Though Grant's choice to command the second expedition against Fort Fisher was not widely known among the army's high command, Alfred Terry enjoyed a solid reputation for competence among officers and subordinates alike. Grant would soon hear favorable news from Terry's efforts at Cape Fear. Of his army's diligent preparations to attack Fort Fisher (with its strong defensive line in place by the small hours of January 14), General Terry astutely observed: "From this point [on] our foothold on the peninsula was secured."
At the age of 29, the young division commander led three brigades into battle at Fort Fisher. Del Ames was a competent officer, but his efforts at Fisher were marred by conflict with a subordinate — First Brigade commander N. Martin Curtis. The heated squabble between the two reached its boiling point as Union forces prepared for a final decisive push against the Confederates. Enemy iron, however, put a temporary end to the matter that bloody January afternoon: "Curtis fell sensleless at my feet," recalled Ames." The division commander remained sensitive on the subject of Fort Fisher; and long after the war, Ames and Curtis nearly came to blows at a veterans meeting."
Curtis was on a personal mission to drive the Confederates from the ramparts of Fort Fisher. As the rebels tottered on the brink of defeat in the late afternoon of January 15, Ames wanted to entrench for the night. Curtis, however, wanted to continue the attack — and so did Alfred Terry. When a sarcastic gesture from Ames (in the form of entrenching tools) reached Curtis on the mounds of Fort Fisher, the irascible brigade commander became furious. Curtis — "inflamed with the magnificent rage of battle" — snatched up a few of the shovels and threw them over a traverse toward the Confederates. "Dig Johnnies," he shouted, "for I'm coming for you!" In November 1891, Curtis received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in battle at Fort Fisher.
Young Pennypacker fell grievously wounded at the head of his brigade, along the third traverse of Fort Fisher. The wound was considered fatal, and General Terry assured the suffering young officer that he would receive the brevet rank of brigadier general for his gallant efforts against the enemy. Pennypacker survived his awful wound; and when his promotion became official, by April 1865, the 20-year-old found himself the youngest general in United States military history. Recovering at home in Pennsylvania, Pennypacker found himself plagued by severe depression and self doubt. He shunned the notion of political office, and his war injuries troubled him for the rest of his life. In August 1891, the "boy general" received the Medal of Honor for his conduct in battle at Fort Fisher.
Not long before the attack on Fort Fisher, laboring under a presentiment of death, the 27-year-old Bell wrote a heartfelt and wistful letter to his wife back in New Hampshire. "My last thought will be for the future of our children," he wrote, "and for the happiness of my own precious, darling wife, my own loved Mollie." Louis Bell, who had recently pocketed a pretty piece of white coral as an offering for his young daughter, never made it into the fort. He fell with a bullet through his chest, at the head of his brigade, not far from the bridge leading to the river road sally port. The colonel later managed to ask if his wound was fatal. A surgeon gently confirmed that it likely was. "I thought as much," admitted Bell. He was dead before sunrise, and the survivors of the Third Brigade were crushed by the loss of their popular commander.
At the crisis of the engagement for the naval storming party, as the advance stalled and Union sailors and marines were being cut down by the hundreds, Fleet Capt. Breese pleaded with his men to continue the assault. He shouted over the din of battle: "Rise, men, and charge!" But to no avail. The word "retreat" made its way inexorably through the ranks of the attackers, and the battered naval column was soon clambering up the beach in a perfect rout.