Porter to Grant, January 3, 1865: “… never send a boy to do a man’s errand…”

On this day in 1865, Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, from his flagship USS Malvern, wrote Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant to express his views concerning the failure to take Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and the possibilities for future operations:

Dear General: I hold it to be a good rule never to send a boy on a man’s errand, and we must now calculate that the rebels, having ascertained their weakness, will take measures to strengthen themselves. The great thing was to effect a landing, which being done, everything else was easy. The troops could have fortified themselves where they landed against 100,000 men, covered as they were by over eighty heavy guns on the gun-boats, strung all along the beach. There is no use fretting over the past; we must endeavor to avoid mistakes in the future; and if any expedition fails now to take the works, which were comparatively weak ten days ago, the sagacity of the leaders of the late expedition will be applauded. The failure to assault the works so battered, and the people so demoralized by the dreadful bombardment, will set the rebels to work making themselves much stronger, and this is what I wish to draw your attention to. We cannot stop their work without bringing the whole squadron into play and firing away all our ammunition before the time comes for work. It is no joke getting in coal and ammunition, lying outside. The ships can only carry ten hours’ firing. Now I propose (if it is possible) that you send every man you can spare here, with intrenching tools, and fifteen 30-pounders; the last party had not even a spade. An army can intrench themselves at Masonborough, and stay as long as they like, if a typhoon blows the ships to sea. I have received a letter from Sherman. He wants me to time my operations by his, which I think a good plan. We will make a sure thing of it, but the troops and the navy must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice and when the enemy least expects us. We will have the report spread that the troops are to co-operate with Sherman in the attack on Charleston. I hope Sherman will be allowed to carry out his plans; he will have Wilmington in less than a month, and Charleston will fall like a ripe pear. I expect you understand all this better than I do. I have made arrangements to keep communication open with Sherman from the time he starts. Captain Breese will give you all the latest news.

I am, general, very truly and sincerely,

David D. Porter,

Let us just say, given the leading line in this message, Porter was not a fan of Major-General Benjamin Butler.  Aside from some really witty sound bytes to pull, Porter’s letter demonstrated just how dependent the various Federal operations became at the start of 1865. Operations from Tennessee to Virginia were now linked towards one goal – final defeat of the Confederacy.

I have not written at length about the Federal operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington. And I don’t plan to at this point.  But any discussion of operations in South Carolina through 1865 must consider effects from events at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Of course, another aspect to the letter is the familiar, informal tone.  Just as cordial was the relation between Major-General William T. Sherman and Porter.  The men became acquainted during the long Vicksburg Campaign.  Now they were at the fore of operations aimed to close the war.  Rarely in the American military experience have Army and Navy commanders worked so well together.

Fort Fisher Historic Site’s web page has a good summary of events in the campaign to take Cape Fear, along with well constructed maps.  150th events planned for January 17-18 will look back at the 2nd Battle of Fort Fisher.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part II, Serial 96, page 20.)


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