February 11 – 15
A first glance Schofield’s proposal seemed an ill considered repeat of operations that had already been conducted against the strongest portion of the Confederate defense. Terry’s previous reconnaissance had revealed nothing but a sturdy line of earthworks manned by veteran troops. There appeared little hope for a successful attack and plenty of reason to fear major losses in the effort. Nevertheless Terry’s troops’ were ordered forward while Porter’s shallow water fleet bombarded Fort Anderson.
The Union line was made up of COL Elias Wright’s 3rd Brigade of USCT soldiers on the far left against the river. The center was held by MG Ames’ division, the right by COL J. Ames 2nd Brigade USCT and COL Abbott’s New Englanders. While MG Ames got bogged down in a swamp, BG Paine’s USCT brigades, in an impressive display of skirmishing, pushed the Confederate pickets back into the line of defenses at Sugar Loaf. After a “lively and interesting fight“ that claimed 42 USCT casualties (16k and 26w) the Union line came within small arms range of Hoke’s main line and stopped. The real purpose of Schofield’s plan had been attained. There would be no attack nor would there be a retreat. The Federal line was ordered to dig in. With such a threat in his immediate front Hoke would be unable to weaken his line to reinforce the main target, Fort Anderson across the river.
On the far right of the Federal advance Abbott’s advance was made so easily * that LTC Comstock, Chief Engineer, formed a creative plan for flanking the enemy works. Comstock believed that the Confederate position could be turned by using pontoon boats to shuttle troops across Myrtle Sound in the night. By placing a large force behind the works Hoke would be forced to weaken his line by dispatching troops to deal with the new threat. Not quite ready to attack Fort Anderson, Schofield agreed to the plan.
COL Rufus Daggett’s Brigade (3rd NY, 112th NY, 117th NY, and 142nd NY) was moved onto the tiny spit of land that jutted out to form Myrtle Sound and awaited the arrival of the pontoons. Unfortunately the move was made on “one of the stormiest nights of the season” and the pontoons could not be landed. The men were marched back soaked and disappointed. Comstock continued to champion the idea and Schofield decided to make another attempt. Although the foul weather continued a plan to haul the boats by wagon to the launch site was approved. The boats were put ashore on the 13th and prepared for a land movement. At 1600 on the 14th the clumsy boat began their journey north. Again weather played havoc with the plan. By midnight the train had barely managed to reach Terry’s new line. The men and animals started to think less of the mission and before long the train was stretched out. It was soon evident that no crossing could occur before the morning light and campfires on the far side of the sound indicated that the plan would no longer be a surprise. The operation was cancelled. The trip back was no more pleasant than the trip out. A hard rain started and the exhausted men and teams struggled mightily to return. After 13 hours of continuous labor the last wagon was recovered at the starting point. The west bank strategy was renewed as the primary focus of operations.
The failure of the Comstock initiative coincided with the arrival of the remaining two divisions of XXIII Corps. Now sufficiently reinforced Schofield could consider his primary objective: Fort Anderson. The new troops were shuttled across the Cape Fear River to Smithville*to begin forming the assault force against the enemy works. As a preliminary, while the rest of Schofield’s men arrived, LTC Albert Barney of the 142nd New York was ordered to lead a reconnaissance out of town to the north and Fort Anderson. The advance was met by a small cavalry detachment from the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry, under COL Thomas Lipscomb. The Confederate troopers were able to prevent the Federals from reaching the fort but Barney was able to make a full report on the routes and topographical obstacles that would be encountered in a direct assault.
By the 17th 6,000 troops, including one battery (D) of the 1st Ohio Light Artillery were ready to make their move. Skirmishers of the 16th Kentucky brushed aside efforts by Lipscomb’s troopers to slow the advance. Led by local slaves two columns reunited near the river and began the final push to the fort under covering fire from Porter’s river flotilla. The Confederate gunners joined in the exchange and badly wounded five sailors on the Pequot. Otherwise the bombardment accomplished nothing. Only one defender was wounded and the advancing infantry column was well observed. The Federals dug in only a ½ mile from the enemy fort.
It was apparent from the days of the activities that the navy could render little assistance in silencing the guns at the fort. The limiting factors of the river; narrow, shallow and full of torpedoes: would not allow the ships bearing the necessary large guns to be used to their full effect. Only a long range covering fire from the smaller boats would be available. To discover the best course of action Schofield ordered a reconnaissance in force for the 18th.
By 0700 three brigades of Cox’s division were ready to try the defenses. Confederate skirmishers gave ground grudgingly but were pushed back to within150 yards of the fort. The inaccurate fire of the supporting naval bombardment created as many problems for the Federals as the enemy. The ground proved totally unsuitable for an attack. The best that could be done was to establish a line in front of the fort to hold the defenders in place and the “resumption of the original purpose.”
Fortunately for Cox and his attacking troops the fort offered a perfectly legitimate alternative. Fort Anderson had a serious flaw. It was linear in design and like any line had an end point. Because, like Fort Fisher, it was not closed and an attacker simply had to find the open end and go around. Unlike Fort Fisher there was no natural restriction to prevent an easy passage. At the western end was Orton’s Pond. The pond extended to the southwest for several miles and to flank the fort a lengthy march around the pond would have to be made. In conventional military thinking the time expended on such a march would allow for the deployment of forces to meet them using the shorter inside line. But the commander of the fort, the rugged South Carolina veteran BG Johnson Hagood, had few forces with which to make such a counter move. Schofield understood this and set the flanking march as his main course of action. While the line in front of the fort made a good show two brigades, COL John Casement and COL Oscar Sterl, began the march around the pond.
Hagood was also very aware of the limitations of his charge. He understood that a flanking movement would be tried and sent about 100 cavalrymen to watch for the Federals. As expected the Union column appeared at the tip of Orton’s Pond. The Tar Heel troopers briefly contested the passage of Moore’s Creek before yielding to overwhelming numbers. A report was sent to Hagood who inexplicably sent only a single gun to reinforce the cavalry. He continued to concentrate on the more imminent threat in front of the fort.
By 2200 Hagood knew the hope of defending Fort Anderson was gone. He was outnumbered 3 to 1 with an enemy column threatening his rear and a hostile fleet pounding his position. If he waited any longer his opportunity to retreat might be lost. He sent a message to Hoke** stating “I must abandon this position.”
Hoke’s approval for the abandonment of the fort arrived at 0248 and the evacuation began immediately. The dawn attack was barely opposed and Federal troops crowded into the empty fort. Porter’s vessels, unaware of the departure of the Confederate garrison, renewed their bombardment at daybreak. The Union forces now occupying the fort went into a panic and rushed to river bank waving anything they could find to get the shelling to stop. After a brief flurry the US navy accepted the surrender of the US Army and lifted the barrage. Fort Anderson fell without a fight.
*Smithville and Fort Pender like the other outer works had been abandoned following the loss of Fort Fisher.
** Hoke was in overall command as Bragg had departed for a conference in Richmond.