of the powder.
B. Proper placement of the charges to ensure maximum explosive force.
C. Simultaneous ignition of the entire package of explosives.
D. Placing the boat within the expected blast area of the intended target.

Obviously none of these was adequately addressed. Nevertheless some value could have been had by the experiment. Had the explosion been followed up by an assault to take advantage of the shock value some advantage may still have been taken. Porter’s insistence on exploding the vessel before the Army was prepared to make the attack gave away that opportunity. The alternate strategy of naval bombardment, while grandly executed, did little. Not enough consideration was given to the structure.

Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)



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