Taking Wilmington with the 23rd Corps

By February 1865, Surgeon Lyman Augustus Brewer of the 111th Ohio had gained the reputation as being the finest surgeon in the brigade. “Perhaps no other man in the whole brigade was so universally beloved by his comrades in arms as Dr. Brewer,” a biography noted in 1878. “His whole heart was in the cause of his country and until the last foe surrendered, he remained at his post nobly performing his duties. His army record bears honorable testimony to his skill as a surgeon and his thoughtful care for the suffering soldiers and his name will long be held in remembrance by many who can never forget his tender ministrations on the battlefield.”

The native New Yorker was practicing medicine in Toledo, Ohio when he was commissioned surgeon of the regiment in August 1862, leaving his wife Lucretia behind with her family in Hillsdale, Michigan. Surgeon Brewer had seen action in over 20 western theater battles before he, along with two divisions of the 23rd Army Corps, landed in North Carolina in February 1865. With the defeat of the Army of Tennessee outside Nashville in December 1864, it was decided to dispatch the corps to North Carolina to participate in operations aimed at closing the port of Wilmington. In early January 1865, the troops marched to Clifton, Tennessee along the Tennessee River where they clambered aboard steamboats and headed north. Arriving in Cincinnati on January 21st, the veterans then boarded railcars for the journey east and settled into camp near Washington along the Potomac River by January 31st. “The movement was effected without delay, accident, or suffering on the part of the troops despite weather unusually severe even for that season,” Major General John M. Schofield noted.

General Alfred Terry with about 8,000 men of the 10th Army Corps held Fort Fisher in North Carolina which they had taken in January, and the plan was for Schofield to link up his two divisions with Terry’s force and assume command of the whole. The combined force would then march north along the Cape Fear River to take Wilmington on the north side of the river and Fort Anderson on the south side, closing the Confederacy’s last major blockade-running port. In early February, Schofield’s two divisions, including Brewer who served in the Second Brigade of the Second Division under General Jacob Cox, set out from Washington and I’ll let Surgeon Brewer tell the story from here on out…

A period watercolor map depicting Forts Buchanan, Fisher, and Anderson in January 1865. General Alfred Terry's 10th Army Corps captured Fort Fisher in January 1865 and with the addition of Schofield's divisions they moved north to take Wilmington. My great-great-great grandfather Lewis F. Stratton served as a private in Co. F of the 140th Indiana which was among the 23rd Corps regiments that took part in the siege of Fort Anderson and the subsequent battle of Town Creek. 

Headquarters, Second Brigade, Second Division, 23rd Army Corps

Wilmington, North Carolina

February 24, 1865

          Our command left Alexandria, Virginia on February 11th and came to anchor opposite Fort Carroll at the mouth of the Cape Fear River on the morning of the 14th. The troops on our boat, the Cassandria, were obliged to remain on board until the evening of the 16th on account of our vessel being so large that she could not run in over the sand bars at the entrance of the harbor, not could we get boats to take us off until that time. We landed at the mouth of the river at a town called Smithville, a place of 1,000-1,500 inhabitants before the war. On the morning of the 17th, our brigade and General Cox’s division of the 23rd Corps moved out on the south side of the river for Fort Anderson, eight miles from the entrance into Cape Fear River. The troops arrived there before evening and drove in the Rebel pickets to within a short distance of the fort.

Colonel Isaac R. Sherwood
111th O.V.I.

          The next day, February 18th, the gunboat fleet consisting of the monitor Montague and about 20 ironclads and wooden gunboats moved up and opened fire on Fort Anderson. The monitor ran right up under the fire of the fort and the other vessels opened at half range and kept up a tremendous cannonading all day, but they only elicited an occasional fire from the enemy in return. The land forces moved up also, and made an attack on the land side of the fort at the same time, but they found the fort protected by the river on one flank and a wet, impassable swamp on the other side with very heavy earthworks in front that they thought impracticable to assault.

          Towards evening, General Cox with his division moved to the extreme left around the swamp while Colonel Moore with our brigade and one of the Third Division left to menace the enemy in front while General Cox made his flank movement during the night. The distance General Cox had to march made it impossible for him to get in the rear of the enemy until sometime in the forenoon of the 19th. Colonel Moore of the 25th Michigan, commanding our brigade, is always vigilant and active in the discharge of his duties and discovered during the night that the Rebels were unusually busy, either in making preparations to mass their troops on his left or they were trying to evacuate the place. He ordered an attack on the fort an hour before daylight on the morning of the 19th. Moore advanced our brigade, keeping the other in reserve, driving in the Rebel pickets and carrying the fort with but slight resistance, capturing a few prisoners, two stands of colors, and ten pieces of artillery. We planted the American flag upon the fort before the gunboat fleet had discovered that the Rebels had evacuated the fort.

          The gunboats had kept up an occasional fire on the fort during the night and when daylight came, they discovered Colonel Moore in the act of putting up the flag. They supposed in the distance that they were from the fort that it was a Rebel flag still defiantly flaunting in the breeze, and they opened fire on it from one of the ironclads, the first shot passing directly over his head in uncomfortable proximity, and the next shell bursting a little short of its mark. During the intervals of firing, Colonel Moore continued to wave the flag and sounded the bugle to cease firing, and finally the gunboat saw the joke and stopped firing.

The garrison flag of Fort Anderson fell from a wagon as the Confederates retreated from the fort during the overnight hours of February 19, 1865. A soldier in Co. A of the 140th Indiana found the flag the following morning and turned it over to his regimental commander Colonel Thomas Brady, who sent a delegation of men from the regiment to present the flag to Indiana governor Oliver Morton on March 17, 1865 in Washington, D.C. President Lincoln attended the ceremony. The flag was preserved a few years ago and is now on display at the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site in Winnabow, North Carolina. 


          Our troops passed on in pursuit of the Rebels as soon as they discovered that they had evacuated the fort, and on the 20th and 21st drove them back to their fortifications around Wilmington. On the evening of the 21st, our brigade was ordered back to Fort Anderson where our fleet lay and crossed the river to assist General Terry who was operating against the enemy on the east or north side of the river. On the morning of the 22nd, Washington’s birthday, the Navy was decked our in their gayest attire- flags, ensigns, or streamers flying from every masthead, At precisely noon, the gunboat fired a salute of 36 guns in honor of the day, also in honor of the capture of Wilmington which took place by General Terry’s force entering the place about 9 a.m. on the 22nd. Our brigade marched up by land and entered Wilmington about sundown, and the fleet or gunboats and vessels arrived about the same time.

          Wilmington, as you are aware, has been the great port of entry for blockade runners ever since the war began, and has done more to supply the wants of the Southern Confederacy by importations than all other ports put together since the establishment of the blockade. The reason of the success of the blockade runners at this port is evident to anyone who will examine the geography of the coast. The whole coast around Cape Fear and the mouth of the river is filled with small islands, sand bars, and shoals, making it dangerous to navigators at best and impossible for ships of heavy draught to enter the port except by the aid of experienced pilots acquainted with the channels and places of entrance. All the lighthouses, buoys, and land marks of entrance had been destroyed by the Rebels as far as possible. Again, the Rebels held possession of the entrance into the harbor by Forts Caswell, Fisher, Anderson, water batteries at Smithville and several other fortifications of less note at the entrance up the river. When Fort Fisher fell, it compelled the evacuation of all the forts below it, including Caswell, Smithville, and others.

Private Henry C. Burlew
Co. C, 111th O.V.I.


          After the fall of Fort Fisher and during the bombardment of Fort Anderson, it was found that the river was full of Rebel torpedoes sunk in the channel ready to blow up any vessel that should attempt to advance up the river. These torpedoes were sunk in the channel and connected with the shore by a submarine telegraph and were exploded by electric battery whenever a boat approached the spot where they were concealed, the operator on the shore directing the explosion. But Yankee ingenuity was equal to the task in this case. A boat was constructed called the Devil, not as large as an ordinary canal boat propelled by a small engine and having an iron rack or torpedo catcher projecting out in front by which they were enabled to fish up and render harmless nearly all the torpedoes that obstructed their progress up the river. These sunken torpedoes were in shape and size not unlike a very large camp kettle and were made of zinc and filled with coarse powder.

          On the night of the 20th (the night after the evacuation of Fort Anderson), the Rebels put afloat another kind of torpedoes shaped like an egg, only more pointed at the ends and made of tin or zinc and holding nearly a barrel of powder. They were constructed with a kind of tube projecting from each end and in the middle, so constructed that when the tube struck against an object, it was driven in igniting fulminating powder, exploding the whole concern. Two hundred of these infernal machines were put on the river to float along with the tide and come in contact with our fleet of boats. But fortunately, by the vigilance and skill of Commodore Porter, these engines of destruction were rendered nearly harmless, only one small boat having been destroyed by them.

          Before the evacuation of Wilmington by the Rebels, they carried off, burned, or destroyed everything that they thought would be of any account to the Yankees. The large manufactory or distillery of turpentine, their rosin factory and all their shipping including a new ironclad they were building was burned. A large amount of tobacco was thrown into the river. A great deal of cotton and provisions was burned, besides a great deal of property public and private, was buried to hide away from our army.

          After the evacuation of Charleston, our Union prisoners who had been sent from Andersonville and other points to Columbia in this state, were taken from the latter place and brought to Florence about 80 miles from here and then, for fear they were not entirely secure, they were brought to this place on the Sunday the 19th, unloaded from the cars, and driven into a pen outside the city where they were kept until the 21st. The Rebels then commenced to ship them off up the road to some other point to prevent their falling into our hands.

111th Ohio regimental colors that feature battle honors for Huff's Ferry, Campbell's Station, the siege of Knoxville, Rocky Face, Resaca, Dallas, Kennesaw, Atlanta, and Franklin. The regiment rightly could have added Fort Anderson and Town Creek to this lengthy list of honors gained over three years of service in the western theater. 

The condition of these prisoners as they arrived here as they are now is beyond the power of the English language to describe. All the descriptions of the barbarous and inhuman treatment these poor fellows have suffered, the misery, pain, and privations they have endured, are but the faint glimmering of the reality as they presented themselves to our view at this place. When they were landed here from the cars, a large number of them were unable to walk to the pen or prison and fell down by the way, or were left on the ground when they were unloaded from the cars. Their wretched condition moved not only the hearts and sympathies of the Union citizens, white and black, of this place, but even the Rebels could not all endure the sight and they set themselves to work to provide something for them to eat. Reduced as many of them were to mere skeletons, a living mass of filth, disease, and vermin, suffering the last agonies of death by starvation, lying nearly naked in the streets and by the waysides as well as in the pen they were driven to.

Would you believe it, the citizens came there to bring these poor creatures food were driven back at the point of the bayonet and forbidden to have anything to do with the damned Yankees, or render them any assistance whatever. A lady approached a poor fellow who lay in the street dying from starvation and gave him a cup of coffee. An officer of the Confederate service came up and knocked the cup out of the soldier’s hand and swore at the lady for bringing it to him, and the poor fellow died in less than an hour. Those who carried food to the prisoners in the prison pen were unable to get it to them except in a few instances; and were obliged to watch their opportunity and throw their bread and meat over the fence and over the heads of the guard into the sand and dirt where the prisoners clutched for it, jostling each other like starving wild beasts. One poor fellow, in attempting to reach for a piece of meat that had fallen into the ditch outside of the proscribed line, fell forward and the guard run him through with the bayonet.

An emaciated prisoner of war in a condition similar to those that Dr. Brewer encountered in Wilmington, North Carolina in February 1865. U.S. soldiers wouldn't see the likes of this again until the end of World War II when they encountered U.S. POWs in the Philippines or discovered the Nazi concentration camps in Europe. As Dr. Brewer wrote, it was "beyond the power of the English language to describe."

The universal testimony of these prisoners is that their rations of food for months at a time consisted of one pint of coarse meat, and small pinch of salt, and a gill of poor peas. Sick or well, this was their only food and nothing better to cook it with than a pint cup or broken canteen. Most of them were suffering from scurvy with their feet and limbs swollen, puffed, and ulcerated. In many instances their feet were frozen. Scarcely any of them had blankets or clothes to cover their nakedness, their blankets having been taken from them on their first entrance into the prisons. Numbers of them had become so reduced and starved that they had become demented or idiotic, scarcely remembering their name or the company to which they belonged. They scarcely seemed to realize their present condition or know that they were once more among friends in a land of civilization.

One man belonging to an Iowa regiment told me that when they were ordered away from this place on the way to the cars he fainted and fell down; he was picked up and urged forward at the point of the bayonet until he fainted the third time. There were several others in the same condition and it was impossible for the guard to get them any further except by carrying them. The guard held a council among themselves and proposed cutting the throats of all those who could not walk. One fiend, a fit representative of the Southern chivalry, volunteered to cut the throats of them all, but on further consultation concluded that they would all die before the damned Yankees could get to them.

One consolation at least remains to all who live. This unholy rebellion, the legitimate offspring of slavery ( blighting curse which rests upon our national history) and the fruitful source of every evil that disgraces humanity or swells the catalogue of crime, is fast drawing to a close. Upon every side our forces are pressing them to the wall. Driven by Sherman from Charleston and Columbus, Terry and Schofield from Fort Fisher, Anderson, and Wilmington, while General Grant holds his death grip upon their throats at Richmond. They undoubtedly begin to see not an arm distance away that long talked of last ditch which they so claim as their burial place, rather than submit to the rule of the damned Yankees. God grant that they be able to speedily find this last ditch, and when they have dug it, may they be enabled to bury themselves so deep that no resurrection trumpet will be able to bring to light their deeds of barbarism and brutality that disgrace the history of men who once claimed to be American citizens.

 

Sources:

Entry for Dr. Lyman Augustus Brewer, American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men, Michigan Volume. Cincinnati: Western Biographical Publishing Co., 1878

Letter from Surgeon Lyman A. Brewer, 111th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), April 4, 1865, pg. 1

1904 reunion ribbon for the 111th Ohio held at Memorial Hall in downtown Toledo. Memorial Hall was dismantled in 1956 to make room for a parking lot, but not before serving as headquarters for Toledo's Civil Defense Corps during the early years of the Cold War. 



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