Prior to the first Battle of Fort Fisher, there were two minor actions in East Carolina that were failures for the Union.
In the first action on December 9, 1864, an Army expedition commanded by Colonel Jones Frankel left Plymouth, North Carolina to investigate reports of an ironclad ram being built up the Roanoke River at Halifax. They were followed by a small force of naval vessels, that included the USS Wyalusing, USS Otsego and the tug USS Bazely.
The naval component of the expedition proceeded upriver in an attempt to capture Rainbow Buff. While they were anchored near Jamesville, the Otsego was struck by two torpedoes (mines) and sank up to her gun deck in the shallows. The Bazely attempted to render assistance but she too was struck by a torpedo and was partially sunk.
The rest of the expedition moved further upriver to Rainbow Bluff the Confederates had reinforced the position, so they withdrew back downriver. The expedition returned to Plymouth on December 28th. The Bazely was later destroyed by the Union Navy while the Otsego eventually sank.
Meanwhile, Frankel’s command proceeded up the river to attack Fort Branch. The fort had originally been constructed to defend the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Bridge from Union attacks. Twelve pieces of artillery were stationed at the fort. The fort was commanded by Colonel John Hinton.
On the night of December 12, 1864, members of the 2nd Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery, 27th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 9th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry, 16th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, 176th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, Battery A of the 3rd New York Heavy Artillery Regiment, and the 12th Regiment New York Volunteer Cavalry moved against the Confederate outpost. Colonel Hinton was easily captured by the New York Artillery gun crews but the attack was too slow which allowed the Confederates to regroup. The Union force retreated back to Williamston, North Carolina.
These two disappointing preludes set the stage for an even bigger disappointment that was to come. The Union Army forces for the Fort Fisher attack were led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler with units from his Army of the James. After his failure at Bermuda Hundred, General Ulysses Grant had originally assigned one of Butler’s subordinates, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, to lead the expedition. Butler, ever the glory seeker, insisted that he would lead the expedition himself. Grant agreed.
Butler’s force included 2nd Division of the XXIV Corps and the 3rd Division from the XXV Corps, along with two battalions of heavy artillery and engineers. Grant’s own staff engineer, Colonel Cyrus Comstock, went along as chief engineer. Butler had also brought along the USS Louisiana, a hulk, that he had filled with 200 tons of gunpowder for what he hoped was an ingenious attack on the fort. The naval forces were led by Admiral David Dixon Porter and nearly 60 vessels of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron plus troop transports.
The fleet were supposed to start out from Hampton Roads on December 10th but they were delayed by winter storms for three days. The Navy needed to tow the monitors and they needed to stop at Beaufort to refuel. Eventually after a second storm, all was in readiness and the attack commenced on the night of December 222-23, 1864. The army transports returned to Beaufort due to the second storm.
The opening gambit was to use the Louisiana as a floating bomb. Near midnight, the ship was towed close to the fort’s seawall and set on fire. However, the Louisiana was farther out to sea than the navy thought, perhaps as far as a mile offshore. As a result, Fort Fisher was undamaged by the blast.
In the morning, the Union Navy moved closer to Fort Fisher and began a massive bombardment of the fortification. During the course of the day, the fleet fired close to 10,000 shells, causing very little damage with four seacoast gun carriages disabled, one light artillery caisson destroyed, and 23 casualties in the garrison. In fact, the Union Navy lost 45 men from exploding guns and Confederate artillery hits.
When the Union Army arrived on the evening of the 23rd, Butler felt that the Confederates were alerted to his amphibious assault by the premature Louisiana explosion and the naval bombardment. Porter convinced him to land a reconnaissance party for scouting purposes. On Christmas morning, Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames’ division began to land.
The Union troops captured a battery north of Fort Fisher and the 4th and 8th North Carolina Junior Reserve battalions. Ames sent a brigade toward the fort to report on the possibility of an attack. The brigade commander, N. Martin Curtis, reported that the land wall was lightly defended. Ames refused to give him permission for an attack and ordered him to withdraw.
Butler had convinced himself that the fort was undamaged and would be too difficult to capture. He ordered his forces to re-embark after he received word the Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division was in the area and there was a threat of yet another storm. The entire fleet then returned to Hampton Roads, having accomplished nothing.
Benjamin Butler was relieved of command by General Grant and eventually dismissed from the Army. He was replaced by Major General Alfred H. Terry. Confederate losses amounted to five killed and mortally wounded, fifty-six wounded, and six hundred captured, while the damage caused by the bombardment was quickly repaired. Blockade runners continued using the port, the next ships to arrive did so the very night the Union fleet withdrew.