- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Bragg once again had failed to act, despite Lee and Davis having stressed the grave danger to the Confederacy if the port were lost.

In October 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant approved a joint Army-Navy expedition to close the seaport at Wilmington, N.C., the South’s last lifeline to the outside world.

Grant knew that elimination of this safe harbor for blockade runners that brought military supplies from Europe would ultimately force Gen. Robert E. Lee to surrender. That Grant accomplished this objective, despite the ineptitude of some subordinates, is a testament to his skill, patience and determination as a military commander.

When the newly formed Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861, both sides knew that the South lacked the manufacturing capacity to sustain a war on its own. It would have to rely heavily on foreign sources for weapons and equipment. After the attack, President Lincoln declared a blockade of Southern ports.

The need to circumvent this barrier led to the lucrative but hazardous business of blockade running by Southern ships and those of foreign countries. As the war progressed, the Federal military was able to close to blockade runners the South’s principal ports at Norfolk; New Bern, N.C.; Fernandina, Jacksonville, and Pensacola, Fla.; New Orleans; Mobile, Ala.; Savannah, Ga.; and Charleston, S.C.

By 1864, only the port of Wilmington was still open.

The Union Navy had longed to shut down the port since early in the war. The Navy lobbied Lincoln, who, for political and strategic reasons, had placed a low priority on closing it. The president passed the request on to Grant, who agreed to cooperate in a joint attack.

The prosperous seaport of Wilmington, on the Cape Fear River about 26 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, was a cosmopolitan city of some 10,000 before the war. It shipped large quantities of naval stores and lumber to other cities and had a busy marketplace.

During the war years, Wilmington was the most active port in the Confederacy for blockade runners delivering arms and equipment for Southern armies. The ships also brought scarce consumer items that generated huge profits. The volume was so great that it fueled an economic boom accompanied by inflation. This attracted a motley collection of speculators, prostitutes and ruffians and led to disorder and violence, causing many residents to seek refuge away from the city.

Despite its deterioration as a residential community, Wilmington had become strategically indispensable to the survival of the Confederacy. Large European vessels carried cargo for the South to midway points such as Nassau and Bermuda. From there, smaller and faster steamers loaded with goods ran the blockade into Wilmington. Weapons and equipment were transshipped from the port by railroad to the Confederate army.

Grant was unhappy to learn that the controversial Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler would be in charge of organizing a joint task force to close Wilmington because the target city fell within Butler’s military department. Butler had been an influential Massachusetts politician and brigadier general of militia before the war. He gained the gratitude of Lincoln by relieving the Rebel blockade of the nation’s capital in April 1861. Lincoln rewarded him with the first appointment to volunteer major general of U.S. forces. Butler, however, managed to earn the enmity of friend and foe alike with his arrogant behavior and inept performance as the war progressed.

Grant’s fears were realized after Butler’s poor planning led to excessive delays in launching the effort to close Wilmington. These problems were exacerbated by a lack of communication and cooperation between Butler and the expedition’s naval commander, Adm. David Dixon Porter. The admiral had collaborated with Grant in the capture of Vicksburg in July 1863.

By the time he finally got under way in December 1864, Butler had come up with a bizarre plan to blow up Fort Fisher, Wilmington’s primary defensive fortification. The plan literally fizzled out when a ship loaded with powder failed to detonate. Yet, despite poor weather, Porter’s fleet bombarded the forts and batteries protecting the inlets through which blockade runners entered the Cape Fear River leading to Wilmington. The bombardment did little damage, however, since the earthen fortifications absorbed many of the shells.

Butler sent a force ashore to probe the Confederate defenses, but deteriorating weather and rough seas delayed further landings. Based on flimsy reconnaissance information, Butler decided the fortifications were too strong to be attacked. He called off the assault, and ordered an ignominious withdrawal on Dec. 25. This was a welcome Christmas present for the beleaguered defenders and left the forts protecting Wilmington intact.

In reporting the results to Lincoln, an angry Grant unequivocally said, “The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure.” He added, “Who is to blame will, I hope, be known.” Shortly thereafter, Butler had orders to return to his home in Lowell, Mass.

The Rebels were also inept in not capturing Union soldiers who were left on the beach along with about 200 Confederate prisoners when Butler retreated. The responsibility for this missed opportunity belonged to Gen. Braxton Bragg, who failed to act when informed of the stranded troops, thereby allowing the Union Navy to shuttle them off the beach by boat.

President Jefferson Davis had selected Bragg for overall command of the defense of Wilmington, after turning down Lee’s recommendation of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard for the job. Lee was concerned about Bragg’s reputation for being unpopular and indecisive, and having failed in practically every previous assignment. Davis, who had an ongoing feud with Beauregard, would regret choosing Bragg instead.

Grant wasted little time in organizing another effort to close Wilmington. Too many of the swift blockade runners were getting past the Union ships to the port. He also wanted to gain control of Wilmington’s railroads and use them to supply and reinforce Gen. William T. Sherman’s planned march northward from Savannah through the Carolinas.

Grant chose Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry to head a second seaborne assault. Porter once again served as naval commander of an armada that included 60 warships in addition to transports carrying almost 10,000 troops.

On Friday, Jan. 13, 1865, Terry’s infantry went ashore by boat to the north of Fort Fisher and entrenched, while the Union fleet rained thousands of shells on the fort — this time causing considerable damage and casualties. To an awed Union soldier, the spectacle “seemed like meteors were being fired out of a volcano.” To obtain a share of the glory, Porter ill-advisedly sent a hastily formed unit of sailors and Marines ashore to assist in the attack on the fort. Poor coordination caused this effort to be repulsed with heavy casualties.

Terry’s infantry, however, captured the fort after overcoming stubborn resistance by about 2,000 Rebel defenders, most of whom were either killed, wounded or captured. The fort was under the command of Gen. William Whiting and Col. William Lamb, both of whom were seriously wounded in the fierce fighting. They had repeatedly called for reinforcements, but Bragg would not commit a division of more than 6,000 men he had in reserve nearby.

Bragg once again had failed to act, despite Lee and Davis having stressed the grave danger to the Confederacy if the port were lost. He responded to Davis’ desperate entreaty — “Can you retake the fort?” — with a flat refusal, citing his fear that the Yankee invasion force and the firepower of their ships were too strong. His less than heroic actions fulfilled a gloomy prediction that appeared in the Richmond Enquirer after Bragg’s appointment to command Wilmington’s defenses. It succinctly said, “Good-by, Wilmington!”

The resounding cheers of the Union soldiers alerted the Navy offshore of the fall of Fort Fisher, causing Porter to set off a massive fireworks celebration. Washington rejoiced over the victory that had cut off access by blockade runners to the port of Wilmington.

A few weeks later, Grant sent Gen. John Schofield’s corps to reinforce Terry and went himself to Fort Fisher to help plan the capture of the city of Wilmington. With Schofield in overall command, a Union ground offensive supported by naval gunboats forced the Rebels to retreat from Fort Anderson and Sugar Loaf Hill, the last strongholds defending Wilmington.

Characteristically, Bragg had chosen to be away from his command while the investment and capture of Fort Anderson took place. When the city fell Feb. 22, 1865, Federal forces gained control of the port and rail lines that would soon be used to resupply Sherman.

In conjunction with Sherman’s operations in the Carolinas that cut off provisions from the Deep South, closure of the only port still available to blockade runners doomed Lee’s army. Grant’s earlier victories at forts Henry and Donelson, Tenn.; Shiloh, Tenn.; Vicksburg, Miss.; and Chattanooga, Tenn., his bloody Overland Campaign through Virginia, and his siege of Richmond had culminated in the severing of the South’s last lifeline at Wilmington. Less than two months later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va.

Thomas J. Ryan is a writer from Bethany Beach, Del., and a member of the Central Delaware Civil War Round Table. He thanks Connie Nelson, Cape Fear Visitor’s Bureau; Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., University of North Carolina at Wilmington; Mrs. Wilke, the Bellamy Mansion Museum; and Sue Keefe, South Coastal Library in Bethany, for their research assistance.

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