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- Army Correspondence: February 4, 1865
Head Quarters 1st U.S.C.T.,
Between the sea beach and Cape Fear River, N.C.
Christian Recorder: February 4, 1865
Mr. EDITOR:- The details of the capture of Fort Fisher I presume you have read long before this will reach you, for our mail facilities are so poor here, that my letter has been unnecessarily detained. On Sabbath afternoon, of the 15th just about 3 o’clock, we had so fortified ourselves to this place that the General concluded he could venture to attack Fort Fisher consequently two brigades of the white troops were marched down from before our works which were thrown up to protect our rear in case the rebels should come down the river side, and attempt to capture or bother us while we made a land attack upon the fort. I might here say that our naval fleet had been bombarding the fort nearly three days before the infantry had got in such a position as to carry the fort with safety. Notwithstanding, my regiment was not engaged on the fort, yet it fell to my lot to accompany the attacking party, as I had been chosen by Surgeon Barnes (medical director) to set as his aid for the occasion, which was no easy job, considering the land was sandy, and no horses were to be had. Shortly after our forces were drawn up in front of the fort, I was ordered to the rear with a dispatch, which prevented me from seeing the strategetical maneuvering of our commanders in preparing for the desperate contest. By the time I had returned, however, they had approached near enough to commence the attack, and with an awful yell and dauntless courage, they could be seen running over an open space, in all apparent fearlessness, intent upon capturing the strong works which then lay in full view to every soldier. But the rebels replied to the charge and yells of our boys with the most awful volleys of musketry, grape and canister, which moved down our troops in fearful numbers. Yet our boys cut them down in heavy proportions.
And thus the contest raged from that time until about 10 o’clock at night, on our left near the sea-shore. Finally, the marines and sailors came off the gunboats and war-ships, and helped to charge the fort. They were cut down in frightful numbers. They fell so thick and with such destruction, that the marines, at one time, broke and fled; but the sailors stood their ground. Thus the sailors actually evinced more courage and bravery than the marines. The land forces on the left, however, in no instance, broke nor exhibited any cowardice, yet they were terribly slaughtered. Never had I seen grape and canister used so effectually as the rebels used it on our troops on this occasion. At one time I thought they could never stand it; neither do I believe they would have stood, but the fact that they knew the black troops were in the rear, sad if they (white troops) failed, the colored troops would take the fort, and claim the honor. Indeed, the white troops told the rebels that if they did not surrender they would let the Negroes loose on them. But it was a notable sight, to see our troops hanging on the sides of the fort like so many leeches sticking to an afflicted man. Each embrasure was formed by high mounds of earth being thrown up on each side of the guns; and after our troops gained a foothold on the fort, each party would stick to those mounds, and fight around them. You would constantly ace them, by two’s and three’s, fall off and roll to the bottom, and lay weltering in their blood and gore, manifesting the greatest agony amid the death heaves which, too often, lasted but a few moments. One of the most singular things that ever occurred with me, was while I was going up to where they were fighting to help a wounded man, three balls in rapid succession, came right by my left ear, which I thought was a warning to go back, and I turned immediately and ran to the rear, but not too soon to escape a load of grape, which would have swept me in a moment’s time, into eternity.
I was not surprised to hear balls fly past my head, nor to hear bombs burst over me, but three in succession, to pass my ear, somewhat startled me. This I regarded as a warning to move, and sure enough I just moved in time. However, the battle raged amid the terrific fire of deadly missiles until after dark, when I was so exhausted that I could no longer stand up, for I had been seeing after our killed and wounded up to that time. About this time I retired some distance from the scene of conflict, and lay down till about ten o’clock, when the news spread that Fort Fisher had surrendered. The guns then ceased firing, and a great about rang through every camp, and every vessel sent up sky rockets, and illuminating lights were seen decorating every ship, while others were waved to and fro. The cry of victory; victory! was bellowed from thousands of lips. At this news I jumped up and went to survey the fort, and behold the results of our conquest.
And great was the scene. The fort had been ploughed by our shells until every thing looked like a heap of destruction. All the barracks had been burned to the ground, and dead bodies were lying, in desperate confusion in every direction. In some places they were lying in piles and heaps. Several rebels had been utterly buried by our shells. Guns of the largest caliber had been broken to pieces, and their carriages swept from under them. The wounded were groaning and begging for assistance. The soldiers were ransacking every nook and corner in search of trophies and other memorials, such as tobacco, segars, clothes, pistol, &c. The surrendered rebels were standing in the center of the fort, and speaking in audible tones of the bravery of the Yankee soldiers. Many seemed glad they were in our hands, while others seemed anxious to know if we were going to kill them. Yet we all talked and laughed so freely with the rebels, that they soon came to the conclusions that we would not kill them and seemed quite well-pleased after a short time.
After walking around in the fort for some time, viewing it by the light of the moon, I found myself shot at twice from some unknown corner. This led me to believe there were rebels still secreted in some undiscovered spot, whom we had not found. Others were similarly fired upon, but could not tell who had done it. So I left for camp, and told several to stay away, otherwise they would be blown up. Nothing disastrous, however, occurred that night. But at an early hour the next morning, my attention was attracted by an awful explosion, which I perceived had taken place toward the fort. The said earth was seen flying in great banks towards the very heavens, and the debris were spreading like monster wings, and the shafts of vengeance seemed to be flying from the mouth of an awful crater to the summit of the angry clements. The flames shot upwards with lurid tongues, forked prongs, and the clamor of an awful concussion, these were echoed by the surrounding water—which soon told every one that something was wrong. This threw every body in anxious suspense, and many speculations were indulged in. But a few minutes only intervened before the intelligence spread every where that one of the magazines had blown up. This circumstance cast a more serious gloom over our army than all the casualties which had happened on the previous day, and caused more oath to be uttered than I ever before heard in the same length of time. Many were for killing all the rebel prisoners, while others were for blowing them up, too, &c. I immediately started for the fort, to see for myself the dreadful scene of carnage. I found the news true. A magazine had exploded, and hundreds of our men were, apparently, the deadly victims of the misfortune. The whole fort was covered with the effects of the explosion, and parties were employed in excavating the vast numbers who had been blown up, covered in the dirt.
I stood there till a row of dead men were dug up, and laid out side by side, each one bearing such frightful marks of the disaster, that I could no longer endure the sight. But the disasters of the previous days’ battle, together with the explosion, caused dead men to lie around in all directions.
If fell to my lot to bury, with religious ceremony, many of our noble dead, which I did with a sensation not felt in any previous instance since I have been connected with the army. It would be impossible to describe what I witnessed among the wounded. But one thing I must mention as a fact. I found twice the number of rebels calling upon God for mercy to what I found among our own wounded soldiers. One rebel particularly, whom I passed was saying, in a most pathetic tone, “O, Lord God, have mercy on me! Please have tender compassion on one who is a sinner, and comfort me in this my hour of trial! O, Lord, have mercy on me this one time more.” When I commented talking with him, and he discovered I was a chaplain, his countenance seemed to be illuminated with joy. But the prayers that went up from the rebel wounded completely bought off my prejudice, and I rendered them every comfort in my power. Their doctors, who were permitted to attend to their own men, assured me, if I ever fell in their hands, I should have the best treatment possible.
On the South side of the fort, where the most of our shells had exploded, the earth was literally covered with iron, and every house within two squares of the fort, that had not been consumed in the flames, was torn to pieces and entirely demolished, which the ground had been ploughed as with the shaft of destruction. Had the rebels not been protected by the strongest bomb proofs in the world, our shells would have torn them to atoms long before we reached the fort with infantry. But, being protected as they were, we might shell for a month without injuring them; for the earth over them was fully twenty feet thick.
The rebels had some of the finest guns ever made; but our guns from the navy were so numerous, that they could never work them while we were shelling.
I asked several rebel officers if they killed the colored prisoners they took. They told me they did not. They also told me if they were free men from the North, or even from any slave State in our lines, they were treated as other Yankee prisoners are; but if they were slaves, whose owners were in the Confederate States, and such colored men could be identified, they were treated as house-burners and robbers. And as for you, said they, you would get the same treatment as other Yankee officers.
I learned General Butler has been removed, because he failed to land his troops and attack Fort Fisher on Christmas day. The wisdom of Gen. Butler, in that case, was admirable, because I have been told by a large number of rebels as well as a large number of colored persons, that twelve or fifteen thousand rebels were here that day, and waiting for the Union troops to land, so as to capture the whole expedition. They all say if the Union forces had landed that day, not a man would have escaped. Besides that, when we landed and went back in the woods, we found tents enough—made of boards and brush-to hold at least ten thousand troops. A colored woman told me that the rebel soldiers were so thick that day, that they nearly smothered her waiting for our troops to land, but that they were not expecting us at this time. Will the government see its wrong, and replace Gen. Butler, and beg his pardon? If they don’t do it some judgment will surely follow. I believe the removal of General Butler is a harbinger of some national calamity, as firmly as I believe I am alive to-day. I would be afraid to publish the indignant expressions I have heard uttered by the colored troops about the removal of General Butler; but some are willing to lay down their arms.
Jan. 18th 1865.