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Chapter 49: first attack on Fort Fisher.--destruction of the confederate ram Albemarle, etc.

  • Defences at the mouth of Cape Fear River.
  • -- the Army to co-operate with the Navy. -- Rear-Admiral Porter assumes command of the North Atlantic squadron. -- preparations to attack Fort Fisher. -- attempt to close the port of Wilmington, N. C. -- methods resorted to by blockade-runners, and their profits. -- value of the vessels destroyed. -- destruction of the ram Albemarle by Lieutenant Cushing. -- names of officers and men who risked their lives with Cushing. -- bombardment of and capture of Plymouth, N. C. -- losses and fruits of victory. -- the famous powder-boat. -- description of forts and batteries. -- the fleet rides out a terrific gale. -- General Butler's powder-boat exploded. -- great loss of powder, but no damage done to Fort Fisher. -- first attack on Fort Fisher by the fleet. -- batteries silenced. -- Landing of the Army. -- General orders. -- correspondence between Admiral Porter and General Butler. -- General Butler abandons the attempt to capture Fort Fisher. -- General Butler succeeded by General Terry. -- criticisms. -- capture of Flag-Pond battery. -- list of vessels that participated in first attack on Fort Fisher. -- letters in regard to the unnecessary delay of the expedition. -- letters and telegrams from Secretary Welles. -- reports of officers.

In a communication dated September 5, 1864, Mr. Secretary Welles states that, since the Winter of 1862, he had tried to obtain the co-operation of the War Department in a joint Army and Navy attack on the defences at the entrance of Cape Fear River, N. C.

It seems the Secretary of War had decided that no troops could be spared for this purpose, and, in consequence, from small and unimportant works the huge fortification known as Fort Fisher had gradually arisen. These works bade defiance to any ordinary naval force, unsupported by troops, so that what in the first instance might have been prevented by the persistent attacks of a dozen gun-boats, grew to a series of works so formidable that it was evidently a matter of difficulty to effect their reduction — that is, if the Confederates should make a vigorous defence.

Early in the contest a squadron of light-draft gun-boats could have made their way past the small batteries and taken possession of Cape Fear River, closing that channel of blockade-runners, and paving the way for the troops to hold the point on which Fort Fisher was finally built. But this was not attempted until the fortifications were so far advanced as to become the most formidable series of works in the Confederacy.

At the entrance of Cape Fear River, the principal operations of the blockade-runners were carried on, supplying the Confederate armies with clothing, arms and munitions of war to the amount of sixty or seventy millions of dollars.

The Federal Navy Department finally became aware that, unless these supplies were cut off from the Confederate armies, the war was likely to be greatly prolonged. The blockade-runners were very fast steamers, well-manned, and with experienced pilots, and so regular were their trips to Wilmington, that their arrival was counted on almost as confidently as if they had been mail-steamers. Of course, many of them [684] fell into the hands of the blockaders, or were run upon the beach to escape capture. In the latter case, if protected by artillery on shore, the blockade runners would land the most valuable portion of their cargoes and set fire to their vessels.

In September, 1864, Mr. Welles made another application for troops to co-operate with the Navy in an attack on the defences of Cape Fear River, and, being encouraged by General Grant to expect assistance, the Navy Department began to assemble at Hampton Roads a proper force of vessels for the occasion. The command of the squadron was tendered to Rear-Admiral Farragut, and on the 5th of September, 1864, Mr. Secretary Welles, in a letter to that officer, says:

Lieutenant-General Grant has recently given the subject his attention, and thinks an army force can be spared and moved by the first day of October. Upon consultation, he is of the opinion that the best results will follow the landing of a large force under the guns of the Navy on the open beach north of New Inlet, to take possession and intrench across to Cape Fear River, the Navy to open such fire as is possible on the works on Federal Point in conjunction with the army, and at the same time such force as can run the batteries to do so, and thus isolate the rebels.

You are selected to command the naval force, and you will endeavor to be at Port Royal by the latter part of September, where further orders will await you. Bring with you to the rendezvous at Port Royal all such vessels and officers as can be spared from the West Blockading Squadron without impeding its efficiency; and when you leave, turn over the command of the squadron to the officer next in rank to yourself until the pleasure of the Department is known.

Owing to failing health, Admiral Farragut declined accepting this command, and on the 22d of September the Secretary of the Navy wrote to Rear-Admiral Porter as follows:

Sir--Rear-Admiral D. G. Farragut was assigned to the command of the North Atlantic squadron on the 5th instant; but the necessity of rest on the part of that distinguished officer renders it necessary that he should come immediately North. You will therefore, on the receipt of this order, consider yourself detached from the command of the Mississippi squadron, and you will turn over the command, temporarily, to Captain A. M. Pennock. As soon as the transfer can be made, proceed to Beaufort, N. C., and relieve Acting-Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee, in command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Take with you your personal staff, and a number of officers, not exceeding five, may be transferred from the Mississippi to the North Atlantic squadron.

Under the above orders, Rear-Admiral Porter assumed command of the North Atlantic squadron, and visited City Point, Va., in company with Mr. Fox, Assistant-Secretary of the Navy, to confer with General Grant in regard to the necessary contingent of troops required to co-operate with the Navy in the reduction of Fort Fisher.

Admiral Porter had asked for but eight thousand troops, and a sufficient number of vessels to fire one hundred and fifty guns in broadside. As Fort Fisher had seventy-five heavy guns mounted, the above would only be two guns afloat to one on shore, a small proportion considering that most of the naval force would be wooden ships, against heavy earth-works, protected by solid traverses. The wishes of the Secretary of the Navy were made known to General Grant, and he at once decided to send the requisite number of troops to co-operate with the Navy as soon as the ships could be prepared.

The next thing was to select a General to command, who would act in harmony with the Navy. There were plenty of able commanders. but the trouble was whom could General Grant best spare. Admiral Porter merely suggested one thing — namely, that General Butler should not go in command. North Carolina was in the district over which Butler held control, and the Admiral did not know but that the General would claim the right to go in command of troops operating in that district. It was at length decided that General Weitzel should have command of the military part of the expedition.

By the 15th of October, 1864, the ships-of-war of the fleet destined to attack Fort Fisher were assembled at Hampton Roads, to the number of about one hundred. Many of them were from other squadrons which had been depleted for the occasion. There was a great variety of vessels, as every class in the Navy was represented, from the lofty frigate down to the fragile steamer taken from the merchant service; but all mounted good guns.

Admiral Porter had quite a task before him to organize this large force and make it fit for combined service, for it was not in good condition for battle such as the occasion demanded. A regular system of drilling was at once commenced with sails, masts, yards and guns, particularly the latter, and a large portion of the time was spent in target practice. Immense quantities of shells were fired away, for the commanding officers of the ships were given carte blanche in this respect, the Admiral believing that it would be an ultimate saving in time of battle.

The fleet was now formed into three divisions. There were five Commodores in the fleet — Thatcher, Lanman, Godon, Schenck and Radford. The latter officer had immediate command of the iron-clads. From all these officers Rear Admiral Porter received hearty support, although, owing to the fortunes of war, he had been advanced over their heads, and naturally expected to find some little feeling in regard to it; but there was none whatever. They met the Admiral in the most cordial manner and [

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Fort Fisher (North Carolina, United States) (77)
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