At dawn on January 16, 1865, the awful carnage of the battle became more visible to the survivors of Fort Fisher. Many of the combatants had collapsed in exhaustion and fallen asleep among the dead and wounded. The victorious Federals, including officers of the United States Navy, were eager to get a closer look at the inside of the imposing bastion. The scene was not a pleasant one. "Within the fallen Fort," noted one naval observer, "were sights sickening and dreadful." Among the ruined machinery of war were numerous "caps, clothes, bayonets, swords, muskets, rifles, scattered, battered, blood-stained." Among the shell fragments and other debris lay several dead horses. "And then the dead! Men in all postures, mangled in the head and body, with brains out, but with perfect features, covered with sand and grimed with powder." The dead lay thickly strewn along the battlements, from bombproofs and traverses to green pools of water on the parade ground, "here, there, everywhere . . . . The carrying past of the wounded, the groans of the dying, and the smell of blood and powder!"
To make matters worse, the fort's main magazine exploded shortly after sunrise. The tremendous blast killed at least 200 men of both sides, and sparked a heated debate as to what caused the tragedy. Though the victors were eager to blame the Confederates for dastardly behavior, an official court of inquiry ruled that the explosion was "the result of carelessness on the part of persons unknown." The giddy celebration of the night before had spawned many a drunken reveler, and the accident occurred despite the posting of guards at the fort's magazines.
The unexpected ending to the affair notwithstanding, the capture of Fort Fisher gave testament to the overwhelming might of the combined arms of the Unites States military. Despite a natural interservice rivalry, both General Terry and Admiral Porter were quick to extol the virtues of the other's command. Of Terry, the bombastic Porter wrote that "He is my beau ideal of a soldier and general. Our cooperation has been most cordial. The result is victory, which will always be ours when the Army and Navy go hand in hand." Terry expressed that "nothing could surpass the perfect skill with which the fleet was handled by its commander. Every request which I made to Admiral Porter was most cheerfully complied with, and the utmost harmony has existed between us from the outset to the present time."
When Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton arrived at Fort Fisher unexpectedly on the afternoon of January 16, the peninsula was "quiet as a Sabbath day," despite the busy work of burying the dead and caring for the wounded. Stanton was on his way back to Washington following a visit with William T. Sherman in Georgia, and enjoyed a six-hour layover at Cape Fear. Alfred Terry proudly presented the secretary with Fisher's captured garrison flag, and Stanton was overjoyed with the triumph. "You will be pleased to know," he told Pres. Abraham Lincoln, "that perfect harmony and concert of action existed between the land and naval forces . . . . Admiral Porter and General Terry vied in their commendation each of the other." Stanton also proposed that the gushing good will between Terry and Porter "may perhaps be attributed in some degree [to] the success of an attack."
As is often the case for the losing side, there had been no such harmony among the Confederate high command. The conflicting notions of Fort Fisher's impregnability shared by Bragg and Whiting severely undermined a defensive effort that was disadvantaged from the outset. Embittered by defeat, William Lamb would spend the rest of his life denouncing Braxton Bragg and defending the honor of his garrison:
"North Carolina need cross no ocean to search amid Roman and Grecian story for examples of self-sacrifice in defense of home and country, for here among our own sons, upon her own soil, the valor of Pharsalia and of Thermopylae were reproduced, and no correct history of this grand old State can be written unless the defense of Fort Fisher by North Carolinians in January, 1865, be placed among the most heroic deeds in the drama of our civil war."
STEAMER S. R. SPAULDING
Off Fort Fisher, January 16, 1865
The Secretary of War has the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the flag of Fort Fisher, and in the name of the President congratulates you and the gallant officers and soldiers, sailors, and marines of your commands, and tenders you thanks for the valor and skill displayed in your respective parts of the great achievement in the operations against Fort Fisher and in its assault and capture. The combined operations of the squadron and land forces of your commands deserve and will receive the thanks of the nation, and will be held in admiration throughout the world as proof of the naval and military prowess of the United States.
Edwin M. Stanton
Secretary of War.
Major-General TERRY and
In Washington, no one was more excited than Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Welles had lobbied heavily for this expedition and fretted over its implementation, and he reveled in the "glorious news" of the capture of Fort Fisher. "At the Cabinet-meeting there was a very pleasant feeling," Welles wrote on January 17. "The President was happy. Says he is amused with the manner and views of some who address him, who tell him that he is now reëlected and can do just as he has a mind to." Welles would comment on the victory for days to come. "The congratulations over the capture of Fort Fisher are hearty and earnest," he gloated. "Some few whom I have met are a little out of humor. General [Benjamin F.] Butler is not gladsome, and it is not in human nature that he should [but] the congratulations and hearty cheer of the people over the victory at Fort Fisher are most gratifying."
Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.