December 23 – 27, 1864
Wilmington, N.C., on the Cape Fear River, was the hardest of the Confederate ports for the Union to blockade. The city was 20 miles upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, and two widely separated inlets into the mouth of the river required twice the number of blockading ships than most other Rebel ports. Even though Wilmington was the only major Southern port still available to blockade runners, the Union could not effectually seal it. More than 69,000 rifles, four tons of meat, 43 cannon, 1,500 pounds of lead, 500,000 pairs of shoes and 2,000 pounds of saltpeter were brought to Wilmington by blockade runners in the last nine weeks of 1864 and the first two weeks of 1865. If the port did not remain open, declared Gen. Robert E. Lee, his Army of Northern Virginia could not be sustained.
“Something must be done to close the entrance to Cape Fear River and the Port of Wilmington,” wrote Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. “Could we seize the forts at the entrance of Cape Fear and close the illicit traffic, it would be almost as important as the capture of Richmond on the fate of the Rebels.” The entrance to the river, however, was considered to be the most heavily fortified position in the world; the primary fort was Fort Fisher — a sand fort that stretched more than a mile along the coast and held 169 cannon. Without seeing the powerful bastion, declared Union Rear Adm. David D. Porter, a person could not “form the slightest conception of these works — their magnitude, strength and extent.”
Union Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, whose military district included Fort Fisher, devised a unique plan to capture it. He proposed to load a ship with more than 200 tons of gunpowder and explode it as close to the fort’s walls as possible. Those soldiers in the garrison who were not killed by the blast, reasoned Butler, would suffocate from the toxic gases released by the explosion. Then the Union forces could just walk in and capture what was left of the fort without a fight.
Learning that large numbers of Union troops had embarked from Hampton Roads on December 13, Lee dispatched Hoke’s Division to meet the expected attack on Fort Fisher. On December 24, the Union fleet under Rear Adm. David D. Porter arrived to begin shelling the fort. An infantry division disembarked from transports to test the fort’s defenses. The Federal assault on the fort had already begun when Hoke approached, discouraging further Union attempts. Butler called off the expedition on December 27 and returned to Fort Monroe.
Fascinating Fact: One naval officer said of the plan: “Butler has about as much chance of blowing up that fort as I have of flying.” An army officer said he though the powder-ship idea would be about as effective “as shooting feathers from a musket.