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• Nov. 30,
AN IMMENSE TORPEDO TO BE USED.
postponement of the expedition until the latter part of November, when General Grant provided six thousand five hundred troops from the forces under General Butler, to co-operate with the fleet under Admiral Porter. The immediate command of the troops was given to General Weitzel. When the arrangements were all agreed upon, after Grant and Porter had a consultation in Hampton Roads, the commanding general was informed that General Bragg had gone to Georgia, taking with 1964. him a greater portion of the troops at and around Wilmington, to operate against Sherman. Grant considered it important to strike the blow at Fort Fisher during Bragg's absence, and he gave immediate orders for the troops and transports to be put in readiness at Bermuda Hundred, as soon as possible. In the instructions given to General Butler, it December 6. was stated that the first object of the expedition was to close the port of Wilmington, and the second the capture of that city. Butler was instructed to debark the troops on the main land between the Cape Fear River and the sea, north of the north entrance (or New Inlet) to the river. Should the landing be effected whilst the enemy still held Fort Fisher, and the batteries guarding the entrance to the river, the troops were to intrench themselves, and, by co-operating with the navy, effect the reduction and capture of those places, when the navy could enter the river, and the port of Wilmington would be sealed. General Butler was further instructed that "should the troops under General Weitzel fail to effect a landing at or near Fort Fisher, they will be returned to the armies operating against Richmond, without delay.'
General Butler had read of the destructive effects, at a considerable distance, of the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder, in England, and he suggested that a similar explosion, on board of a vessel run close under Fort Fisher, might demolish that work, or at least so paralyze the garrison, that troops, on hand, might make an easy conquest of the place. This suggestion was made just before he was ordered to New York, to keep the peace there during the Presidential election. When he returned, he found that the sug gestion had been considered, that the powder experiment was to be tried, and that preparations for it were a-making. These caused some delay in the movements of the navy, and the expedition was not ready to sail before the 13th of December.
The troops destined for the expedition consisted of General Ames's division of the Twenty-fourth Corps, and General Paine's division of the Twenty
1 General Grant's instructions to General Butler, December 6, 1864.
2 It was proposed to explode a floating mine containing between two and three hundred tons of gunpowder. The proposition was submitted to experts, and, among others, to Chief-Engineer General Richard Delafield, who made an elaborate report, showing that experience taught the impossibility of very serious or extensive injury being done in a lateral direction, by an open-air explosion of powder (which the proposed operation would be, substantially), excepting to vertical objects. He gave a description of the form and position of Fort Fisher, and also of Fort Caswell, at the more southern or old entrance to the Cape Fear River, which it was proposed to treat in the same way, and cited several instances of explosions in this country and in Europe, the effects of which supported his opinion, that success would not attend the experiment there proposed to be tried. This report was submitted to the War Department on the 18th of November, 1864. Reports were also submitted by other experts, among them Captain Henry A. Wise, chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, who gave it as his opinion that no serious damage would be done beyond 500 yards from the point of explosion. A consultation of several experts was held, by direction of Mr. Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, at the residence of Captain Wise. The subject was then fully discussed, and it was concluded that it was worth while to try the experiment, with the hope that the explosion might so paralyze the garrison for a few hours, that the troops might land and take possession, and so close the harbor of Wilmington.
DELAY OF THE FLEET.
"Dec. 9, 1864.
fifth (negro) Corps. They left Bermuda Hundred on transports, on the 8th of December, and arrived at Fortress Monroe the next morning," when General Butler reported to Admiral Porter that his troops were ready, and that his transports were coaled and watered for only ten days. Owing to the incompleteness of the great torpedo vessel, the armed fleet was not ready to move. Three days afterward, the admiral said he would sail on the 13th, but would be compelled to go into Beaufort harbor, on the North Carolina coast, for ammunition for his monitors. During the three days that the army waited for the navy, in Hampton Roads, the weather was cold and blustering, but on the 13th it was serene.
Fearing that a knowledge, or at least a well-grounded suspicion, of the destination of the armada should reach the enemy, Butler sent the transport fleet up the Potomac, to Matthias Point, at three o'clock on the morning of the 13th, and during the day they were in full view of the Confederate pickets and scouts. That night they returned, and rendezvoused under the lee of Cape Charles. At noon on Wednesday, the 14th, Butler joined them in his flag-ship, the Ben Deford, off Cape Henry, and the whole fleet put to sea. The naval fleet had then been gone about thirty-six hours.'
On the evening of the 15th, the transports, with the troops, arrived at the prescribed rendezvous, about twenty-five miles at sea, east of Fort Fisher. The ocean was perfectly calm, and remained so for three days, while the army was anxiously waiting for the navy; for the landing of troops could have been easily effected in that smooth water. Eagerly all eyes were turned northward, day after day, but it was not until the evening of Sunday, the 18th, when a strong wind was coming up from the southeast, and the sea was covered with white caps, that it made its appearance. It was evident that the water was too rough for troops to land, and the attack was postponed. The wind increased in violence the next day. The transports had been coaled and watered for only ten days. That time had now been consumed in waiting for the fleet and voyaging; and, by the advice of Admiral Porter, the transports went to Beaufort, seventy miles up the coast, for coal and water. They made that harbor just in time to avoid the severest portion of one of the heaviest gales experienced on that coast in thirty years. It lasted three days.
On Friday, the 23d,' Butler sent Captain Clark, one of his aids, in the armed tug Chamberlain, to inform Admiral Porter that the troops would be at the rendezvous at sunset the next evening. Clark turned at sunrise on Saturday morning, and reported that Admiral Porter had determined to explode the powder-ship at one o'clock that morning, and begin the attack without waiting for the troops. Butler could not credit the report, because the presence of the troops would be essential to the success of the experiment with the powder-ship. But it was true. Soon after
1 This was the most formidable naval armament ever put afloat. It consisted of the following vessels: Malvern (a river or bay steamer), the flag-ship; New Ironsides, Brooklyn, Mohican, Tacony, Kansas, Unadilla, Huron, Pequot, Yantic, Maumee, Pawtuxet, Pontoosuc, Nyack, Ticonderoga, Shenandoah, Juniata, Powhatan, Susquehanna, Wabash, Colorado, Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Mackinaw, Tuscarora, Vicksburg, St. Jago de Cuba, Fort Jackson, Osceola, Sassacus, Chippewa, Maratanza, R. R. Cuyler, Rhode Island, Monticello, Alabama, Montgomery, Keystone State, Queen City, Iosco, Aries, Howquah, Wilderness, Cherokee, A. D. Vance, Moccasin, Eolus, Gettysburg, Emma, Lillian, Nansemond. Tristram Shandy, Britannia, Governor Buckingham, Saugus, Monadnock, Canonicus, Mahopac. Total, 58. The last four were monitors.
EXPLOSION OF THE GREAT TORPEDO.
Captain Clark left, on the night of the 23d, the Louisiana (the name of the powder-vessel) was run in, under the direction of Commander A. C. Rhind, of the navy, in the wake of a blockade-runner, and anchored within three hundred yards of the northeastern salient of Fort Fisher.' There, at two
G Dec. 24, 1864.
o'clock in the morning," the powder, two hundred and fifteen tons in amount, was exploded, but without any sensible effect upon the fort. A little more than ten hours afterward, Porter opened his guns upon the defenses at that entrance (New Inlet) to the Cape Fear River, consisting of Fort Fisher and Mound Battery. Brief and feeble
responses were made by the garrisons, which deceived Porter with the belief that he had disabled them all, and that nothing was needed to make the
1 See sketch in note 1, page 475.
2 The Louisiana was a propeller of 295 tons, having an iron hull. She was disguised as a blockade-runner, having two raking smoke-stacks, one of which was real, the other was a sham. It being desirable to have the powder above the water-line, a light deck was built for the purpose. On this was first placed a row of barrels of powder, standing on end, the upper one open. The remainder of the powder was in canvas bags, holding about 60 pounds each, the whole being stowed as represented in the accompanying sketch, in which the form ef
the vessel is also delineated. The whole weight of the powder was 215 tons, or 480,000 pounds. To communicate fire to the whole mass simultaneously, four separate threads of the Gomez fuse were woven through it, passing through each separate barrel and bag. At the stern, and under the cabin, was a heap of pine wood (H) and other combustibles, which were to be fired by the crew, when they should leave the vessel. Three devices were used for communicating fire to the fuses, namely, clock-work, by which a percussion-cap was exploded; short spermaceti candles, which burned down and ignited the fuses at the same time; and a slow-match that worked in time with the candles and the clock-work. The powder-vessel followed a blockade-runner, and was anchored within 300 yards of the fort, according to the report of Commander Rhind. When the combustibles were fired, and the apparatus for igniting the fuses were put in motion, the crew escaped in a swift little steamer employed for the purpose. The explosion took place in one hour and fifty-two minutes after the crew left. Notwithstanding the concussion of the explosion broke window-glasses in a vessel twelve miles distant, and the whole fleet, at that distance, felt it, and it was also felt on land at Beaufort and New Berne, from 60 to 80 miles distant, there was no perceptible effect upon the fort and garrison. The edges of the parapets were as sharply defined as ever, and even the grass was not disturbed.
3 See note 4, page 473.
This is from a sketch taken from the line of intrenchments that connected this battery with Fort Fisher. On the left is seen the ocean. The vessel on the right indicates the position of the Cape Fear River.
ATTACK ON FORT FISHER.
victory, and the possession of them, complete, but a few troops to occupy them.' It was a great mistake. The works were almost entirely uninjured, and, according to a statement of General Whiting, only one man of the garrison of Fort Fisher was mortally hurt, three severely and nineteen slightly wounded, and five gun-carriages disabled. This was the sum of injury received.
The transports arrived off Fort Fisher just as Porter was closing the bombardment. An arrangement was made for a renewal of the attack and the co-operation of the troops, the next morning at eight o'clock. It was ten before the work commenced, when the lighter draught gun-boats were employed in shelling the Flag Pond Hill and Half-Moon batteries, two or three miles up the coast above Fort Fisher, preparatory to the landing of the troops. The bombardment continued seven hours without intermission. At a little past noon the transports moved within eight hundred yards of the shore, and soon afterward, when the batteries in front were silenced, the launches were prepared, and a part of Ames's division, or about one-third of the troops were landed. General Curtis was the first to reach the shore, and plant the flag on a deserted battery, when loud cheers went up from the transports, and the bands struck up Yankee Doodle. It was then about three o'clock. The Malvern passed by the Ben Deford, and Admiral Porter, standing on the wheel-house of his flag-ship, called out to General Butler, saying: "There is not a rebel within five miles of the fort. You have nothing to do but to march in and take it." This was a grave mistake, and led the Admiral to make most unkind reflections upon the military commander in his report two days afterward. The fact was that the garrison, at that moment, was two hundred and fifty men stronger than it was the day before; and behind those sand walls were nine hundred effective men, in good spirits, according to a statement made by General Whiting, on his dying bed. Responses from the fort had been kept up all day. “The garrison was at no time," General Whiting said, "driven from its guns, and fired in return, according to orders, slowly and deliberately, six hundred and sixty-two shot and shell."
1 At about the middle of the afternoon, Admiral Porter sent off a dispatch to the Secretary of the Navy, in which he said that in half an hour after getting the ships in position, he silenced Fort Fisher, but there were no troops to take possession, and he was merely firing at it to keep up practice." "The forts," he said, "are nearly demolished, and as soon as troops come, we can take possession." He added, "All that is wanted now is troops to land to go into them." This real complaining of the absence of troops was unfair, under the circumstances, and unjust to the army, which, as we have seen, had waited for the motion of the fleet already six days; and had the Admiral waited a few hours for the troops, which, he had been informed, would be there that day, he would have had them in full co-operation with him. As it was, he had defeated the intentions of both branches of the service concerning the powder-vessel, by exploding it when the army, in consequence of waiting for the navy, was seventy miles from the scene of action.
2 In his dispatch to the Secretary of the Navy, December 27th, he spoke of his "disappointment at the conduct of the army authorities, in not attempting to take possession of the forts which had been so completely silenced by our guns. They were so blown up, burst up, and torn up," he said, "that the people inside had no intention of fighting any longer. Had the army made a show of surrounding it, it would have been ours; but nothing of the kind was done." He then repeated rumors, afterward shown to be untrue, which reflected on the commander. "There never was a fort," he said, "that invited soldiers to walk in and take possession more plainly than Fort Fisher.... We silenced the guns in one hour's time." Observe what is said in the text, as to the strength and feelings of the garrison. The writer stood on the deck of the Ben Deford, during the entire bombardment, and avers that he saw and heard guns fire from the fort, at brief intervals, during the whole time, until twilight. The verity of history requires this notice of the Admiral's mistake. As to the guns being "blown up, burst up," &c., the statement of General Whiting shows that the "damage was very slight," and that only one gun and four gun-carriages were disabled; also, that every thing was thoroughly repaired that night.
3 General Whiting was wounded in a second attack on Fort Fisher, and died a prisoner in the hospital, at Fort Columbus, Governor's Island, in the harbor of New York. General Butler addressed to him a series of pertinent questions, touching the first attack on Fort Fisher, which Whiting promptly answered. A certified copy of these questions and answers is before the writer.
WITHDRAWAL FROM FORT FISHER.
General Weitzel, the immediate commander of the troops, accompanied by General Graham, and by Colonel Comstock of General Grant's staff, pushed a reconnoitering force to within five hundred yards of Fort Fisher, accepting the surrender, on the way, of Flag Pond Hill battery, with over sixty men, who were sent on board the fleet. The skirmishers went within seventy-five yards of the fort, when nearly a dozen were-wounded by the bursting of shells from the fleet. One man ran forward to the ditch, and captured a flag the shells had cut down from the parapet; and another shot a courier near a sally-port, toward the Cape Fear, took his pistols from his holsters, and a paper from his pocket, and, mounting the dead Confederate's mule, rode back to the lines.' General Butler did not go on shore, but, in the tug Chamberlain, he moved toward Fort Fisher, abreast the troops, and kept up continual correspondence with Weitzel, by means of signals.
In the mean time the remainder of Ames's troops had captured over two hundred of the North Carolina Reserves, with ten commissioned officers. From them Butler learned that Hoke's division had been detached from the army at Petersburg and sent for the defense of Wilmington, and that two brigades were then within two miles of Fort Fisher, and others were pressing on. Knowing the strength of Hoke's division, Butler was satisfied that a force, outside of the fort, larger than his own, was at hand. In the mean time the weather had become murky, and a heavy surf was beginning to roll in, making it impossible to land more troops. Weitzel, who had thoroughly reconnoitered the fort, reported that, in his judgment, and that of officers of his command, a successful assault upon it, with the troops at hand, would be impossible, for the moment the fleet should cease firing, the parapets would be fully manned, and its nineteen heavy guns would sweep the land. Considering all these things, General Butler ordered the troops to withdraw and re-embark. While doing so, at twilight, the guns of the navy ceased work, when those of Fort Fisher sent a storm of grape and cannister shot after the retiring troops. It was impossible to get them on board that night; and it was thirty hours before they were rescued from their perilous situation. On the following day the transports departed for Hampton Roads, leaving the fleet lying off Fort Fisher, with its ammunition nearly exhausted.
The failure to capture Fort Fisher at that time produced the keenest disappointment. Viewing the conditions dispassionately, after the lapse of years, experts say that the army officers unquestionably acted wisely and humanely in not attacking, under the circumstances. General Weitzel said to the writer at the time: "It would have been murder." The chief cause
1 Lieutenant Walling, of the One Hundred and Forty-second New York, was the brave soldier who performed the last-mentioned exploit. The dispatch taken from the pocket of the courier (now in possession of the writer) was an order from Colonel Lamb, the commandant of the fort, for some powder to be sent in.
2 The loss of the Nationals, in this attack, was about fifty men killed and wounded, nearly all by the bursting of six heavy Parrott guns, of the fleet. The Confederate loss was three killed, fifty-five wounded, and three hundred made prisoners.
3 Colonel Lamb, the commander of Fort Fisher, afterward said: "If I were a friend of General Butler, I could tell him facts which would prove that he did perfectly right in not attacking Fort Fisher when he was before the place. My battery, of nineteen heavy guns, so commanded the land approach that not a man could have lived to reach my works. It was only after the navy had, with beautiful precision, dismounted gun after gun, in regular order (at the second attempt), leaving only one in place, that the attacking party had any chance of success." General Whiting's replies to General Butler's questions on that point, were substantially the