The 'Bloody Gate' at Fort Fisher - Crucial infantry assault through a sally port at the 'Gibraltar of the South'

A. Roy

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I took this photo earlier this year during a walkaround of the north ramparts (the land face of the fort) at Fort Fisher on Federal Point at Kure Beach, N.C. This shot shows the route that Union infantry forces took during the Second Battle of Fort Fisher, when they broke through a sally port and subdued the Confederate earthen fort on 15 Jan. 1865. This location became known by veterans of the engagement as the "Bloody Gate." Although the defenders put up a fierce fight, the Federals' successful entry at this spot makes me wonder whether a sally port might often be considered a weak point in a fort, and thus the target for an attack.

This sally port for the fort was located at the extreme west end of Fisher's land face, next to the Cape Fear River. It seems like an awkward place for a sally port: It's in a marshy area close to the river, where it might have been difficult to build effective defenses against attack. I understand that this point was chosen as the entry in part because it was the end point of the only road leading north to Wilmington. The gate was protected by abatis and palisades, and was overlooked by Shepherd's Battery just above it.

This photo from inside the fort shows Shepherd's Battery between the two westernmost traverses, down at the end toward the left, with the sally port below to the left:

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This U.S. War Department map (by Lt. Col. Cyrus B. Comstock, 1865) shows the overall plan of Fort Fisher, with Shepherd's Battery and the sally port at upper right next to the river. (This map is oriented with the northwest toward the top.)

FtFisher_USWarDept_CyrusBComstock_1865_Crop.jpg


And here's a detail zooming in on the area of The Bloody Gate:

FtFisher_USWarDept_CyrusBComstock_1865_DetailBloodyGate.jpg


From this layout, it looks to me as if the Wilmington Road just comes right into the fort on pretty much a straight shot. You can see that the area is marshy, and the road seems to cross over a water obstacle on a bridge. I know that Fort Fisher was more of a coastal fortification and wasn't exactly conceived to withstand a ground siege, but I might have expected to see that road taking a more pronounced zigzag path, with a protective traverse in front of the gate running parallel to the main parapet. Maybe other members here might know more about the rationale for this design. (@NFB22 or @jrweaver?)

It could be that Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, who oversaw construction of the fort, just didn't anticipate the fierce assault that would be directed at that point on 15 January 1865.

On 13 January, Union Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry landed three divisions on the peninsula north of Fort Fisher, then moved two of his divisions closer to the fort on the 14th. On the 15th, Rear Adm. David D. Porter of the U.S. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron battered Fort Fisher and silenced most of its guns. A landing party of sailors and marines assaulted the sea face of the fort. This attack was repulsed, but soon Terry's forces (his Second Division under Brig. Gen. Adelbert Ames) began their attack on the sally port at the other end of the land face. That led to the fabled engagement at the Bloody Gate.

Ames's soldiers had to cut through the abatis and palisades under heavy fire, before storming the westernmost salient and the entry gate. Dr. James Mowris, surgeon of the 117th N.Y. Infantry, described the assault this way:

"It was an awful moment, and, while with compressed lips our troops were breathing a silent petition for home and country, the signal was given, and the line, despite the storm of bullets and cannister which strewed the interval with dead and wounded, rushed forward like a tempest, through the stockade, and up the parapet, and, in a trice, a veteran Union flag fluttered on the parapet. If the roar of artillery abated, it was more than supplied by the yelling and the din of deadly musketry." (A History of the 117th Regiment. N.Y. Volunteers. Hartford: Case, Lockwood and Co., 1866. Pages 168-9.)

Here's a map of the assault at the Bloody Gate, taken from interpretive signage at the Fort Fisher park:

BloodyGateMap_FtFisherSignage_Crop.jpg


This is the view from the approach to the gate likely used by Ames's men:

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Roy B.
 

Irishtom29

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The gate appears badly sited, with no flanking fire covering it. I think it would have been better placed in the center of the wall where the approach could be covered by flanking fire from both sides.

The trace of the fort, with its lack of flanking fires and ditches, seems poorly designed to repel an infantry assault, which the actual event bears out. The bastion like work where the land front and sea front meet appears poorly designed with no line of fire down either front.
 
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A. Roy

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The gate appears badly sited, with no flanking fire covering it. I think it would have been better placed in the center of the wall where the approach could be covered by flanking fire from both sides.

The trace of the fort, with its lack of flanking fires and ditches, seems poorly designed to repel an infantry assault, which the actual event bears out. The bastion like work where the land front and sea front meet appears poorly designed with no line of fire down either front.

Yes, it seems to me that all of those features are missing here. Makes me wonder what Gen. Whiting's thinking was. Maybe he was just thinking about Fisher as a coastal defense fort and didn't seriously consider a land-based assault.

ARB
 

NFB22

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With Fort Fisher's land-facing fortifications being as long as they were, I think they chose to place the gate where they did because Colonel Lamb assumed any amphibious force would have had to fight across the island to reach it, therefore making itself vulnerable to full strength of the land face which consisted of more than 20 pieces of artillery plus the small arms of its garrison.

There are two major factors that led Lamb's assumption, if that was indeed his thinking, to be incorrect. One is that when the assaulting force landed, they had no opposition so they could land beyond the range of the fort. There was a significant force that could have opposed the landings but those troops were not put into action so the troops landed with ease. The second was that during the final assault, the Marines and sailors assaulting the northeast section of the land defenses drew much of the fire and attention to them while the troops assaulting the gate faced less opposition.

In my opinion the gated area would have been better off if they had extended the mounds as far as possible to the river and constructed a gate within those mounds in the same area. If possible making a type of drawbridge protected by a ravelin would have added further security. This is assuming it would have been possible to engineer. If the marshy area was really that hard to navigate, even taking the ravelin at that point would have been tough. It may seem like a lot of work to guard a gate but then again, we are talking about a fort that's walls extended beyond a mile to begin with.
 

A. Roy

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Many good points here, Nate!

One is that when the assaulting force landed, they had no opposition so they could land beyond the range of the fort. There was a significant force that could have opposed the landings but those troops were not put into action so the troops landed with ease.

Gen. Bragg was in Wilmington and commander of the department, but I gather that he didn't want to weaken Wilmington's defenses by sending support down to Ft Fisher. Whatever was finally sent down was too little, too late. Hoke's division, I believe, was north of Fisher at the Sugarloaf line, but didn't do much if anything to oppose Terry's landing and advance on the fort. Whiting tried to convince Bragg to increase the defenses, but after getting nowhere, Whiting stormed out of Wilmington and back to Fisher. When he reached Lamb, he said: "Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed... The last thing I heard General Bragg say was to point out a line to fall back upon, when Fisher fell." (Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath, page 131.)
The second was that during the final assault, the Marines and sailors assaulting the northeast section of the land defenses drew much of the fire and attention to them while the troops assaulting the gate faced less opposition.

Lamb later wrote that he and Whiting had been occupied with fending off the seaward assault at the Northeast Bastion, then: "As our shouts of triumph went up I turned to look at the western salient, and saw, to my astonishment, three Federal battle-flags upon our ramparts." (From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, page 650.)

ARB
 

NFB22

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Gen. Bragg was in Wilmington and commander of the department, but I gather that he didn't want to weaken Wilmington's defenses by sending support down to Ft Fisher. Whatever was finally sent down was too little, too late. Hoke's division, I believe, was north of Fisher at the Sugarloaf line, but didn't do much if anything to oppose Terry's landing and advance on the fort. Whiting tried to convince Bragg to increase the defenses, but after getting nowhere, Whiting stormed out of Wilmington and back to Fisher. When he reached Lamb, he said: "Lamb, my boy, I have come to share your fate. You and your garrison are to be sacrificed... The last thing I heard General Bragg say was to point out a line to fall back upon, when Fisher fell." (Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath, page 131.)
I can't say that I've done extensive research into this battle with exception to the involvement of the US and CS Marines that were engaged. That said, I believe Hoke had more than 5000+ men behind him and could have greatly affected the landings had he chose to do so but was afraid of leaving the road to Wilmington open, which I certainly can't blame him there. But his choice almost certainly sealed the fate of Fort Fisher.

To your original point regarding the weakness of a gate/sally port into a fortification and whether enemy forces took this into consideration. I really can't think of a time when a fortification fell due to this specific weakness during the war.

In other instances throughout history, the sally port has been exploited but usually by surprise such as when attacking Indians ambushed the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac during Pontiac's Rebellion or when US forces caught the British by surprise at Fort Ticonderoga. Neither of these examples were under direct assault though. In other instances it had been targeted though such as at the Battle of the Alamo, after Mexican forces recognized it as a weak point in the defenses along with the palisaded, temporary fortifications there.
 

Irishtom29

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Often fort gates are called sally ports when actually they are simply the entrance to a fort and not specifically intended for sorties. Looking at European forts one often sees dedicated sally ports which are small openings to the bottom of the ditch from which infantry can quietly and unseen take position along the covered way for a sortie. It seems to me that this gate at Fort Fisher was intended as the entrance to the fort.

Entrance gates were often the strongest part of a well designed fort or castle, being guarded by ditches, flankers, barbicans and ravelins.

During the War of 1812 the Brits captured Fort Niagara by a surprise night assault by an Irish regiment, the 100th, upon the fort's gatehouse and then into the fort. Their Irish being up the attackers refused quarter to many Americans.

A rather fuzzy photo I took years ago of the gatehouse at Fort Niagara. Note the gun positions at the left flanking the approach.

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A. Roy

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To your original point regarding the weakness of a gate/sally port into a fortification and whether enemy forces took this into consideration. I really can't think of a time when a fortification fell due to this specific weakness during the war.

In reading about the battle, I saw a mention of another sally-port, which I see now was on the seaward face, not too far from the Northeast Bastion and the headquarters. This sally-port seems to have been protected by a traverse and a ravelin:

FtFisher_USWarDept_CyrusBComstock_1865_Crop_DetailSeawardSallyPort.jpg


ARB
 

jcrook

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1. Thy also factored in the CS Navy. The CSS Chickamauga (sailors used to man Ft Fisher guns and wasted on the Sugar Loaf line), CSS Wilmington (which was never completed) CSS North Carolina (wasted and lost) and the CSS Raleigh (wasted and lost) would be used from the river side in the defense of the fort
2. They factored in the anvil and hammer blow with Fort Fisher being the anvil and an attacking force from the Sugar Loaf line being the hammer. Hoke never moved because he was ordered not to by Bragg
3. Fort Fisher fail for one reason and one reason only, General Braxton Bragg.
 

A. Roy

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Often fort gates are called sally ports when actually they are simply the entrance to a fort and not specifically intended for sorties. Looking at European forts one often sees dedicated sally ports which are small openings to the bottom of the ditch from which infantry can quietly and unseen take position along the covered way for a sortie. It seems to me that this gate at Fort Fisher was intended as the entrance to the fort.

Good points here about sally ports versus entrances. I'm guessing that the earthen construction at Fisher would have made adequate protection more difficult. In a discussion of Fort Wayne in Detroit, @jrweaver posted some great images of sally ports and entrances from masonry coastal forts, which has been his focus of study:

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/fort-wayne-in-detroit-michigan.183058/post-2383122

ARB
 

WVV

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And of Fort Fisher on this Memorial Day, from Wilmington's Oakdale Cemetery, taken today, the defenders. Anyone visiting Wilmington should book a guided tour of Oakdale. Lots of history here; Southern history, Confederate history -- American history. And one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the South.

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Fort Fisher Dead.jpg


Whiting.jpg


Whitings Grave.jpg
 

A. Roy

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Although not so much in resemblance in terms of shape or size. Fort McAllister was very much built in the same manner and a formidable fortification. Their use of early land mines is much written about.

Your mention of land mines reminded me of this detail showing a line of land torpedoes in front of the landward face at Fort Fisher, connected by a network of electrical wires:

FtFisher_USWarDept_CyrusBComstock_1865_CropDetailTorpedoes.jpg


These mines were meant to be part of the defense against a land invasion against the fort, and Lamb wrote in his history that he meant for these to be used right up to the end:

"About 250 remained for defense on the left, to which I supposed the 350 South Carolinians would immediately be added, and these with the Napoleon and the torpedoes I felt sure would successfully defend that portion of the work...

"...While thus engaged I met my aide, who informed me that the South Carolinians had failed to respond to my order, although their officers had pleaded with them, ... that the assaulting column had made two distinct charges upon the extreme left and had been repulsed by the fire of the Napoleon and by the infantry; that the torpedo wires had been cut by the fire of the fleet and the electrician had tried in vain to execute my orders..."

(From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 4, pages 650-651.)

ARB
 

Georgian183

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My understanding of the mines at Fort McAllister is that they were placed on the land approach to the fort, and did cause quite a problem for the Union troops who made the assault. If memory serves, after the fort was taken, Sherman ordered the captured commander to have the Confederate POWs dig up and remove all remaining mines. My only gripe about McAllister is the fact that the fort as it is today looks nothing as it did during war time. The entire area in and around the fort was completely barren, affording the defenders good visibility for 360 degrees and clear fields of fire. If the fort had been assigned a larger garrison and more cannon for the land side approach, it could have been a blood bath.....not that it would have mattered much to Sherman with his seemingly endless supply of troops.
 

NFB22

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My only gripe about McAllister is the fact that the fort as it is today looks nothing as it did during war time. The entire area in and around the fort was completely barren, affording the defenders good visibility for 360 degrees and clear fields of fire.

Many sites became overgrown after the war when the sites were abandoned. Years later, by the time the NPS, state or local government took over these historic sites, it really didn't make much sense to clear them. One great example of this would be at Fort Jackson on the Mississippi where the ramparts are now covered with trees and this coming even after the the fort was updated with Endicott fortifications long after the Civil War. Nature eventually catches up.
 

jrweaver

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Good points here about sally ports versus entrances. I'm guessing that the earthen construction at Fisher would have made adequate protection more difficult. In a discussion of Fort Wayne in Detroit, @jrweaver posted some great images of sally ports and entrances from masonry coastal forts, which has been his focus of study:

https://civilwartalk.com/threads/fort-wayne-in-detroit-michigan.183058/post-2383122

ARB
I have been away from the site for several weeks due to a life-threatening illness, but thankfully am getting back to normal now after a successful surgery. I have some physical limitations for another week or so, but I can research and type again! :smile:
The sally port/entrance to a fort is considered a weak point, and is generally - at least in masonry forts - well defended to compensate for that fact. Early Third System forts often used multiple wet ditches with outworks between the ditches to defend the landward faces of the fort, and almost always had some significant outwork in advance of the sally port. While the idea of multiple ditches fell away as time progressed - it was found that even relatively simple outworks would prevent a land attack short of a siege - the sally port continued to be a well-protected point of a fort throughout the system. It was only toward the end of the system when funds were being cut off (after the war) that these defenses were abbreviated, though the original drawings still showed the extensive defenses of the sally port.
Here is a good example of an early-Third System sally port and its defenses: Fort Pike at Pass Rigolets to the northeast of New Orleans. The defenses of the sally port comprised two wet ditches with outworks between the ditches. Entrance to the sally port included a curved pathway that prevented direct artillery fire on the main gate of the sally port, with that passageway traversing a demilune that provided a strong defense. The outer ditch was crossed via a causeway defended by the demilune, with the inner ditch crossed by a combination of a causeway and a drawbridge. On either side of the sally port were casemates with embrasures for howitzers (firing cannister) providing forward fire down the causeway and drawbridge. Additionally, bastions to either side of the sally port provided flanking fire on the causeway and drawbridge. Even though it was a relatively small fort, the land defenses were formidable. This was true for all Third System forts of this time period.
The following drawings are from National Archives and Records Administration, then colorized by me to bring out the details.
Pike Curved Path to Sally Port Smaller.jpg

This is a section through the same area:
Pike Section Drawing color.jpg


In this photo, the sally port, protected by an embrasure in the flank of a demibastion, is shown. What now is a continuous wooden bridge was originally a similar wooden bridge to within about 12 feet of the sally port, then a drawbridge ending at the masonry wall. The full bastion at the bottom of the picture would also have contained a casemate with a howitzer embrasure overlooking the sally port.
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When compared to the sally port / entrance to Fort Fisher, the defenses of the relatively small fort were very extensive!

While Fort Fisher was indeed designed for seacoast defense, so were all the permanent fortifications of the Third System (except one). They each had, however, extensive land defenses for self-protection. I'm surprised by the lack of strong land defenses for the sally port of Fort Fisher.
 
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