Wilmington Part 10

The Campaign Continues

After the fall of Fort Fisher there was no need to hold any of the remaining exterior works on the peninsula. They were isolated and far too small to make a successful defense against the combined might of the Federal army and navy. The Confederate defense was consolidated at Sugar Loaf on the east side of the Cape Fear River and Fort Anderson on the west. Terry’s battered Union forces also settled in at their prize and both sides licked their wounds as they planned for the next move. By terry’s account the losses at the fort had equalized the opposing forces at about 8500 men. Hoke was now firmly entrenched in the Sugar Loaf defenses and he felt he did not have enough to make a successful assault there. A direct assault on Wilmington was out of the question. The Federal command duo, Terry and Porter, decided on a rest, resupply, and recuperate policy. Porter was anxious to rearm and refuel his fleet for a move into the Cape Fear River. Terry put his detachment of 15th New York Engineers to work rebuilding the Fort Fisher defenses.

To confirm his suspicions about the Confederate line at Sugar Loaf Terry mounted a reconnaissance on January 18th. A brigade of USCT (4th, 6th, 30th, and 39th) moved directly against the Confederate line while a 291 man detail from the 7th New Hampshire (250 men) and 7th Connecticut (41 men) made a supporting effort up the beach, under now Brevet BG Joseph Abbott. Abbott moved his men to the base of Myrtle Sound under the fire of the Governor Buckingham. They crossed the shallow water and were able to surprise and capture about 50 prisoners from the enemy picket. They linked up with Ames troops, who had been skirmishing with the Confederate pickets for nearly three hours. They could go no further against the stubborn resistance offered by Hoke’s men. After 35 casualties (1 k, 29 w, and 1 m) they fell back. Terry was convinced that an assault against Hoke’s line would fail. The two sides fell into a stalemate, each not powerful enough to attack the other.

The lack of significant action at Wilmington caught the attention of Grant. The objective of the campaign had been Wilmington, not Fort Fisher, and he was suddenly eager to see that objective pursued. He now saw Wilmington not as a Confederate supply source but a possible logistical hub for a move in support of Sherman. On 28 January he departed the Army of the Potomac and travelled to North Carolina to consult with the command team there. In a conference aboard the Malvern he accepted Terry’s view on the impossibility of assaulting Hoke’s defenses. A proposal to approach the city from the west bank of the river was adopted. To ensure success they first had to reinforce the effort.

Grant had anticipated the need for troops to continue the campaign. He had already ordered XXIII Corps to North Carolina from Tennessee. In a rapid reorganization the Department of North Carolina was reconstituted with the XXIII Corps commander, MG John M. Schofield, at its head. Although Terry and Porter were rankled by being superseded they immediately began preparing for Schofield’s arrival. Porter assembled a small fleet of shallow draft vessels for the incursion into the river that he knew was coming. Terry regained some of his detached elements from Virginia as well as a small cavalry detachment. The first of Schofield’s troops began arriving on February 6th. With the addition of MG Jacob Cox’s 3rd Division of XXIII Corps the Union forces could claim about 13,500 troops available. With Sherman on the move Schofield decided not to wait for the remainder of his troops. He would move against Wilmington with the forces on hand. Operations would begin, not across the river, but with another test of Hoke’s Sugar Loaf defenses.


The Federal forces had much to celebrate after their hard fought triumph at Fort Fisher, but for one Union commander it was time to cast blame. Faced with justifying the appalling losses of the naval assault Admiral Porter instead assigned a scapegoat for the failure. His initial report placed the onus of the staggering losses on the Marines involved. He explained that the losses could have been minimized if the marines “could have cleared the parapets by keeping up a steady fire, but they failed to do so and the sailors were repulsed.”

In his detailed report to Secretary of the navy Gideon Welles on 17 January he continued his attack on the marines stating that they “were to have held the rifle pits and cover the boarding party, which they failed to do.” The report contained more accusations concerning their performance and to add the weight of his rank to these included a personal note.

“I witnessed the whole affair; saw how recklessly the rebels exposed themselves, and what advantage they gave our sharpshooters, whose guns were scarcely fired; or fired with no precision.”

Instead of a gallant victory the sailors were slaughtered as they were “swept from the parapet like chaff”. Porter thought the destructive fire coming from the fort could have been avoided “had the marines performed their duty.” The on shore commander echoed the accusations of his boss. LT Commander Breese’s report on the assault accuses the marines of failing “to occupy their position” giving the Confederates on the fort “almost unmolested fire on us.” He concluded by stating “I can but attribute the failure of the assault to the absence of the marines from their position.”

The reports created a flurry of letters that attempted to justify the marine’s actions and further impugned them. Already upset by the rumors of marine involvement in the deadly magazine explosion the senior marine officer on the beach, CPT L. L. Dawson, was further infuriated by Porter’s two reports. On January 27th he saw fit to forward copies of Porter’s reports to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, COL Jacob Zeilin, for his “perusal”. Accompanying the reports were two lengthy reports of his own explaining his actions in great detail. Included was the suggestion that the scene would have “appeared very differently to the admiral who was near a mile off” in his command ship. Porter did not like having his opinion questioned and that “some of your Corps are venting their ill humor on me in the newspapers” so he wrote to COL John at the Marine Barracks in Brooklyn, N.Y. He did not back down from his contention that the marines were responsible for the failure stating;

“… the marines as a body did not come forward…”
“…they could have easily cleared the parapets…”
“…marines never came up nearer than 600 yards to the fort…”
“…the moment the marines halted they broke and did not stop until they were out of gunshot…”

He finished his letter by firing back at Dawson.

“Marines are as good as any other soldiers, and should be better; but something was wrong on this occasion, and as I received no report from Captain Dawson I don’t know what it was.”

It was a very thinly veiled slap at Dawson’s leadership on the beach. But Dawson was on the bottom rung of the rank ladder here and was apparently ordered to make an official report to Porter. It must have galled him to do so.

On February 15th his report arrived on Porter’s desk. Although he felt that a “manifest injustice to the marines” had been done he exhibited all the requisite restraint in his report. He detailed the movements of his men and accounted for the orders that precipitated those movements, most from LT Commander Breese. In the end military decorum allowed him to make only a feeble defense of his actions.

“I obeyed all the orders I received from Captain Breese promptly and exerted myself all I could to make the assault successful…”

Porter’s accusations were never revoked. The slaughter on the beach was written off as a highly successful, if not costly, diversionary attack made by the navy despite the cooperation of the marines. No mention of the poor plan, lack of adequate arms, or poor command decisions by Breese was made. CPT Dawson received a brevet promotion to major for “gallant and meritorious service at the attack upon Fort Fisher”. He resigned from the Corps 20 December 1880.

Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)



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