The Army Attack Begins
Inside the fort Whiting* and Lamb were jubilant at the repulse of the naval assault but were well aware that the job of defending the fort was not finished. Their attention was called to the western end of the fort where the next Federal assault was already gaining steam. Whiting had departed the Wilmington headquarters in a fit of anger over Bragg’s refusal to act as he deemed necessary to save the fort. He pleaded with Bragg throughout the 13th to attack the Federal forces near the beach from Sugar Loaf before they could consolidate. He felt it would relieve the pressure on Lamb and possibly discourage the attackers into departing again. Bragg would have none of it. Whiting, in desperation, went over Bragg’s head with a telegraph to Richmond. Much to his dismay, however, Secretary of War Seddon referred him back to Bragg who was his “superior in rank.” When his further requests for reinforcements and an attack were ignored Whiting took a steamer down the river to Battery Buchanan. He then braved the naval barrage in a walk to Lamb’s headquarters.
Now at the fort Whiting continued to press for an attack on the rear of the Union forces arrayed across the peninsula using the underwater cable and couriers to communicate with Bragg. The response was not was he was looking for. His animosity toward Bragg was being reciprocated. Believing that Whiting’s rants for an attack were alcohol fueled Bragg drafted an order to relieve him in the midst of the battle. The order directed Whiting to leave the fort to be replaced by BG Alfred Colquitt. It was an order that would never be obeyed.
As Breese’s failed attack played itself out MG Terry’s men moved into the assault. As in the December effort Curtis’ brigade was at the forefront. As the fleet signaled shifting their bombardment away with steam whistles Curtis’ men sprang from their trenches and dashed forward in line of battle. The defenders of the Northeast Bastion were now free to engage their full attention on the new attack. They did so with a “severe enfilading fire” that raked the 112th New York at the far left of the Federal line. At the right end the 117th and 3rd New York were also receiving an unexpectedly rude greeting. In his one effort to appease Whiting’s demands for reinforcements Bragg had sent 350 members of Johnson Hagood’s South Carolina Brigade (a mix of detachments from the 11th, 21st, and 25th South Carolina) into the fort via Battery Buchanan. These veterans joined the existing troops, making a total of about 600 men, to support two 12lb Napoleons and a 3.2 inch Parrott defending Shepherd’s Battery and the sally port** at the River Road entrance to the fort.
Although the western entryway was the intended target for the attack the destructive fire from artillery and musketry soon changed the advance. The 112th New York, with a much farther route to travel to the fort, was exposed to fire from the entire land face. They were forced to oblique hard right or away from the worst of the fire. At the other end of the line the two New York regiments were being driven to the left by the weight of the artillery and rifle fire. The two sides collided in front of Shepherd’s battery in a large mass. As MG Terry watched Ames skillfully directed the remainder of his division to support the attack. Pennypacker’s brigade deployed formed a line “overlapping Curtis right” and pushed the Confederates away from the palisades at the western end of the land face. The now vulnerable open end was immediately seen as the focal point for the rejuvenated attack. Ames sent for his last brigade, Bell, to attack through the gap between Shepherd’s Battery and the Cape Fear River. Terry anticipating that more troops would be needed called for Abbot’s brigade to come down from the northern defense. To fill the gap left by their departure he asked Breese to organize his surviving sailors and marines to fill the trenches. The fight at the western end of the fort would decide the fate of Fort fisher.
*Whiting arrived without orders during the bombardment of the 14th. He told Lamb “I have come to share your fate.”
**A sally port is defined as a gate or passage in a fortified place used for entry and exit.
A Frenzied Fight
The New York regiments of Curtis’ brigade, temporarily rebuffed at the sally port, continued the advance against Shepherd’s Battery. Fortunately for the troops involved the command detonated minefield they were traveling through failed to explode when the electric charge was applied. The wiring harness had been destroyed by the naval barrage. Still the veteran soldiers were impressed with the accuracy of the fire coming from the fort. Officers, as usual, were a popular target and began to fall immediately. Colonel John smith, commanding the 112th New York, was among the first to fall. The units continued forward and “after a desperate struggle” managed to reach the base of the main parapet. In another stroke of good fortune the survivors found that the steepness of the parapet did not allow the defenders to engage them effectively. The respite allowed COL Curtis to consolidate his men and reconsider his options. A quick reconnaissance convinced him that the riverside parapet was the most weakly defended and offered the best chance for a successful assault. If they could seize that part of the fort they would have a decided advantage on the Confederate troops below. He personally led the charge up the slope.
As Curtis was battling for Shepherd’s Battery, Pennypacker’s brigade was attempting the sally port entrance. As soon as they departed the entrenchments they were met by a “murderous fire.” The Napoleons covering the gate proved particularly effective. One blast removed the entire color guard of the 47th New York. The weapons were being served by volunteer members of the 36th North Carolina because the assigned crews refused come out of the bombproof. The small number of defenders at the gate rendered such efficient service that the Union survivors would name the sally port the “Bloody Gate.” Despite the incredible display of courage the Confederates finally gave way to raw numbers. One by one the gunners and supporting infantry were shot away. CPT James McCormic led a 40 man detachment out of the fort to replace the fallen men but it was not enough.
Curtis had successfully completed his attack on the riverside parapet of Shepherd’s Battery. His men now used the elevated position to take aim at the backs of the Confederate defenders at the gate. McCormic would perish at the guns and he survivors were taken prisoner. The battle for the gate was over but the remainder of the fort still had to be cleared.
Now in possession of the gate Pennypacker’s men continued up the parapet to join Curtis’ in Shepherd’s Battery. The tightly packed formations started down the land face clearing each traverse in turn. The fighting was extremely close as “hand to hand fighting of the most desperate character ensued.”COL Pennypacker* led the way to the third traverse carrying the regimental colors of the 97th Pennsylvania. He made an inviting target and at such close range and one that could not be missed. A bullet passed through his body and exited near his spine. He was carried to the river where his wound was pronounced mortal. After eleven months in a military hospital at Fort Monroe the prognosis had still not been confirmed.
While Curtis and Pennypacker continued the fight at the top of the works Ames ordered COL Louis Bell’s Third Brigade into the fort interior. As they approached the passage through the gate Bell was cut down by a bullet to his chest. Like Pennypacker he also refused to die but his suffering lasted only long enough for him to see the flag of his beloved 4th New Hampshire planted in the fort. Command passed to COL Alonzo Alden of the 169th New York. Alden had the captured Napoleon at the “bloody gate” reversed. He concentrated his efforts against the Northeast Bastion where Lamb and Whiting were still presenting a stout defense.
With a force of about 500 men Whiting decided to attack the enemy throng moving east along the top of the land face. The two forces collided near the fourth traverse. In a brutal close in fight the badly outnumbered Confederates used the small area of force presentation to push the Federal troops back. Whiting made a grab for one of the enemy flags. He was instantly shot down. His men managed to drag him from the fray and he was shuttled to the makeshift hospital near the pulpit battery. Lamb, returning from an adventurous reconnaissance outside the fort, gathered a small force and fried away at a group of Union troops that were attempting a flank move. He still felt he could successfully defend the fort if he could drive the Federals off the parapets. To do this he needed more soldiers. Unfortunately for his plan he received a report that many of the South Carolina troops refused to join the fighting. No amount of cajoling, pleading, or orders could make them leave the bombproof. He was forced to make his attack with the men he had on hand. To compound his difficulties an old terror was reintroduced. The Federal navy began to bomb the fort again. In a fine display of precise gunnery Porter’s ships managed to engage Lamb’s men while leaving the nearby Union troops untouched. It was enough to drive all but those so closely engaged with the enemy that retreat was not an option into the shelters.
The momentary pause in Confederate fire caused by the naval barrage allowed Bell’s brigade to enter the fort. Dismayed, Lamb understood that if the parapets were not reclaimed the fort was doomed. In a desperation move he ordered a “Charge Bayonets” for the small group that remained with him. He courageously led the men down the land face with saber held aloft. They traveled less than one hundred yards before they were stopped by a shower of gunfire from the third traverse. Lamb went down with a shot through the left hip. He joined Whiting in the field hospital. Leaderless and undermanned the attack failed.
*Galusha Pennypacker rose from the ranks to become the youngest brigadier general in US Army history. He survived his “mortal” injury and received the promotion promised by Terry on his death bed at the age of 20. He survived the war and lived until 1916.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)