"The importance of closing Wilmington and cutting off Rebel communication is paramount to all other questions — more important, practically, than the capture of Richmond [Va.]." — Gideon Welles, United States Secretary of the Navy, September 15, 1864
Whatever merit lay in the strength of the Cape Fear River defenses, the continued success of Wilmington and its contraband shipping trade was due largely to neglect afforded by Northern attention being focused elsewhere — a fact well understood by Pres. Jefferson Davis and the Confederate War Department. But by the summer of 1864, North Carolina's thriving little port had taken on new political significance in the eyes of policy makers in Washington.
On August 5, 1864, Adm. David G. Farragut entered Mobile Bay with a squadron of warships, and within a few weeks served a crushing blow to Confederate commerce by sealing the port of Mobile, Alabama. The fall of Mobile, the sole remaining key port of entry in the Gulf of Mexico, left Wilmington the last major Southern seaport open to the outside world. Gideon Welles, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in Washington, had for months been extolling the virtues of an expedition against Wilmington, even when others — particularly the army — showed no interest in the scheme. Welles used the Mobile Bay affair as leverage in expressing his idea for a "conjoint attack upon Wilmington."
"Something must be done to close the entrance to the Cape Fear River," Welles noted in his diary on August 30. "[T]here seems some defect in the blockade which makes Wilmington appear an almost open port . . . . Could we seize the forts at the entrance of the Cape Fear and close the illicit traffic, it would be almost as important as the capture of Richmond on the fate of the Rebels, and an important step in that direction."
Abraham Lincoln agreed with Welles. The U.S. president was under pressure from Northern merchants to combat the bothersome commerce — raiding ships that were operating out of Wilmington. These successful privateers were attacking United States vessels in Northern waters, and were yet another embarrassing problem to deal with in addition to enforcing the blockade. It was also an election year, and in November Lincoln would be asking Northern voters for a second term in office. Political pressure was mounting, and another major Union victory like that at Mobile Bay would not hurt the president's chances at the polls. Nevertheless, Lincoln stopped short of giving his approval for Welles' plan to attack Wilmington, deferring instead to the judgment of the nation's general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant.
Consequently, on the night of September 1, U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton wired Grant, whose Army of the Potomac was embroiled in the bitter siege of Petersburg, Virginia: "The Navy Department appears very anxious that the army should take Wilmington . . . . General [Quincy A.] Gillmore has been directed to accompany [Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus] Fox to see you on the subject. Whether any operations there be possible [or] expedient to be undertaken now, is left wholly to your judgment by the President." Major General Henry W. Halleck, the U.S. Army chief of staff, was quick to warn Grant that the plan "originates in the Navy, not in the War Department. I think we have more irons [in the fire] now than we can keep from burning."
Gillmore, a veteran of previous combined operations in South Carolina and Georgia, and Assistant Secretary Fox journeyed to Grant's headquarters at City Point, Virginia, the following day. The general-in-chief listened with little enthusiasm to their proposal for a full-scale army-navy attack to close Wilmington. Grant's attention was understandably focused on Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and he worried over dispatching troops to North Carolina before he could receive replacements for them. But at the same time Grant understood Lincoln's political dilemma, and agreed to consider the appeal from the president's emissaries.
That same day, September 2, 1864, the Northern war effort received an astounding boost when Gen. William T. Sherman's enormous "army group" captured the important Rebel city of Atlanta, Georgia. Washington was soon abuzz with the news. Abraham Lincoln tendered to Sherman "the applause and thanks of the nation," and Grant heartily congratulated his old friend on having "accomplished the most gigantic undertaking given to any general in this war, and with a skill and ability that will be acknowledged in history as unsurpassed." This major event in the war, as the balance further tipped in favor of the Union, virtually assured Lincoln's re-election in November. Thus the political expediency of capturing Wilmington quickly fell by the wayside.
Nevertheless, the seed had been planted in Grant's mind. On September 12, still unsure of the operation, he wrote to Sherman seeking the general's views on future military plans, and explaining that "I want to send a force of from six to ten thousand men against Wilmington . . . . This will give us the same control of the harbor of Wilmington that we now have of the harbor of Mobile." Grant further said that it would be early October "before any of the plans here indicated will be executed."
From Atlanta Sherman replied on September 20: "The utter destruction of Wilmington, North Carolina, is of importance only in connection with the necessity of cutting off all foreign trade to our enemy." But he also suggested that his army's further penetration into Georgia would be ill advised "without an objective beyond," and that the capture of Wilmington coupled with his own occupation of Savannah, Ga., would open the door for Sherman to strike northward into the Carolinas. Sherman was beginning to form explicit strategic plans toward ending the war, and Grant would soon accept them. But for now, Sherman quipped to Grant that "If you can whip Lee and I can march to the Atlantic, I think Uncle Abe will give us a twenty days' leave of absence to see the young folks." The two generals shared a high confidence in one another that would become increasingly important during the war's final months.
The fall of Atlanta notwithstanding, the Navy Department in Washington upheld its zeal for a campaign against Wilmington. Secretary Welles set about planning the invasion in consultation with Quincy A. Gillmore, who outlined two detailed options for the attack. The first option involved a landing at Old Inlet and the capture of Smith's Island by a force of 6,000 men. The second called for a 12,000-man expedition against Fort Fisher on Federal Point. Both Grant and Welles were in agreement that the second plan was the most favorable. A landing on Federal Point would place the attackers closer to Wilmington, and afford them better maneuverability should they have to besiege Fort Fisher.
As the plot took shape, Welles fretted over choosing the right commander for the naval half of the operation. "It has been impossible to get the War Department and military authorities to enter into the spirit of this work," Welles complained to his diary. "They did not appreciate it. But they and Grant have now engaged in it, and Grant is persistent. Just at this crisis [Adm. David G.] Farragut unfortunately fails." The long-awaited approval had come, and the hero of Mobile Bay was not interested in leading the new expedition. Citing reasons of health Farragut, leader of the West Gulf Squadron, graciously declined the offer of command. After carefully considering a handful of candidates the Navy Secretary focused on Farragut's foster brother, Adm. David Dixon Porter, who was then commanding the Mississippi Squadron. Welles was not without reservations. "Porter is young," he worried, "and his rapid promotion has placed him in rank beyond those who were his seniors. But . . . personal considerations must yield to the public necessities. I think Porter must perform this duty." Though the admiral enjoyed a reputation for conceit and arrogance, Porter was an energetic and competent commander. He spent the autumn of 1864 preparing for the expedition against Wilmington, assembling a large fleet of some 150 vessels at Hampton Roads, Virginia.
It was now up to Ulysses S. Grant to choose a commander for the campaign's army ground forces. The experienced Gillmore wanted the job, and was endorsed by Secretary of War Stanton, but Grant rejected the general with complaints that Gillmore was too timid for command of such an important operation. Passing over several higher profile officers, Grant selected Bvt. Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, the little-known chief engineer of the Army of the James. The operation at Cape Fear would place Weitzel under the jurisdiction of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, who commanded the U.S. military's Department of Virginia and North Carolina. In preparation for the expedition Weitzel traveled to Cape Fear in late September, and from a vantage point off New Inlet inspected the Confederate defenses on Federal Point. Soon after Weitzel returned to Virginia, in mid-October, the expedition against Wilmington was promptly postponed. Grant had learned that news of the invasion had been leaked to the public, and feared that the enemy had become wise to the plan. Indeed, the South would make use of the delay in sending Federal troops to attack Fort Fisher.
From the time he assumed command at Cape Fear in November 1862, Maj. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting had deluged the Confederate War Department in Richmond with dire predictions of an imminent Federal attack upon Wilmington. He understood that it was merely a matter of time before an assault was made, especially since Mobile had fallen to the enemy. But Whiting's vituperate pleas were all too commonplace, and President Davis and various Whiting detractors grew weary of the familiar refrains. The general also labored under a far-reaching reputation for drunkenness, which tarnished his credibility even more than his constant pestering of Confederate authorities. Indeed, North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance, who appreciated Whiting's engineering abilities, would not overlook the allegations of alcoholism. Whiting was undaunted. He was certain that the next Southern port to be attacked would be Wilmington.
By September 1864, intelligence sources and Northern newspaper reports indicated that either Charleston or Wilmington might soon be attacked. Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon conceded the threat and informed General Whiting, adding sarcastically that "I need scarcely add any reason to stimulate your habitual vigilance to discover and guard against the approach of the enemy." The Cape Fear District commander promptly ordered the further strengthening of the river defenses below Wilmington. But the most noticeable problem facing Whiting's command was lack of manpower.
The Cape Fear District accounted for some 100 miles of shoreline, but by the summer of 1864 it could count only about 2,400 troops for its defense. Moreover, the garrison forces had seen little or no combat to date, aside from occasional duels with Federal blockaders. Thus Whiting's entreaties to Richmond continued, requesting a reinforcement of veteran infantry for the area. He most feared an attack from the port of New Bern, about 90 miles north of Wilmington, which had been under Federal control since the spring of 1862. Barring that, he concluded that the enemy would land at either Smith's Island or Federal Point. "The warning of Mobile is before us," Whiting warned Seddon, and in the event of an enemy landing "great disaster may occur."
For his part Gen. Robert E. Lee never doubted the importance of preserving Wilmington and his army's "lifeline" via the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. But he worried over where to find additional troops to send to Cape Fear. The Army of Northern Virginia was bogged down against Grant in Virginia, and Lee was loath to dispatch a force to North Carolina under the circumstances. For now, reinforcements for the Cape Fear defenses would have to come from North Carolina. Though he preferred to have veterans, Governor Vance agreed to send local militia units to help safeguard Wilmington. Whiting also asked Confederate naval authorities to place more obstructions in the Cape Fear River, and ordered Capt. Francis Hawks of the Engineer Corps to construct a line of breastworks across the Federal Point peninsula between Sugar Loaf and Myrtle Sound. This new position would give his men a strong defensive line from which to contest an amphibious landing by the enemy.
By mid-October 1864 it finally became clear to authorities in Richmond that Wilmington would probably be the target of a Federal assault. Whiting had been correct in his prediction, but instead of any acknowledgement from Richmond he was promptly relieved of his command. Two years of thoughtful and zealous preparation, a thorough knowledge of the Cape Fear defensive network, and Whiting's personal interest in the area went for naught. The Confederate high command simply had no confidence in the general who had so often pleaded for their assistance. General Lee thought Whiting was "a man of unquestionable knowledge suited to his position, but whether he would be able at the required time to apply these qualifications and to maintain the confidence of his command is with me questionable." Lee wanted Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard to command the defense of Wilmington. But Pres. Jefferson Davis put matters to rest with his own choice for the job, and thus appointed Gen. Braxton Bragg as the new commander of the District of the Cape Fear.
The controversial Bragg, a favorite of Davis, possessed a personality both dour and combative. Saddled with a stormy history of field command in the western Army of Tennessee, his career had been marked by failure and intrigue. By this stage in the war Bragg's reputation preceded him, and the general's arrival at Wilmington on October 22 was bemoaned by many a loyal Confederate.
Bragg immediately fell in with the Administration's view of Whiting: "I found General Whiting much worried and disconcerted," he wrote to Davis on the 25th, "and, believing that his abilities and experience could be made valuable, [I] deem it prudent to shape my order assuming command as to wound his pride as little as possible . . . . His appearance does not indicate recent dissipation. He is very industrious . . . and deeply interested in the success of his labors here. [He] attaches too much importance, probably, to reports and rumors not well grounded, and is too apt to allow his excitement to lead to indiscreet advice to the people [but] With such means as can be drawn from the resources of my command we shall make the best defense possible, should [Wilmington] be the point assailed."
That same day Bragg reported his assessment of the Cape Fear defenses to General Lee: "[I]t gives me pleasure to report favorably of their strength and condition. They are now prepared to oppose a powerful resistance to any naval attack, and will hold any considerable land force in check for a considerable time, if the garrisons will do their duty." But with a seeming lack of understanding of the task at hand, Bragg added that "Whether the importance of the harbor is such as to justify the withdrawal of [troops] from other points, also endangered . . . your own judgment can best decide."
Bragg's assessment notwithstanding, General Whiting and Governor Vance renewed their pleas for reinforcements. On November 15, 1864, after a visit to the area, Vance pointedly reminded Jefferson Davis of the manpower shortage at Cape Fear: "I deem it my duty to address you in regard to the situation of Wilmington," he wrote. "So far as I am able to judge there seems to be nothing wanting but troops. If attacked in strong force I humbly conceive that its capture is inevitable, unless strengthened by at least two brigades of veteran troops. The militia assembled . . . I fancy will be totally inadequate to resist a land attack in the rear of Fort Fisher, which seems to be the point of real danger . . . . I respectfully suggest that General Lee should spare a few veterans as a nucleus for the raw troops defending Wilmington, notwithstanding the great pressure on his lines. Except for the moral effect involved in losing our capital, I cannot see that Richmond itself is of any greater importance to us now than Wilmington."
Davis forwarded Vance's suggestion to Robert E. Lee, who was still reticent about sending a portion of his beleaguered army to North Carolina, and weary of the requests. "In my opinion troops are as much required [in Virginia] as at Wilmington," he responded. "The difference between the two places at present is, that Richmond is beseiged by an army three times as large as that defending it. There is no enemy as yet on the shores of Wilmington. To attack it, troops must be drawn from elsewhere, when I trust re-enforcements can be sent from the point from which the pressure [on my lines] is relieved. In the meantime, the North Carolina troops, as brave as any in the Confederacy . . . are capable of protecting it." Lee was telling the War Department that when Grant pulled a force from the Richmond-Petersburg lines to attack Wilmington, Lee would send a corresponding force to protect it.
These were dire times for the Confederacy. By November 1864, Gen. William T. Sherman's army in Georgia was engaged in its infamous March to the Sea. Having struck out from Atlanta on the 16th, Sherman was cutting a wide swath of destruction eastward toward the port city of Savannah. To help resist Sherman's advance, President Davis told Bragg on November 22 to proceed to Georgia in order to bolster Confederate forces under Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, who were falling back before the Union juggernaut. Just as authorities in North Carolina were screaming for reinforcements at Cape Fear, they were about to lose troops instead of gain them. As scant reinforcements trickled into the region from points across North Carolina, Bragg depleted the estuary's principal forts by more than 2,000 men and hurried them off to Georgia at Davis' request.
The timing was not good. In Virginia, Federal inertia regarding the Wilmington expedition was finally on the wane. Ulysses S. Grant was becoming impatient. He had learned of the depletion of Confederate forces at Cape Fear from Georgia newspapers, and reasoned that the time for attack was at hand. But the expedition's imaginative commander, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, was taking pains to assure that all was ready. He was fiddling with a grand scheme to reduce Fort Fisher in one fell swoop.
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