Early in the Civil War, Wilmington, North Carolina was recognized as an important port by the Confederate government. To protect the port, CSA Major Charles P. Bolles began construction of Fort Fisher in the spring of 1861. The original plans for the fort were approved by Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes and Major General W.H.C. Whiting. After Bolles was transferred to Oak Island, Captain William L. De Rosset was assigned to man the fortifications at Fort Fisher. With him was the Wilmington Light Infantry – the first company to garrison the new fort. De Rosset supervised the strengthening of Battery Bolles – the first armed redoubt at the fort.
Later, Colonel Seawell L. Fremont was assigned to Fort Fisher with the 1st North Carolina Volunteer Artillery and Engineers. New Inlet, the entrance to the Cape Fear River, was the focus of much of his attention. Under Fremont’s guidance, several new artillery batteries were built on what became known as Federal Point at Fort Fisher.
In July 1862, Colonel William Lamb was assigned command of Fort Fisher. He immediately recognized the importance of the fort and set to work constructing the remainder of the fort. “I determined at once to build a work of such magnitude that it could withstand the heaviest fire of any guns in the American Navy,” – William Lamb. Lamb’s design incorporated huge earthen walls that would ultimately stretch from Sheperd’s Battery, near the Cape Fear River, to the Atlantic Ocean. A sea facing wall would be built and stretch south to Battery Lamb – a forty-three foot tall earthen work near New Inlet. For the next 2 1/2 years, the fort commanded the inlet to the Cape Fear River and was so formidable that no major Federal attacks occurred. That would change in December 1864.
The United States government, and military command, recognized the importance of Wilmington’s port. Throughout the war, the U.S. Navy was able to close all of the major ports of the Confederacy – with the exception of Wilmington. Blockade runners were able to enter the port and bring valuable supplies to the Confederate forces. While the U.S. Navy was able to sink many of the blockade runners, they were unable to close the port due to Fort Fisher’s commanding presence. US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant also knew the importance of the port and assigned Major General Benjamin F. Butler to command an amphibious assault against the fort in December 1864. Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, a Grant confidant, was assigned to command the naval forces tasked with transporting Butler’s infantry. The plan, as devised by Butler, was to shock the Confederate fort with the explosion of the USS Louisiana near the works. Laden with 200 tons of powder, it was hoped that the explosion would destroy a portion of the sea wall and allow the infantry to storm into the fort’s interior. While well conceived, the plan would ultimately fail when the ship was exploded, too far from the wall, on December 23. The explosion did not damage the fort and the preceding bombardment caused only small amounts of casualties. Butler, still convinced that a land attack might succeed, landed a division north of the fort on Christmas morning. Butler soon lost his nerve and called the attack off, ending the First Battle of Fort Fisher.
Undeterred, Grant ordered a second assault to capture Fort Fisher. Planned for mid-January 1865, it would include the entire North Atlantic Blockading Squadron – 52 ships – again commanded by Porter. US Major General Alfred H. Terry was in command of the ground forces – a provisional corps of 9,000 troops divided among six infantry brigades and siege artillery. An additional naval landing party of marines, commanded by Captain Kidder R. Breese, would be used as a landing party to secure the beach for Terry’s infantry.
Fort Fisher, still under the command of Colonel Lamb, would be reinforced and would reach of strength of 1,900 soldiers. CSA Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division of 6,400 troops were located further north of the peninsula, bringing the entire Rebel force to a combined strength of slightly more than 8,300 troops.
On January 13, Terry would land his provisional corps on the beach north of Fort Fisher – between Hoke’s division and the garrison at Fort Fisher which was now commanded by Whiting himself. Concerned about opening the route to Wilmington, Hoke made no attempt to prevent the landing of Terry’s forces. On the morning of January 15, Porter’s gargantuan naval flotilla opened a devastating bombardment of Fort Fisher and by noon had silenced the majority of the sea facing batteries. Hoke, hearing the distant shelling, detached 1,000 soldiers from his command to reinforce Whiting. However, with Terry’s much larger command blocking much of the way, only 400 men would ever reach the fort.
Lieutenant Commander Kidder’s landing force attacked the section of the fort where the land and sea sides connected – known as the Northeast Bastion. While this assault would be repulsed, it would pull critical troops away from the point which Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’ division attacked on the land side of the fort. While Kidder’s attack was in progress, Ames ordered his first brigade to attack the fort. It was 2:00 p.m. The first brigade was able to storm through the abatis and reach the first traverse. Wanting to keep the momentum going, Ames ordered his second brigade against the works near the river side gate at the western edge of the fort. With his first brigade stalled near the fourth traverse, Ames ordered his third brigade into action. By this time, the Confederate defenders at Battery Buchanan, located at the south edge of the fort, near New Inlet, turned their heavy guns on the north wall. Additionally, Whiting led a counterattack against the Federals and was severely wounded after receiving several demands for his surrender.
Porter’s attack squadron was also busy, taking out numerous gun placements as the Federal infantry continued to swarm along both walls of the fort. Ordering all of his troops to counterattack again, Colonel Lamb was severely wounded and taken, along with Whiting, towards Battery Buchanan. Department commander, General Braxton Bragg, never realized how untenable the situation at Fort Fisher had become. Tiring of repeated calls for reinforcements from Whiting, Bragg ordered Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to the fort to relieve Whiting. He arrived at Battery Buchanan as Whiting and Lamb were being evacuated. The situation Colquitt found himself in proved untenable and General Terry knew this to be true. With his forces inside the fort, and the artillery on both faces haven fallen silent, he determined to capture the rest of the fort that evening. Ames, in command of the forces in the fort, sent a portion of his command in a flanking movement to the rear of the Confederate position. Colquitt would leave the fort before the surrender in a rowboat. Left behind, the soldiers in the fort, now commanded by Major James Reilly, would be forced to surrender. Around 10 p.m., General Terry would ride to Battery Buchanan and receive the official surrender from General Whiting.
The fall of Fort Fisher was a terrible blow to the dying Confederacy. With no other Atlantic ports available for the blockade runners, it became a matter of time for the Rebel armies as supplies quickly began to dwindle. Little more than three months later, CSA General Robert E. Lee would surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House.
Today, Fort Fisher State Historic Site stands near the original land wall of the fort. Much of the land wall fortifications have been rebuilt to look much as they did in 1865. The trail leading from the visitors center winds through the position of the west river gate. Shepard’s Battery has a large cannon on its precipice. Battery Buchanan still sits over New Inlet – albeit with no cannon. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Wilmington, North Carolina, I would encourage you to make the drive to Kure Beach to visit this wonderful historic site.
To view my photo essay from my visit to Fort Fisher State Historic Site, click on the following link.