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Fisher, Fort

An extensive earthwork on a point of sandy land between the Cape Fear River at its mouth and the ocean,

The powder-ship.

the land-face occupying the whole width of the cape known as Federal Point, and armed with twenty heavy guns. All along the land-front (1864) was a stockade, and on the sea-front were the wrecks of several blockade-runners. It was late in 1864 when an attempt was made to close the port of Wilmington against English blockade-runners by capturing this fort and its dependencies. The expedition sent against the fort consisted of a powerful fleet under Admiral Porter and a land force under the immediate command of Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, of the Army of the James, accompanied by Gen. B. F. Butler as commander of that army. The whole force was gathered in Hampton Roads early in December. The troops consisted of General Ames's division of the 24th Army Corps and General Paine's division of the 25th (colored) Corps. The warvessels were wooden ships, iron-clads, monitors, gunboats, and a powder-ship, destined to be blown up abreast of the fort with a hope of destructive effect. The powder-ship was the Louisiana, a propeller of 295 tons, having an iron hull. She was disguised as a blockade-runner. To have the powder above the water-line, a light deck was built for the purpose. On this was first placed a row of barrels of powder, standing on end, the upper one open. The remainder of the powder was in canvas bags, holding about 60 lbs. each, the whole being stored as represented in the engraving, in which the form of the vessel is also delineated. The whole weight of the powder was 215 tons. To communicate fire to the whole mass simultaneously, four separate threads of the Gomez fuse were woven through it, passing through each separate barrel and bag. At the stern and under the cabin was a heap of pine wood (H) and other combustibles, which were to be fired by the crew when they should leave the vessel. Three devices were used for communicating fire to the fuses, namely clock-work by which a percussion-cap was exploded; short spermaceti candles, which burned down and ignited the fuses at the same time; and a slow match that worked in time with the candles and the clock-work. The powder-vessel followed a blockade-runner and was anchored within 300 yards of the fort, according to the report of Commander Rhind. When the combustibles were fired and the apparatus for igniting the fuses were put in motion, the crew escaped in a swift little steamer employed for the purpose. The explosion took place in one hour and fifty-two minutes after the crew left. Notwithstanding the concussion of the explosion broke window-glasses in a vessel 12 miles distant, and the whole fleet, at that distance, felt it, and it was also felt on land at Beaufort and Newbern, from 60 to 80 miles distant, there was no perceptible effect upon the fort. [374]

Landing troops at Fort Fisher.

The appointed rendezvous of the expedition was 25 miles off the coast, facing Fort Fisher, so as not to be discovered by the Confederates until ready for action. There was a delay in the arrival of the war vessels, and the transports, coaled and watered for only ten days, were compelled to run up to Beaufort Harbor, N. C., for both, the fleet remaining off Fort Fisher. The transports returned on Christmas evening; the next morning the war vessels opened a bombardment, and at 3 P. M. the troops began their debarkation two miles above the fort. Only a part of the troops had been landed when the surf ran too high to permit more to go ashore. These marched down to attack the fort. Not a gun had been dismounted, and, as they were ready to rake the narrow peninsula on which the troops stood the moment the fleet should withhold its fire, prudence seemed to require the troops to withdraw. They did so, and were ordered to the James River to assist in the siege of Petersburg (q. v.), and the expedition of the land force against Fort Fisher was temporarily abandoned. It was resumed ten days afterwards. The war vessels had remained off Fort Fisher. The same troops, led by Weitzel, were placed under the command of Gen. Alfred H. Terry (q. v.), with the addition of a brigade of 1,400 men. Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, of General Grant's staff, who accompanied the first expedition, was made the chiefengineer of this. The expedition left Hampton Roads, Jan. 6, 1865, and rendezvoused off Beaufort, N. C., where Porter was taking in supplies of coal and ammunition. They were all detained by rough weather, and did not appear off Fort Fisher until the evening of the 12th. The navy, taught by experience, took a position where it could better affect the land front of the fort than before. Under cover of the fire of the fleet, 8,000 troops were landed (Jan. 13). Terry wisely provided against an attack in the rear by casting up intrenchments across the peninsula and securing the free use of Masonboro Inlet, where, if necessary, troops and supplies might be landed in still water. On the evening of the 14th the light guns were landed, and before morning were in battery. Wisely planned by Terry, a grand assault was made on the morning of the 15th.

The war-ships opened the battle on the 14th. They kept up a bombardment all day, severely damaging the guns of the fort and silencing most of them. The [375] iron-clads fired slowly throughout the night, worrying and fatiguing the garrison, and at eight o'clock in the morning (Jan. 15) the entire naval force moved up to the attack. Meanwhile, 1,400 marines and 600 sailors, armed with revolvers, cutlasses, and carbines, were sent from the ships to aid the troops in the assault. Ames's division led in the assault, which began at half-past 3 P. M. The advance carried shovels and dug rifle-pits for shelter. A heavy storm of musketry and cannon opened upon the assailants. The fleet had effectually destroyed the palisades on the land front. Sailors and marines assailed the northeast bastion, and with this assault began the fierce struggle. The garrison used the huge traverses that had shielded their cannon as breastworks, and over these the combatants fired in each other's faces. The struggle was desperate and continued until nine o'clock, when the Nationals, fighting their way into the fort, gained full possession of it. All the other works near it were rendered untenable; and during the night (Jan. 16-17) the Confederates blew up Fort Caswell, on the right bank of Cape Fear River. They abandoned the other works and fled towards Wilmington. The National loss in this last attack was 681 men, of whom eighty-eight were killed. On the morning succeeding the victory, when the Nationals were pouring into the fort, its principal magazine exploded, killing 200 men and wounding 100. The fleet lost about 300 men during the action and by the explosion. The loss of the Confederates was reported by General Terry as over 2,000 prisoners, 169 pieces of artillery, over 2,000 small-arms, and commissary stores. The port of Wilmington was then effectively closed to blockade-runners.

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