previous next

9% of the text is displayed below. If you wish to view the entire text, please click here


Chapter 17: Fort Fisher.

  • Plans for reducing Fort Fisher
  • -- why the powder-boat experiment was suggested -- delay in starting -- Grant aware that Butler was to lead the expedition -- off Fort Fisher: Porter arrives at length -- heavy gales prevent landing -- to Beaufort for supplies -- explosion of the powder-boat, bombardment of the Fort and landing of troops -- Porter sails away, the sea runs high, and Butler takes off the troops on shore -- why he did this: the whole expedition critically considered -- Porter's subordinates make a ridiculous fiasco of the powder-boat scheme -- Butler in no way concerned in it -- strength of the Fort: testimony of various officers -- course sustained by Committee on Conduct of War

Early in September it was proposed to me by General Grant that I should send down General Weitzel, with Brigadier-General Graham of the naval brigade, to reconnoitre the position of Fort Fisher, and that I should act in conjunction with a fleet which was being prepared by the navy. General Weitzel was accordingly sent down to make that reconnoissance. About the 20th of September, as I remember, he returned and reported the condition of things there.

On the 29th of September, the Army of the James made a march across the river, which resulted in the capture of Battery Harrison and the line that we subsequently occupied on the north bank of the James until the surrender of Richmond in April, 1865. It was from this line that the negro troops under Weitzel marched and took possession of the rebel capital. This movement across the James required all the force I had. General Grant said to me that we could not go on the Wilmington expedition at that time for two reasons. The first of these was the want of disposable forces, although at that time it was not contemplated to send down but about three thousand men, as it was supposed that Fort Fisher could be taken by a surprise. The second and perhaps the more cogent reason was that the fleet had given great notice by its preparation; the ships had gathered at Hampton Roads, and published that they had the largest armament in the world, and were going to take Wilmington. This seemed to cut off all hope of surprise. General Grant then said to me that he would not have anything to do with it, to use his exact phrase, because he could not afford an army for a siege, and he supposed the purpose for which the fleet was getting ready was so far known to everybody that there could be no surprise. [775]

From the 20th of September to the 7th of October the navy gathered a fleet at Hampton Roads, and was practising there. The vessels lay there from that time till the middle of December.

In that time, after hearing of the great destruction for many miles around made by an explosion of gunpowder at Erith, England, I made an examination into the various instances of the explosive effect of large quantities of powder; and I believed that possibly, by bringing within four or five hundred yards of Fort Fisher a large mass of explosives, and firing the whole in every part at the same moment — for it was the essence of the experiment to have the powder all exploded at the same instant — the garrison would at least be so far paralyzed as to enable, by a prompt landing of men, a seizure of the fort.

I went to Fortress Monroe to examine the details of that question among others. While there I received on November 1 a telegram to report at once to Washington, and on reaching there found that I was to be sent to New York to take charge of the city during the election. While at Washington I suggested the powder experiment to the President, to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and I think to General Halleck. It was readily embraced by the Secretary of the Navy and with more caution by the President. Further investigation was suggested, and I left the matter in the hands of the navy, and on November 2 went to New York.

When I returned on the 16th of November I found that the idea had received so much favor at Washington that it was determined it should be tried. One consideration which determined the making of the attempt was that if it should prove a success the whole system of offensive warfare by naval procedure would be changed, for no forts near harbors would be safe if a small vessel loaded with gunpowder and run ashore under a fort and exploded would destroy the people in it, and no garrison would ever remain in a fort when such a vessel was seen approaching.

The experiment was well worth trying on another account. The navy had storehouses for more than five thousand barrels of powder in a place, near many of our large cities. Of course, as at Erith, which was one of the English government storehouses, it would only be a question of time when some of those deposits of powder would be exploded either by design, carelessness, or accident. What the [776] effect of such an explosion would be was a question which seemed very necessary to be solved in order to determine the safety of the neighboring cities. The Naval Ordnance Bureau had many reports recommending the removal of the powder so stored lest damage might ensue, but those reports had never been acted upon by Congress. On this account also it was thought best to test the question.1

The powder used at Fort Fisher was navy cannon powder, each grain of which is nearly an inch cube, in order that it may burn slowly, so as not to burst the guns.

A commission of naval experts was appointed to examine the subject in behalf of the Navy Department, before whom I was not called. The navy was to furnish a vessel and one hundred and fifty tons of powder. The army at first agreed to furnish one hundred tons of powder and afterwards fifty tons more. A part of this amount was partially damaged powder, all that the army had; and the rest was made up by purchasing blasting powder.

I immediately left Washington, having nothing further to do with this matter, the navy undertaking to see that the powder was properly placed and exploded, and went to my headquarters at the front. [777]

Decorative Motif.

[778] [779]

Upon my return General Grant left the command to go to Burlington, N. J., to visit his family, leaving me as senior officer in command of both armies until he returned on the 24th of November. I fix the date of his return by the following telegram to the Secretary of War, which was the last telegram I sent while in command of both armies:--

headquarters Army of the James, Nov. 24, 1864, 11.30 P. M.
Hon. E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War:
In the absence of Lieutenant-General Grant, I have to report to you that the battery and cavalry horses are suffering for hay, and the government is losing large sums in the depreciation of these horses from this cause. For this there can be no excuse, as there is hay enough in the country. It can only arise from inexcusable remissness somewhere, which needs but to be brought to your attention to be remedied.

Benj. F. Butler, Major-General Commanding.

During General Grant's absence I was informed that the navy had adopted my plan, and the vessel to contain the powder was being got ready by the navy, which was to furnish one hundred and fifty tons of powder at Fortress Monroe. Later I received in answer to a telegram which I had sent General Dyer, chief of ordnance, a message that the army would also furnish one hundred and fifty tons of powder at Fortress Monroe.2

General Grant had then returned. From information received it was supposed that the garrison at Wilmington and all the forces about Wilmington, except a small garrison at Fort Fisher, had been detached to meet General Sherman. Thereupon, after a consultation, General Grant desired me to do two things. One was to send an expedition up the Roanoke River and endeavor to reach the railroad between Weldon and Wilmington, so as to cut off supplies and reinforcements from the enemy going north to Petersburg and Richmond, and also to prevent reinforcements being sent by the Weldon Road to Wilmington in case we moved in that direction. The other was to get a force to be sent down to see if we could not effect a surprise at Wilmington, as it seemed evident that the [780] enemy supposed the expedition gotten up early in the fall had been abandoned. This expedition up the Roanoke was to be a link in the chain of operations, and was to be made in conjunction with the navy. I sent a despatch to Admiral Porter about the Roanoke expedition.3 On the same day, the 30th of November, I received a telegram from General Grant urging the importance of Weitzel's getting off at once with the expedition.4

I had gone to Fortress Monroe and had a personal consultation with the admiral upon the Roanoke expedition after my consultation with General Grant. I answered his telegram by repairing to City Point in person to get further instructions from General Grant. They were that we should move as soon as the navy was ready.

Matters remained in that condition until the 4th of December. On that day I received a telegram from

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Fort Fisher (North Carolina, United States) (58)
Wilmington, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (19)
Beaufort, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (16)
Fortress Monroe (Virginia, United States) (15)
Washington (United States) (4)
Hampton Roads (Virginia, United States) (4)
Erith (United Kingdom) (4)
City Point (Virginia, United States) (4)
Stuart (Virginia, United States) (3)
North Carolina (North Carolina, United States) (3)
Cape Fear (North Carolina, United States) (3)
Weldon, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (2)
United States (United States) (2)
Norfolk (Virginia, United States) (2)
Fort Jackson (Louisiana, United States) (2)
Dutch Gap Canal (United States) (2)
Cape Lookout (North Carolina, United States) (2)
Bermuda (2)
Annapolis (Maryland, United States) (2)
Alexandria (Virginia, United States) (2)
Williamsburg (Virginia, United States) (1)
Willards (Maryland, United States) (1)
Savannah (Georgia, United States) (1)
Roanoke (United States) (1)
Richmond (Virginia, United States) (1)
Northumberland County (Virginia, United States) (1)
New Inlet (Virginia, United States) (1)
New Inlet (North Carolina, United States) (1)
New England (United States) (1)
Louisiana (Louisiana, United States) (1)
Georgia (Georgia, United States) (1)
France (France) (1)
England (United Kingdom) (1)
Deep Bottom (Virginia, United States) (1)
Craney Island (Virginia, United States) (1)
Cincinnati (Ohio, United States) (1)
Chesapeake Bay (United States) (1)
Burlington (New Jersey, United States) (1)
Buras (Louisiana, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: