Ft. Fisher: The beginning of the end
The Battle of Fort Fisher may not sound familiar. However, its little known role in the demise of the Confederacy is movie worthy. Fort Fisher wasn't the last straw, but it was close.
The South felt the suffocating weight of the North, as Union forces approached the last remaining Confederate port in the winter of 1864-1865. The Confederacy's stock of imported supplies necessary to the war effort was dwindling. The Union blockade had been so successful that European goods were only reliably able to pass through Wilmington, North Carolina. Its closure would sever the Confederate Army from its blockade runners.
Wilmington was well-protected by fortifications, the largest of which was Fort Fisher. Located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River on a peninsula, this stronghold boasted earthwork fortifications, palisades, a telegraph station, and batteries outfitted with numerous weaponry such as columbaids, Parrott Rifles, Coehorn Mortars, and field artillery. This colossal fortification was the gateway through which precious cargo passed on its way to General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
A Union attempt to take down Fort Fisher and close the Port of Wilmington in December 1864 was an overwhelming failure. Hesitation, poor weather, and unfavorable ocean currents all added to what would be referred to as "Butler's Folly." Northern forces had to regroup and figure out a better method of assault. An amphibious siege was agreed upon by Union Army and Navy leaders. Under the commands of Major General Alfred Terry and Admiral David D. Porter, the Union forces launched their plan on the morning of January 13, 1865. By January 14, Union ships had severed telegraph lines and troops were entrenched on the shores. Confederate commander Major General Robert F. Hoke, who detached from Lee's Army in order to help repel the Union assault, knew he was outmanned.
Tensions erupted between Northern and Southern troops on the mid-afternoon of January 15. A shattering whistle from the Union fleet signaled the beginning of the assault on Fort Fisher. Waves of Union soldiers advanced on the fort while Confederates rained down artillery and rifle fire. Bodies fell on the battle ground, but Union troops kept pushing forward.
Before long, Union soldiers were behind Fort Fisher's walls. Knowing Fort Fisher would soon fall, Commander Colonel William Lamb and Major General W.H.C. Whiting sent word to Commander General Braxton Bragg that backup was necessary in order to survive the onslaught. Instead, Bragg sent General Alfred Colquitt to take command which ultimately had little influence. The Confederates retreated to the tip of the peninsula where they were trapped with the Union forces barreling toward them. Whiting officially surrendered the fort to his Union adversaries by 10 p.m. that evening.
The Union success at Fort Fisher delivered a crushing blow to Confederate efforts. Supply lines to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia were strangled. Within a few months, Lee would ultimately surrender the Confederate forces to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Christy Wallover is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History. She is currently working with the division's Civil War objects. More Civil War objects will soon be available in an online group.