By late 1864, Wilmington, North carolina was the last open Confederate seaport. To sever the South's only link to the outside world, and to stop the flow of blockade runners' goods estimated at $70,000,000 yearly, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant planned an October army-navy expedition against the city. He postponed the project, however, when he feared the city's defenses had been strengthened, and not until December, when he learned that troops had been sent from the city to oppose Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman in Georgia, did he revive the plan.
The expedition was to be conducted by 6,500 troops of Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's Army of the James, aided by a fleet of almost 60 warships, mostly ironclads, including 30 moniters, under Rear Adm. David D. Porter. Grant chose one of Butler's subordinates, Maj. Gen. Godfrey Weitzel, to command the land troops, but at the 11th hour Butler demanded the position. Though an incompetent field leader, the former Massachusetts legislator was a political power to be reckoned with. Displeased by Butler's determination to go, Grant nevertheless upheld his authority and hoped for good luck.
Butler needed it. To capture Wilmington, he had to secure Confederate Point, a peninsula below the city, bordered on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and on the west by the Cape Fear River. To secure Confederate Point, he had to capture Fort Fisher, a formidable earthwork near its southern tip. Called the "Gibralter of the Confederacy", the fort was garrisoned by some 1,400 troops under Col. William Lamb and was protected by an awesome array of defenses along its 480-yard-long landface and down its eastward looking sea-face, which ran for 3/4 mile along the Atlantic shore.
Butler appeared confident he could surmount these obstacles as well as a supporting force under Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate Department of North Carolina, at Sugar Loaf, a sand hill 4 miles above the garrison. Butler hoped to reach North Carolina so quickly that Gen. Robert E. Lee would be unable to send down reinforcements. Morever, Butler had faith in the explosive effect of a barge filled with 235 tons of powder, to be beached near the fort and detonated by time fuses.
From the outset, however, his plans went awry. He was so secretive about his objectives and so unwilling to cooperate with the navy that he and Adm. Porter failed to reach a clear understanding as to the place and time of their rendezvous. Butler's troops massed at his headquarters at Fort Monroe, Virginia on December 7th, left aboard transports on the 14th, arrived off the North Carolina coast on the 15th, and waited in vain for Porter, who had gone to Beaufort for fuel and provisions. The delay made Butler's soldiers restive and seasick and so drained their coal and drinking water that the army too had to refit at Beaufort. Bad weather then held the troops for 6 days in the harbor, 90 miles north of Fort Fisher.
At last, joining Porter near the fort on the 24th, Butler learned that a division under Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke had come down from Virginia to bolster Bragg at Sugar Loaf. The delay at Beaufort had also prompted Adm. Porter to launch the "powder-boat" in Butler's absence. The weapon had proved a flop: grounded 800 yards from the fort, the barge, when touched off, had produced only a deafening explosion and a brilliant flash. Hardly a particle of sand at Fort Fisher had been displaced.
Confronted by the unexpected, Butler nervously prepared to make a landing. Porter's ships spent 12 hours bombarding the fort,until Porterfelt the Confederate's guns had been silenced. When the first of Butler's 2,200 man force landed north of the fort at 2:00 P.M. on the 24th, the garrison let loose with a cannon of small arm fire, keeping the attackers 50 yards above the land-face. The Union advance contingent, under Col. Newton M. Curtis, trapped 300 teenage Junior Reserves outside the fort, and one of Curtis' officers craweled through a hole in the paliside to seize the fort's colors, shot away by the navy. Pinned down by gunfire, Butler's men could accomplish little more.
Late in the afternoon, Butler boarded a ship and reconnoitered the sea-face to determine if an attack could be renewed. On Weitzel's reccomendation, he aborted the movement, pulling the transports out to sea so quickly that 700 of the troops ashore were stranded beneath the fort's guns until recued 2 days later by Porter's sailors.
Returning to Fort Monroe on the 27th, Butler informed an astonished Grant that he had used proper discretion in withdrawing, after determining an assault immpossible. Grant, who had ordered his subordinate to beseige the fort if unable to carry it, was so enraged that he relieved Butler of command and sent him home to Massachusetts. Grant then readied a 2nd expedition against the fort, under Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, a more determined and tenacious leader.