Taking Fort Fisher with the 5th U.S. Colored Troops
Laying in line a few hundred yards from Fort Fisher in January 1865, Lieutenant Joseph S. McClelland of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops remembered the final hours before the fort surrendered. "I lay awake watching the flashes from the guns of the monitors and their terrific explosions in the doomed fort. About half past 10 we were called up to go and take part in the final charge. We had not got much more than started from our works, however, till the gunboats ceased firing and we could hear the sharp rattle of musketry. Directly afterwards, we saw a rocket ascend and then from every vessel in the fleet a rocket ascended and we knew that Fort Fisher, the Rebel stronghold, had fallen. They had made the charge before we had time to get there. We, however, marched up to the fort only to march back again. On our way to the fort we saw a great many wounded being carried to the rear and a number of dead were lying along the road," he wrote.
The 5th U.S. Colored Troops had seen months of hard service in eastern Virginia, including taking part in the siege of Petersburg and suffering heavy casualties during the Battle of the Crater on July 30, 1864. As the first regiment of black troops raised in the state of Ohio, its officers were drawn primarily from soldiers who had served in Ohio regiments and the author of today's account of the Second Battle of Fort Fisher. Joseph S. McClelland of Tiffin had served for three months as a sergeant in Co. D of the 86th Ohio during the summer of 1862 and was commissioned a second lieutenant of Co. G of the 5th U.S. Colored Troops in September 1863.
After the war, McClelland worked as a newspaper editor in Colorado and founded the Larimer County Express in Fort Collins in April 1873 and ran it for years afterwards. "He was an active, energetic and very enterprising man and did much during this 36 years' residence in Larimer County in advancing its material and moral development," the county history noted. McClelland's account of the second battle of Fort Fisher was originally published in the February 9, 1865 edition of his hometown newspaper, the Tiffin Tribune.
|The sea face of Fort Fisher which guarded the Cape Fear River leading to Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the Confederacy's last open ports in the final days of the Civil War.|
Fort Fisher, North Carolina
January 22, 1865
A week ago today Fort Fisher was in the hands of the enemy. They were sure the vile Yankee could never capture it. “The works are strong enough to hold themselves,” they confidently assured themselves. They boasted of having chased away the Yankees once and could do it again as often as they would come to the attack. Deluded mortals! But I anticipate.
Leaving Deep Bottom on the 3rd, Bermuda Hundred on the 5th, and Fortress Monroe on the 6th, we stood out to sea and often experiencing some heavy weather, we found ourselves off Beauford, North Carolina on the morning of the 8th where we collected a large naval fleet. Our transport fleet of vessels of all kinds came in during the day. On account of the inclemency of the weather, we lay there till Friday morning when the weather became calm again and we all steamed off in three lines. A line of naval vessels of all classes from the large 64-gun frigates to the smallest gunboats and dispatch boats on either side and the transports in the center. Saturday morning found us off the fort and early in the morning the gunboats commenced shelling the woods. Not getting any reply from the woods, the small boats were soon put in motion and the troops thrown ashore from the transports as soon as possible.
|The troops of the 5th U.S.C.T. muster on the streets of Delaware, Ohio in the fall of 1863.|
At 10 o’clock I had my company on the beach and was trying to dry my clothes having only got wet up to the arm pits in getting ashore! This was very pleasant January weather! As I propose not to give an account of the taking of Fort Fisher but only what came under my own observation, the seeming egotism cannot well be avoided. Toward evening, we (General Charles J. Paine’s division) were put in motion down the beach toward the fort. After reaching a point two and a half miles from the fort, we turned to the right, marching across the peninsula so as to strike the Cape Fear River at right angles. My company with two others of the 5th U.S.C.T., all under command of Captain Eugene F. Bates of Painesville (formerly of the Hoffman Battalion), were thrown forward as skirmishers and we advanced to the river without encountering any enemy. Here the line of battle was faced towards Wilmington while we picketed next to the fort, being in fact in the rear of the line of battle to prevent a movement from the fort.
|Brigadier General Charles J. Paine, commanding the Third Division of Terry's Provisional Corps|
We had not been long on our posts till a Rebel courier came dashing along at full speed. But the command halt and the inevitable click, click from the “smoked Yankees” brought him to, and they brought him to me trembling in every limb lest the sins of Fort Pillow would be visited upon him. We were not savages, however, and I at once sent him to General Alfred Terry. His horse and equipment I sent to General Paine for his own use as not a horse was brought down with the expedition. The next morning (Saturday) we received ordered to push our skirmish line forward toward the fort. Not knowing the country, we pushed along cautiously and soon passed the Rebel hospital and discovered a sternwheel steamer discharging a cargo at a landing near the fort. A little double quicking brought us up to the wharf and without firing a shot we soon had possession of the steamer which was loaded with corn, and also a barge loaded with ammunition for the magazine of Fort Fisher.
We were then half a mile from the fort proper and about 200 yards from the outer works. We had just been examining some houses in that vicinity and amongst the rest the residence of Colonel Lamb when the Rebel pirate Chickamauga started from the fort where she had been laying in company with the Tallahassee and went slowly past us toward Wilmington. The channel here is over two miles from the Fort Fisher side. She soon opened on us and the steamer, sending one ball directly through our prize.
|Major General Alfred H. Terry|
General Terry came up about this time with the brigade of General N. Martin Curtis and as the pirate still kept up her fire, she wounded several of his men but our skirmish line escaped unharmed, though some of the shells came very close to us. General Curtis’ brigade commenced throwing up a line of works where our skirmish line was posted and we fell back to our division, who were erecting a line of works across the peninsula. While we were so near the fort, the monitors kept up a steady fire and they had so actually obtained the range that every shot struck the works and threw sand a hundred feet and more in the air. It was a most splendid sight. The only guns that at all bear on this position (where we left Curtis’ brigade) is two guns from Fort Buchanan. From here the final assault was made.
On Sunday, the fleet kept up a most terrific fire till about two o’clock in the afternoon when the signal was given by the whistle of one of the boats. Each steamer in the immense fleet whistled and at once ceased firing. Then for the first time we heard the rattle of musketry and we knew the assault had begun. Shortly after the monitors resumed firing and we knew that the fort had not been fully captured. We very soon received the glad tidings that our brave boys had captured nine of the traverses and were getting ready to finish up the job.
I lay awake over an hour Sunday night watching the flashes from the guns of the monitors and their terrific explosions in the doomed fort. About half past 10 we were called up to go and take part in the final charge. We had not got much more than started from our works, however, till the gunboats ceased firing and we could hear the sharp rattle of musketry. Directly afterwards, we saw a rocket ascend and then from every vessel in the fleet a rocket ascended and we knew that Fort Fisher, the Rebel stronghold, had fallen. They had made the charge before we had time to get there. We, however, marched up to the fort only to march back again. On our way to the fort we saw a great many wounded being carried to the rear and a number of dead were lying along the road.
|Major General William H.C. Whiting surrendered the garrison at Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865 after sustaining wounds to the right thigh and hip. General Whiting died of dysentery in March 1865 while a prisoner of war at Governor's Island, New York.|
The 27th U.S.C.T. was ordered to the fort earlier in the day and was lying just outside when the fort was taken. After the capture they were marched into the works and thrown between Mound Battery and Fort Buchanan, the latter of which was still held by the Rebels. Brevet Brigadier General Albert Blackman of Fostoria (formerly lieutenant colonel of the 49th Ohio) was in command of the regiment and was ordered to advance in conjunction with a brigade of white troops and capture Fort Buchanan. The brave Blackman grew impatient at the delay in forming the brigade and marched boldly up with his regiment only. He at once ordered a charge but when they neared the fort, Major General William H.C. Whiting came forth and surrendered to the Seneca boy. It seems Fort Buchanan had been held by the Rebel navy and its garrison had spiked the guns and escaped before General Whiting reached it. This was of course unknown until its surrender to the gallant Blackman. With the exception of the guns being spiked the fort was in excellent condition and crammed full of ammunition. It is the most splendid earthwork I have ever seen.
Monday morning, the explosion of the magazine took place in Fort Fisher which has cast a gloom over the entire expedition. I got to the fort about 1 o’clock on Monday and there saw the most terrible sights I have ever witnessed. In addition to the killed and wounded in the assault, there lay in all the ghastliness of death over a hundred of our men who had just been dug out, where they had been mangled and covered by the fatal explosion. Most of the guns of Fort Fisher had been disabled, but one Armstrong gun of 150-lbs caliber with a varnished carriage and everything in order was uninjured save being hit with a couple of small pieces of shell. As your readers have a full account of everything connected with the fall of the last Rebel seaport long before they see this, I will simply say that there is not a square foot of earth in the rear of the fort but that has pieces of shell scattered over it. From this you can judge the warmth of fire.
Letter from First Lieutenant Joseph S. McClelland, Co. G, 5th U.S. Colored Troops, Tiffin Weekly Tribune (Ohio), February 9, 1865, pg. 2
Entry for Joseph S. McClelland in Ansel Watrous' History of Larimer County, Colorado. Fort Collins: The Courier Printing & Publishing Co., 1914, pg. 441
Fort Fisher protected the Cape Fear River, not the Albemarle.ReplyDelete