By the end of 1864 the only Confederate port on the Atlantic coast that remained open to blockade runners was Wilmington, NC, which was defended by the formidable Fort Fisher on Cape Fear. An abortive attack launched on Christmas Eve by MajGen Benjamin F. Butler, commander of the Army of the James, was followed on January 15,1865, by the greatest amphibious assault of the Civil War, by a force commanded by Gen Alfred H.Terry. The US Army's 24th Corps landed to secure the Confederate works from the landward side, while a naval brigade under Cdr Kidder R.Breese, composed of 1,600 sailors and 400 Marines, attacked "the sea face" of Fort Fisher.
Deployed as sharpshooters during the advance of the naval brigade, the Marines under Capt Lucian L.Dawson, the senior Marine officer of the squadron, were caught up in a generally disorganized assault, in which the Army attack was delayed. Plopelessly pinned down at the base of the defenses, a few Marines managed to pass through the breach blown in the 9ft palisade, but were forced to fall back with heavy casualties. Henry R.Hallowell, a corporal in the Marine Guard from the USS Juniata, recalled:
"The guns from the fort poured grape and canister into us, cutting us to pieces. A few managed to crawl to the base of the fort, others tried to retreat, but this was made impossible by a barrage being thrown over our heads from die fort to prevent retreating. We were in a pretty fix, with the fort raking our ranks from the front and the shells exploding at our rear. History states that we entrenched ourselves. The only entrenching we did was to hug the ground and dig with our noses and toes."
After prolonged exposure to withering musketry and cannon fire the sailors, carrying only "cutlasses, well sharpened, and... revolvers," plus a few Sharps rifles, broke and ran, taking the Marines with them. Nonetheless, this "diversionary" attack enabled the Army, assisted by a further force of 180 Marines, eventually to take Fort Fisher. A number of Marines distinguished themselves, and six received the Medal of Honor for this action. Orderly Sergeant Isaac N.Fry and Sgt Richard Binder, from the USS Ticonderoga, received the award for the manner in which they commanded ship's guns during the bombardment of the fort. Corporal Andrew J.Tomlin, of the USS Wabash, shouldered a wounded comrade and carried him to safety during the land attack. Corporal John Rannahan, and Ptesjohn Shivers and Henry Thompson, from the USS Minnesota, advanced further than any other Marines within their detachment: LtCdr James H.Parker, commanding the shore party from that vessel, remarked that "Thompson got nearer the fort than any one from our ship by a few yards. They [all] deserve promotion and medals." The Marine battalion sustained 15 enlisted men killed or mortally wounded, and one officer and 45 men wounded, during the final major action of the US Marine Corps in the Civil War.
Was this article helpful?