Sesquicentennial Spotlight: The Fall of Fort Fisher and the Confederacy's Collapse

A dramatic depiction of the assault on fort fisher, the "Gibraltar of the south" and guardian of Wilmington, North Carolina.

A dramatic depiction of the assault on fort fisher, the "Gibraltar of the south" and guardian of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Dr. James A. Mowris surveyed the scene around him and could not help but be struck by its terrible grandeur.  The forty year-old surgeon, under whose care were the veteran soldiers of the 117th New York Infantry, watched enraptured as thousands of Union troops disembarked onto the North Carolina coast.  As the “downy web footed infantry” splashed ashore, the United States Navy provided cover fire, bombarding Confederate-held Fort Fisher nearby.  Fort Fisher protected the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, where for four years sleek Confederate blockade runners had slipped past Union warships and returned laden with much needed war materials.  By 1865, Wilmington was the Confederacy’s largest remaining open port, a thin golden lifeline that connected the beleaguered South to the outside world and all its riches. Yet James A. Mowris and the nearly 9,000 other Union soldiers accompanying him had arrived to cut that invaluable lifeline.  It was Friday the 13th, January, 1865, and the last great coastal campaign of the Civil War was underway.

“It is seldom, even in war,” Dr. Mowris later confessed, “that a grander sight presents, than was afforded there that morning.”  The fleet bombarding Fort Fisher—that Southern Gibraltar of wood and earth—was tremendous.  Commanded by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, the fleet of sixty ships, mounting over 600 guns, bombarded the Confederate fort, “raining its fiery judgments on the fort and garrison.”  Especially impressive to James Mowris was the U.S.S. Brooklyn, which, “like an enraged lioness,” prowled the Carolina coastline delivering vengeful cover fire for the disembarking Federals.  Mowris watched as shells belched from the Brooklyn’s “wide mouthed guns” and listened for “the faint report of its explosion…the very indistinctness of the sound testifying impressively of distance, velocity, and power.”

While the Navy began its bombardment, which would last for three days, thousands of Union soldiers—proud veterans of the 24th and 25th Corps—focused on reaching shore safely and finding defensive positions.  The attack on Fort Fisher represented a combined army-navy operation, and while David Dixon Porter commanded the Federal fleet, the 9,000 soldiers of the Union army (including over 5,000 United States Colored Troops—USCTs) looked to young General Alfred H. Terry for leadership.  A Connecticut man, Terry represented a class of young, excellent generals who arose later in the Civil War, having worked their way through the ranks.  Terry began the war as a militia colonel for a 90-day regiment; invaluable service in coastal operations in South Carolina (Port Royal, Charleston) and Georgia (Fort Pulaski) helped pave the way for his appointment to this independent command.

The size of both the Federal fleet and the army expeditionary force spoke to the importance of Fort Fisher and Wilmington.  By January, 1865, Wilmington remained the largest Confederate port open to blockade runners.   Between December, 1861 and December, 1864, nearly 300 blockade runners had slipped past the Union blockade and entered Wilmington loaded with much-needed supplies.  Theses supplies were vital to the Confederate States.  Sixty percent of the Confederacy’s weapons were imported, as were nearly 3 million pounds of lead for bullets.  Two-thirds of Confederate saltpeter, necessary for gunpowder—arrived via blockade runner.  Besides the obviously vital wartime supplies of guns, ammunition, and powder, other critical supplies—such as cloth, shoes, and medicine—were slipped through the blockade.  In short, the port of Wilmington was quite literally keeping the Confederacy alive, sustaining its armies with the material needed to wage a war.  Taking Fort Fisher, then, was a top Union priority, and it rested in the hands of Admiral Porter and General Terry.

MAp of The Wilmington Area during the Civil War.  Fort Fisher sits at the southern tip of the Cape Fear Peninsula.  Wilmington Can be Seen Upriver.

MAp of The Wilmington Area during the Civil War.  Fort Fisher sits at the southern tip of the Cape Fear Peninsula.  Wilmington Can be Seen Upriver.

General Terry knew his business.  As his troops landed on January 13th north of the fort, his first priority was to create a strong defensive line to his rear.  Fort Fisher sat at the south end of a long peninsula along the Cape Fear River; Wilmington lay upriver to the north.  While Fort Fisher held a garrison of nearly 1,500 men, Terry also knew that over 6,000 Confederate soldiers under General Robert Hoke guarded Wilmington.  An attack by Wilmington’s defenders could prove disastrous to the expedition, and as Terry’s men landed, the young general quickly sought to stretch a defensive line across the peninsula, both to protect his own expedition from an attack from the Rebels in Wilmington and to cut Fort Fisher off from reinforcement.

While Alfred Terry’s men, including James Mowris, underwent the lengthy process of disembarking from their transports, Confederate forces remained paralyzed by inaction and miscommunication.  Indeed, Confederate opportunities to frustrate the Fort Fisher expedition abounded, but these opportunities were missed.  The Department of North Carolina was headed by General Braxton Bragg, the notorious former commander of the Army of Tennessee who, despite his removal from that position, once again found himself in a position of extreme importance.  When Bragg learned of the Federal fleet’s imminent arrival, he ordered General Hoke’s division to “Make every effort to prevent a landing of the enemy.”  Yet Hoke’s division, which had been on parade in Wilmington, could not reach the lower Cape Fear peninsula in time to halt the Federal advance.  Alfred Terry’s troops splashed ashore largely unopposed.

Still, until Terry’s men could form a defensive position across the peninsula, the opportunity for a Confederate reinforcement of Fort Fisher remained.  The 2nd South Carolina Cavalry was ordered to patrol the peninsula to prevent the Federals from expanding their lines and cutting Fort Fisher off.  Yet when the sun rose on January 14th, the peninsula lay in Union hands.  During the night, the South Carolinians had inexplicably allowed the Federals to create a strong defensive position across the peninsula; their failure ensured that Fort Fisher and the 1,500 Confederate troops inside would receive no help.  The men inside the fort were led by its garrison commander, Colonel William Lamb.  Also inside the fort, however, was General William H.C. Whiting, who had been trying to shore up Fort Fisher’s defenses with slave labor for months.  When Whiting arrived at the fort on January 13th from Wilmington, his lack of faith in Bragg was clear.  “Lamb, my boy,” the general announced, “I have come to share your fate.  You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.”  The failure of Generals Bragg and Hoke to prevent the Federals from taking the peninsula on the night of the 13th seemed to confirm Whiting’s pronunciation. 

Union Soldiers stand by a Confederate Gun after the Fort's Capture; note the cannon's shattered muzzle.  

Union Soldiers stand by a Confederate Gun after the Fort's Capture; note the cannon's shattered muzzle.  

The U.S. Navy continued its incredible shelling of Fort Fisher throughout the January 14th.  Much is often made of artillery barrages in the Civil War, often emphasizing how their ineffectiveness (think Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg).  Yet by all accounts, the Federals’ bombardment of Fort Fisher proved smashingly successful.  The U.S. Navy unleashed an incredible amount of firepower.  Over 1.5 million pounds of projectiles were fired; at times, 100 shells a minute landed on the Confederate fortifications.  These shells had an immense effect.  By the morning of January 15th, nearly 200 men of Fort Fisher’s 1,500-man garrison were wounded.  Moreover, the shelling was tearing the fort itself apart.  Admiral Porter admonished his men to avoid firing at the Confederate flagstaff looming over the fort, but to instead focus their energies on lodging explosive shells inside the fort’s wood and earth walls.  “There is nothing like lodging the shell before it explodes,” Porter chided.  Porter’s advice seems to have been taken.  Navy shells knocked out most of Fort Fisher’s artillery pieces, although this mattered less than it should have; Confederate ammunition was so depleted that Colonel Lamb ordered his Rebel artillery to fire a return shot once every thirty minutes.  Union shells also tore up the wiring for the mine fields positioned around the fort’s land face, rendering the “torpedoes” useless.  The naval bombardment was brilliantly paving the way for the final attack on the 15th.

On January 15th, the Federal assault began in earnest.  It was a two-pronged assault, with both army and navy elements.  A combined force of Navy sailors and marines would land on the seaward side of Fort Fisher and attack the fort.  Admiral Porter ordered his sailors armed with cutlasses and revolvers, lending the assault an antiquated, almost piratical air.  While Porter’s men provided the diversion, General Terry’s force would advance down the Cape Fear River and assault Fort Fisher by land.  Between the two pincers—army and navy alike—the fort would fall.

Over 2,200 sailors and marines successfully landed on the beach in front of Fort Fisher.  From there, everything went awry.  The plan called for marines to lay down cover fire, while the sailors formed up and assaulted Fort Fisher’s parapets in three waves.  Although the sailors formed up in three waves, when the attack was finally launched at 3:30 in the afternoon, the seamen quickly rushed forward in one giant mob.  Watching from a ship, one witness thought the “noise of the guns, whistles, cheers and yell of the sailors and marines was terrific and made the most exciting and indescribable event.”

The Sea-Facing Fortifications of Fort Fisher.  By Building the Fort from Earth and Wood, the Fort could better withstand bombardment, although the U.S. Navy still inflicted severe damage to the fort's guns.  It was against these fortification's that U.S. sailors and marines charged on January 15th, 1865.  They did not fare well.

The Sea-Facing Fortifications of Fort Fisher.  By Building the Fort from Earth and Wood, the Fort could better withstand bombardment, although the U.S. Navy still inflicted severe damage to the fort's guns.  It was against these fortification's that U.S. sailors and marines charged on January 15th, 1865.  They did not fare well.

The sailors’ enthusiasm did not soften what awaited them.  Charging over 600 yards of open sand, the sailors were met by lethal Confederate volleys from the fort’s parapets.  “The whole mass of men went down like a row of falling bricks,” recalled a sailor.  Making matters worse, the sailors were unable to return fire, their revolvers unable to fire effectively at such a distance.  Under sustained fire, afforded little protection, and unable to get close enough to the walls to effectively return fire, the sailors and marines soon began to panic and run.  General Whiting and Colonel Lamb, personally leading the Confederate defense, were thrilled to see the Federal forces begin to retreat.  Whiting and his men climbed atop the fort’s wall and began yelling, “Come aboard! Come aboard!” to the retreating Federal, joyous in their apparent victory.

While the naval assault failed miserably, it did however serve admirably as a diversion for General Terry’s landward assault on Fort Fisher from the north.  As Porter’s sailors and marines lay dying on the beach, Terry’s men found greater success.  Brigade after brigade of hardened, veteran Union infantry went forward, withstanding the Confederate fire and quickly reaching the fort’s walls.  “Regimental pride,” recalled one soldier, “animated the broken mass of men in the rough clamor up the slope; and a rush of color-bearers led the way, in the ambition to be the first on the parapet.”

Although the Federal infantry cracked the fort’s outer defenses early, they still had to slog their way through the myriad trenches and traverses along the fort’s walls.  Confederate Colonel Lamb, exalting in the repulse of the sailor’s advance, quickly realized the danger.  “As our shouts of triumph went up,” Lamb recounted, “I turned to look as the western salient, and saw, to my astonishment, three Federal battle flags upon our ramparts.”  Colonel Lamb and General Whiting quickly redirected their troops to halt the Federal advance, and for hours fierce close-quarters combat raged as the Union army pushed the Confederates deeper into the fort.  As minutes and then hours ticked by, the fighting rose to a crescendo.  Surgeon James Mowris, in the Union rear practicing his sad trade, recalled, “The sun sank slowly and lay on the western horizon—the rattle of musketry knew no abatement.  Twilight came—but no lull in the storm of battle.”

As the Federals forces pushed on into the night, hand-to-hand fighting raged in the heart of the fort.  Both Colonel Lamb and General Whiting fell wounded, leaving charge of the fort to a major.  By ten o’clock, a silence overtook the fort.  James Mowris remembered “there was a calm—a welcome stillness—a short suggestive interval of sound, and then—a cheer—O! such a cheer.  It thrilled ones every nerve and reached the inmost soul, suffusing eyes unused to weep.  FORT FISHER HAD FALLEN WITH HER ARMS AND GARRISON.”  The Confederates had raised a white flag, and after seven hours of fighting, Fort Fisher had fallen.  The Union forces suffered over 1,300 casualties in during the battle; among Confederate forces, 600 were dead or wounded, while the remainder were now prisoners awaiting shipment to Elmira, Point Lookout, and other Northern prisons.

The blockade-runner Advance, which ran the blockade numerous times but was eventually captured outside wilmington in 1864.  Blockade Runners such as this kept the Confederacy supplied.

The blockade-runner Advance, which ran the blockade numerous times but was eventually captured outside wilmington in 1864.  Blockade Runners such as this kept the Confederacy supplied.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of Fort Fisher’s capture and the subsequent fall of Wilmington, North Carolina.  With the closure of Wilmington’s port, the vital business of blockade running came to an end.  Within days of the battle, the U.S. Navy captured Rebel blockade runners caught unaware of Fort Fisher’s fall.  When word of Wilmington’s closure reached Bermuda, a popular point of departure for blockade runners, the U.S. consul there reported that if “they Islands were to sink in twenty-four hours, there could hardly have been greater consternation; the blockade runners and their aiders feel their doom is sealed.”

The merchants who operated blockade runners were far from the only ones hurt by Fisher’s loss.  By late 1864, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, trapped in trenches around Petersburg, Virginia, had become dependent upon supplies for Wilmington.  As naval historian Stephen R. Wise has noted, Lee’s army only had four months rations on hand or along railroad supply depots when Fort Fisher fell.  Food would become a serious issue for Lee’s army, and indeed when Petersburg and Richmond fell, Lee’s march to Appomattox had been dictated in large part by his need for food.  Compounding the food issue was the prospect of other material shortages—how could Lee continue without gunpowder or ammunition or blankets?

Ultimately, the fall of Fort Fisher and the loss of Wilmington flipped the hourglass, ushering in the final hours of the Confederacy.  Without access to Wilmington’s port and its fleet of blockade runners, the Confederacy—or rather the eastern portion of it that remained—faced the proposition of continuing a war against a larger enemy without the requisite supplies—food, clothing, shoes, weapons, ammunition and powder, medicine, and more.  Such a prospect was daunting, if not impossible.  The fall of Fort Fisher and Wilmington sealed the Confederacy’s fate, ensuring that if victory couldn’t be earned swiftly the North’s armies, it would be won by outhern deprivation.

"The Fall of Fort Fisher and the Confederacy's Collapse" serves as the first post in the Sesquicentennial Spotlight series.  As we move through the 150th anniversary of the final year of the American Civil War, Civil Discourse will revisit the major battles and events that shaped the war's conclusion and its legacy.  Keep an eye out for further posts in our Sesquicentennial Spotlight series.

Zac Cowsert currently studies 19th-century U.S. history as a doctoral student at West Virginia University, where he also received his master's degree.  He earned his bachelor's degree in history and political science at Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport.  Zac's research focuses on the experiences of the Five Tribes of Indian Territory during the American Civil War. He has worked for the National Park Service at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. ©

Sources and Further Reading:

Cochran, Hamilton.  Blockade Runners of the Confederacy.  New York:  Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1958.

Gragg, Rod.  Confederate Goliath:  The Battle of Fort Fisher.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1991.

Jones, Virgil Carrington.  The Civil War at Sea:  Volume Three, The Final Effort.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1962.

McCaslin, Richard B.  The Last Stronghold:  The Campaign for Fort Fisher.  Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series.  Grady McWhiney, ed.  Abilene, TX:  McWhiney Foundation Press, McMurry University, 2003.

McPherson, James M.  Battle Cry of Freedom:  The Civil War Era.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Mowris, J.A.  A History of the One Hundred and Seventeenth Regiment, N.Y. Volunteers (Fourth Oneida).  Hartford:  Case, Lockwood and Co., 1866.

Warner, Ezra J.  Generals in Blue:  Lives of the Union Commanders.  Reprint.  1992.  Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 1964.

Wise, Stephen R.  Lifeline of the Confederacy:  Blockade Running during the Civil War.  Columbia:  University of South Carolina Press, 1988.