150 Years Ago: The Navy Leads the Way at Fort Fisher
On January 15, 1865 a column of sailors and Marines led the ground assault on the Confederate bastion at Fort Fisher. Although their initial assault was thrown back and with heavy losses, their sacrifice was not entirely in vain; it provided a bloody diversion that helped assist Union infantry under General Alfred Terry when they stormed the "Gibraltar of the South"later that afternoon.
The January 15 attack was the second major operation against the fort. In December, Admiral David Dixon Porter and his fleet had pounded the sandy fortress which protected blockade runners as they dashed in and out of Wilmington, North Carolina. General Benjamin Butler sent troops ashore to assault the fortress, but bad weather and reports that the Rebel defenses were still intact caused him to order a withdrawal back to the fleet. A few weeks later, however, Porter was back, and with an even larger fleet, more troops and a more aggressive and more able commander for his ground forces.
Porter's fleet of more than 60 vessels began pounding the fort on January 13. It was a steady bombardment that at times increased in tempo to where more than 180 rounds a minute were being fired into the fort. Porter sent ironclads close in shore to bring near point-blank fire on the defenders, most of whom huddled in bombproofs, emerging only occasionally to return fire at the Union fleet. Determined to "redeem the Navy's honor" after the December debacle, Porter asked for volunteers to form a naval column to aid the Army in its ground assault. Over 2,000 sailors and Marines, including many captains and other officers from the ships, did so. Unfortunately, except for the Marines, most were armed as if going on a boarding party - with cutlasses and pistols. When the naval bombardment ceased in the early afternoon of January 15, the Navy led the way on land - only to be cut down and pinned down in the sandy ditches in front of the fort, too far away for their side arms to do much more than make noise.
Terry's troops fared better, in part because of close-in fire support from the Navy. More than 8,000 Union infantry charged the fort, whose defenders numbered less than a quarter of that number. Overwhelmed at the outer defenses, the Confederates fell back, fought on and even launched a brief counterattack before succumbing to overwhelming numbers.
Fighting the forts and other defenses raised by the Confederate player to protect the ports for blockade runners is a big part of my strategic naval game of the Civil War, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas. Admiral Porter and many of the warships that took part in the attack on Fort Fisher are included in the game, and are represented by cards and counters. These include the mighty "unsinkable" screw sloop USS Brooklyn, the armored steam frigate USS New Ironsides, the side-wheel frigate USS Powhattan, the double-ender wooden sidewheeler USS Osceola and the comparatively tiny "90-day gunboat" USS Unadilla.