Ben Butler attempts to blow up Fort Fisher. Published in Battlefield Journal, Nov, 2005
Ben Butler and the Powder Boat
Len Overcash, Sr
Ben Butler had earned himself two nicknames during his service to the Union -- “Spoons” because of his penchant for looting Southern homes and “Beast” from his general order indicting all southern women as prostitutes because they showed disrespect to the Federal conquerors of New Orleans. Inept as a military leader, Butler managed to keep his position only because of his political ties with Lincoln who needed his influence in New York for reelection. Butler’s latest blunder was managing to get bottled up in the Bermuda Hundred in 1864 and failing to accomplish the mission that General Grant had given him. He was in desperate need of some great event to salvage his fading career. Not that Butler cared whether or not he was considered by his brother officers a good or bad general -- he just needed to retain the rank for his career plans after the close of the war.
In August, 1864, the opportunity presented itself when discussions began as to whether or not the combined forces of the Army and Navy would be successful in closing the port of Wilmington, South Carolina, the last open port for blockade runners. Wilmington was the only port through which blockade runners carrying medical and military and foodstuffs were still getting in to re-supply the south. Closing the port would complete the Anaconda Plan and help seal the doom of the Confederacy. However, Wilmington was protected by a massive earthwork system on the Cape Fear River; the largest was named Fort Fisher.
The decision to close the port of Wilmington was made in August, 1864, through Assistant Navy Secretary Augustus Fox. The Naval Squadron assigned to do the job would be led by Fox’s brother-in-law, Rear Admiral David Porter. General Grant was to head the entire mission and had chosen General Godfrey Weitzel to command the infantry. General Weitzel, 29, was a Corps commander and Chief Engineer of the Army of the James, which was commanded by Major General Ben Butler. Thus, as Weitzel’s superior officer, Butler assumed command of the Infantry arm of the expedition when the expedition started, without imparting that information to Grant. After the Bermuda Hundred fiasco, Grant had no further military plans for Butler and no knowledge that Butler had usurped Weitzel’s position – a plan that he would not have approved.
As plans on how to best capture Fort Fisher were presented, Butler conceived an idea to fill an old ship with tons of black powder, tow it close to the fort and detonate it. The result of the explosion, Butler theorized, would destroy enough of Fort Fisher to allow the ensuing naval bombardment to nearly finish the destruction. All Butler’s infantry would have to do was expend a little effort to capture it. The powder boat idea came from a newspaper article from England. Butler had read where in the port of Erith two barges of gunpowder exploded causing extensive damage to the surrounding area. Butler reasoned the result of his black powder boat would be the same for Fort Fisher. Not afraid to exaggerate, the powder boat became Butler’s “secret weapon” and would “revolutionize” warfare. Despite the skepticism from many high-ranking officers and politicians, including President Lincoln, Butler’s scheme was approved. It seems that Butler received strong support from the Commander of the Washington Arsenal, Major James G. Benson, among others.
The ship chosen as the “secret weapon” was the USS Louisiana, a side-wheeler commissioned in August, 1861, that had seen action along the eastern seaboard as part of the blockading squadron. At 295 tons with a shallow draft, the Louisiana was able to be run close to the shoreline near the fort. The boat was packed with 200-tons of gunpowder in 60-pound bags by an explosives expert in the Army Corps of Engineers, Major Thomas Lincoln Carey. Major Carey also designed an intricate system to ensure complete and proper ignition of the boat. By December 12, 1864, Butler had his gigantic floating keg of gunpowder.
The expedition left for Fort Fisher on December 13th, and that is when Butler truly assumed command. He wanted to make sure the powder boat was a success. The Army flotilla arrived off the North Carolina coast on the 15th, one day ahead of the Naval Flotilla and three days before Rear Admiral Porter arrived. The two men despised each other and made no attempt to meet face-to-face during the expedition. Instead, they sent messages via messengers to communicate.
Porter made it clear that he had no confidence in the success of powder boat or in Butler, and sent the boat off as soon as he arrived off the coast of South Carolina on the December 18th. Butler protested that his troops weren’t ready to go ashore in the assault, so Porter recalled the boat and agreed to wait until the next day. But the weather grew worse as a winter storm settled on the area, so the plan was postponed until the storm passed. Butler with the Army Transport sailed to Beaufort, North Carolina, to wait. While at Beaufort, Butler learned that the “secret mission” wasn’t a secret at all; newspapers in Philadelphia and Boston had published articles clearly stating that the destination of the fleet was Fort Fisher and Wilmington. Butler immediately sent a message to Porter stating that his troops would return the next evening, Christmas Eve, and the assault would begin on Christmas Day.
Porter wasn’t planning to wait until Butler’s transport returned; he was going to explode the powder boat at 1 am and sent a message to Butler revealing his plan. Butler, of course was fuming – the powder boat was his idea and he wasn’t going to be there, so Porter would claim all the glory. Butler’s flotilla set sail from Beaufort as soon as practicable.
About 10:30pm, twelve volunteers from the USS Agawam, lead by Commander Alexander Rhind, boarded the Louisiana and checked the ignition devices. If anything went wrong, this mission would be the last thing these men did for the Union. The USS Wilderness began towing the powder boat toward the shore. The plan was to get as close to the fort as possible, ignite the fuses, and then the men were to row back to the Wilderness as fast as possible. When the Wilderness reached an estimated distance of 500 yards off-shore, it signaled the Louisiana and cast off the tow-lines. Rhind planned to get the powder boat to within 150 yards of the fort and ignite the fuses before he left the boat. However, as soon as he saw the dim outline of the fort in the distance, he began to worry. If any of the sentries noticed the boat and alerted the fort, the surprise would be ruined. But if the guns of the fort opened up and their aim was accurate, the volunteers would not survive the explosion. Just then Rhind spotted a blockade-runner on a course for Wilmington and moved in behind it as cover. He hoped that anyone seeing the two ships would assume that both were running the blockade.
Near Midnight, Rhind guessed that his position was 300 yards from Fort Fisher and dropped anchor. He asked for two volunteers to remain with him and sent the others back to the Wilderness. The three men then began lighting the fuses. Rhind timed the boat to explode about 1:15 am, then they abandoned ship and rowed back to the USS Wilderness.
The entire Federal fleet could see the burning boat in the distance. The time set for the explosion passed. Then 01:30 passed. Both Rhind and Rear Admiral Porter must have thought that something had gone seriously wrong with the fuses, but there was nothing anyone could do to correct the problem. At 01:46 am, the powder boat blew up, lighting the sky with flames for a few moments, then darkness returned. At dawn, the USS Rhode Island steamed toward shore to survey the extent of damage done to Fort Fisher. What the Rhode Island saw wasn’t the extensive damage predicted by Ben Butler, but no damage at all to the fort. When appraised of the failure of the powder-boat, Admiral Porter ordered the bombardment to begin. At 12:40pm the Federal Fleet’s 600 guns began the task of destroying the fort. Porter also considered that since the infantry had not yet returned the Marines under his command might be able to take the fort by themselves.
However, the infantry transports returned during the bombardment. Butler correctly suspected that Porter had planned on capturing Fort Fisher without an infantry assault, thus claiming the glory for himself alone and immediately sent a message to Porter protesting the action. He reminded Porter that HIS plan was to attack after the fleets were reunited, after the powder boat had done its damage and after the bombardment finished the job.
Unfortunately for Porter, the bombardment did not damage the fort extensively either, so he had to allow Butler his assault on Christmas Day. True to his reputation, Butler failed again. Some 2500 Infantry were ashore about 4:00 pm, gaining some ground beyond the beachhead. However, Butler realized that Fort Fisher was still much too strong for an infantry assault -- and he feared he was outnumbered. Finally, he was told that another winter storm was brewing, so he ordered his troops to re-board the transports, but about 600 troops of the Federal First Corps and some captured Confederates were stranded for two days on the beach before being rescued. Butler left for Hampton Roads the day after Christmas, leaving the Navy or his subordinates to organize the rescue.
When President Lincoln learned of the complete failure of the mission to capture Fort Fisher, he contacted General Grant to find out what had happened. Grant promised to discover who was to blame and of course, it turned out to be Ben Butler. Butler attempted to defend himself, but since Lincoln had been successfully re-elected, he was no longer a political asset. He was, obviously, a military liability and Grant relieved him of command on January 8, 1865.
The powder boat which was to have brought down Fort Fisher instead ended the strange and controversial career of “Beast” Butler. Butler, who wanted to resurrect his fading career with a glorious “bang”, left the scene in an ineffective fizzle.
published in The Battlefield Journal, 2006
Gragg, Rod, Confederate Goliath: the Battle of Fort Fisher, Louisiana State University Press, 1991, pps 36 – 144
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies