Fort Fisher Falls
With key leaders down on both sides the fight for the fort continued on with “desperate valor.” The Confederate charge had failed but the remaining traverses on the land face remained to be taken. The Federal advance was stalled by the thick carpet of dead and wounded that lay on their narrow path forward. From the third traverse Col Curtis led an attack by climbing over the piles of bodies. Aided by the naval fire the fourth traverse was taken with great loss. Soldiers from the 112th New York remembered the battle atop the parapet as:
“One of the most terrific series of hand to hand conflict ever known in the annals of warfare.”
The slow bloody process continued through the fifth traverse. The mixed force of Federal troops was now in striking distance of the center sally port. CPT Zachariah Adams still manned his two brass Napoleons there with the remnants of crews from the 36th North Carolina. They were playing havoc on the attackers. LT William Ketcham of the 13th Indiana was determined to put them out of action. He sought out his regimental commander in the confusion and asked permission to take a party to silence the guns. He was given 12 Spencer wielding soldiers to accomplish the task. As the y approached the enemy gunners Ketcham suddenly found himself alone as his detail lost heart for the mission. He rapidly dug himself an expedient rifle pit with his tin cup and managed to lay enough suppressive fire on the gun positions to keep the crews at bay. One by one his detail regained their courage and joined him. When he had enough to conduct an assault he led them into the sally port. Seventeen Confederate gunners gave themselves up after a flurry of rapid fire from the Spencers into the tunnel. The guns that had caused so much trouble were put out of service. It was the beginning of the end for the Fort Fisher defenders.
Atop the works the last operational artillery piece on the land face was only a traverse away and Curtis was determined to have it. He placed sharpshooters on the highest available point with instructions to target the crew. The gun was soon quieted for want of gunners to service it. With no artillery remaining to challenge an aggressive advance Curtis decided to make a push for the Northeast Bastion. Ames disagreed and wanted the action closed for the night. Curtis would have none of it and sent another request for reinforcements. Ames met him near the river sally port and the two men argued. In a fit of anger Curtis stomped off determined to disobey the order.
When he returned he found his men had taken the ninth traverse. He asked why the advance had not continued. LT COL Zent, 13th Indiana, replied that the fire was too hot. Curtis extended his 6’7” frame to see for himself and caught the full effect of a blast in the face. His left eye was ruined and he was carried unconscious to the rear. It looked like Ames would have his way after all.
General Terry had other thoughts on the matter. Acting on advice from BG Comstock, Chief Engineer, he decided to reinforce the attack with Abbott’s brigade that was arriving from the northern defensive line. There was a mix up in orders and only the 3rd New Hampshire was sent forward by Ames. Instead of fortifying an assault they were told to relieve the exhausted men in the ninth traverse. The gory stand-off continued.
Outside the fort the 7th New Hampshire and 6th Connecticut, no longer concerned about artillery fire from the center sally port, marched past the last disputed traverses and formed at the base of the Northeast Bastion. After a short pause to get organized LT COL Rollins, 7th New Hampshire, ordered them to scale the parapet. The bastion fell quickly to his swarm of men and the remaining Confederates on the land face, realizing their predicament finally surrendered.
The surviving defenders on the sea face, under Major James Reilly, headed for Battery Buchanan a mile and a half to the south. His plan was to regroup and attempt to hold out long enough for Bragg to attack and retake the fort. Unfortunately the Confederate Navy personnel at the battery had left after spiking the guns. The battle for Fort Fisher was over and the victors “grasped each other’s hands and wept only as brave men can in the hour of victory.” The casualty figures bore out the reaction to the welcome relief. The six hour fight for the fort cost the attackers nearly 1500 casualties. The 203rd Pennsylvania alone suffered 187 men killed, wounded, or missing. The Confederate losses approximated 500 men killed and wounded. Another 1400 were made prisoner.
The Big Blast
The following morning the exhausted Federal soldiers were sleeping in while a few scavengers and site seers prowled the fort. The first hints of daylight revealed a scene of unbelievable horrors. One Navy officer visiting the shore was shocked at the view. He reported from atop the Northeast Bastion that around him “in every conceivable attitude lay the dead and mangled bodies of both Rebel and Union soldiers.” Even Congressional Medal of Honor winner, SGT Christian Fleetwood, of the 4th USCT found the dismembered bodies at the fort “enough to sicken the beholder.”
LT George Quimby, of the 4th New Hampshire, was another early morning riser touring the fort. He stumbled onto a group of men at the entrance to the main magazine. Quimby warned the men against the use of torches near the 13,000 pounds of powder stored there and walked away. The unidentified scavengers did not heed the warning. At 0730 the entire peninsula was rocked by a gigantic explosion. Because many of the dead from the previous nights battle still lay on the field it was difficult to gain an accurate count of just how many perished in the titanic blast. Terry reported 130 casualties (k, w, and m) from the incident but other estimates ranged as high as 265.
Rumors of Confederate sabotage spread among the survivors. Many wanted to exact revenge on the Confederate captives. After assurances from Whiting that none of his soldiers would do such a dastardly and cowardly deed calmer heads prevailed. LT Col Zent, who was conducting an inspection of the guards he had posted the previous night* had a more reasonable explanation. Zent joined a group in blaming the Marines for the mishap. He claimed he saw a group of marines enter the magazine with torches shortly before the explosion. It was yet another blow against the reputation of the Marine Corps during the operations against the fort. A Court of Inquiry was assembled to investigate the matter. After hearing and considering all the evidence the court issued a finding that softened the blow against the Marines.
The formal report blamed the explosion on “soldiers, sailors, and marines who were running about with lights in the fort, entering bombproofs with these lights, intoxicated, and discharging firearms.” They skillfully avoided placing the blame on any particular service by naming “persons unknown” as the culprits. The Marines escaped official blame for the deadly blast but they would not escape the criticism of their own commander.
*In the dark Zent had missed the entry to the magazine and it was left unguarded. It was a failure that would haunt him for the rest of his life.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)