Engagement Chronology

"Such A Hell of Noise"

Federal Infantry Attack on Fort Fisher - January 15, 1865

Federal Infantry Attack Fort Fisher January 15, 1865
Harper's Weekly

"The country will not forgive us for another failure at Wilmington." — Gustavus V. Fox, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Washington

"I hope that on any renewal of an attempt to land, the enemy will not be allowed to do so without opposition." — Maj. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting, (Senior Confederate Officer, Fort Fisher), to Braxton Bragg, January 8, 1865

Late December, 1864

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant chooses Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry — commander of the XXIV Corps, Army of the James — to lead the second expedition against Fort Fisher.

January 6, 1865

Morning
Army transports — carrying nearly 10,000 troops of the Federal Army of the James — depart Hampton Roads, Virginia.

January 12, 1865

Morning
Adm. David D. Porter's armada of 58 warships departs Beaufort, North Carolina, for Cape Fear.
Evening
Col. William Lamb observes the arrival of the fleet off Fort Fisher: "I saw from the ramparts of the fort the lights of the great armada, as one after another appeared above the horizon."

January 13, 1865

1:00 a.m.
By order of Gen. Braxton Bragg, the main body of Hoke's Division is en route by land from Wilmington to Sugar Loaf. (Kirkland's Brigade has preceded them by steamer on the Cape Fear River).
7:20 a.m.

A group of Union gunboats begins shelling the peninsula at a point four miles north of Fort Fisher — the area chosen by Terry as the new Federal landing zone.

The second massive bombardment of Fort Fisher begins. Porter's ironclad gunboats rain destruction on Fisher's land front. The fort's telegraph wires are soon severed. Dense smoke from the bombardment forces Confederate signal corps operators to move across the harbor to Smithville for communication via telegraph with Wilmington and Sugar Loaf.

See Map: Bombardment of Fort Fisher (60K)

8:00 a.m.

Using hundreds of gigs and launches, Union troops begin embarking from the transports for their second amphibious landing on Federal Point. The landing site is a narrow sand spit near Myrtle Sound (about one mile north of the previous landing zone of December 1864).

See Map: Opposing Lines on Federal Point (68K)

Hoke solidifies the Confederate line at Sugar Loaf, as thousands of Federal troops pour ashore. Fearful of weakening his own lines, and thereby opening the door to Wilmington, Hoke decides not to challenge the Federal landing.

Colonel Lamb receives a 700-man reinforcement of artillerymen and marines, swelling the garrison to approximately 1,550 men.

General Whiting arrives at Battery Buchanan and joins Lamb at Fort Fisher.

5:00 p.m.
Terry strikes southward with two brigades of U.S. Colored Troops (Paine's division) and two brigades of Adelbert Ames's division.
8:00 p.m.
Whiting wires Bragg: "[T]he enemy are on the beach, where they have been all day. Why are they not attacked?"

January 14, 1865

2:00 a.m.

Terry's Union forces are busy digging a strong line of entrenchments between Battery Anderson and the Cape Fear River. By 8:00 a.m., this crucial line spans the width of the peninsula.

See Map: Opposing Lines on Federal Point (68K)

Bragg probes this Union northern line with Hoke's Division, but Hoke quickly determines that the Federal position is too strong to attack successfully.

1:30 p.m.

Whiting impatiently lays his cards on the table for Bragg: "The game of the enemy is very plain to me . . . . I have received dispatches from you stating that the enemy had extended to the river-bank. This they never should have been allowed to do; and if they are permitted to remain there the reduction of Fort Fisher is but a question of time. This has been notified frequently both to yourself and to the Department. I will hold this place to the last extremities; but unless you drive that land force from its position I cannot answer for the security of this harbor."

Bragg replies that he will reinforce Fisher with a portion of Hoke's Division, and that this measure will render the fort "impregnable against assault."

Late Afternoon

General Terry and Federal Chief Engineer Cyrus Comstock arrive at Battery Holland. Terry reconnoiters Fort Fisher with brigade commander N. Martin Curtis, and determines that conditions are favorable for an infantry assault.

Admiral Porter embraces Terry's plan to attack the fort, and pledges to put a force of Union sailors and marines ashore to join the assault.

Nightfall

Most of the guns along Fort Fisher's northern battlements are in ruins — knocked to pieces by the Union naval bombardment.

January 15, 1865 — The Assault on Fort Fisher

"We are trustfully looking to your operations; may Divine favor crown your efforts." — Confederate president Jefferson Davis to Braxton Bragg, January 15, 1865

Pre-Dawn

The first reinforcements from Hoke's Division (21st South Carolina, Hagood's Brigade) arrive at Battery Buchanan.

Midday

The Union fleet has destroyed every gun on the land face of Fort Fisher, with the exception of two 8-inch columbiads.

The Federal troops of Adelbert Ames's division (approximately 4,200 men) move into position. Curtis's brigade is near Battery Holland, as the brigades of Galusha Pennypacker and Louis Bell reach the vicinity of Craig's Landing.

Gen. Alfred Terry once again establishes a command post at Battery Holland, 500 yards north of Fort Fisher.

At the height of the bombardment, portions of Hagood's 11th and 25th South Carolina Regiments are unloaded at Battery Buchanan. These scant reinforcements pick their way northward — with enemy shells bursting around them "like the roar of heavy peals of thunder." It is a nerve-shattering gauntlet of nearly two miles between Buchanan and the land front of Fort Fisher.

See Map: Bombardment of Fort Fisher (60K)

Admiral Porter's naval shore contingent, consisting of 2,261 sailors and marines, comes ashore on Federal Point.

2:00 p.m.

General Terry begins final preparations for the assault. A detachment of sharpshooters from the 13th Indiana Regiment — armed with Spencer repeating rifles — is deployed to provide fire support for Curtis's advance line of skirmishers (now within 175 yards of the western salient of Fort Fisher).

The main force of Curtis's brigade deploys 300 yards north of the fort. Pennypacker and Bell move in behind Curtis, in the vicinity of Battery Holland.

2:30 p.m.

Hagood's Confederate reinforcements reach the northern battlements of Fort Fisher. Of the 1,000 troops Bragg has sent to bolster Fisher's garrison, only a pathetic 350 have made it ashore and up to the fort. These final Confederate reinforcements increase Lamb's garrison force to 1,900 men.

3:25 p.m.

Following the lead of the flagship Malvern, the warships of the Federal fleet sound an ear-splitting, unison blast from their steam whistles. This ominous signal hails the commencement of the Union ground attack.

The naval bombardment subsides along the land front of Fort Fisher.

Lamb quickly deploys his Confederates along both ends of the fort's land front: 250 men at the western salient, and 500 men along the Northeast Bastion. Hagood's 350 South Carolinians are held in reserve in a commissary bombproof, with orders to support the troops at the salient.

Attack of the Naval Shore Contingent

"Such a hell of noise I never expect to hear again. Hundreds of shell[s] were in the air at once . . . all shrieking in a grand martial course that was a fitting accompaniment to the death dance of the hundreds about to fall." — Lt. Cmdr. William B. Cushing, USS Monticello, on the moments prior to the naval ground attack

Fleet Capt. K. R. Breese launches the Union ground attack with his naval shore contingent, without waiting to coordinate the assault with army infantry forces.

As the Union tars and leathernecks rush headlong to the palisades below the Northeast Bastion, Lamb's Confederates unleash a devastating fire at close range. Armed only with revolvers and cutlasses, and under a murderous fire from the fort, the naval contingent tries in vain to breach the rebel defenses.

General Whiting stands defiantly on the ramparts of the fort, barking orders, cursing, and challenging his men to kill the enemy.

The attackers are mauled severely, and forced back up the beach in a perfect rout.

Confederate defenders along the Northeast Bastion cheer wildly. This celebration evaporates, however, when Lamb and Whiting are stunned to see several large Union flags waving over the western salient of Fort Fisher.

See Map: Advance of the Naval Storming Party (66K)

Attack of Army Infantry Forces

"Not far in advance towered the frowning Fortress . . . and, though none saw, all knew, that above, in imperial majesty, sat the Angel of Death." — J. A. Mowris, surgeon, 117th New York Infantry

3:25 p.m.

As the Union naval column rushes toward the Northeast bastion, N. Martin Curtis yells a simple command: "Forward!" The First Brigade of Ames's division rises and attacks the western salient, running at full speed toward the great sand bastion.

Lamb's Confederates (under Maj. James Reilly) open fire with small arms, as rebel field artillery punishes the flanks of the attacking Federals.

Armed with heavy axes, and under a murderous fire, about 100 of Curtis's bluecoats begin chopping holes in the fort's palisades to make way for the infantry. (Damage to the fence from the naval bombardment is less severe in this area). Cheering wildly, Union soldiers begin pouring through the gaps, as rebel artillery thunders over the causeway leading to the western sally port.

Many of the Federals become mired in the deep slough along the causeway, directly below Shepherd's Battery. They are punished unmercifully.

A desperate, hand-to-hand struggle ensues, as Union troops begin to scale the walls of the western salient.

In the melee, a fiery N. Martin Curtis boards the fort, challenging his men to slay the enemy. Driven by sheer weight of numbers, the Federals pour over the crest of the battery. Shouting and cursing, the combatants of both sides club each other with their weapons and fists, and jab and slash with their bayonets.

The 117th New York plants its colors on the crest of Shepherd's Battery. By day's end, its fabric will be riddled with bullet holes.

3:35 p.m.

Pennypacker's Second Brigade joins the assault. And again, Southern artillery rakes the attackers with shell and canister.

Pennypacker's men rush up behind the rear elements of Curtis's brigade and begin clambering up the walls of Fort Fisher. The newcomers overlap the crowded base of Shepherd's Battery, and the 203rd Pennsylvania moves to force a passage at the western sally port.

Though fearfully punished at first, the 203rd Pennsylvania begins knocking down the sandbag wall at the gate, and pouring onto the parade ground behind the fort. All Confederate efforts to bring in reinforcements fail, as Union attackers on the battlements fire at close range on the rebel gunners below.

The Confederates are outnumbered, and fail to successfully defend the fort at it's most vulnerable point — the riverside gate. The Parrott rifle near the river marsh and the 12-pounder Napoleon at the gate soon fall silent.

In desperation, the Confederates unleash a long-range fire from guns at Battery Buchanan, at the base of the peninsula. These incoming rounds rain down on the western salient, killing and maiming friend and foe alike.

Brigade commander Galusha Pennypacker (age 20) plants the colors of the 97th Pennsylvania on the third traverse of Fort Fisher, and is immediately knocked out of action with a severe wound. All eight of the 97th's officers are cut down on the parapet, together with many of the leading officers of other Union regiments. Nearby, Col. John Moore (age 25), commanding the 203rd, is mortally wounded.

The Confederates are forced back along the battlements, and onto the parade ground below.

As Pennypacker's men force their way through the riverside gate, General Ames enters the fort with his staff. Surveying the ruins in rear of the fort, he observes pockets of enemy defenders collecting among the shell craters and debris of ruined barracks and other buildings. Ames also notes that the Union advance on the battlements is losing momentum at the fourth traverse.

Ames determines to call in the Third Brigade, and proposes to deploy an organized force in rear of Fort Fisher, to push eastward toward the Northeast Bastion.

3:50 p.m.

Bell's Third Brigade joins the assault. The attackers are raked with a hot fire from rebel sharpshooters along the battlements. Colonel Bell, felled by a bullet in the chest before crossing the causeway, never makes it into the fort.

Bell's men, however, pour across the bridge and mass behind the western salient. Some of the troops join their comrades on the battlements of Fort Fisher, and Bell's standard-bearers rush to plant their flags on the ramparts. Soon, the colors of the 115th New York, 13th Indiana, 169th New York, and 4th New Hampshire are floating above the salient.

4:00 p.m.

More than 4,000 Union troops are crowding the base, slopes, and walls of the western salient, and pouring onto the parade ground behind the fort. Lamb's Confederates are in serious trouble.

See Map: Attack of Army Ground Forces (60K)

As Confederate defenders along the Northeast Bastion repulse the naval storming party, Whiting impulsively orders a counterattack on Union army ground forces at the western salient.

Whiting is seriously wounded at the third traverse.

The Federals gain the fourth traverse.

William Lamb — holding out hope for assistance from Braxton Bragg and Hoke's Division — assesses his options for a final defense of the fort.

Whiting wires Bragg: "We still hold the fort, but are sorely pressed. Can't you assist us from the outside?"

The fort's parade ground is teeming with a dense mass of Union infantry — a force lying down for cover against bursting shells from both sides.

With the Federal advance stalled, Union ironclad warships launch a barrage of shellfire on Confederate-held portions of the fort's land face. The tide of battle begins to turn, as Confederate defenders on the mounds are forced backward toward the redan.

Lamb beseeches all available forces — including the tired, sick, and wounded — to aide in a last-ditch counterattack on the Federals. He collects a small force in rear of the main sally port, but the counterattack never materializes. Lamb is seriously wounded just as he gives the order to charge.

4:30 p.m.

The remnants of the naval shore contingent replace Abbott's brigade on the Union northern line, and Abbott moves to reinforce Federal troops at Fort Fisher.

4:30 p.m.

Shortly after 4:30, Lamb joins the wounded Whiting in the hospital bombproof beneath the Pulpit.

Lamb sends for Maj. James Reilly, who assumes command of the final defense of Fort Fisher.

Reilly assembles some 150 men in rear of the main sally port (including some of Hagood's South Carolinians), but a counterattack is squelched immediately. Two-thirds of Reilly's force is cut down by a destructive fire from the enemy, and the survivors fall back toward the Northeast Bastion.

4:45 p.m.

Union soldiers have captured seven traverses on the fort's land face.

As Reilly's men fall back, Union forces on the parade ground reach a position opposite their comrades on the mounds to their left.

At the seventh traverse, N. Martin Curtis senses that Union victory is near at hand.

At this critical juncture, General Ames wants to entrench for the night, while Curtis pushes to finish the job.

5:30 p.m.

Curtis is borne from the field, having been seriously wounded while attempting to secure reinforcements in rear of the western salient.

Sundown
The Federal advance slows, and the ferocity of the battle subsides along the land front. General Terry orders Gen. Charles Paine to send one of his best regiments to the front — and the 27th U.S. Colored Troops head toward Fort Fisher
6:00 p.m.
Troops of Abbott's Union brigade pour through the riverside gate of Fort Fisher.
6:30 p.m.
Whiting sends a final desperate plea to Braxton Bragg at Sugar Loaf: "The enemy are assaulting us by land and sea. Their infantry outnumber us. Can't you help us? I am slightly wounded."
7:00 p.m.
General Terry arrives at Fort Fisher with chief engineer Cyrus Comstock. Comstock suggests that the Federals not compromise the strength of their northern line by committing Paine's division to the assault. Terry agrees, and resolves to finish the job with Abbott's brigade.
7:00 p.m.
Braxton Bragg dismisses rumors, via Battery Lamb across the river, that the Federals have captured Fort Fisher.
8:00 p.m.
Confederate resistance is on its last legs.
8:00 p.m.
Braxton Bragg reports from Sugar Loaf to authorities in Wilmington that all is under control at Fort Fisher.
9:00 p.m.
Having determined to remove General Whiting from the equation altogether, Bragg dispatches Gen. Alfred Colquitt to take command at Fisher. Colquitt and three staff officers depart Sugar Loaf in a small rowboat.
9:00 p.m.

The Federal mop-up operation is underway, as Abbott's brigade is ordered to clear the mounds of their remaining defenders.

See Map: Advance of Abbott's Brigade (72K)

Reilly evacuates the injured Lamb and Whiting to Battery Buchanan, at the base of the peninsula.

The final union push on the open plain behind the fort forces Reilly's remaining Confederates to retreat southward toward Buchanan.

As remnants of the garrison begin arriving in the vicinity, Capt. Robert Chapman's small force at Buchanan beats a hasty retreat, and vanishes with the small boats docked along the nearby wharf.

9:30 p.m.

The 27th U.S. Colored Troops are ordered to advance. Joining regiments of Abbott's brigade, the 27th USCT marches southward down the peninsula, along the sea face, toward Battery Buchanan.

Maj. James Reilly, now totally out of options, awaits the inevitable.

General Colquitt comes ashore some 500 yards north of Battery Buchanan, and immediately dismisses reports from locals and garrison remnants that Fort Fisher has fallen to the enemy.

Colquitt travels downriver to Battery Buchanan to confer with Lamb and Whiting.

At Buchanan, the signs of defeat are unmistakable, as hundreds of disheveled Confederates continue to arrive at the lower peninsula.

Clueless, Colquitt asks Lamb what can be done to save the fort. Lamb — ever the optimist — replies that a fresh brigade of Confederate troops might yet turn the tide in their favor.

Shouts of triumph from the Federals are clearly audible along the lower peninsula.

A dark mass of Union infantry — Abbott's men and the 27th USCT — suddenly becomes visible in the brilliant moonlight, as the Federals bear down on Battery Buchanan.

Colquitt and his entourage beat a hasty retreat, and row frantically away from Buchanan, as the skirmish line of the 27th USCT passes within 30 yards of the wharf.

Alfred Terry soon arrives to receive the official surrender from General Whiting.

Terry, riding a captured horse back northward toward Fisher, accepts a large garrison flag — filched from atop the Mound Battery — as a prize of war.

10:00 p.m.

The air above the Atlantic is alive with rockets and fireworks of all colors, as Union forces celebrate the capture of Fort Fisher.

See Map: Surrender at Battery Buchanan (66K)

January 16, 1865

1:00 a.m.

Braxton Bragg wires Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia: "I am mortified at having to report the unexpected capture of Fort Fisher, with most of its garrison, at about 10 o'clock to-night. Particulars not known."

The same message goes out to Confederate president Jefferson Davis and North Carolina governor Zebulon B. Vance.

Davis is stunned. "The intelligence is sad as it was unexpected," replies the president. "Can you retake the fort? If anything is to be done you will appreciate the necessity of its being attempted without a moment's delay."

Dawn

First light reveals the awful carnage of the battle, as mangled men and machinery are visible in every direction.

Fort Fisher's main magazine explodes, killing about 200 men of both sides.

Afternoon

Federal Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, en route to Washington, arrives unexpectedly at Federal Point. General Terry presents Stanton with Fort Fisher's garrison flag.

"You will be pleased to know," Stanton tells President Abraham Lincoln, "that perfect harmony and concert of action existed between [our] land and naval forces . . . . Admiral Porter and General Terry vied in the commendation each of the other."

STEAMER S. R. SPAULDING
Off Fort Fisher, January 16, 1865

The Secretary of War has the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the flag of Fort Fisher, and in the name of the President congratulates you and the gallant officers and soldiers, sailors, and marines of your commands, and tenders you thanks for the valor and skill displayed in your respective parts of the great achievement in the operations against Fort Fisher and in its assault and capture. The combined operations of the squadron and land forces of your commands deserve and will receive the thanks of the nation, and will be held in admiration throughout the world as proof of the naval and military prowess of the United States."

Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of War

Major-General TERRY and
Rear-Admiral PORTER,
Commanding, etc.


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