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The Navy at Fort Fisher.

by Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., Captain, U. S. N.
When the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Welles, recognizing the importance of closing the port of Wilmington, urged upon President Lincoln to direct a cooperation of the army, General Grant was requested to supply the necessary force from the troops about Richmond. As Fort Fisher lay within the territorial jurisdiction of General Butler, commanding the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, the troops were detailed from his command, and in the first attack Butler, with General Weitzel in immediate command of the troops, had control of the land operations. The naval command of the expedition having been declined by Admiral Farragut, on account of ill-health, Rear-Admiral Porter, who had so successfully cooperated with the army in opening the Mississippi, was selected, and was allowed to bring with him five of his officers, of whom the writer was one, being detailed for the command of the gun-boat Huron. The Atlantic and Gulf coasts being almost entirely in our possession, the Navy Department was able to concentrate before Fort Fisher a larger force than had ever before assembled under one command in the history of the American navy — a total of nearly 60 vessels [see p. 662], of which five were iron-clads, including the New Ironsides, besides the three largest of our steam-frigates, viz., the Minnesota, Colorado, and Wabash. The fleet arrived in sight of the fort on the morning of December 20th.1

A novel feature of this first attack was the explosion of a powder-boat near the fort on the night of December 23d. The vessel was the Louisiana, an old gun-boat no longer serviceable. The more sanguine believed that Fort Fisher, with its garrison, guns, and equipment, would be leveled to the ground, while others were equally certain it would prove a fizzle. Commander A. C. Rhind, with a crew of volunteers, successfully performed the perilous duty, and, applying the match at midnight, the crew rowed safely away to the Wilderness, a swift gun-boat, in waiting. The whole fleet having moved off shore, under low steam, awaited the result in anxiety. A glare on the horizon and a dull report were the indications that the floating mine had been sprung. In the morning, when the fleet steamed in, all eyes were toward the fort. There it was, as grim as ever, apparently uninjured, with its flag floating as defiantly as before. In these days, with better electrical appliances, the explosion could have been made more nearly instantaneous, but I doubt if the general result would have been different.

The powder-boat proving an ignominious failure, the fleet stood in toward the fort in close order of divisions, the iron-clads leading. At 11:30 the signal was thrown out from the flag-ship Malvern : “Engage the enemy.” The Ironsides, followed by

Captain T. O. Selfridge, Jr. From a photograph.


The bombardment of Fort Fisher, January 15, 1865. taken from Lithographs.

[657] the monitors, took position as close in as their draught would permit, engaging the north-east face. The Ironsides was followed by the Minnesota, Colorado, and Wabash. The enemy replied briskly, but when these frigates found the range and commenced firing rapidly nothing could withstand their broadsides of twenty-five 9-inch guns. It was a magnificent sight to see these frigates fairly engaged, and one never to be forgotten. Their sides seemed a sheet of flame, and the roar of their guns like a mighty thunderbolt. Meanwhile all the other ships took positions as detailed, and so perfect were the plans of the admiral, and so well were they carried out by his captains, that not a mishap took place. Nothing could withstand such a storm of shot and shell as was now poured into this fort. The enemy took refuge in their bomb-proofs, replying sullenly with an occasional gun. The enemy's fire being silenced, signal was made to fire with deliberation, and attention was turned to the dismounting of the guns. So quickly had the guns of Fort Fisher been silenced2 that not a man had been injured by their fire, though several ships had sustained losses by the bursting of their 100-pounder Parrott rifles. The Mackinaw, however, had had her boiler exploded by a shot, and several of her crew had been scalded, and the Osceola was struck by a shell near her magazine, but was saved from sinking by her captain, Commander Clitz.

During the bombardment the transports, with troops, arrived from Beaufort. On Christmas day, as agreed upon between Admiral Porter and General Butler, the smaller vessels were engaged in covering the disembarkation of the troops, while the iron-clads and frigates were sent in to resume the bombardment of the fort. The larger portion of the army was landed by the boats of the fleet and advanced with little or no opposition to within a short distance of the fort, the skirmish-line within

Captain K. R. Breese. From a photograph.

Major General A. H. Terry. From a photograph.

fifty yards. Butler and Weitzel decided that it could not be taken by assault. Orders were issued to reembark after being on shore but a few hours. Some seven hundred men were left on shore, the sea being too rough to get them off, but the demoralized enemy did not attempt to attack them. They were taken off in the morning, and the transports steamed away for Hampton Roads, the fleet returning to Beaufort. Thus ended the first attack upon Fort Fisher. Words cannot express the bitter feeling and chagrin of the navy. We all felt the fruit was ripe for plucking and with little exertion would have fallen into the hands of the army.

Second attack upon Fort Fisher.

Upon receiving Admiral Porter's dispatches, Mr. Welles again sought the cooperation of the army, to which General Grant at once acceded, sending back the same force of white troops, reenforced [658]

Assault of the naval column on the North-east salient of Fort Fisher.

by two colored brigades under General Charles J. Paine, the whole under the command of Major-General Alfred H. Terry. While lying at Beaufort, Admiral Porter determined to assist in the land attack of the army by an assault upon the sea-face of Fort Fisher with a body of seamen. In a general order volunteers from the fleet were called for, and some two thousand officers and men offered themselves for this perilous duty.

General Terry arrived off Beaufort [see map, p. 629] with his forces on the 8th of January, 1865, a plan of operations was agreed upon, and the 12th was fixed for the sailing of the combined force.

Upon the morning of the 13th the iron-clads were sent in to engage the fort. Going in much closer than before, the monitors were within twelve hundred yards of the fort. Their fire was in consequence much more effective.

The remainder of the fleet were occupied till 2 P. M. in landing the troops and stores. This particular duty, the provisioning of the army, and the protection of its flank was afterward turned over to the lighter gun-boats, whose guns were too small to employ them in the bombardment of the fort, the whole under the charge of Commander J. H. Upshur, commanding the gun-boat A. D. Vance.

On the afternoon of the 13th the fleet, excepting the iron-clads, which had remained in their first positions close to the fort, steamed into the several positions assigned them and opened a terrific fire. By placing a buoy close to the outer reef, as a guide, the leading ship, the Minnesota, was enabled to anchor nearer, and likewise the whole battle-line was much closer and their fire more effective, the best proof of which is the large number of guns upon the land-face of the fort that was found to be destroyed or dismounted.3 The weight of fire was such that the enemy could make but a feeble reply. At nightfall the fleet hauled off, excepting the iron-clads, which kept up a slow fire through the night.

During the 14th a number of the smaller gunboats carrying 1-inch guns were sent in to assist in dismounting the guns on the land-face. Their fire was necessarily slow, and the presence of these small craft brought the enemy out of their bomb-proofs to open upon them, during which the Huron had her main-mast shot away. Upon seeing this renewal of fire, the Brooklyn, Mohican, and one or two other vessels were ordered in by Porter, and with this reenforcement the fire of the fort slackened. The bombardment from the smaller gunboats and iron-clads was kept up during the night. This constant duty day and night was very hard upon these small vessels, and the officers and crew of my own vessel, the Huron, were worn out.

Fort Fisher was at this time much stronger than at the first attack. The garrison had been reenforced by veteran troops, damages by the first bombardment had been repaired, and new defenses added; among which was a battery of light pieces in a half-moon around the sally-port, from whose fire the sailors suffered heavily in their assault.4

It was arranged that the grand bombardment should begin on the morning of the 15th, and the separate assaults of soldiers and sailors should take place at 3 P. M. A code of signals was agreed upon between the two commanders, and the assault was to be signaled to the fleet by a blowing of steam-whistles, whereupon their fire would be directed to the upper batteries. After the assault of the sailors had failed the Ironsides used her 1-inch guns with great effect in firing into the traverses filled with Confederates resisting the advance of the Union forces. At 9 A. M. the fleet was directed [659] by signal to move in three divisions, and each ship took its prescribed place as previously indicated to her commander; consequently there was no disorder.

All felt the importance of this bombardment, and while not too rapid to be ineffective such a storm of shell was poured into Fort Fisher, that forenoon, as I believe had never been seen before in any naval engagement. The enemy soon ceased to make any reply from their heavy guns, excepting the “Mound Battery,” which was more difficult to silence, while those mounted on the land-face were by this time disabled. [See note, p. 658.]

Before noon the signal was made for the assaulting column of sailors and marines to land. From thirty-five of the sixty ships of the fleet boats shoved off, making, with their flags flying as they pulled toward the beach in line abreast, a most spirited scene. The general order of Admiral Porter required that the assaulting column of sailors should be armed with cutlasses and pistols. It was also intended that trenches or covered ways should be dug for the marines close to the fort and that our assault should be made under the cover of their fire; but it was impossible to dig such shelter trenches near enough to do much good under fire in broad daylight.

The sailors as they landed from their boats were a heterogeneous assembly, companies of two hundred or more from each of the larger ships, down to small parties of twenty each from the gun-boats. They had been for months confined on shipboard, had never drilled together, and their arms, the old-fashioned cutlass and pistol, were hardly the weapons to cope with the rifles and bayonets of the enemy. Sailor-like, however, they looked upon the landing in the light of a lark, and few thought the sun would set with a loss of one-fifth of their number.

After some discussion between the commander, Lieutenant-Commander K. R. Breese, and the senior officers, it was decided to form three divisions, each composed of the men from the corresponding division squadrons of the fleet; the first division, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cushman, the second under Lieutenant-Commander James Parker (who was Breese's senior but waived his rank, the latter being in command as the admiral's representative), the third under Lieutenant-Commander T. O. Selfridge, Jr.; a total of 1600 blue jackets, to which was added a division of 400 marines under Captain L. L. Dawson.

The whole force marched up the beach and lay down under its cover just outside rifle range, awaiting the movements of the army. We were formed by the flank, and our long line flying numerous flags gave a formidable appearance from the fort, and caused the Confederates to divide their forces, sending more than one-half to oppose the naval assault.

At a preconcerted signal the sailors sprang forward to the assault, closely following the water's edge, where the inclined beach gave them a

Commander James Parker. From a photograph.

slight cover. We were opened upon in front by the great mound battery, and in flank by the artillery of the half-moon battery, and by the fire of a thousand rifles. Though many dropped rapidly under this fire, the column never faltered, and when the angle where the two faces of the fort unite was reached the head halted to allow the rear to come up. This halt was fatal, for as the others came up they followed suit and lay down till the space between the parapet and the edge of the water was filled. As the writer approached with the Third Division he shouted to his men to come on, intending to lead them to where

North-east salient of Fort Fisher, showing on the left the ground over which the naval column charged. From a photograph.

[660] there was more space; but, looking back, he discovered that his whole command, with few exceptions, had stopped and joined their comrades.

Lieutenant Samuel W. Preston. From a photograph.

Making his way to the front, close to the palisade, he found several officers, among whom were Lieutenant-Commanders Parker and Cushman. The situation was a very grave one. The rush of the sailors was over; they were packed like sheep in a pen, while the enemy were crowding the ramparts not forty yards away, and shooting into them as fast as they could fire. There was nothing to reply with but pistols. Something must be done, and speedily. There were some spaces in the palisade where it was torn away by the fire of the fleet, and an attempt was made to charge through, but we found a deep, impassable ditch,5 and those who got through were shot down. Flesh and blood could not long endure being killed in this slaughter-pen, and the rear of the sailors broke, followed by the whole body, in spite of all efforts to rally them. It was certainly mortifying, after charging for a mile,6 under a most galling fire, to the very foot of the fort, to have the whole force retreat down the beach. It has been the custom, unjustly in my opinion, to lay the blame on the marines for not keeping down the fire till the sailors could get in. But there were but 400 of them against 1200 of the garrison: the former in the open plain, and with no cover; the latter under the shelter of their ramparts.7 The mistake was in expecting a body of sailors, collected hastily from different ships, unknown to each other, armed with swords and pistols, to stand against veteran soldiers armed with rifles and bayonets. Another fatal mistake was the stopping at the sea angle. Two hundred yards farther would have brought us to a low parapet without palisade or ditch, where, with proper arms, we could have intrenched and fought. Some sixty remained at the front, at the foot of the parapet, under cover of the palisade, until nightfall enabled them to withdraw. Among the number I remember Lieutenant-Commanders Breese, Parker, Cushman, Sicard; Lieutenants Farquhar, Lamson, S. W. Nichols, and Bartlett.

A loss of some three hundred in killed and wounded attests the gallant nature of the assault. Among these were several prominent officers, including Lieutenants Preston and Porter, killed; Lieutenant-Commanders C. H. Cushman, W. N. Allen, Lieutenant G. M. Bache, wounded.

After their repulse the sailors did good service with the marines by manning the intrenchments thrown up across the peninsula, which enabled General Terry to send Abbott's brigade and Blackman's (27th U. S.) colored regiment to the assistance of the troops fighting in the fort. Here they remained till morning, when they returned to their respective ships. When the assault of the column failed, the Ironsides and the monitors were directed to fire into the gun traverses in advance of the positions occupied by the army, and by doing so greatly demoralized the enemy. About 8 P. M. that night the fort fell into our hands after the hardest fighting by our gallant troops, and with its capture fell the last strong-hold

Lieutenant Benjamin H. Porter. From a photograph.

[661] of the Southern Confederacy on the Atlantic coast.

I will not go so far as to say the army could not have stormed Fort Fisher without the diversion afforded by the naval assault, for no soldiers during the war showed more indomitable pluck than the gallant regiments that stormed the fort on that afternoon; but I do say our attack enabled them to get into the fort with far less loss than they would otherwise have suffered.

As a diversion the charge of sailors was a success; as an exhibition of courage it was magnificent; but the material of which the column was composed, and the arms with which it was furnished, left no reasonable hope after the first onslaught had been checked that it could have succeeded.

While kept under the walls of the fort, I was an eye-witness to an act of heroism on the part of Assistant-Surgeon William Longshaw, a young officer of the medical staff, whose memory should ever be kept green by his corps, and which deserves more than this passing notice. A sailor too severely wounded to help himself had fallen close to the water's edge, and with the rising tide would have drowned. Dr. Longshaw, at the peril of his life, went to his assistance and dragged him beyond the incoming tide. At this moment he heard a cry from a wounded marine, one of a small group who, behind a little hillock of sand close to the parapet, kept up a fire upon the enemy. Longshaw ran to his assistance, and while attending to his wounds was shot dead. What made the action of this young officer even more heroic was the fact that on that very day he had received a leave of absence, but had postponed his departure to volunteer for the assault.

1 The total number of guns and howitzers in the fleet was over 600, and the total weight of projectiles at a single discharge of all the guns (both broadsides) was over 22 tons.--editors.

2 In a note to the editors Colonel Lamb says:

The guns of Fort Fisher were not silenced. On account of a limited supply of ammunition, I gave orders to fire each gun not more than once in thirty minutes, except by special order, unless an attempt should be made to run by the fort, when discretion was given each gun commander to use his piece effectively. There were forty-four guns. On the 24th of December 672 shots were expended; a detailed report was received from each battery. Only three guns were rendered unserviceable, and these by the fire of the fleet disabling the carriages. On the 25th of December six hundred shots were expended, exclusive of grape and canister. Detailed reports were made. Five guns were disabled by the fire of the fleet, making eight in all. Besides, two 7-inch Briooke rifled guns exploded, leaving thirty-four heavy guns on Christmas night. The last guns on the 24th and 25th were fired by Fort Fisher on the retiring fleet. In the first fight the total casualties were 61, as follows: December 24th, mortally wounded, 1; seriously 3; slightly, 19=23. December 25th, killed, 3; mortally wounded, 2; severely, 7; slightly, 26. These included those wounded by the explosion of the Brooke rifled guns = 38.

3 According to the report of General C. B. Comstock, General Terry's chief engineer, there were 21 guns and 3 mortars on the land front; “of these three-fourths were rendered unserviceable.” General H. L. Abbot states ( “Defence of the sea coast of the United States,” p. 31), as a result of personal inspection immediately after the capture, that out of 20 guns on the land-face “8 guns and 8 carriages (16 in all) were disabled.”--editors.

4 Colonel Lamb, writing, December, 1888, says:

There were never in Fort Fisher, including sick, killed, and wounded, over 1900 men. [See detailed statement, p. 661.] The sailors and marines, etc., captured from Battery Buchanan, and those captured in front of the work. while swelling the list of prisoners, cannot rightly be counted among the defenders of the work. No new defense was added to the face of the fort between the battles. Tile redoubt in front of the sally-port was there in December and had been used against Butler's skirmish-line.

5 Colonel Lamb says on this point: “There was no ditch, merely a dry depression in front of the berme where sand had been dug out to repair work.”--editors.

6 General Terry writes to the editors that he thinks that the head of the column of sailors was within 600 or 800 yards of the work before they began to charge. Editors.

7 Colonel Lamb, writing to the editors on the subject of the numbers defending the north-east salient, says:

Five hundred effective men will cover all engaged in repulsing the naval column, and the destructive fire was front the three hundred, who, from the top of the ramparts and traverses, fired upon the assailants. The gallant navy need not exaggerate the number opposing them, assisted by the artillery. No apology or defense is necessary to excuse the repulse. Tile unorganized and(l improperly armed force failed to enter the fort, but their gallant attempt enabled the army to enter and obtain a foothold, which they otherwise could not have done.

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