On the evening of 30 August 1864, President Lincoln's able Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, noted in his diary that something had to be done "to close the entrance to the Cape Fear River and the port of Wilmington." For months he had been urging a "conjoint attack" upon the North Carolina coast. He felt such a move, if successful, would be almost as important as the capture of Richmond.1
The critical assignment of closing North Carolina's most important port went to General B. F. Butler and Admiral David Porter. An expeditionary force of 6,500 men, a fleet of transports, and 50 war vessels arrived off the mouth of the Cape Fear in mid-December 1864.
Fort Fisher, a mammoth earthwork below Wilmington near the tip of Confederate Point was the key to the Cape Fear defenses. It guarded New Inlet, the river's main channel. The fort was shaped like the letter "L" with the angle pointing out to sea in a northeasterly direction. People called Fort Fisher the Gibraltar of the South, and it is little wonder that Union authorities were hesitant to order an assault on this massive installation. The construction of the fort took nearly four years, and on the day that the Butler and Porter forces rendezvoused in North Carolina waters work was still in progress.
The first action occurred on the evening of 23 December and the morning of the twenty-fourth when the Louisiana, an old war-worn propeller of about 250 tons, filled with powder, was deliberately beached near the base of Fort Fisher and exploded. The scheme, designed to make the fort's capture a simple matter of occupancy, failed miserably as did General Butler's efforts on Christmas day to storm Fort Fisher's imposing land face. Union troops returned to their transports and the fleet sailed north.
There was little time for the victorious Confederate defenders to rejoice for on 12 January 1865 the Union fleet under Admiral Porter returned. General A. H. Terry, fortunately for the Union, had replaced the incompetent Butler as commander of the land forces. The next day the____________________