The Second Battle of Fort Fisher during the Civil War hastened the end for the Confederacy. When it was over, the newly created Medal of Honor was bestowed on 51 soldiers, sailors and marines fighting in the campaign.
One of them was Idaho’s Gurdon H. Barter, serving aboard the warship USS Minnesota.
From the dawn’s early light until noon, Union gunboats bombarded the fort on the seaward side — much like the assault on Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 that gave birth to the national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Then Union assault troops headed for shore.
The Fort Fisher battles were not as well-known as Bull Run or Valley Forge. Nor was Idaho’s Gurdon Barter a Sgt. York or Audie Murphy; or the USS Minnesota famous like the “Monitor” or Merrimac” — but they were all an important part of the story of a growing nation.
Fort Fisher is on the end of a strategic peninsula in the southeast corner of North Carolina — with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the silty Cape Fear River on the other.
They called the fort the “Gibraltar of the South,” and its offshore waters the “Graveyard of Ships” because of dangerous seasonal rough waters, hurricanes and fog — and where for 111 years, the Confederate ironclad Monitor lay at the bottom of the sea off Cape Hatteras to the north until it was found in 1973.
Fort Fisher was important to the South because some 20 miles upstream was Wilmington, a port for Robert E. Lee to receive badly needed supplies of munitions, clothing and food smuggled in by British blockade runners.
The Confederates paid for the supplies with cotton and tobacco.
The smuggling became even riskier after the North imposed the death penalty on British “pirates.” The smugglers would usually arrive indirectly from the Bahamas, Bermuda and Nova Scotia — often hoisting the Confederate insignia replacing the British ensign.
There were 2,400 Confederate troops stationed at Fort Fisher guarding the river route for the British smugglers, while preventing the Union Navy from attacking Wilmington.
It was late in the war, and the South was losing. Capturing the port would be devastating to the Confederate cause.
The fort was built mostly of earth and sand, and could take a pounding better than the old brick-and-mortar forts. Mounted on mounds from 12 to 60 feet high were 22 cannons facing the ocean, and another 25 aimed toward the land.
Underneath the mounds was a network of bomb-proof rooms and passageways.
The Union plan was to pack explosives into a side-wheeler steamer named “Louisiana” disguised as a blockade runner and blow it up next to the fort — softening up the target for a landing party attack. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant appointed Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler in charge and Lincoln approved the plan.
In December 1864, they towed the Louisiana into position off the walls of the fort. The skeleton crew lit the fuses and quickly rowed away in small boats. But the ship was too far from shore. The explosion went off but failed to do any damage to the fort.
The next day, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter had his Union fleet bombard the fort, but after firing 10,000 shells, there was little damage. On Christmas morning, infantry troops were sent in to probe the defenses.
But Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee already knew about the planned attack and sent Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Fredrick Hoke’s division to the rescue.
When the Rebs arrived, Gen. Butler ordered a retreat of the 1,000 Union troops still on the beach.
The Confederates lost five killed and 56 wounded. Damage from the bombardment was quickly repaired, and blockade runners sailed up the river the same night the Union fleet withdrew.
No glory to Butler — he’d disobeyed Gen. Grant’s order to take the fort and was relieved of command.
Seventeen days later in January 1865, the Yankees attacked again.
Smarting from the failure of the first attack, Union forces under Maj. Gen. Alfred Howe Terry were ordered to try it again. He swapped command of the Army of the James for the new assignment, and was supported by Marines and nearly 60 ships under Rear Admiral David D. Porter.
Terry’s plan was a naval bombardment of the fort, followed by infantry assault — including one division of U.S. Colored Troops under Brigadier Gen. Charles J. Paine.
On Jan. 13, Terry’s troops landed between the fort and Hoke’s position without opposition and spent the next day casing the fort’s outer defenses while planning his next move.
On Jan. 15, a long line of Porter’s ships opened fire with great precision — aiming at the fort’s gun flashes and swiftly knocking all of them out except for two.
It was all over for the Confederate defenders. Badly wounded fort commander Maj. Gen. William H.C. Whiting surrendered, and after that there would be no stopping Union forces from attacking Wilmington.
Gibraltar had crumbled.
One of Admiral Porter’s ships was the USS Minnesota, a wooden steam frigate with sails. It was launched in 1855 armed with 44 guns, and with a crew of 646, participated in both battles against Fort Fisher.
In the first Fort Fisher battle, the Minnesota fired away from a mile out, but was stopped when Gen. Butler called off the attack and ordered his troops back to home base at Fort Monroe, Va.
Three weeks later in the Second Battle, the Union fleet including the Minnesota returned with Gurdon Barter on board.
Porter’s ships once again blasted the fort from the open sea, and then an assault force of 1,500 sailors and 500 Marines headed for the beaches. Gurdon Barter was among the 240 men sent from the Minnesota.
The Union Army attacked from the rear — but they were late in arriving, causing heavy casualties to the sailors.
But once the Army arrived, the Second Battle for Fort Fisher quickly ended.
Wilmington would soon be lost and the Confederacy doomed.
The Fort Fisher campaign cost the South about 1,900 men, and Union forces 1,057.
Fort commander Whiting badly wounded in the right thigh and hip was taken as a POW to a Union hospital on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor and died there of dysentery.
The USS Minnesota served until 1898, when the ship was beached and set on fire in order to salvage its metal fittings — and give its name to the newly ordered battleship USS Minnesota (BB-22) launched in 1905.
Surviving the Fort Fisher campaign and earning a Medal of Honor was sailor Gurdon H. Barter of Viola in Latah County, just north of Moscow. He was born in Williamsburgh, N.Y., and in 1843 enlisted in the Union Navy in New York as a landsman.
A U.S. Navy history source describes a “landsman” as “the lowest rank of the United States Navy in the 19th and early 20th centuries; it was given to new recruits with little or no experience at sea. Landsmen performed menial, unskilled work aboard ship. A Landsman who gained three years of experience or re-enlisted could be promoted to Ordinary Seaman. The rank existed from 1838 to 1921.”
The low-level sailor from Idaho who became a Civil War hero was one of nine crewmen from the USS Minnesota who received the Medal of Honor for actions at Fort Fisher.
His citation read: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Landsman Gurdon H. Barter, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in action while serving on board the U.S.S. Minnesota in action during the assault on Fort Fisher, North Carolina, 15 January 1865.
“Landing on the beach with the assaulting party from his ship, Landsman Barter advanced to the top of the sand hill and partly through the breach in the palisades despite enemy fire which killed and wounded many officers and men.
“When more than two-thirds of the men became seized with panic and retreated on the run, he remained with the party until dark, when it came safely away, bringing its wounded, its arms, and its colors.”
Gurdon Barter died April 22, 1900 and is buried in Viola Cemetery.
He was a big-time hero from small-town America — in the nation’s most tragic war.
• • •
Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
• • •
Gen. Butler’s decision…
“I then determined upon my course of action,” Union Gen. Benjamin Butler wrote in his memoirs justifying his pulling out of the Fort Fisher battle, “bearing in mind the fact that a storm was coming on, and knowing that, if it became necessary to effect a landing again, we could do it any day, in a smooth sea, in two hours without the loss of a man. I thought it a greatly less risk waiting with the men on board the transports than to attempt to get them on shore and have them entrench there during the night in the coming storm.”
However, he disobeyed Gen. Grant’s order to take the fort — and was fired.
Gen. Butler legislates against KKK…
Gen. Benjamin Butler was dismissed from the Union Army shortly after being relieved of command because of the way he handled the First Battle of Fort Fisher. That did not send him into obscurity however. He jumped into the political arena and switched from Democrat to a leader in the Radical wing of the Republican Party and was elected congressman from Massachusetts.
After the Civil War, Southern Democrats created the Ku Klux Klan and were committing atrocities. Butler introduced a bill to stop them. It was narrowly defeated but a similar follow-up bill by Ohio Senator Samuel Shellabarger passed and was signed into law by President Grant.
The sailor’s medal…
Gurdon H. Barter’s Medal of Honor is exhibited at the Idaho Military History Museum in Boise, on loan from the Naval Historical Center. He died in 1900 and never knew he had been awarded the medal.
Birth of the Medal of Honor…
The Medal of Honor idea was presented to the U.S. Senate by Iowa Senator James W. Grimes on December 9, 1861. On December 21, President Lincoln signed the bill creating the Medal as the nation’s highest military honor. Awarded for “personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty,” the award has undergone many changes in design, who is eligible to receive it, and how it is presented and worn.
Only one woman has received the Medal of Honor — Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919) of Oswego, New York, a Union surgeon during the Civil War.
Expanding the historical record: If anyone knows more about Gurdon H. Barter and how he came to Idaho and what he did, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, there are no known images of him, according to the Idaho Military History Museum in Boise.