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NH at the Battle of Fort Fisher in January 1865

Battle_of_Fort_Fisher
NH HISTORY
SPECIAL FEATURE

Civil War historian Duane Schaffer offers this stirring tale of New Hampshire men fighting in North Carolina. Read about NH heroes from Dover, Rollinsford, Chester, Wolfeboro and more. This excerpt comes from the author’s new book MEN OF GRANITE and is an exclusive to SeacaostNH.com. (Click to read)

 

In January 1865, there were several Confederate armies still in the field and a handful of functional seaports in Southern hands. The Union could not be crowned with victory until those armies and ports were vanquished. The possibility of the defeat of the Confederacy did not seem likely at the turn of the year. Ben Butler had failed in his attack on Fort Fisher in December, and now a second attempt was to be made in mid-January under Major General Alfred H. Terry. Unlike Butler’s debacle, Terry’s amphibious landing was a tactical masterpiece with all of the attacking parties fully coordinated.

Excerpted in part from the book
MEN OF GRANITE
Click here to learn more

Located on the southern end of a long peninsula and on the eastern side of the entrance to the Cape Fear River, Fort Fisher was the guardian of the approaches to Wilmington, North Carolina. The fort itself was a long and formidable set of earthworks that resembled a giant letter ‘L’. Fort Buchanan was situated at the tip of the peninsula and Mound Battery was located just south of the landward side of Fort Fisher. Along the entire length of the fort was a series of traverses that protected each individual earthwork making them, in affect, a series of mini-forts linked together.

Men_of_GraniteThe length of the fort facing seaward was almost one half mile, and the side facing land was 1000 feet. Strong bomb proofs were constructed inside the fort to protect the garrison against the inevitable bombardment they would be facing. Commanded by Colonel William Lamb, Fort Fisher boasted a garrison of 1,800 men, mostly North Carolinians and forty-seven heavy cannons. Numbered among the cannons were fifteen Columbiads and one English-made 150-pounder Armstrong gun.

Facing Fort Fisher on this second attempt to capture it was another vast armada of ships and men. The naval and marines forces were under the command of Admiral David Porter aboard his flagship, the Malvern. Including Porter’s ship, the Federal armada contained forty-four ships. The total number of Federal troops in this second invasion was 8,000 men, including the Third, Fourth, and Seventh New Hampshire Volunteer regiments.

Brigadier General Adelbert Ames commanded the Second Division of the newly formed 24th Corps. In his division were three brigades commanded by Brigadier General Curtis, Colonel Pennypacker and Colonel Louis Bell of Chester, New Hampshire, respectively. At the time of the attack on Fort Fisher the FourthNew Hampshire was in Bell’s Brigade and was commanded by Captain John H. Roberts of Dover. In a separate attached brigade commanded by Colonel Joseph C. Abbott was the Seventh New Hampshire, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Rollins, of Rollinsford and the Third New Hampshire, commanded by Captain William Trickey of Wolfeboro.

The Federal troop transports left the Bermuda Hundred area on January 3 and met the remainder of the fleet off Beaufort, North Carolina. On the morning of the 12th, the monitors and gunboats led the way south followed by the landing force. The troops were landed the next morning about five miles north of Fort Fisher. They were now between the fort and the 5,000 Confederates of Major General Robert F. Hoke. Abbot’s Brigade was detailed to hold the line in case this force decided to attack Terry’s landing party from behind.

January 15 arrived and much of the morning was taken up with Terry personally positioning the troops in preparation for the attack against the fort. The First Brigade under Curtis was finally moved out of the trees about 3 p.m. to a point about 400 yards from the fort. The men hastily dug trenches with whatever equipment they had with them. They drew the immediate attention of the gunners in the fort, and shells soon began to drop in the ranks of the New York regiments.

The Federal fleet, anchored offshore, responded at once with its own bombardment and sent the Confederate artillerists scurrying to their bombproofs. Curtis’ brigade was moved up again, this time to within 200 yards of the fort and the digging began again. Pennypacker’s brigade moved out and occupied the trenches just vacated by Curtis. Colonel Louis Bell readied his men to step out of the woods and follow Pennypacker. Some of the Confederate shells went over their mark and fell inside the lines of Bell’s brigade and men began to fall.

CONTINUE FORT FISHER


 

Excerpt from MEN OF GRANITE (Continued)

The marines and sailors landed near the northeast corner of the fort kept the attention of the Confederates, but they were not properly deployed and were repulsed with heavy casualties. The naval bombardment had been beneficial because it disabled many of the guns in the fort, and destroyed a number of land mines directly in the path of Ames’ three advancing brigades.

The sailors and marines paid heavily, but they kept the Confederates busy long enough for the first two brigades to attack and enter the fort on the western end. Colonel Bell readied his men to follow them. He paced back and fort impatiently, holding a ramrod in his hand.

The two brigades now inside the fort fought valiantly, but the Confederates fought them to a standstill. From inside the fort, Ames sent a dispatch urgently requesting Terry to commit Bell’s brigade to the attack. Captain George F. Towle ran to give Bell the order. Bell marched at the head of his brigade and prepared to cross the small bridge into the fort to help the two preceding brigades.

Just as Bell reached the bridge, a volley of musketry erupted from the walls above them. A bullet slammed into Bell’s chest and exited out his back. Bell tried to dismiss the wound to his men but he soon fell to the ground. The men around him rushed past him and into the fort. Bell asked to be lifted so he could see the colors of the Fourth New Hampshire and his other regiments waving on the parapet. This they did, and then carried him from the field.

Doctor David Dearborn of Weare was the surgeon of the Fourth New Hampshire and was called to examine Bell’s wound.

" Is the wound mortal?" asked Bell.

Dearborn replied, "I am fearful it is Colonel."

Bell thought for a second. "I thought as much myself," he said.

Colonel Louis Bell died the next day from his wounds repeating his wife’s name until he expired. Bell’s body was brought home to Chester and was buried on a cold winter day next to his father Samuel. Bell’s six-week old son Louis was baptized next to his father’s coffin before it was lowered into the ground. Bell’s wife Mollie remained prostrate with grief for months and died just months after her husband’s body was brought home.

One by one, the traverses fell to the increasing pressure of the Federal attack. Abbot’s brigade was brought in to reinforce the attackers, and the remnant of the marine force was held back in case Hoke should attack.

The Third New Hampshire was committed to the attack and relieved the shattered brigades under Ames. The fighting was continuous as each traverse had to be taken by bitter hand-to-hand fighting. Night was approaching and an exhausted Ames urged Terry to break off and hold their ground until dawn. Terry disagreed. The Confederates had to be as tired as they were, and he ordered in Abbott’ Brigade to continue fighting. The men of the Third New Hampshire rushed forward and carried several more traverses. The Confederate resistance finally broke down around 10 p.m., and the remainder of the garrison was surrendered. Colonel Lamb, the garrison commander, was badly wounded in the fighting.

The Federal force sustained 955 casualties in the attack. The Confederates lost 500 men, and the United States Navy and marines suffered over 600 casualties, mostly among the marine landing force.

Casualties for the three New Hampshire regiments involved in the Battle of Fort Fisher were surprisingly light for such a vicious battle. Each of the regiments lost two men dead and fifty wounded.

Today there is a beautiful park run by the state of North Carolina at Fort Fisher. Sadly, since the war, over half of the fort and its traverses have been washed out to sea.

The day after the capture of Fort Fisher, an accident occurred that resulted in the death of several New Hampshire soldiers. Captain George F. Towle recorded the incident in his journal: " While we were loitering after breakfast, we heard a loud explosion toward Fort Fisher. It was about 8 o’clock. A deep and smothered shock and an immense volume of earth thrown into the air. The main magazine had blown up. Bell’s brigade was in bivouac around it. About 100 men were buried, were to be dug out, also thirty Confederates wounded…After a full inquiry we decided it to be an accident. The marines after the fight had returned to plunder…it was supposed that a match lighted had been thrown into some loose powder."

Two men from the Third New Hampshire died in the blast that was caused by drunken sailors in the magazine. The inebriated salts carelessly detonated 13,000 pounds of gunpowder and caused the deaths of twenty-five Federal soldiers and the wounding of sixty-six.

© Duane Schaffer. All rights reserved.

Excerpted in part from the book
MEN OF GRANITE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Duane E. Shaffer was a library director in the state of New Hampshire for twenty years. He was the co-founder of the Civil War Roundtable of New Hampshire in 1991 and was the secretary of the New Hampshire Civil War Monuments and Memorials Commission. He has two degrees in history and has published several articles in various military history magazines. He currently lives in Florida and is head of collection development and adult programs for the Sanibel Public Library on the island of Sanibel, Florida.

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