Wilmington Part 6

A New Attempt

Having rid himself of Butler, Grant was eager to start another attempt at Fort Fisher and Wilmington. He found a willing partner in Porter. The first decision to be made was who would command the Army forces during the new effort. Porter was eyeballing Sherman to head up the second attempt. It was a low risk choice for Porter. Sherman had firmly etched himself into the American consciousness with the capture of Atlanta, his bold march across Georgia, and the capitulation of Savannah. He had the get it done mentality that appealed to Porter. Sherman also found the chance for further success in Wilmington. He met with porter’s aides and outlined a rapid march through South Carolina to the rear the rear of Wilmington; taking the city by storm from the rear. Grant, however, was not as willing to spare his war horse on what he originally considered a secondary objective. The Sherman plan was nixed and a commander more suited to Grant’s vision of the operation named. MG Alfred H. Terry, a Connecticut lawyer turned soldier, was announced to lead the expedition.

Although disappointed at being denied the famous Sherman, Porter was warned by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox that “the country will not forgive us another failure.” There was to be no more free-lancing. Likewise Grant, looking to avoid another embarrassment, informed Terry in the sealed orders for the mission that there would be “a complete understanding and harmony of action between yourself and Admiral Porter.”

The Army troops set sail from Bermuda Hundred on 5 January 1865, under the guise of a trip to Savannah to reinforce Sherman. On board the transports was a slightly larger compliment of troops than were involved in the first attempt. In addition to Ames’ and Paine’s divisions, Terry supplemented the force with COL Joseph Abbott’s brigade of sturdy New Englanders. Foreseeing the possibility of siege operations the attackers were also reinforced with two companies (A and I) of the 15th New York Engineers, three companies of 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, and two light batteries from the 1st New York light and 3rd United States Artillery. Grant also foresaw the possible need to reinforce a lengthy effort and had 4000 additional troops on standby in Baltimore.

The two commanders met for the first time when the transports pulled into Beaufort, NC to link up with the naval escort on January 8th, 1865. Terry made it a point to make an official visit to Porter’s command vessel, the Malvern, his first order of business. The two men, seemingly polar opposites in personality, hit it off immediately. The cooperation established, be it fostered by command directive or a genuine mutual respect, was a distinct change from the first effort. Word of the cordial meeting spread across the fleet and cast a ray of inspiration to the soldiers and sailors involved.

The combined fleet of 80 vessels (59 warships and 21 transports) set sail together on the 12th of January. They were soon joined by an array of support ships and the huge armada dropped anchor at 2200 just five miles short of Fort Fisher. Terry and Porter met again and immediately postponed the agreed upon night landings. The attack would begin on the morning of the 13th.

The Second Effort Begins

The massive Federal fleet would have been impossible to hide and no attempt was made to do so. Standard lights were allowed on all vessels. COL Lamb was made aware of their presence shortly after the first ships arrived. He immediately called on Bragg for reinforcements. Bragg, disappointed cancelled a planned operation against New Bern and began to assemble all the available troops. Most importantly he ordered Hoke’s division back to the defensive line on the peninsula. Hoke was ordered to “prevent a landing of the enemy.” In the early morning hours of January 13th both sides had troops moving.

The fleet stood to at 0415 for the movement into their battle positions. Porter planned to bombard the fort with almost the same plan as the first effort. A few subtle changes were made to the targeting list. The emphasis would not be on physical destruction of the fort but would focus on the individual batteries. To this end the ironclads moved into the forward line and waited. At the fort Lamb’s gunners were preparing to greet them. This time the Confederates did not wait, as soon as the line of monitors came into range they opened on them. The aggressive act fell unwittingly into Porter’s design. As they opened on the Union ships the individual placements we relocated and ranged by the Federal gunners. As they got their bearings the fleet opened a devastating return fire. Other vessels were also assigned to clear the landing area by firing into the wood line surrounding the beach. It was a wasted effort since Hoke’s men had not yet moved into position. There was little to oppose the landings.

At 0845 Terry’s troops started coming ashore in boats of all shapes and sizes. They landed unopposed near the site of the now abandoned Battery Gatlin. Without a threat of enemy the scene at the landing site soon took on the appearance of a raucous beach party. The drenched troops began to remove their wet clothing to be dried on large fires that sprang up all along the beach. Rations were cooked in a picnic type atmosphere while a regimental band started an impromptu concert. Those already ashore gathered to cheer on those arriving and making fun of those struggling through the surf behind them. One soldier reported land lubbers being carried ashore “astride a sailor’s neck” much to the delight of the already amused audience. The hooting and laughter was said by another soldier to drown out the noise of the surf.

Despite the nonchalant attitudes nearly 8,000 Federal troops were landed by 1500 without serious loss. The swamping of several boats carrying ammunition and rations the only difficulty encountered during the landing. Terry’s arrival on the beach soon had the Union troops getting down to the business at hand. Terry placed his first priority on replacing the lost supplies. He created a stockpile of ammunition and rations on the beach. He intended to stay even if it proved to be a lengthy task. His second priority was to establish a line of works across the peninsula to protect against a Confederate move from Wilmington. An unexpected topographical error on his maps forced Terry to extend his line across a “pond” that was actually a sand flat. Despite the difficulty, by 2100 the Union line stretched to the Cape Fear River. Further investigation discovered a better line to the south and Paine’s division was shifted. At 0200 the final line was occupied and the entrenching tools and axes were brought forward. By breakfast on the 14th “a good breast work reaching from the river to the sea and partially covered by abates had been constructed “. The remainder of the 14th was spent landing the light batteries and putting them in place on the line.

As the federals dug in Hoke’s men arrived too late to prevent the landing. He deployed his men in a thin line across the peninsula. He put his men in place and awaited new orders from Bragg.

Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)



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