“rocked In The Cradle Of Consternation”

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Hold Fort Fisher or I cannot subsist my army.” So wrote General Robert E. Lee in the waning days of 1864 as he watched one Confederate seaport after another fall to the Union armies. Fort Fisher, the strongest fortification yet built in North America, guarded the approach to Wilmington, Norht Carolina, the last haven of blockade-running supply ships and Lee’s major supply depot. As the noose closed around Lee’s army in Virginia, General Ulysses S. Grant decided to launch the largest amphibious attack of the Civil War against the fort.

Among the nearly eight thousand Federal troops sent to sea were several regiments of black sodiers. For a year and a half they had shared increasingly in the fighting, and their successes had helped Northern forces bring the war to its critical last months. The First Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, recruited in Washington early in 1863, formed part of the amphibious army that would attack Fort Fisher. It had the honor to have on its roster of otherwise all-white officers the first black man commissioned as a chaplain in the Union army, Henry M. Turner.

As pastor of Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill, Turner had attracted the attention of black and white alike in wartime Washington. He gained a reputation as a powerful preacher, ardent supporter of black civil rights, articulate journalist, and advocate of the use of black troops. As chaplain of the First Regiment, he participated in its battles and wrote of its trials and victories, including the assault on Fort Fisher. His account of that battle was first published in The Christian Recorder, the official journal of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in January and February, 1865. It has not been published since.

Major General Benjamin F. Butler commanded the Union troops who sailed form Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, in December, 1864. Rear Admiral David Porter directed the fleet of fify-four warships that would bombard the fort, which stood at the southern tip of a long, narrow peninsula guarding the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Porter had distinguished himself on the gunboats of the Mississippi. Butler, although he had gained national attention by recruiting and sucessfully using black troops in Louisiana, also had gained the distrust of General Grant because of his timid fighting in Virginia. The amphibious plan called for Porter’s ships to bombard Fort Fisher into silence while Butler’s troops landed to the north. When the defenders seemed to have been subdued, the Federal soldiers were to attack the enormous earthworks by land. But poor coordination between the general and the admiral contributed to the failure of the Christmas Day assault. Butler, fearful of an attack from his rear by rebel land forces, pulled his troops off the beach. The entire naval and transport armada sailed ingloriously back to Bermuda Hundred, and Lee’s lifeline to Europe still held.

 
 
 
 

For the soldiers involved, the grand design against Fort Fisher remained a mystery until the day of the assault. Turner recorded in his journal the unfolding of the great expedition:

Thursday, December 8th, 1864 After marching hither and thither for several [days] and passing through the ordeal of the reorganization of the 10th and 18th Corps into the 24th and 25th Corps, we received, on yesterday evening, orders to prepare to move at a moment’s notice. Tents were instantly struck, and everything movable packed up for the contemplated journey. Shortly afterwards we were informed that nothing besides one suit of clothing and five days’ rations could be carried.

About 8 o’clock we broke camp and moved off in light marching order, amid a thousand speculations as to our destination. Thus marching for about three miles, we halted near Gen. Butler’s signal station, or Point of Rocks. Here we bivouacked for the night, but were occasionally interrupted (very pleasurably so) by the arrival of different regiments, which continued to cluster around us until nearly day this morning.

During the night the weather changed cooler, the water froze, the winds blew, and we shivered and clustered around small campf ires. Once in a while the smoke got disagreeable, by rushing up our olfactories and making our eyes smart, which caused considerable sneezing and moving from one side of the fire to the other, and cracking jokes over the smoke following the one who was the prettiest.