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Doc. 76. operations against Fort Fisher.

Report of Major-General B. F. Butler

headquarters Department of Virginia and N. Carolina, Army of the James, in the field, January 3, 1865.
General: On the seventh of December last, in obedience to your orders, I moved a force of sixty-five hundred efficient men, consisting of General Ames' division of the Twenty-fourth corps and General Paine's division of the Twenty-fifth corps, under command of Major-General Weitzel, to an encampment near Bermuda.

On the eighth the troops embarked for Fortress Monroe.

On the ninth, Friday, I reported to Rear-Admiral Porter that the army portion of the conjoint expedition directed against Wilmington was ready to proceed.

We waited there Saturday the tenth, Sunday the eleventh, and Monday the twelfth.

On the twelfth Rear-Admiral Porter informed me that the naval fleet would sail on the thirteenth, but would be obliged to put into Beaufort to take on board ammunition for the monitors.1

The expedition having become the subject of remark, fearing lest its destination should get to the enemy, in order to divert from it all attention, on the morning of Tuesday the thirteenth, at three o'clock, I ordered the transport fleet to proceed up the Potomac during the day to Matthias Point, so as to be plainly visible to the scouts and signal men of the enemy on the northern neck, and to retrace their course at night and anchor under the lee of Cape Charles.

Having given the navy thirty-six hours start, at twelve o'clock noon of the fourteenth, Wednesday, I joined the transport fleet off Cape Henry, and put to sea, arriving at the place of rendezvous of New Inlet, near Fort Fisher, on the evening of the fifteenth, Thursday.

We there waited for the navy Friday the sixteenth, Saturday the seventeeth, and Sunday the eighteenth, during which days we had the finest possible weather and the smoothest sea.

On the evening of the eighteenth Admiral Porter came from Beaufort to the place of rendezvous. That evening the sea became rough, and on Monday, the nineteenth, the wind sprang up freshly, so that it was impossible to land [491] troops; and by the advice of Admiral Porter, communicated to me by letter, I directed the transport fleet to rendezvous at Beaufort. This was a matter of necessity, because the transport fleet, being coaled and watered for ten days, had already waited that time, to wit: from the ninth, the day on which we were ready to sail, to the nineteenth.

On the twentieth, Tuesday; twenty-first, Wednesday; twenty-second, Thursday; and twenty-third, Friday, it blew a gale. I was occupied in coaling and watering the transport fleet at Beaufort.

The Baltic, having a large supply of coal, was enabled to remain at the place of rendezvous, with a brigade on board of twelve hundred men, and General Ames reported to Admiral Porter that he would co-operate with him.

On the twenty-third I sent Captain Clark, of my staff, from Beaufort on the fast-sailing armed steamer Chamberlain, to Admiral Porter to inform him that on the evening of the twenty-fourth I would again be at the rendezvous with the transport fleet, for the purpose of commencing the attack, the weather permitting.

At four o'clock on the evening of the twenty-fourth I came in sight of Fort Fisher, and found the naval fleet engaged in bombarding it, the powder-vessel having been exploded on the morning previous, about one o'clock.

Through General Weitzel I arranged with Admiral Porter to commence the landing under cover of the gunboats as early as eight o'clock the next morning, if possible, as soon as the fire of the Half-Moon and Flag-pond Hill batteries had been silenced. These are up the shore some two or three miles above Fort Fisher.

Admiral Porter was quite sanguine that he had silenced the guns of Fort Fisher. He was then urged, if that were so, to run by the fort into Cape Fear river, and then the troops could land and hold the beach without liability of being shelled by the enemy's gunboats (the Tallahassee being seen in the river).

It is to be remarked that Admiral Farragut, even, had never taken a fort except by running by and cutting it off from all prospects of reinforcements, as at Fort Jackson and Fort Morgan, and that no casemated fort had been silenced by naval fire during the war. That if the Admiral would put his ships in the river the army could supply him across the beach, as we had proposed to do Farragut at Fort St. Philip. That at least the blockade at Wilmington would be thus effectual, even if we did not capture the fort. To that the Admiral replied that he should probably lose a boat by torpedoes if he attempted to run by.

He was reminded that the army might lose five hundred men by the assault, and that his boat would not weigh in the balance, even in a money point of view, for a moment, with the lives of the men. The Admiral declined going by, and the expedition was deprived of that essential element of success.

At twelve o'clock noon of the twenty-fifth, Sunday, Captain Glisson, commanding the covering divisions of the fleet, reported the batteries silenced and his vessels in position to cover our landing.

The transport fleet, following my flag-ship, stood in within eight hundred yards of the beach, and at once commenced debarking. The landing was successfully effected. Finding that the reconnoitring party just landed could hold the shore, I determined to land a force with which an assault might be attempted.

Brevet Brigadier-General Curtis, who deserves well for his gallantry, immediately pushed up his brigade within a few hundred yards of Fort Fisher, capturing the Half-Moon battery and its men, who were taken off by the boats of the navy.

This skirmish line advanced to within seventy-five yards of the fort, protected by the glacis which had been thrown up in such form as to give cover, the garrison being completely kept in their bomb-proofs by the fire of the navy, which was very rapid and continuous, their shells bursting over the work with very considerable accuracy. At this time we lost ten men wounded on the skirmish line by the shells from the fleet.

Quitting my flag-ship I went on board the Chamberlain and ran in within a few hundred yards of the fort, so that it was plainly visible.

It appeared to be a square bastioned work of very high relief, say fifteen feet, surrounded by a wet ditch some fifteen feet wide. I was protected from being enveloped by an assaulting force by a stockade which extended from the fort to the sea on the one side, and from the marshes of Cape Fear river to the salient on the other.

No material damage to the fort, as a defensive work, had been done.

Seventeen heavy guns bore up the beach, protected from the fire of the navy by traverses eight or ten feet high, which were undoubtedly bomb-proof shelters for the garrison.

With the garrision kept within their bombproofs it was easy to maintain this position; but the shells of the navy, which kept the enemy in their bomb-proofs, would keep my troops out. When those ceased falling the parapet was fully manned.

Lieutenant Walling, of the One Hundred and Forty-second New York, pressed up to the edge of the ditch, and captured a flag which had been cut down by a shell from the navy. It is a mistake, as was at first reported to me, that any soldier entered the fort. An orderly was killed about a third of a mile from the fort and his horse taken.

In the meantime the remainder of Ames' division had captured two hundred and eighteen men and ten commissioned officers of the North Carolina reserves and other prisoners. From them I learned that Kirkland's and Hagood's brigade of Hoke's division had left the front of the Army of the James, near Richmond, and [492] were then within two miles of the rear of my forces, and their skirmishers were then actually engaged, and that the remainder of Hoke's division had come the night before to Wilmington, and were then on the march, if they had not already arrived.

I learned, also, that these troops had left Richmond on Tuesday, the twentieth.

Knowing the strength of Hoke's division, I found a force opposed to me, outside of the works, larger than my own.

In the meantime the weather assumed a threatening aspect. The surf began to roll in so that the landing became difficult, At this time General Weitzel reported to me that to assault the work, in his judgment, and in that of the experienced. officers of his command, who had been on the skirmish line, with any prospect of success, was impossible.

This opinion coincided with my own, and much as I regretted the necessity of abandoning the attempt, yet the path of duty was plain. Not so strong a work as Fort Fisher had been taken by assault during the war, and I had to guide me the experience of Port Hudson, with its slaughtered thousands in the repulsed assault, and the double assault of Fort Wagner, where thousands were sacrificed in an attempt to take a work less strong than Fisher, after it had been subjected to a more continued and fully as severe fire. And in neither of the instances I have mentioned had the assaulting force in its rear, as I had, an army of the enemy larger than itself.

I therefore ordered that no assault should be made, and that the troops should re-embark.

While superintending the preparations for this, the fire of the navy ceased. Instantly the guns of the fort were fully manned, and a sharp fire of musketry, grape and canister swept the plain over which the column must have advanced, and the skirmish line was returning.

Working with what diligence we could, it was impossible to get the troops again on board before the sea ran so high as to render further re-embarkation, or even the sending of supplies ashore, impossible. I lay by the shore until elven o'clock the next day, Monday, the twenty-sixth, when, having made all proper dispositions for getting the troops on board, I gave orders to the transport fleet, as fast as they were ready, to sail for Fortress Monroe, in obedience to my instructions from the Lieutenant-General.

I learned from deserters and prisoners captured, that the supposition upon which the Lieutenant-General directed the expedition, that Wilmington had been denuded of troops to oppose General Sherman, was correct. That at the time when the army arrived off Wilmington, there were less than four hundred men in the garrison of Fort Fisher, and less than a thousand within twenty miles.

But the delay of three days of good weather, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth, waiting for the arrival of the navy, and the further delay of the terrible storm of the twenty-first, twenty-second and twenty-third, gave time for troops to be brought from Richmond, three divisions of which were either there or on the road.

The instructions of the Lieutenant-General to me did not contemplate a siege; I had neither siege-trains nor supplies for such a contingency.

The exigency of possible delay, for which the foresight of the commander of the armies had provided, had arisen, to wit: the larger reinforcement of the garrison. This, together with the fact that the navy had exhausted their supply of ammunition in the bombardment, left me with no alternative but to return with my troops to the Army of the James.

The loss of the opportunity of Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth, was the immediate cause of the failure of the expedition.

It is not my province even to suggest blame to the navy for their delay of four days at Beaufort. I know none of the reasons which do or do not justify it. It is to be presumed they are sufficient.

I am happy to bring to the attention of the Lieutenant-General the excellent behavior of the troops, both officers and men, which was all that could be desired.

I am under special obligations to Captain Glisson, of the Santiago de Cuba, for the able and efficient manner in which he covered our landing; to Captain Alden, of the Brooklyn, for his prompt assistance and the excellent gunnery with which the Brooklyn cleared the shores of all opposers at the moment of debarkation. Lieutenant Farquhar, of the navy, having in charge the navy boats which assisted in the landing, deserves great credit for the energy and skill with which he managed the boats through the rolling surf. Especial commendation is due to Brigadier-General Graham and the officers and men of his naval brigade, for the organization of his boats and crews for landing, and the untiring energy and industry with which they all labored in re-embarking the troops during the stormy night of the twenty-fifth and the days following. For this and other meritorious services during the campaign since the first of May, which have heretofore been brought to the notice of the Lieutenant-General in my official reports, I would respectfully but earnestly recommend General Graham for promotion.

The number of prisoner captured by us was three hundred, including twelve officers, two heavy rifled guns, two light guns, and six caissons.

The loss of the army was one man drowned, two men killed, one officer captured, who accidentally wandered through our pickets, and ten men wounded while upon the picket line by the shells of the navy.

Always chary of mentioning with commendation the acts of my own personal staff, yet I [493] think the troops who saw it will agree to the cool courage and daring of Lieutenant Sidney B. DeKay, aid-de-camp, in landing on the night of the twenty-fifth, and remaining aiding in reembarkation on the twenty-seventh.

For the details of the landing and the operations, I beg leave to refer you to the reports of Major-General Weitzel, commanding the division landed.

Trusting my action will meet with the approval of the Lieutenant-General, the report is respectfully submitted.

Benjamin F. Butler, Major-General. Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, Commanding Armies of the United States.

1 See General Terry's Report, page 426, ante.

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