In early 1865, Fort Fisher stood as an imposing symbol of Southern defiance. Situated at the tip of a small finger of land, the citadel lorded over the Atlantic entrance to the Cape Fear River leading to Wilmington, North Carolina. Its formidable artillery served as vital protection for both the city and the blockade runners that regularly zipped past the American Navy on supply runs to Europe and the Caribbean. With the fall of Mobile, Alabama in August 1864, Wilmington was now the Confederacy’s last major open port. No less an authority than Robert E. Lee had cautioned that its supplies were the lifeblood of his army, and Fort Fisher’s small garrison knew it. “If the Yankees ever get this place they will never get us all alive,” one soldier wrote. “We are going to fight until they disable us and then we will look vengeance at them.”
Since taking over the garrison in 1862, Confederate Colonel William Lamb had transformed it into a masterpiece of coastal defense—many even called it the “Gibraltar of the South.” The L-shaped bastion included a long line of bombproofed batteries on its eastern “sea side,” and a shorter line of 30-foot-tall earthen mounds and cannons shielded by palisades on the northern “land side.” It boasted more than 40 artillery pieces, and was protected by a maze of state-of-the-art, electrically detonated landmines. Lamb’s seemingly impregnable defenses had proven a thorn in the side of Lincoln’s army. Union forces had tried to take action against Fort Fisher in late-December 1864, when a massive fleet under Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter lobbed some 20,000 shells at its walls. A subsequent land assault fell victim to poor coordination, however, and the invasion ended in disgrace.
Despite the farcical results of the first attempt to take Fort Fisher, the Union high command almost immediately approved a second offensive. In early January 1865, Rear Admiral Porter sailed back to North Carolina with an armada of some 60 warships and more than 8,000 infantry under the command of General Alfred H. Terry. After dropping anchor off the fort’s Atlantic coast on January 13, the fleet unleashed a cataclysmic artillery barrage. As Lamb’s garrison dove for cover in bombproof shelters, Union launches began ferrying Terry’s troops onto the peninsula north of the fort.
Wilmington was outfitted with a contingent of some 6,000 troops under General Robert Hoke, but Braxton Bragg, the officer in charge of the city’s defenses, had called them away to participate in a dress parade. When Hoke’s men finally arrived, Terry’s federals had entrenched themselves in a line that spanned from the Atlantic all the way to the Cape Fear River. Many suggested Bragg should attack at once and take the enemy from the rear, but the General was wary of Porter’s artillery and elected to remain on the defensive. One of his subordinates, General W.H.C. Whiting, was so furious at the decision that he left his post and took a steamer to join Lamb at Fort Fisher. “I have come to share your fate,” he said when he arrived. “You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.”
Porter’s artillery continued to pummel Fort Fisher during January 14 and 15, destroying the lion’s share of its heavy guns and reducing its defenses to ruins. “Shot and shell rained on us,” one of the fort’s defenders later remembered. “We could not repair our displaced guns, cook or eat or bury our dead lying around us. We were helpless.” By the afternoon of the 15th, Terry’s infantry had advanced within striking distance of the fort and were prepping for an assault. Not wanting the Navy to miss out on a chance at glory, Admiral Porter committed a force of 1,600 sailors and marines who volunteered to charge the ramparts armed with pistols and cutlasses. Inside bombed-out Fort Fisher, Lamb and Whiting were getting desperate. The fort’s entire garrison amounted to fewer than 2,000 men, and there were now nearly 10,000 bluecoats assembled outside their walls. “Attack! Attack!” Whiting urged in a message to General Bragg. “It is all I can say, and all you can do.” Bragg sent reinforcements, but ignored the plea to commit Hoke’s men to the fight.
Shortly before 3:30 p.m., the main Union onslaught commenced. At the sound of two wails from the steam whistles on Porter’s ships, a sea of men surged toward the sand-colored ramparts of Fort Fisher. Terry’s men immediately made for the battery closest to the river on the fort’s land side, while Porter’s sailors moved on the northeast sea side. The Navy force was the first to reach the fort. When they moved within 200 yards, Lamb’s men unleashed a withering salvo of musket fire and canister shot, slicing deep holes into their lines. Most of the Navy party had little to no experience in land combat, and once under the garrison’s punishing fire, their ranks fell into disarray.
Porter’s force quickly crumbled under the weight of nearly 400 casualties, but its failure served as an unintentional diversion for the infantry attack. Lamb had trained most of his guns on the Navy men closer to his position, leaving the fort’s northwest side exposed. Advancing behind a column of men armed with axes to chop through the palisades, three of Terry’s brigades braved furious fire and began scaling Fort Fisher’s outer defenses. Lamb’s landmines, which many had touted as the fort’s greatest weapon, proved useless. Their detonating wires had been damaged during Porter’s naval barrage.
Soon, scores of Union troops had poured into the battery on the left of Fort Fisher’s land side. The battle devolved into close quarters combat as Terry’s men scurried over the earthen mounds, or traverses, that separated each artillery position. Men began firing at one another at close range, stabbing with bayonets and even using their rifle butts as clubs. Realizing the fort’s river side was collapsing, Confederate General Whiting personally led a counterattack and briefly drove the Federals from one of the batteries. He then hurled himself through the melee and tried to tear a newly placed American flag from one of the fort’s parapets, howling, “Go to hell, you Yankee bastards!” at a group of blue-coated troops who demanded his surrender. Whiting was promptly shot twice, and had to be evacuated from the battle by his men.
While blue and grey crossed swords on the fort’s northwest river side, Porter’s shipboard batteries spewed fire on the sea side, carefully avoiding their brothers in arms and dealing serious damage to Lamb’s rebels. All the while, the Union forces continued their bloody advance. “It surpassed all that I had ever seen or thought that men were capable of doing,” one officer later remembered. “There they fought, from parapet to parapet, through traverse and bombproof, outside and in, the Navy in the meantime throwing shells just ahead of our soldiers. We could see them advance by the glorious Stars and Stripes, which our people planted upon each successive parapet as they took them.”
It was after 10 p.m. before the stubborn Confederate resistance finally sputtered and died out. By then, Union troops controlled the fort’s entire land side, and blue and grey bodies littered the ground from the river to the sea. Colonel Lamb had been seriously wounded while trying to rally his men for a counterattack, so General Terry had to accept his surrender as he lay beside his friend Whiting on a stretcher. The cost of the Union victory was severe. The invasion force sustained some 1,300 casualties, including all three of Terry’s brigade commanders. Lamb lost roughly 500 Confederates killed or injured. The rest became Union prisoners.
With the defeat of the “Gibraltar of the South,” Wilmington’s fate was all but sealed. By mid-February 1865, Union forces had advanced 20 miles up the Cape Fear peninsula and shut down Dixie’s lone remaining seaport. It was a bitter blow for a Confederate infrastructure already crumbling under the strain of nearly four years of war, and the rebel army began to fall victim to mass desertions. Less than three months after Union forces stormed the ramparts at Fort Fisher, Robert E. Lee would surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.