After the disastrous assault on Fort Fisher in late December 1864, Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry replaced Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler as the commander of the Union Army Provisional Corps. Terry was assigned by General Grant to lead the assault and capture of Fort Fisher.
Fort Fisher was a massive earthworks defensive fortification at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. It was the primary fortification that defended the approach to the final Confederate port, Wilmington, North Carolina. The approaches to Wilmington were among the moist heavily defended in the entire Confederacy with a number of forts and batteries guarding the two inlets from the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape Fear River.
Fort Fisher was the key to the overall Confederate defensive plan. The fort had been constructed by Colonel William Lamb who commanded it from July 4, 1862 until its capture on January 15, 1865. Although he had not been trained as an engineer, Lamb supervised the construction of Fort Fisher into the Confederacy’s largest bastion.
General Terry’s force of 9,000 included two divisions of infantry, a brigade of infantry and a brigade of siege artillery. The two divisions were commanded by Brig. Gen Adelbert Ames and Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine. The brigade was commanded by Col. Joseph C. Abbott. The siege artillery was under the command of Brevet Brig. Gen. Henry L. Abbot.
Admiral David Dixon Porter commanded the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron which included some 60 warships plus transports for the Army troops. Porter’s squadron included four of the newer monitors and ironclads such as the USS New Ironsides. Porter had a bombardment plan that was designed to smother the Confederate defenses.
The overall Confederate commander of the District of Cape Fear was Major General W.H.C. Whiting who was an experienced military engineer. His superior was General Braxton Bragg who was in command of the Department of North Carolina. Whiting had two commands reporting to him. One was the Defense, Mouth of Cape Fear led by Brigadier General Louis Hébert. The primary force was the Fort Fisher garrison of 1,900 men commanded by Colonel Lamb. The other force that was present was Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s division of 6,400 in four brigades.
Terry was a perfect choice for the joint operation. He understood the importance of cooperation in this type of operation, having commanded troops during the siege operations around Charleston, South Carolina.
The joint plan was to land Paine’s division of United States Colored Troops on the peninsula north of Fort Fisher. Their assignment was to hold off Hoke’s division from relieving Fort Fisher. Ames’ division and Abbott’s brigade would land in the same area and attack south down the peninsula. They would attack the fort on the land face side facing the river. Porter had organized a force of 2,000 marines and sailors to assault the sea face side of the fort.
On January 13th, the Union forces landed and established their positions. Hoke remained unengaged while Paine’s division set up their defensive line across the peninsula. Terry ordered scouts to reconnoiter the Confederate positions to the south. From these reports he determined that an assault would succeed.
By January 15th, all was in readiness. Porter ordered the naval bombardment on the sea face to commence at dawn. By noon all but four guns were silenced. Hoke had attempted to send reinforcements to the fort but only 400 of the 1,000 men were able to land. The rest were forced to turn back.
At about the same time the naval landing force of 1,000 led by Lt. Commander Kidder Breese attempted to storm the Northeast Bastion. Their original plan was to advance in three waves but in the heat of combat they attacked as one unorganized mass. General Whiting personally led the Confederate defense that turned back the naval force causing heavy casualties.
The attack distracted the Confederate defenders at the river gate. At about 2:00 PM Ames ordered his first brigade, commanded by Brevet Brig. Gen. Newton Martin Curtis, forward. Using axes, Curtis’ men chopped their way through the abatis and the palisade fence, suffering heavy casualties in the attack. They overran the outer works and stormed the first traverse. Ames then ordered Colonel Galusha Pennypacker’s brigade forward, accompanying them on the attack.
Union troops fought their way inside the fort. Terry ordered his men to fortify a position within the interior of the fort. The young Pennypacker, 20 at the time, led his brigade until he was severely wounded. His citation for the Medal of Honor, reads, “Gallantly led the charge over a traverse and planted the colors of one of his regiments thereon, was severely wounded.”
The Confederates at Battery Buchanan on the northern end of the fort attempted to repulse the Union troops by turning their artillery on them. Ames then ordered the Colonel Louis Bell’s brigade into action but Bell was killed by a sharpshooter before he even entered the fort. General Whiting personally led a counterattack against Curtis’ men but was shot and severely wounded in the attempt.
Meanwhile, Porter’s ships provided superb close fire support for the attacking troops. They were able to clear out Confederate troops who were defending the traverses. Curtis’ men were able to capture the important fourth traverse. At this point, Colonel Lamb led a desperate counterattack but was severely wounded and evacuated to the hospital. About an hour into the battle Curtis was also wounded.
The battle lasted for hours as Ames’ division became increasingly more disorganized. By now all three of brigade commanders were out of the battle with one killed and two wounded. Both Confederate commanders were also out of action and the garrison was now commanded by Major James Reilly. As darkness fell, Terry order Abbott’s independent brigade into action.
Meanwhile, Bragg had become tired of Whiting’s pleas for additional troops and believing everything was under control at Fort Fisher, he sent General Alfred H. Colquitt to relieve Whiting and assume command. Colquitt landed at 9:30 PM as the Confederate wounded were being evacuated to Battery Buchanan.
Terry was determined to capture the fort before the end of the day. He ordered a force to advance down to land side of the fort, outside of the wall and flank the Confederate position at the Southern tip of the fort. Colquitt and his staff rushed back to their boats before the Union troops could capture the wharf. Major Reilly, holding a white flag, offered to surrender the fort. Just before 10:00 PM General Terry accepted Fort Fisher’s surrender from General Whiting.
Once Fort Fisher surrendered, the Confederate defense of Wilmington fell apart. Within a month, the city fell to a Union army under General John M. Schofield. With the loss of Wilmington, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was cut off from the vital supplies that were necessary for them to continue the fight.
Colonel William Lamb survived his wound but spent 7 years on crutches. General Whiting died from dysentery that had entered his wounds on March 10, 1865. Colonel Newton Curtis survived his wound, was promoted to brigadier general and was later awarded the Medal of Honor. Colonel Galusha Pennypacker survived what General Terry had thought was a mortal wound. On February 18, 1865, he received a full promotion to brigadier general of volunteers at age 20. He remains the youngest person to have held the rank of general in the U.S. Army.