LANDING AT FORT FISHER
January 13, 1865
In the Autumn of 1864 there was not a more important town in the Confederacy than Wilmington, North Carolina. Militarily the loss of Richmond would not necessarily signify that the South was destined to lose the war. If the port of Wilmington was lost, it would be only a matter of time for the war to end. Wilmington was the last route open to the outside world through which vital military supplies could be moved to keep the Southern armies in the field. Twenty miles down the river from Wilmington, where Cape Fear River enters the Atlantic Ocean, the Confederate Army erected a massive earthwork fortification called Fort Fisher.
The earthen giant, sometimes referred to as "The Gibraltar of the South," was located on a point of land that separated the shipping lanes of the Atlantic Ocean from the Cape Fear River. Before the war it was known as Federal Point but re-christened Confederate Point. The fort's huge batteries of cannons denied access to Federal warships trying to enter Cape Fear while providing protection to blockade runners who attempted to evade the Federal fleet standing off shore.
In December an expedition was launched under General Benjamin F. Butler with the purpose of destroying the fort and capturing the city of Wilmington which proved to be a miserable failure. General U.S. Grant, outraged at Butler's failure, put together a second expedition under General Alfred H. Terry. Terry loaded his Provisional Corps of 8,000 men on transports with few frills. The fleet sailed for Fort Fisher on January 11. Weather prevented a landing on the 12th, but a Federal officer wrote, "By 4 A.M. of the 13th, the inshore division of naval vessels stood in close to the beach to cover the landing; the transports followed them. At 8 o'clock nearly 200 boats, besides steam tugs, were sent from the navy to the transports, and disembarkation of men, provisions, tools, and ammunition simultaneously commenced." The operation would be the first time that forces from all three branches of the service would coordinate their efforts for a combined attack and landing of troops. After the Federal force landed on the peninsula above the fort, the army would coordinate their ground attack.
The landing was successful and General Terry spent the next two days planning the ground assault. Despite heavy fire from cannon and riflemen in the fort, a foot hold had been established on a parapet and General Galusha Pennypacker's brigade was sent to reinforce it. "The Two Hundred and Third Pennsylvania Volunteers...were the first to enter the fort, closely followed by the Ninety-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers." The brigade report continues, "The colors of each of these regiments reached the top of the parapet, about the same time, those of the Ninety-seventh borne by Colonel Pennypacker." "Colonel Pennypacker was seriously wounded while planting his colors on the third traverse." The 97th Regimental flag was riddled by more than 100 bullets including an artillery shell. All eight of the 97th Regimental officers were either killed or wounded during the attack. Due to his large force, and the bravery of his officers and men, General Terry inflicted a tremendous amount of damage to the fort and the men within.
As night fell, the over powered Confederates surrendered their fort. With Fort Fisher lost, Wilmington could not be defended. The federal blockade was complete. Deprived of the essential supplies and material needed to make war, it was only a matter of time before the "Lost Cause" became a part of American history.
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