Wilmington Part 7

Decision Time

With a “foothold on the peninsula” secured Terry and Porter began to weigh their options. Curtis’ brigade was pushed south toward Fort fisher. On the way they captured a small steamer filled with provisions, forage and ammunition for the fort. They gained possession of a “small unfinished outwork” at the western end of the land face. Curtis, Terry, and chief engineer Comstock used the covering fire of the fleet to move up for a reconnaissance. The result was a decision to forego the planned siege operations and attempt a direct assault on the Confederate works. Accordingly Porter was requested to shift the focus of some of the naval gunnery to destroy the repaired palisades in front of the main works. It was hoped that the resulting destruction would open a passageway to the main works for the assaulting forces.

While Paine’s division, Abbott’s brigade and a division of warships held the defensive line in the north Ames would attack the western end of the land face. A secondary attack would be conducted by “a column of sailors and marines” recruited as volunteers from the fleet against the mighty Northeast Bastion. The imposing work marked the transition point from the land face to the sea face of the fort. Its 32 foot high walls commanded the surrounding area and allowed the defenders to fire down the long axis of both faces of the fort. It was the strongest point of the works and if it were to fall the viability of the fort would be in serious question. Lamb was well aware of the importance of the bastion and had every intention of defending it to the last. The assault would begin at 1500 on the 15th preceded by a daylong bombardment.

At 0800 the naval barrage began. Terry described it as “magnificent alike for its power and accuracy.” The weight of the shelling drove many of the Confederate crews into the bomb proofs and left the Federal land forces free to maneuver. During the barrage Bell and Pennypacker moved their brigades up to join Curtis at the forward line. As the time for the attack approached Curtis began to develop his attack. He sent 60 men from the 13th Indiana, armed with Spencer repeating rifles, and 40 men from Curtis’ brigade to within 175 yards of the fort. They were soon dug in and laying a suppressive fire on the parapet. Under this fire Curtis moved the remainder of his brigade up to their final assault positions. As he moved Pennypacker’s men filled the empty outwork with Bell selecting a position about 200 yards behind.

While maneuvering for position the first clash of the land forces proved disastrous for Hoke’s Confederates. Pickets from the 66th North Carolina ran into COL Abbott’s men on the defensive line. They had been sent out to establish the status of the Federal landings to see about the possibility of an attack, but their efforts were too little too late. The Union troops were already firmly established on the beach and in prepared positions ready to receive them. The outnumbered Confederates retreated and sought shelter. They had been discovered and it wasn’t long before the Federal leaders took action to remove them. Two Union regiments attacked creating panic in the rebel ranks. Some of the Confederate officers ran away leaving the men to surrender. Closer to the fort Company H of the 36th North Carolina came out to challenge Curtis’ pickets. The two sides exchanged a brief flurry of gun fire accounting for a small number of casualties on both sides. Wisely the Confederates returned to the safety of the fortifications. Their safety was about to be seriously challenged.

A special detail armed with crude satchel charges and axes had been prepared to remove whatever palisading that survived the naval bombardment. As they moved up it was found that the Navy gunners had done their job well and the explosive charges would not be necessary. The axmen quickly cleared the rubble and the desired assault lanes opened. At 1525, or 25 minutes behind schedule, the assault was ready to begin.

The Naval Assault

Around 1030 the naval assault party was landed about half a mile north of the fort. Commanding the 2261 sailors and marines drawn from 29 vessels was Fleet captain K. Randolph Breese. The marine contingent, about 410 men commanded by Captain L.L. Dawson, was equipped with Sharps rifles and carbines. They were expected to lay down a suppressive fire from prepared locations while the sailors assaulted the Northeast Bastion. The sailors carried an odd mix of weapons. The majority were bearing pistols and cutlasses in boarding party fashion.

The first sailors ashore were sent immediately forward to dig the rifle pits for Dawson’s marines. They came under a heavy fire and requested assistance. LT Louis Fagan, USMC, was ordered to “advance to the support of the sailors at the front… who were throwing up intrenchments.” Fagan and his 44 marines pushed to within 40 yards of the fort by lying prone during the cannon fire and then advancing during the reloading process. His loss in the advance was two men “badly wounded.” Deploying his best shots in a sharpshooter role Fagan reported that his men managed to force “a field piece inside the palisade of the fort to be abandoned by the rebel artillerist.”

As Fagan moved up Captain Breese divided the naval force into divisions. Dawson also moved the remainder of the marines into the entrenchments. His orders from Breese were “when the assault was made…keep up a full fire” until the sailors moved by and then join the attack. Dawson marched his command as ordered and was soon in the required position. Despite some last minute trouble organizing his sailors into marching order Breese followed, but things quickly began to fall apart. The sailors were unaccustomed to facing the type of fire they encountered as they moved up. The closer they came to the fort the heavier the fire grew and Breese became concerned. He did not think he could maintain control of the skittish seamen until the appointed attack time of 1500. He made a fateful decision; he moved his men onto the beach to gain additional cover and to wait out the remaining time before the attack was to begin. He sent word to Dawson, via courier, to meet him on the beach with his marines. At first Dawson questioned the order but was convinced that these were indeed Breese’s wishes. Reluctantly, Dawson ordered his men to the beach. Within minutes the marines and sailors were completely intermixed in a disorganized mob on the crowded beach. They lay prone in the sand, hundreds of yards from the objective awaiting the next order.

The 1500 deadline arrived and as planned the warships lifted their fire. Instead of waiting for his cue to begin, the army attack to the west*, or moving the marines back to their support positions Breese did the worst possible thing. A shocked Dawson heard the order to charge and before he could reposition his marksmen a crush of sailors rushing forward masked his fire. The Confederates had also reacted to the cessation of the naval bombardment. Lamb rushed about 600 defenders into the Northeast Bastion. The Unknowingly the Federals were acting just as Lamb could have hoped. He had little chance of fending off a dual assault but the unsupported charge of Porter’s sailors gave him the chance to defeat the attacks one at a time.

The wave of men running across the open ground proved easy targets for the defenders. They were cut down by the dozens. The short range pistols were almost worthless and the cutlasses of no value at all. Nevertheless a few stout hearted actually made it to the palisades. Porter, watching from his command vessel, wrote that “the rebels met us with a courage worthy of a better cause.” The few survivors of the initial charge attempted to assault the main defenses in handfuls but any banner placed on the works lasted only seconds and the efforts little longer. Porter was forced to add “the advance was swept off the parapet like chaff.” The devastation of the first ranks left those not yet involved wary of further advance. Those in the rear elements “seeing the slaughter in front” opted not to pursue the assault. The attack fell apart in minutes as the sailors became a terror stricken stream heading back to the landing site. The price for the chaotic effort was 287 casualties (52k, 212w, 23m). It accomplished nothing. The quick repulse of the Naval assault left Lamb and Whiting free to deal with the army assault. The failure would spark a controversy between Porter and his marines.

*The Army assault was momentarily delayed and would start 25 minutes late.

Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)



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