Words written after a Civil War battle resonate today

Nathan J. Johnson was a lawyer from Granville, N.Y. when he joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He gathered a regiment — New York’s 115th — of local men and left from Albany to fight in the Battle of Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

This historian was present for a re-enactment of that battle and wrote lyrics to a song about the event that was produced in a play called Civil War Ballads and Letters, performed in libraries in New York and North Carolina.

“We fought for seven long, bloody terrible hours Sir,” Johnson wrote in a letter after the battle, “until at 10 o’clock p.m. the rebs caved in — Ft. Fisher passed into Union hands. It was the toughest struggle for length and fury ever known.”

Colonel Johnson was named Headquarters Commander of the 24th Corps Army of the James after the capture of Confederate Fort Fisher in North Carolina. He penned those words in a letter of graphic description of that bloody and vital Civil War battle.

The letter, dated Jan. 30, 1865, was addressed to Johnson’s former commanding Officer, Colonel John S. Crocker of White Creek, N.Y. of the 93rd New York.

Colonel Johnson left his hometown law practice at the outbreak of the Civil War in the fall of 1861 to raise a company to aid the Union Army.  In November of that year, with 32 recruits from Washington County, Johnson reported to Albany barracks where the 93rd regiment was being formed.

He served with the 93rd as captain until accepting a promotion as lieutenant colonel with the 115th, the “Iron-Hearted Regiment.”  Johnson saw battle in numerous engagements in Virginia and North Carolina.

Johnson’s 148-year-old missive details a decisive three-day battle that took place near the Cape Fear River at Fort Fisher, situated at the end of a small peninsula south of Wilmington, N.C.  The Battle of Fort Fisher, notably significant in the outcome of the War of the Rebellion, culminated in the fall of Wilmington, the last coastal stronghold of the Confederate Army.

Johnson’s letter to his old hometown friend and commander gives a vivid account of the battle.  He described Fort Fisher and the strategies used to seize the strong, southern rampart, and he portrayed the bloody fight his brigade encountered when it advanced to a point inside the Fort with “shot and shell raining down from those devilish parapets like hail.”

“There were about 4-5000 troops brought down for the purpose of protecting our rear and acting as a reserve…but to our 2nd Division was allotted the work of attacking Fort Fisher,” wrote Johnson.

The 115th New York was then part of the 2nd Division.

On Jan. 13, 1865, Johnson’s division landed in the surf on the beach north of the fort, and late that night the soldiers built a mile line of entrenchments across the Cape Fear peninsula “facing towards Wilmington in order to be protected from the rear.”

“Works of the Titans”

“This was finished, “Johnson continued, “and the other troops placed in theirs [entrenchments] on the 14th.  The Navy meanwhile bombarding the fort ‘right smart’; although we took a look through our glasses at sunset we could not discover that any portion of the fort had been knocked down but that it still loomed up against the evening sky with all its formidable proportions of gigantic strength.”

Johnson described Fort Fisher as semicircular in form, and he sketched a diagram depicting the enormous gun embattlements in place there.  “The mounds are from 30 to 40 feet above the level plain and the guns are 20 feet above the plain,” he wrote. “The guns are placed on top and all of them are carriages of the type large enough for two guns that would throw thirty-two pound shot….These works built up as they are upon a level beach, to that height and size, makes one think as he looks at them of the works of the Titans.”

“On the morning of the 15th we got orders to advance which we did, the Navy firing away as if the dogs of War did ‘delight to bark and bite!’ We moved up to within half of a mile of the fort and then laid us down to await the cessation of the (Navy) bombardment,” wrote Johnson. “We were about to charge when we saw the Marines advancing on the fort with pistols and cutlasses, from the east (we were advancing from a northerly direction).

“Great Ceaser’s Ghost! Didn’t we look with some amazement at such a performance.  Pistols and cutlasses to storm the strongest work in America with!  Well, we looked and then ran onward… onward… onward… along the lines towards Fort Fisher but before we had got half the distance the Marines were running back terribly cut up and defeated.  But the 2nd Division moved on under shot and shell raining down from the devilish parapets like hail, but it was no stranger to my troops and not for a single instant did it retard our advance.”

Johnson wrote that, inch by inch, the 2nd Division and states, “We drove the stubbornly resisting rebels who held their ground with courage and obstinacy that only brave man can possess.”

When his men had gained possession of a few traverses, he wrote, “The guns of the Fort were turned upon them flaying in that portion of the works in our possession…and when we got into the fort at the north end we found that our job was only begun.”

His aging, yellowed letter continues, “We met with a coolness and determination rarely if ever evinced…large numbers of rebs in rifle pits who could enfilade us both on the traverse and the terri plain…our hands were full…the Navy dared not fire.  But we held on, fought on…the men fought on…and we were going to take that fort if it took all winter…we kept struggling …bleeding…dying…we kept on until victory rewarded our labors.”

The “seven long bloody, terrible hours of fighting” took its toll on Johnson’s division.  “We lost heavily especially in officers,” he wrote.  “Colonel Bell of my Brigade was killed, Colonel Pennypacker in the 2nd, mortally wounded, Brigadier General Curtiss, slightly.  I lost my acting adjutant, he was standing near me while I was giving him orders about the disposition of a portion of the regiment.”

Johnson was slightly wounded himself at Fort Fisher and his letter explained to Colonel Crocker, “I got out of this engagement all right mainly, knocked down by the explosion of a shell…I could not raise my right arm high enough to draw my sword…and carried it all day in the scabbard in my left arm.”

The hand-written letter is perhaps one of the most accurate, firsthand accounts of a crucial Civil War battle written by a New York State officer engaged in the siege.  The Fort Fisher earthwork fortification, unique in its design, was considered “the strongest works in America… if not the world” by Johnson and military experts of that time.

Historic context

Built near the mouth of the Cape Fear River on the Atlantic shore, Fort Fisher safeguarded the city of Wilmington, a major supply line for the South.  The two-sided Fort was built of earth and sand and equipped with 22 guns on the sea face and 25 guns on the land face.

The guns were in place on earthen mounds more than 32 feet high connected to interior rooms by an underground passageway.  Loop-holed palisades with banquettes guarding the land front, shallow ditches, and torpedo-mined fields aided the defense of the outer fort.

The nine-foot high palisades fence extended across the entire land face.  The fort was nicknamed the “Malakoff Tower of the South,” referring to the Russian redoubt at Sebastopol that had held off the combined land and naval forces of Great Britain and France in the Crimean War.

Union Army and Navy forces attacked Fort Fisher on Dec. 24, 1864 but, after two days of fighting, the Union forces under command of major General Benjamin F. Butler, withdrew.  After the failed assault, General Ulysses S. Grant replaced Butler with major General Alfred H. Terry and increased the Army units to 8,000 troops.

A second assault started on Jan. 13, 1865, as Colonel Johnson’s letter indicates, with full-scale bombardments from both land and sea.  On the afternoon of the Jan. 15, Terry’s brigades assaulted the land defense at the Cape Fear River edge while 400 Federal marines armed with pistols and cutlasses attacked on the beachside of the fort.  Aided by 1,600 armed sailors, the attack served as a decoy, enabling Federal Infantry to break into the fort from the north. 

On the third day of the battle, after seven hours of combat inside the huge, southern bastion, Fort Fisher was captured.  The Confederate Army evacuated the remaining Cape Fear area and, within weeks, Union forces took Wilmington; blockade-running days to that city were at an end.  The Confederate cause was lost.

The Battle of Fort Fisher was considered the United States’ largest amphibious operation until D-Day of 1944.  Fifty-eight warships were involved with the New Ironsides, commanded by Commodore Radford, leading the fleet.

United States ships Brooklyn, Mohican, Tacony, Kansas, Unadilla, Huron, Maumes, Pawtuxet, Seneca, Pontoosur, Nyack, Yantie, and Nereus were in the first wave of the beginning sea battle coordinated with the land fighting.  Nineteen troop transports held 8,000 troops for a beach landing.

The three-day battle expended over 40,000 projectiles.  Union forces suffered 1,300 casualties and the Confederates lost 500 men with 1,000 captured in the battle.

 “An awful sight”

In his letter of January 1865, Johnson recounted another incident that took place at the end of the battle.  “The next morning we had a magazine explode which maimed in its fallen debris about one hundred men.  We got some out alive but about sixty were killed; some were actually blown to atoms, “ he wrote. “We found a leg here and an arm there and entrails in another place.  It was an awful sight.”

Colonel Johnson did not chronicle his own bravery in battle but James H. Clark, 1st Lieutenant of 115th New York, did. He wrote The Iron Hearted Regiment:  Battles, Marches and Gallant Deeds performed by the 115th Regiment, N.Y.

Clark recorded that, at Bermuda Hundreds, Va., Johnson’s horse was shot dead from under him; during the battle of Deep Bottom, in command of a brigade, Johnson was wounded; at Fort Gilmore, Johnson was severely wounded in the shoulder while carrying the regiment’s flag; and at Fort Fisher, where Johnson was wounded again, he was the first brigade commander to enter the fort in that critical campaign. 

Colonel Nathan J. Johnson concluded his letter by reminding his former colonel, “Hence, a son of old Washington County, New York was the first Union Commander of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, and he took his first lesson in the ‘art of War’ in the gallant old 93rd (New York) under Colonel John S. Crocker.”

Johnson’s letter, in the files of the New York State Library, is one of many written by Civil War soldiers. The letters serve as mute testimony to the bloody carnage of a war that was fought to make a country whole, silent statements of the cost, tributes to Colonel Johnson and his fallen comrades for their bravery.

Upon returning to civilian life, Johnson resumed his law practice in Fulton County where he was elected and served as county judge.  He died on Oct. 10, 1884 at Broadalbin, N.Y.