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10 Facts: The Battle of Fort Fisher

January 13 - 15, 1865
Attack Resized 2
Weakened Confederate forces attempt to ward off the Federal attack on land. Library of Congress

The Battle of Fort Fisher was a massive victory for the Union during the Civil War and weakened the Confederacy by cutting off their supply lines. Use these 10 facts to learn more about how this pivotal battle was won by the Union. 

Fact #1: There were 2 attempts to capture Fort Fisher

Before the Union achieved success in the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, they had tried to overtake the Fort unsuccessfully 3 weeks prior. This first attempt took place from December 24 - 27, 1864, and was a poorly executed plan by the Union that resulted in failure. During this first attack, Union forces on the water loaded a ship with explosives and moved it in towards the shore, hoping that the explosion would cause damage to the Fort and allow for their troops to storm the beach. However, the ship was ignited early, exploding when it was still 1 mile from the shore, therefore inflicting no damage to the Confederate Fort. Efforts to invade were in vain, and the Union troops had to evacuate. The second attack from January 13 - 15, 1865, was a success with better leadership and planning. 

Fact #2: The command of the Union forces changed between attacks

The Union's first failed attempt to capture Fort Fisher was led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. After his efforts failed, he was forced to evacuate his troops and retreat back to Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln wrote to Ulysses S. Grant to inquire about the failure at Fort Fisher. Grant responded to President Lincoln emphasizing that he hoped to learn who was to blame for the failure. Maj. Gen. Butler was dismissed from his command and was replaced as commander by Gen. Alfred Terry and Rear Adm. David D. Porter who would both lead the second successful fight against the Confederates at Fort Fisher in January 1865.

Fact #3: The Fort was the largest earthwork fortification in the Confederacy 

The defenses of the Fort were constructed from earth and sand, that were piled to create mounds reaching heights of 30 feet in some cases. The earthwork was thought to be a sturdier defense, because the sand absorbed the shock and fire much better than brick or wood, which would explode into debris. Within these massive mounds, the Confederates constructed offices and hospitals for protection from enemy artillery fire. Another advantage to the earthwork construction was that, due to the Forts location on the beach, breaches in the mounds could easily be rebuilt using the accessible sand.

The Structures at Fort Fisher
The earthwork structures at Fort Fisher. This photograph was taken after its capture.  The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume 5, Forts and Artillery. 1911.

Fact #4: Fort Fisher protected the last open major port of the Confederacy

Up until this point, the Union had captured the majority of major Confederate ports along the seaboard, and had essentially blockaded the entire coast. However, the Confederates were still trading and receiving wartime supplies through the port of Wilmington, North Carolina. During the war, Fort Fisher stood as a defense against Union attacks on Wilmington. When the Confederacy lost control of the Fort after the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, the Union was able to march towards Wilmington and capture it.

Fact#5: The losing Confederates sought reinforcements from their hospital

On the last day of fighting at Fort Fisher, Union forces began to make their way through the defenses of the Fort, and Confederate defeat seemed imminent with their smaller and weaker forces. In a desperate last attempt to get the upper hand, Confederate Col. William Lamb began to roust injured and sick Confederate soldiers who had taken refuge in the hospital, hoping to provide reinforcement to the failing troops. However, just as Col. Lamb was going to command his sickly and injured men to charge, he was wounded, and the effort never materialized. 

Fact #6: The USCT fought at Fort Fisher

Among the reinforcements that helped the Union secure victory were United Stated Colored Troops. The USCT first aided the Union by constructing defensive lines on land to prevent Confederate troops from coming to the aid of the weakened Southern forces. As the Confederate soldiers tried to rally one last time on the last day of fighting, their attempts proved futile as USCT flooded the Fort alongside other troops, reinforcing the Federals' effort and securing a Union victory. 

Fact #7: General Braxton Bragg might have prevented the Confederate defeat

As the battle at the Fort raged, Confederate Maj. Gen. Whiting sent word to nearby Gen. Braxton Bragg informing him to the dire situation and asking for reinforcements. However, Gen. Bragg failed to believe the urgency of the message, and did not send troops at first, as he was using his forces to defend Wilmington. On all 3 days of fighting, messages were sent to Gen. Bragg, pleading for assistance, informing him of the critical need for help. Bragg, who remains controversial in his legacy for his aptitude as a commander, refused to believe the messages, trusting that Fort Fisher was virtually impenetrable. He sent minor reinforcements, but was positive that Fort Fisher would not be lost. On the 3rd day of fighting, Bragg finally sent a small group of his men to assume command of the fighting, however, it was too late. By the time Bragg's men arrived, the Confederate forces had already lost the battle and were evacuating. Bragg then had to write to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that he was "mortified" to have to report the loss of the Fort.

This is an image of Braxton Bragg.
Braxton Bragg Library of Congress

Fact #8: The Union efforts at Fort Fisher made history

The second battle of Fort Fisher made history with the heaviest naval fire in history up until that point, and was also the largest amphibious attack during the war, combining land and naval forces. It would remain the largest U.S. amphibious attack until D-Day in World War II. There were nearly 10,000 Union soldiers and 58 naval ships involved in the Union attack. This battle also consisted of heavy hand-to-hand and close-range combat. 54 Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers who fought at Fort Fisher, including 1 member of the USCT.

Fact #9: The Union victory proved detrimental to the Confederate cause

Although the Battle of Fort Fisher sometimes gets lost among the last battles in the final months of the war, it played a huge role in advancing the Union cause. After the Union victory at Fort Fisher, within 1 month, the Federals were able to capture Wilmington, the final major Confederate port. With Union forces controlling Wilmington, the Confederacy had limited supplies, while the Union gained another supply line to the sea. The Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee struggled with their limited supplies, and they would surrender within 90 days of losing Wilmington.

Fact #10: Part of Fort Fisher still stands

Approximately 10% of Fort Fisher still remains preserved. Because most of the Fort was built from sand and earth, a good deal of the original defenses has been eroded by the ocean over time. However, a few mounds still remain intact. During the war, a 9-foot tall palisade fence stood around the fort, and today, that fence has been reconstructed. There is also a restored, operational seacoast cannon onsite. 

 

Related Battles

Kure Beach, NC | January 13, 1865
Result: Union Victory
Estimated Casualties
2,957
Union
1,057
Confed.
1,900