North Carolina: Outer Banks to the Last Great Battle
At the beginning of the secessionist crisisı after the election of Lincoln in 1860, North Carolina was not overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the Union, as opposed to the position held by itıs namesake to the south. Although a primarily agricultural state, there were relatively few slaves in a state marked more by disparate, isolated elements mostly either neutral or outright hostile to both slavery and secession. Several meetings across the state in late 1860 only produced more evidence that if secession was inevitable, it would be done without widespread support.
As the talks raged, South Carolina declared itself free and independent on December 20, the first state to openly declare secession from the Union. In North Carolina, the only large public celebration was a mass gun firing in Wilmington, a city noted for itıs strong support of secession. This act touched off even more heated debate across the state, the majority of citizens tending to support staying within the Union but radically opposed to any force being used to keep any state within it. In the middle of this continued crisis, the state legislature disbanded for the Christmas holidays.
With most of the politicians safely out of the way, staunch secessionists in Wilmington went into action. On December 31 the citizens of that coastal city wired North Carolina Governor John Willis Ellis, asking permission to seize nearby Forts Caswell and Johnston, as they constituted a ³threat² to access to the city via the Cape Fear River. Ellis refused, then when the citizens went ahead and seized the forts on word that U.S. troops were on the way to garrison them, immediately demanded that the Carolinians evacuate the posts, then sent a letter of apology to President James Buchanan (Lincoln had been elected but not yet sworn in at the time).
All through the winter and early spring of 1861, Ellis continued to act in an equally conservative manner, backed up by a February 28 popular vote against a secession convention. Even the secession of six fellow Southern states and the bombardment of Fort Sumter at Charleston on April 12-13 did not sway Ellis from his Unionist stance. The deciding factor, however, was an April 15 letter from Lincoln asking Ellis to provide two regiments of militia to ³suppress the Southern insurrection.² Ellis regarded such a request as a violation of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which addresses the rights of the individual states, and ³a gross usurpation of power² on Lincolnıs part.
Ellis immediately ordered the seizure and occupation of ³Federal² installations and forts throughout the state, and called for a secession convention. On May 20 the convention met, and by the dayıs end had both adopted an ordinance of secession and ratified the Confederate constitution. North Carolina was now officially separated from and at war against the United States government.
The War in North Carolina Begins
Although USA General in Chief Winfield ³Old Fuss and Feathers² Scott had warned at the very beginning that the war with the South would be long and bloody, most military and civilian alike, North and South, scoffed at the 75-year old generalıs words. 90-day enlistments of both individuals and militia companies were common on both sides, and the initial rush of volunteers was fueled partially by the desire to see combat ³before itıs all over.²
Several small battles won by the Confederacy in the summer of 1861 seemed to indicate that the South was enroute to an early victory, and both armies readied for what each thought would be a single, gigantic and ultimately decisive battle. On July 21 these armies met at Bull Run Creek, Virginia, 28,452 Union troops facing 32,232 Confederates in a day long clash that ended with the whipped Union army running in sheer panic from the field back to Washington. The 1st Manassas, as Southerners referred to the battle, was both a resounding major victory for the Confederacy, and ultimately a signal that this was to be a long, bloody war, just as Scott had predicted.
After getting over the shock of initial Confederate victories, and the threat against Washington itself, Union army planners settled down and devised a multi-phase strategy to use against the Confederacy, ironically based on Scottıs original ideas. One of the first offensive operations would be against North Carolinaıs eastern coast, to seize the vital ports and cut the north-south supply lines from Virginia. To start carrying out these plans, USA Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler and USA Commodore Silas Horton Stringham were given the task of attacking and capturing the most important Outer Banks access to mainland ports, Hatteras Inlet.
When the war began, one of the Union strategies was to blockade the entire Southern coastline, to prevent supplies from coming in and amphibious forces from going out. To counter this threat on the Outer Banks, Confederate authorities had given their blessing to a quasi-military fleet of small sailing vessels, dubbed the ³mosquito fleet² by the Southerners and ³privateers² or outright ³pirates² by the Union, which ran supplies through the blockade, helped defend the coastline and raided Union ships when the opportunity arose. To back up these small ships, five strong forts and associated batteries were constructed all along the narrow coastal islands, and placed under the overall command of CSA Brigadier General Walter Gwynn and CSA Brigadier (later Major) General Theophilus Hunter Holmes.
Battle of Hatteras Inlet
To defend the vital access to the mainland ports, North Carolina had constructed two forts on either side of the small village on the north bank of Hatteras Inlet; Fort Hatteras, mounting twelve 32-pounder guns, was on the west side and closer to the channel itself, while Fort Clark, mounting five 32-pounders, was a smaller post closer to the ocean. Commanding the Hatteras Island Garrison was CSA Colonel William F. Martin, with about 400 men and 35 artillery pieces. With news of the approach of Union naval forces, Martin requested and received somewhere between 200 and 400 reinforcements (accounts vary significantly on this point).
Sailing down from Fort Monroe, Virginia, was a Union naval force of seven ships mounting 143 cannon, under the direct command of Stringham, accompanied by transports carrying the USA Colonel Rush Christopher Hawkins 9th (³Hawkinsı Zouaves²) and USA Colonel Max Weberıs 20th (³United Turner Rifles²) New York Infantry Regiments and the 2nd United States Artillery Battery, under overall command of Butler. Arriving off the Outer Banks on the afternoon of August 27, Stringham spent the rest of the night getting his ships into position to begin a bombardment of the Confederate posts the next morning.
On the morning of August 28, Stringham opened a heavy bombardment of Fort Clark, and landed roughly half of Weberıs Regiment under itıs cover. Weberıs men easily overran the Confederate defenses, after Fort Clarkıs defenders ran out of ammunition and retreated to Fort Hatteras. Watching the Confederates running over the sand dunes towards the westernmost fort, Stringham initially thought both posts had been abandoned. The USS Monticello was ordered into the inlet to give chase, only to be pounded by heavy fire from the still-ready and able defenders at Fort Hatteras. Ironically, the only Union casualty of the dayıs action was an infantryman killed by one of Stringhamıs guns. As the seas were rough, Stringham was forced to pull offshore, leaving Weberıs small command to hold Fort Clark.
During the night, as Martin was preparing to attack and retake Fort Clark, CSA Commodore Samuel Barron, Chief of Confederate Coastal Defenses, landed with about 200 reinforcements, and took over command of the operation. His first action was to cancel any offensive plans, and spent the rest of the night repairing and building up the sandwork fort.
The next morning, August 29, Stringham sailed back into the inlet over calm seas, and began a heavy bombardment of Fort Hatteras. Unusual for the time, he kept his ships moving while firing, and stayed just out of range of the Confederate guns. After just three hours of intense fire, Barron was forced to surrender his post and troops.
After the fall of Forts Clark and Hatteras, Confederate authorities saw that defense of the narrow Outer Banks was going to be manpower and resource intensive, neither of which was in abundance. Fort Morgan at Ocracoke Inlet and Fort Oregon at Oregon Inlet were quickly evacuated and just as quickly taken over by Butlerıs forces, leaving just Fort Fisher at the Cape Fear River inlet to guard the outer coast.
The only other action on this part of the Outer Banks was a bizarre set of pursuits between Hatteras and Chicamacomico (now called Rodanthe). On October 5, 1861, Hawkins had advanced towards the tiny north Hatteras Island town, aiming to capture and garrison it against the threat of a Confederate overland attack. As they closed in, six Confederate gunboats suddenly appeared, as well as part of a small Georgia infantry regiment (the 3rd Georgia Volunteers). A chase ensued, with the Union force running the twenty miles back to the safety of Fort Hatteras. The next morning, the chase ensued again, this time Hawkinsı men chasing the Confederates all the way back to Chicamacomico. Both sides navies joined in on the fun, running on either side of the narrow banks in support of their troops. Besides a relative handful of casualties, absolutely nothing came out of what the locals referred to as the ³Chicamacomico Races.²
Burnsideıs 1862 North Carolina Expedition
With the quick fall of all Confederate defenses on the Outer Banks, two things became glaringly obvious: first, there would be a major effort by Union forces to capture the mainland ports, and second, the only thing standing in their way was the small garrison on Roanoke Island. As the defense of the entire area was now under Confederate control, Governor Clark had little control over the buildup of a strong defense network, as the civilian population was demanding from him. Richmond responded to his appeals by simply stating that all available trained men were urgently needed in Virginia (not coincidentally where the officials stating this were also located), and that only newly recruited units were available.
CSA Brigadier General Richard Caswell Gatlin was placed in command of the newly formed CSA Department of North Carolina. CSA Brigadier (later Major) General Daniel Harvey Hill was initially given the responsibility of defending Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds (the body of water between the Outer Banks and the North Carolina mainland), and CSA Brigadier General Joseph Reid Anderson took command of the District of Cape Fear, based out of Wilmington. Hill was apparently less than happy with his new command, and soon resigned in order to return to CSA General Robert E. Leeıs Army of Northern Virginia. To replace him, Gatlin placed CSA Brigadier General Henry Alexander Wise in charge of the area north of Roanoke Island, and CSA Brigadier General Lawrence OıBryan Branch in charge of the stretch from Roanoke Island to New Bern.
Exact numbers are very hard to pin down, but Wise and Branch had somewhere around 8,000 men between their commands, most with Branch in New Bern. Roanoke Island itself was guarded by a few earthwork forts; on the east (seaward) side of the island was a tiny, unnamed, two gun redoubt at Ballast Point, in the center was Fort Russell, a three gun redoubt having a clear field of fire over the only road. On the northwest (landward) side of the island were three small sandwork forts, Forts Huger, Blanchard and Bartow, mounting a total of 25 guns. No posts were established on the southern side of the island, possibly because the land was marshy and difficult to build on.
The most unusual defensive position was Fort Forrest, a partially sunken ship on the mainland side of the sound that had been reinforced and mounted with eight guns. The entire Confederate garrison numbered a mere 1,434 North Carolinians and Virginians, soon placed under direct command of CSA Colonel H. M. Shaw, after Wise became too ill to lead the defense. Shaw was intensely disliked by his own men, one source quotes a soldier remarking that he was ³not worth the powder and ball it would take to kill him.²
Sailing rapidly towards this unhappy situation was the largest amphibious force the United States had ever mounted to that time; 67 gunboats and troop transports under command of USA Commodore (later Rear Admiral) L. M. Goldsborough, carrying over 13,000 soldiers under command of USA Brigadier (later Major) General Ambrose Everett Burnside, an undistinguished commander better known for his namesake whiskers than his military prowess. In his postwar memoirs, USA General in Chief Ulysses S. Grant said that Burnside was ³an officer who was generally liked and respected. He was not, however, fitted to command an army.² By February 4, 1862, the fleet had crossed Hatteras Inlet safely, and prepared to sail north into combat.
The Assault of Roanoke Island
Burnsideıs fleet moved north through Pamlico Sound and arrived just off Roanoke Island on February 7, opening fire on Fort Barrow between 10:30 and 11 AM. Out of range, none of the Confederate batteries were able to return in kind the pounding artillery barrage. The Union Navy kept up their fire all day long, and as darkness approached, Burnside began landing his infantry at Ashbyıs Harbor, about three miles south of the southernmost Confederate fortification. A scouting force of about 200 Confederates were nearby when the first Union troops came ashore, but elected to retreat to Fort Russell without firing a shot. By midnight, over 10,000 Union soldiers were ashore, along with several artillery batteries, and making preparations to move north at first light.
At dawn, three Massachusetts infantry regiments (the 23rd, 25th and 27th) attacked Fort Russell, strung in a line formation across the road and into the swamps on both sides. The four hundred Confederate defenders opened a heavy fire down the road, blocking the 25th Massachusetts advance, but were soon forced to pull out when the other Union infantry appeared out of the swamps on both flanks. As the Massachusetts men entered the redoubt to take the abandoned guns, Hawkinsı Zouaves (the 9th New York Infantry Regiment) burst out of the woods and ran screaming over the redoubts walls. Hawkins claimed ever after that his men had bravely charged and taken the ³heavily defended² post.
As the rest of the Union infantry regiments rapidly advanced north on the small island towards the remaining three forts, Shaw decided that any further action was futile, and surrendered without firing another shot. In all, 23 Confederate soldiers were killed in the brief action, including Wiseıs own son, 58 were wounded, 62 missing, and about 2,500 captured, including nearly a thousand newly landed reinforcements from Nagıs Head. Burnside reported his losses at 37 killed, 214 wounded and 13 missing, including six sailors killed and 17 wounded by return fire from Fort Bartow.
Actions in Eastern North Carolina
With the Outer Bank and Roanoke Island secured and available as staging bases, Burnside turned his attention to the mainland. His overall strategy from this point on seems a little less clear cut than the assault on the Outer Banks; his postwar writings in Battles and Leaders only state that he had presented a rather vague plan to USA General of the Army George B. McClellan, to outfit an amphibious force ³with a view to establishing lodgements on the Southern coast, landing troops, and penetrating into the interior...² As the operations on Roanoke Island were still winding down, other offensive actions were just starting.
With the Confederate ³mosquito fleet² fleeing with hardly a shot fired before the powerful Union naval task force, elements of Goldsboroughıs fleet set off after their base at Elizabeth City, across Albemarle Sound from the newly captured island, taking it with little resistance on February 10. Part of Burnsideıs infantry command joined the navy for ³assaults² on other, non-defended towns off the sound; Edenton was ransacked on February 11, and Winton was burned to the ground on the 20th. Burnside and Goldsborough then turned their attention to the south, across Pamlico Sound towards New Bern and Morehead City.
To defend against the oncoming Union force, Branch had about 4,000 ill-trained and untested troops, stretched in a line from an old earthwork named Fort Thompson near the Neuse RIver, across the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad track to Morehead City, and on nearly 2 1/2 miles to the bank of the Trent River. Later war doctrine called for a line this size to be held by at least 10 times this number of men. Six smaller earthwork redoubts surrounded the city, and an incomplete line of trenchworks and redoubts ran around the outside of Fort Thompson, all unmanned due to the manpower shortage. Branchıs only real defensive advantage was the 13 guns inside Fort Thompson, and the 12 scattered down the line of battle. The other forts were mounted with cannon, but none were positioned to resist a land-based attack.
On March 12 the Union fleet arrived in the Neuse RIver about 14 miles south of New Bern, and that night Burnside gave his orders for the attack. The men were to land the next morning, march north along the Morehead City Road, and attack the Confederate line at the earliest opportunity.
The Battle of New Bern
Branch had arranged his men in an interesting fashion, possibly due to his total lack of experience or training as a military officer (he was a lawyer turned politician turned politically appointed general). From the fort to the railroad track he placed four regiments, CSA Major John A. GIlmerıs 27th, CSA Lieutenant Colonel Thomas L. Loweıs 28th, CSA Colonel James Sinclairıs 35th and CSA Colonel Charles C. Leeıs 37th North Carolina Infantry, with CSA Colonel Clark Averyıs 33rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment just behind them in reserve. To the right (west) of the railroad he placed CSA Colonel Zebulon B. Vanceıs 26th and CSA Colonel R.P. Campbellıs 7th North Carolina Infantry Regiments. In the middle, at the critical point in his line pierced by the railroad, he placed the least able of his men, the newly recruited, still un-uniformed and mostly shotgun-equipped Special Battalion, North Carolina Militia, led by CSA Colonel H.J.B. Clark.
On the morning of March 13 Burnsideıs troops waded ashore unopposed, the entire force able to join on land by 1 PM. It had begun raining, and by the time the Union troops started moving north, the roads had become a quagmire of mud. Burnside said later it was ³one of the most disagreeable and difficult marches that I witnessed during the war.² It took until dark to move north to the Confederate picket line, where it was decided to bivouac for the night and attack the next morning. Without tents or shelters of any kind, the night must have been a most difficult one for the rain-soaked infantrymen.
As dawn approached on the 14th, Burnside split his command into three brigades: USA Brigadier General John Gray Fosterıs 1st Brigade was to attack on the right, USA Brigadier General John Grubb Parkeıs 3rd Brigade the center and USA Brigadier General Jesse Lee Renoıs 2nd Brigade was to roll up the extreme left. As dawn broke, the three Union brigades moved out.
Burnside had camped for the night much closer to the Confederate line than he had thought, and the lead brigade, Fosterıs 1st, was in action almost immediately. Branch ordered the landward-facing guns of Fort Thompson to open up, which was answered by return fire from Union gunboats sailing in support up the Neuse River. Fosterıs men were caught in the crossfire, suffering heavy casualties, and was soon forced to withdraw. Seeing the attack was bogging down on his right, and spotting the break in the Confederate line at the railroad track, Reno lead the four regiments under his command into the breach, the 21st Massachusetts Infantry in the front.
Seeing the Union infantry storming down the road towards their position, the militiamen broke and ran, most without firing a single shot. Seeing the line to their right caving in, the 35th North Carolina soon followed suit. The only reserve regiment, the 33rd North Carolina, quickly moved up to plug the hole in the line, and between their volley fire and that of the 26th North Carolina to the right, soon broke up the Union attack and hurled it back. Reno moved further to his left, and prepared to attack once again.
By this time, the third Union brigade, Parkeıs, had moved into position, and all three brigades launched a renewed attack on the Confederate line at nearly the same time. This time the attack was successful, with Union infantry pouring through gaps in the line and raising their battle flags on the ramparts of the Confederate defenses. Branch, seeing his entire command caving in, ordered everyone to disengage and move back into New Bern. Once there, apparently believing Burnside was hot on his heels, when in fact the Union assault had stopped for a rest within the breastworks, Branch ordered New Bern to be immediately evacuated and his headquarters moved to Kinston, 40 miles further east.
When Burnsides men moved into town on the afternoon of the 14th, all Confederate troops had fled, and the town was taken without further incident. Rather than trashing and burning the place, as was the Union custom, Burnside decided to garrison the town and use it as a supply and headquarters station for raids into the rest of North Carolina. Union troops held the town for the rest of the war. The short campaign had cost Burnside 90 killed and 380 wounded, and another 4 sailors wounded, while Branch lost 64 killed, 101 wounded and 413 captured or missing.
Beaufort and Morehead City
With New Bern newly secured, Burnside had only one task left to bring the entire central and eastern coasts under Union control; the seizure of Fort Macon on Bogue Banks, just across Bogue Sound from Beaufort just 33 miles to the southwest, guarding the only inlet left in Confederate control along the Outer Banks. With this post under Union control, the port of Morehead City would be open to Union troop and supply shipments, to use in the planned invasion of central and southern North Carolina.
Fort Macon was a masonry structure of the so-called ³third system² fortification design. Under President George Washington, money was first appropriated for a series of small breastworks containing a few cannon apiece, barely adequate for limited shoreline defense, and used primarily to guard the most critical harbors. After 1781, most of these posts were abandoned and allowed to deteriorate.
Renewed hostilities with England and the start of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe inspired an improvement program, known as the ³Second System of Fortifications.² The earthwork battery emplacements were replaced by two or even three story high earthworks, nearly all covered with bricks. Larger bore cannon were mounted in enclosed reinforced emplacements and fired through small slitlike openings. These forts were supplemented by surrounding open and enclosed smaller batteries, designed to foil attack from any expected angle. With the close of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, once again, most of these forts were abandoned.
The ³Third System² grew out of a growing sense of national vulnerability in the late 1830ıs and early 1840ıs. A continuous series of strong masonry forts was planned to guard ports, towns and strategic locations along the entire eastern seaboard and Gulf coast. Designed by Brigadier General Simon Bernard and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Macon was begun in 1826, and took eight years to complete at a cost of $463,790.
The fort was named for Nathaniel Macon who was speaker of the House of Representatives and a U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The five-sided structure was built of brick and stone with outer walls 4.5 feet thick with over 9.3 million locally produced bricks, and mounted 54 artillery pieces of various calibers. At the beginning of the war it was seized, in a scene repeated all over the coastal South, by local militia who demanded the post from the single ordinance sergeant who manned it.
At the time of Burnsideıs expedition, Fort Macon was commanded by CSA Lieutenant Colonel (later Colonel) Moses J. White of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with a garrison of about 450 (some accounts say 480 to 500) infantry and artillerymen.
The Battle for Fort Macon
With the Union Navy already under way to lay siege to the fort, Burnside ordered Parke to take his 3rd Brigade, with about 1,500 men fit for duty, south along the road through Morehead City, and lay siege to the Confederate outpost by land. Parke left New Bern on March 18, and walked into Morehead City without resistance five days later. After taking Beaufort the next day, also without resistance, Parke immediately, and politely, requested the fortıs surrender; White, also politely, turned his request down. White knew that, without reinforcement or resupply, his post was doomed, but he was determined to fight it out as long as possible.
Over the next month the Union Navy landed men and supplies on Bogue Banks west of the fort, and constructed a series of artillery redoubts and firing pits that gradually extended closer and closer to the fort. Whiteıs men could only stand and watch, and fire at the occasional ship or redoubt that came too close. By April 22 Parke had managed to emplace heavy cannon and siege mortars within 1,200 to 1,400 yards of the fortıs walls. Parke once again asked for a surrender, and was once again turned down.
The Union land batteries opened fire at dawn on April 25, and the Navy joined in a little after 8 AM. Whiteıs guns were high-velocity, flat trajectory unable to hit the well-entrenched redoubts, but raked the Union ships with a murderous fire, causing them to break off and retreat in less than one hour. Parke kept up an accurate and heavy fire for nearly 11 hours, helped in no small part by a Union signal officer in nearby Beaufort, who watched the impact of each round and signaled corrections in to the artillerymen. WIth his help, about 560 of the 1,100 rounds fired landed inside the fort, an amazingly high statistic for the time.
By 4 PM, White had suffered enough, and signaled Parke asking for a truce. The firing stopped immediately. The next morning, White went aboard the schooner USS Alice Price and surrendered his post and his command. By noon, the 5th Rhode Island Infantry Regiment marched inside the fortıs walls and raised the Stars and Stripes once again. Losses on both sides were quite light for such a heavy bombardment; seven Confederates were killed and another 18 wounded, while Parke suffered the loss of one dead and three wounded.
After the Battle
Beaufort served as a supply station for the Union army and navy for the rest of the war, despite several rather weak attempts to recapture it. With the entire eastern water accesses of the state now under Union control, Confederate authorities prudently pulled their overmatched forces back into the interior and north to support Leeıs army in Virginia. By springtime, Union troops had marched in and taken Plymouth and Washington without opposition.
With the exception of a continuous series of Union and Confederate raids that produced nothing for either side, no major offensive was launched in North Carolina for nearly three more years. The major battles had shifted away from the supply and farming region of eastern North Carolina to the heart of the Confederacy in Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia, as well as the seeming endless struggle around Richmond in Virginia.
After Burnsideıs successful 1861-62 campaign in the eastern portion of the state had cut off supply and transport routes into Virginia, Wilmington inherited a vital role as the most important safe port for blockade runners. The supplies they managed to sneak past the Union fleet were then transferred to trains on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad and sent north to Leeıs army. Lee remarked on several occasions that he would not have been able to fight on so long without this steady flow of supplies. Two other railroads carried some supplies to the western portion of the state, then on to Tennessee and Georgia, and down to Charleston and Columbia in South Carolina.
Wilmington had a very favorable and easily defended location, 26 miles inland on the wide and deep Cape Fear River, whose twin entrances from the Atlantic Ocean were well fortified. Also to the Union Navyıs grief, it was very nearly impossible to sail into the river inlet without the use of local, firmly Confederate-sympathizing guides, to show the way through the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals.
To guard against even the remote possibility of a Union attempt to assault the city by water, there were no less than six forts. The two channels into the Cape Fear RIver are separated by Smithıs Island (now called Bald Head Island), which contained Fort Holmes. On the west bank of the river above the island were Forts Johnston (later renamed Pender) and Anderson, while the lesser used Old Inlet was guarded by Fort Caswell and Battery Campbell. To guard the much heavier used New Inlet, a massive sandwork fortification called Fort Fisher was constructed on Federal Point starting in the summer of 1861. Fisher was not a true fort, in the classic sense, as it did not have encompassing walls. Instead, it was ³L² shaped, with the longest side facing the expected avenue of attack, the Atlantic Ocean. Several earthwork redoubts and batteries surrounded each fort, adding to an already impressive amount of available firepower.
The Union blockade fleet had at first considered Wilmington an insignificant port, ignoring it at first and then placing only a single ship, the USS Daylight, off the coast in July of 1861. By late 1864 itıs importance was clear even to Union planners in Washington, by that time more than 50 blockade ships lay just offshore. Even with this tight noose around the supply lanes, blockade runners managed to slip through up until the time of the battle here itself.
The Battles for Wilmington
While Grant was tied up in the months-long battle around Petersburg, he realized that in order to bring the stalemated fight to a successful conclusion, he was going to have to cut Leeıs supply lines. Until the only remaining port supplying the Army of Northern Virginia, Wilmington, could be cut off or taken over, this was not going to be possible. Grant ordered USA General Benjamin Franklin Butler and USA Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter to take their forces south and capture the city. Butler had two divisions of infantry, USA Brigadier General Adelbert Amesı 2nd of the XXIV Corps, and USA Brigadier General Charles Jackson Paineıs 3rd of the XXV Corps, as well as two batteries of artillery, with a grand total of nearly 8,000 men. Porter commanded the largest force of ships ever assembled at that time in the U.S. under one command, nearly 60 ships mounting a total of 627 guns.
As attack on the port city was likely at some point, Confederate President Davis sent CSA General Braxton Bragg to take over command of the defenses. The previous area commander, CSA Major General William Henry Chase Whiting, was a competent officer well liked by both his troops and the local citizens, and Davisı choice of the notoriously inept Bragg to replace him (he was actually placed over Whiting, who stayed on to directly command the garrison) was loudly protested. The size of the command then around Wilmington is highly debatable, but it can be safely assumed that Bragg initially commanded somewhere around 3,000 men.
Lee was fully aware of the critical and vulnerable nature of the port city, and warned Davis that if the city fell, he would be forced to pull back and abandon Richmond itself. When the Virginia general learned of Butler and Porterıs advance down the coast, he sent CSA Major General Robert Frederick Hokeıs Division to help defend the vital port, adding another 6,000 men to the line.
The First Battle for Fort Fisher
Butler, considered by many on both sides to be Braggıs equal in ineptness, was determined to open the Cape Fear River by reducing itıs strongest defense, Fort Fisher. On December 20, 1864, the Union fleet began arriving off the Wilmington coast in the midst of a severe storm, taking nearly three days to get organized. Finally, on the night of December 23, with nearly all his command present and ready to assault, Butler sprang his ³secret weapon² on the unsuspecting Confederates.
Butler had decided that a ship loaded to the gills with gunpowder, floated to the outer defenses of Fort Fisher and then exploded, would reduce at least one wall of the sandwork post to dust, and allow his troops to pour in through the opening. Amazingly, he had managed to sell Porter on the idea, and got Grantıs grudging approval to go ahead (Butler and Grant were mortal enemies, and the supreme Union commander had simply wanted to fire Butler rather than allow him another chance to screw up, but could not due to Butlerıs political connections).
At 1:45 AM on December 24, an unnamed ³powder ship² loaded with 215 tons of gunpowder was sailed to within 200 yards of the fort, and then exploded. The resulting massive blast failed to even superficially damage the well-constructed fort, and the sleepy defenders peered out wondering if one of the Union ships had just suffered a boiler explosion, or something of a similarly innocuous nature. Despite the failure of his ³secret weapon,² Butler ordered the planned attack to proceed.
As dawn crept over the horizon, Porterıs gunboats began a heavy bombardment of the fort, while Butler ordered his troops ashore on the peninsula just north of the Confederate stronghold. Capturing two small batteries and pushing back Confederate skirmishers, the Union troops had made it to within 75 yards of the fort by the morning of Christmas Day. Butler learned that Hoke was then only five miles away and moving in fast. Panicking, Butler ordered his troops to break off and return to the troop transports, which he in turn ordered to hoist anchor and sail away so fast that over 600 infantrymen were left stranded on the beach. Porter, who had no idea what Butler was up to, was forced to send his own ships and sailors to the beachhead, under fire from the defenders of Fort Fisher, in order to rescue the stranded troops. Butler reported a loss of 15 wounded and one killed in action (by drowning), while the Confederates suffered about 300 killed, wounded and captured, as well as the loss of four precious artillery pieces.
A furious Grant immediately fired Butler, damning the political consequences, hurriedly assembled another, stronger assault force under USA Major General Alfred Howe Terry, and sent Porter a message, ³Hold on, if you please, a few days longer, and Iıll send you more troops, with a different general.² Porter pulled about 25 miles offshore, to the general line of the Union blockade fleet, to await Terryıs arrival.
The Second Battle for Fort Fisher
Porter did not have long to wait. Terry left Bermuda Landing, Virginia, on January 4, 1865, with a total of 8,000 soldiers. Joining Porterıs squadron just off Beaufort, the force sailed once again for the Cape Fear River, again through a strong storm, arriving late on the afternoon of January 12.
Whiting had received word that the Union force was enroute to try again, and fearing that this attempt would be much stronger, personally led 600 North Carolina troops to reinforce CSA Colonel William Lambıs garrison of 1,200. Hokeıs newly arrived command deployed on the peninsula north of the fort, in case the second assault followed Butlerıs attempted route.
A few hours after the Union fleet arrived, Porter ordered all guns to open fire on the Confederate fort while the infantry landed north of Hokeıs line. Terry spent the next two days carefully bringing his total force ashore and deploying them in a semi-circle around the fort. One brigade under USA Colonel Newton Martin Curtis was sent to the western end of the peninsula, capturing a small redoubt and digging in close to the fort.
At dawn on January 15 Porterıs ships once again opened up a massive fire, lasting over five hours, until Terry signaled his men to advance. RIflemen from the 13th Indiana Infantry Regiment led the assault, dashing forward under fire to dig in less than 200 yards from the fort, and then rake the parapets with a deadly accurate fire.
While this rifle fire kept the Confederate defenders heads down, Terry ordered forward Curtisı brigade, now reinforced with USA Colonel Galusha Pennypackerıs Brigade, against the western face of the fort. As the Union troops cut through the wooden palisades and dashed up the sand walls, Lambıs men rose out of their shelters and met the Union soldiers with fixed bayonets and drawn swords.
As the western wall defenses broke down into a massive hand to hand melee, 2,200 sailors and marines from Porterıs command sprang forward to assault the northeastern corner of the fort. There, the Confederate defenders were able to return a disciplined fire, killing or wounding over 300 of the naval command, and forcing them to quickly retreat.
Terry left the rest of his command before Hokeıs line, and Hoke never sent any of his men to help relieve the fortıs defenders, at Braggıs direct order. About 10 PM, after hours of unrelented and vicious hand to hand combat and the commitment of the last Union reserves, the seriously wounded Lamb finally surrendered his post. The exact numbers of dead and wounded Confederates are difficult to assess, as records of this fight are spotty and highly debatable on accuracy, but somewhere between 500 and 700 were killed or wounded, and another approximately 2,000 captured. Whiting himself was mortally wounded during the assault, dying less than two months later. Terry reported losses of 184 killed, 749 captured and 22 missing, including the seriously wounded Curtis, who was shot three times while leading the way over the ramparts, while Porter reported the loss of 386 in addition to the casualties in his marine assault force.
As a sort of morbid postscript to the hard fought battle, on the morning of January 16 two drunk sailors (sometimes identified as U.S. Marines) were walking around looking for something worth stealing, when they came to a heavy bunker door. Opening it, they lit a torch and stuck it in the dark opening. The resulting explosion of about 13,000 pounds of gunpowder killed 25 more Union soldiers, wounded another 66 and killed an unknown number of wounded Confederate prisoners in the next bunker.
The Fall of Wilmington
With the main defense post now in Union hands, Bragg wasted little time mounting any sort of renewed defense. The next day Fort Caswellıs garrison was withdrawn and the walls blown up, followed in quick order by most of the rest of the forts, batteries and redoubts. Fort Anderson was left manned to cover Braggıs withdrawal. This post stayed until February 20, when USA Major General Jacob Dolson Coxıs XXIII Corps moved up river and forced them out without much of a fight. The next day Hokeıs troops were finally withdrawn and escaped north with the last remnants of Braggıs force to Goldsboro. On February 22, Wilmington Mayor John Dawson rode out to surrender his city to the Union invaders.
The Last of the Army of Tennessee
As the campaign to take Wilmington wound to a close in February, 1865, Confederate operations in the deep South were rapidly coming together near the eastern North Carolina town of Goldsboro. Braggıs defeated force was withdrawing there to regroup (and for itıs commander to figure out who to blame for his latest disaster), Sherman was pounding through South Carolina, driving what was left of the CSA Army of Tennessee and various attached militias before him towards Goldsboro, and newly appointed USA Department of North Carolina commander USA Major General John McAllister Schofield had been directed to move in from New Bern and take Goldsboro under Union control.
Desperately seeking some way out of the disastrous conclusion now looming before him, Davis finally came to a long-overdue decision, and appointed Robert E. Lee as General-in-Chief of all the combined Confederate armies. One of Leeıs first acts was to place CSA General Joseph Eggleston Johnston once again as commander of the CSA Army of Tennessee, and almost incidentally as commander of the CSA Department of the Carolinas, with an aggregate total of about 45,000 men of widely varying skill and training levels. Bragg was reduced to command of a division under Johnston, a move that no doubt humiliated him but delighted his many political enemies.
Johnston promptly ordered most of his command to concentrate with him in the central portion of the state, to make a stand against Shermanıs oncoming force. From reports filtering up from South Carolina, where Sherman was advancing without any real resistance, he knew that the Union commander was arrayed in a column four corps abreast, in a nearly 60 mile wide front. Johnston planned to concentrate his forces so as to hit Sherman from one flank, then attack each corpsı flank and defeat each in turn.
The Battle of Wyse Fork
As Wilmington had been effectively, if hastily abandoned by Braggıs troops, Schofield found no wagons or trains there available to move his troops rapidly inland. Undeterred, he ordered his forces under Cox in the longer-held base at New Bern to also move inland, and by late February two great Union columns were moving inland. Bragg had pulled some of his troops safely out of Wilmington, and now had about 8,500 men under Hoke near Kinston to protect his headquarters at Goldsboro. Johnston had sent a few green troops under Hill to reinforce Hokeıs line, including a unit known as the ³North Carolina Junior Reserves², consisting mostly of completely untrained young teenage boys.
On the morning of March 8, as Cox rather blandly moved up the Kinston Road towards Southwest Creek, Hoke and Hill moved out of the trenchline in a well timed attack, and assaulted the Union column on both flanks. Several thousand surprised and horrified Union soldiers either ran or surrendered on the spot, while Cox hastily ordered the remainder to dig in and fight back. Sporadic fighting lasted the rest of the day and into the next, while some Union reinforcements came up to replace the scattered force. By nightfall on March 9, Cox had about 12,000 men in his trenchline.
At dawn on March 10, Hoke swung around and hit the Union left flank while Hill struck the right flank, forcing a few troops to pull back or run, but both Confederate commands were forced to withdraw after a relatively short fight.
Seriously weakened by the three day battle, Hoke and Hill were forced to withdraw back into Kinston, then almost immediately pull out as Coxıs stronger force approached. Cox entered the city on March 14, as Bragg pulled what was left of his forces back into Goldsboro.
Sherman had stormed through South Carolina without any real resistance, and by the first of March was approaching Cherhaw, up near the North Carolina border. After evacuating Charleston, also without a fight, Beauregard had directed CSA Lieutenant General WIlliam Joseph Hardee to take his corps (with two divisions and 8,000 men) to Cherhaw and delay Shermanıs advance while everyone else got into some kind of order. Johnston determined that he should concentrate his forces near Fayetteville in order to best strike at Shermanıs flank, no matter if he went south towards Goldsboro or north towards Raleigh.
Schofield and Sherman agreed that they should link up their respective commands at Goldsboro before moving on Raleigh to cut the main Confederate supply line there; Johnston determined to strike hard at Shermans column and was maneuvering his forces to hit before that linkup could be produced.
Hardee wisely pulled his infantry steadily back from Shermanıs advance, leaving most of the fighting up to CSA Major General Joseph Wheelerıs Cavalry Corps, who kept a running battle up with Shermanıs cavalry chief, USA Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, most of the way to Fayetteville. Shermanıs infantry moved steadily forward, reaching Fayetteville on March 12. There he rested his troops for three days before starting out again.
The Battle of Averasborough
As he had in Georgia and South Carolina, Sherman had arranged his force of four corps into two great columns covering a 60 mile front; on the left was the XIV and the XX Corps, collectively referred to as the Army of Georgia under USA Major General Henry Warner Slocum. On the right was the XVII and XV Corps under one-armed USA Major General Oliver Otis Howard, collectively referred to as the Army of the Tennessee. On March 15 the great Union army marched out of Fayetteville northeast towards Goldsboro and an expected linkup with Schofields army.
Hardee had pulled back to a strong defensive position near the tiny settlement of Averasborough, on the Raleigh Road, atop a ridgeline between a swamp and the Cape Fear River. On the afternoon of March 15, not long after leaving Fayetteville, Kilpatrickıs Cavalry Corps, attached to Slocumıs Corps, ran into the line of Confederate defenses, and immediately tried to ram their way through them. Hardeeıs men held fast, forcing Kilpatrick to withdraw and request infantry support. Slocum deployed his men during the night, and at dawn on March 16 assaulted Hardeeıs line.
Hardeeıs only task was to delay the Union force, and he did an outstanding job here. Alternately pulling back and counterattacking, Hardeeıs less than 6,000 men forced Slocum to deploy his entire XX Corps and then order up the XIV Corps for reinforcements late in the afternoon. By nightfall, well over 25,000 Union soldiers were engaged or deployed for battle, while Shermanıs lines were starting to become unstrung, just as Johnston had hoped. Rather than turn and support Slocumıs fight, for some unknown reason, Howardıs right wing kept moving forward, separating the two armies by more than a dayıs march by the morning of March 17.
As darkness fell, Hardee broke contact and moved his small force rapidly back towards Johnstonıs line outside Goldsboro, no doubt pleased that his actions had delayed the Union left wing by at least two days. About 600 Union soldiers were killed or wounded, while Hardee reported a loss of about 450.
The Battle of Bentonville, Day One, March 19, 1865
Unknown to both Sherman and Slocum, Johnston was massing his available forces just 20 miles north, just outside the tiny village of Bentonville, and hidden in the woods on the north side of the Goldsboro Road. Howardıs right wing was advancing down the New Goldsboro Road about four miles to the southeast, and was well on down the road by the time Slocum got his troops reorganized and on the road again. Sherman was convinced that Johnston, the defensive genius, was entrenching around Raleigh at that very moment. With Hardeeıs Corps, still advancing up the road from Averasborough, the Confederate commander could muster about 21,000 men, as opposed to the 30,000 in Slocumıs command alone.
As USA Brigadier General William Passmore Carlinıs 1st Division, the lead elements of Slocumıs XIV Corps moved up the Goldsboro Road early on the morning of March 19, his skirmishers started engaging what they thought were local militia. Instead, they were running straight into Hokeıs newly reinforced command arrayed across the road, fresh up from the battles around Wilmington. Slocum ordered an envelopement movement to his left, which instead had his men running straight into the middle of Johnstonıs main line of battle.
As the battle started unfolding, CSA Major General Lafayette McLawıs Division, the vanguard of Hardeeıs command, finally arrived. Johnston, responding to panicked requests for reinforcements from Bragg, sent the road-march weary soldiers over to the far left of his lines to join Hoke, arriving only to see the Union troops retreating in disarray. Johnstonıs tactical plan had been to stop and break up the Union column, then spring a strong attack into their flank from his wooded position on their flank as soon as possible. Thanks to Braggıs continued ineptness as a battlefield commander, the chance to do this with McLawıs troops was lost.
While the rest of Hardeeıs command moved into position and Johnston prepared to attack, Slocum had his men hastily dig in, and sent word for his XX Corps to move up as soon as possible. The Union commander also sent word to Sherman that he had found Johnstonıs army, and requested Howardıs army be moved north into the rapidly growing battle.
Just before 3 PM, with all his forces now in place and ready, Johnston gave the order to start what became the last major Confederate offensive of the war. Led by Hardee, Johnstonıs combined force swept out of the woods and thundered down on Carlinıs serious outnumbered division. In minutes the Union line fell apart, and Johnstonıs screaming men ran down the road towards the next Union division coming into the line, USA Brigadier General James Dada Morganıs 2nd Division.
Morgan had ordered his men to quickly construct a log breastwork soon after encountering Hokeıs men, and this hastily built barricade broke up the Confederate assault. Under heavy fire, Hardeeıs men hit the ground and returned fire, while Hoke was ordered out of his trenchline into the assault. Soon, every reserve Johnston could muster was thrown into the fight, while Slocumıs XX Corps made it into the line in time to withstand the assault. As darkness fell, Johnston ordered his men to break contact and pull back to a strong defensive position near Mill Creek, while Sherman order Howardıs entire Army of the Tennessee north into battle.
The Battle of Bentonville, Day Two and Three, March 20-21, 1865
Very little fighting occurred during the day of March 20, with Johnston strengthening his position around Mill Creek and Howards two corps moving into the line of battle. As day dawned on March 21, both armies stood static in their defensive lines, with Johnston trying to keep his force intact, and Sherman simply wondering when his Confederate opponent would withdraw and allow him to proceed to his rendezvous with Terry and Cox at Goldsboro.
By the middle of the afternoon, hot-headed USA Major General Joseph Anthony Mower grew impatient and ordered his division to advance, totally without orders from either Slocum or Sherman. Moving west along a narrow path along Mill Creek, Mowerıs men blew past pickets set up in the rear of Johnstonıs line, and soon advanced to within 600 feet of Johnstonıs headquarters. Commanding a hastily assembled counterattack, Hardee personally led a Texas cavalry unit into Mowerıs left flank, followed in short order by cavalry and infantry attacks on every flank of the Union command. Mower was soon forced out of the Confederate lines with heavy losses, but managed to inflict the ultimate blow to Hardee. CSA Private Willie Hardee, his son, was a member of the very Texas cavalry brigade the general led into battle, and was mortally wounded in the heavy exchange of fire.
Johnston had enough, and during the night of March 21 pulled the remnants of his command out of the line and headed back towards Raleigh. The ill-conceived stance had cost him 2,606 men killed wounded, captured or missing, while Shermanıs forces suffered the loss of 1,646. The only objective Johnston managed was the delay of Shermanıs march for a few days, while nearly destroying his own army in the attempt. With hindsight, it is clear that, even if Johnston had managed the unlikely result of totally destroying Slocumıs Army of Georgia, he would have still faced the 30,000 plus strong Army of the Tennessee shortly thereafter.
Johnston had once commanded a powerful, relatively well-equipped and extremely well-trained Army of Tennessee, 42,000 strong, before Shermanıs grinding total warı tactics had reduced it to a pitiful shell of itıs former glory. CSA ³High² Private Sam Watkins, of the Maury Grays, 1st Tennessee Infantry Regiment, who had marched as part of this great army since the very beginning, remarked in his postwar memoirs that after the battle of Bentonville, his regiment that had once numbered 1,250 men, and that had received about 200 replacements and had joined with other regiments throughout the war, to a grand total of about 3,200 men, was reduced to just 65 officers and men.
Sherman rather half-heartedly moved on to Goldsboro, where he met up with Terryıs and Coxıs commands newly arrived from the coast, then moved north to take the abandoned city of Raleigh. There, he received word on April 16 that Johnston wanted to discuss surrender terms. The two generals met at Bennett Place between Durham and Hillsbourough, where very generous terms were offered to the courtly Confederate general after two days of talks. Both generals had just learned of Lincolnıs assassination on April 14, which no doubt added some haste to their efforts to end the fighting.
Grant traveled south to tell his old friend Sherman that these terms were not acceptable to the new administration in Washington, and that he would have to insist the Confederates accept the same terms offered to and accepted by Lee on April 9. Jefferson Davis, newly arrived in Goldsboro in flight from the Union armies, rudely ordered his political enemy to break away from Shermanıs armies and join him in flight to the south. Johnston quietly ignored him, and as Davis continued his escape attempt southwards, met again with Sherman to discuss the surrender. After agreeing to the new, harsher terms, Johnston surrendered his once-great army on April 26, 1865.
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