Like Braxton Bragg, Ben Butler had a reputation that preceded him. His powerful political connections in Washington were often a source of anger and resentment among his peers in the army, and his career had been marked by controversy. Though a failure at field command, the eccentric Butler was a man of ideas, a lofty visionary who was enthralled by new technology.
Godfrey Weitzel — former chief engineer of Butler's Army of the James — was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's first and only choice to command the expedition against Fort Fisher. And the Union general-in-chief was furious when Butler returned to Virginia: "It was never contemplated that General Butler should accompany the expedition," complained Grant to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. "The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure," explained Grant to Pres. Abraham Lincoln. "Who is to blame I hope will be known."
As a former commander of the 20th Maine Infantry, Adelbert Ames had served with distinction as a brigade commander in the Army of the Potomac's XI Corps. When his division commander, Francis Barlow, was wounded, Ames assumed temporary command and led Barlow's division through the successful defense of Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Prior to the Fort Fisher expeditions, Ames had led a division during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia. In late December 1864, Ames stood on the sands of Federal Point. With orders to withdraw — even as his First Brigade made a tentative advance — young Ames beheld the massive enemy bastion in the distance: "The [Confederate] troops, which during the day had to seek shelter, now boldly manned their guns. Had the attack been made it would have failed."
The bombastic Admiral Porter was eager for the United States Navy to play a prominent role in the reduction of Fort Fisher. The naval commander was sharply critical of Ben Butler and the army's ground forces when they failed to capture the famous Southern bastion in December 1864. "I was in hopes I should have been able to present to the nation Fort Fisher as a Christmas offering," Porter complained to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the 26th, "but I am sorry to say it has not been taken yet."