The second battle of Fort Fisher was an important war in which the Union force’s commander, General Alfred Terry, applied most of the six principles of mission command to secure the union victory. From constituting an effective team, making clear his intent, taking initiative and motivating his force, to taking prudent risks and promoting independent actions amongst his subordinates, the commander demonstrated a remarkable degree of commanding competence. The battle was a joint attack against Fort Fisher by the United States Navy and the Union Army. Generals Alfred Terry (Union Army) and David Porter (US Navy) fought Braxton Bragg, Robert Hoke and William Lamb, who led the Fort Fisher garrison and Hoke’s division. It was fought on January 13-15, 1865 in Fort Fisher, outside Wilmington, Northern Carolina, towards the end of the American Civil War. This paper analyses the second battle of Fort Fisher, examining the commander’s performance in line with the six principles of mission command, namely, building cohesive teams through mutual trust, exercising disciplined initiative, providing clear commander’s intent, creating shared understanding, using mission orders and accepting judicious risk as circumstances may dictate.
Review of the Strategic Setting
Fort Fisher’s strategic location on the sea and its architectural design made defeating it necessary, because it acted as a key port used to trade cotton and tobacco for supplies, including weaponry, from Britain. The fort acted as a protective cover that shielded ships that sailed through the Atlantic coast to execute the trade. This necessitated the second battle, after the first expedition had failed. As already mentioned, the joint attack was led by Generals Alfred Terry (Union Army) and David Porter (US Navy).
General Terry, a professional lawyer, had organized the Second Connecticut Infantry Regiment at the start of the civil war, which fought at First Bull Run under his leadership as the colonel. Prior to his appointment to lead the union army attacking Fort Fisher, the commander had led various troops to fight various battles during the civil war, including the Battle of Proctor's Creek, Battle of New Market Heights and Bermuda Hundred Campaign. He also led siege missions against Morris Island, South Carolina and Charleston. Under his leadership, his leadership registered notable performances. His remarkable performances made General Ulysses S. Grant have confidence in him, leading to his (Terry’s) appointment to lead the second expedition against Fort Fisher on January 13, 1865, collaborating with General Porter, under whom he (Terry) had worked under in the Navy.
General Porter (leading the naval force) who came from a family of navy servicemen began his navy service at the age of 10 under his father, serving as a midshipman. He later was appointed to the Mexico Navy where he was involved in various expeditions. This played a key role in his training. He would later lead his naval troops in various battles, including the Vicksburg Campaign and Red River Expedition, in which he demonstrated his competence. Following the failure of the first expedition against Fort Fisher, Gen. Porter demanded removal of Major General Benjamin Butler, who was replaced by General Terry, with whom they launched the joint assault against Fort Fisher, emerging with victory. The two commanders’ experience, competence and the joint attack’s collaborative strategy and organization played a key role in defeating the fortress’ garrison, despite all the fortifications.
Review of the Tactical Situation
Unlike other fortifications, Fort Fisher was constructed using sand and earth. This made it effective in absorbing fire coming from the union warships. Moreover, to ensure effective defense of the fort, the garrison had installed sea-facing guns on 3.7-meter-high batteries. There were also higher batteries to the south of the fortress. In addition, there were twenty-five strategically mounted guns facing the land to keep off enemies attacking from that direction. Under the fort’s large mounts were bomb-proof basements and underground passageways to make defending the fort easier. The fort’s was located in a peninsula and its terrain augmented the garrison’s advantage to resist assault.
Knowing the complexity of attacking Fort Fisher, General Alfred Terry engaged in careful planning and knew the value of collaborating with other troops to achieve the tactical situation mission — seize Fort Fisher enemy and control the fortress. To this end, after he was made the commander of the Union Army, he immediately laid down plans on how his team would coordinate with the Union Navy. His Union Navy counterpart and he worked out a joint attack plan which played a key role in defeating the highly defensive Fort Fisher. The plan involved strategic landing and attack frameworks that would ensure a strong bombardment of the fort from both the sea and land.
The confederate’s location on the beach peninsula and terrain which Generals Terry and Porter, experienced as they were, were conversant with however augmented the mission’s tactical situation as it would be easy to launch attacks. The strategic landing between Hoke and Fort Fisher was a key tactical move, as it kept Hoke’s troops in the north while the joint attack on the peninsula was launched.This made the union troops numbers overwhelming against the enemy. Moreover, the fort was isolated, implying that there were no civilians. This made the attack easier because the brigades had no worries about civilian casualties.
With a strong, highly organized force, an effective line of command and a joint attack plan, Terry and Porter attacked the fort on January 13, 1865. The commander (Terry) personally landed with his troop and exercised his initiative, all the while allowing his generals to act with a remarkable degree of independence as the emerging situations dictated. After landing safely, the force, under Terry’s leadership, launched a land and sea attack in a single, generally unorganized version. A naval force of around 2,000 marines and sailors led by Lieutenant Commander Kidder Breese had launched a preliminary attack on the fort from the sea. Breese force’s assault was repulsed with heavy casualties. However, the naval force’s failure was a success in a way, because it drew the fort defenders’ attention to the river gate. This gave General Ames’ troops a good opportunity to launch a strong assault and maneuver through the palisades and abates confederate to surrender.
Ames, working with his three brigades under Brevet Brigadier Newton Martin Curtis and Colonels Louis Bell and Galusha Pennypacker, launched an organized attack that culminated in the shooting down of General Whiting and subsequent control of the fort. Specifically, Ames ordered Curtis’ brigade forward. This troop suffered immense casualties as it maneuvered the first traverse. Afterwards, Ames ordered and accompanied the Pennypacker's Brigade into Fort Fisher. The fort’s defense felled some of Ames’ men as they moved forward, prompting him to instruct his brigade to reinforce a position within the fort. As the Confederates continued fighting the Union Army which was advancing nonetheless, Ames discovered that Curtis troop had been stuck in the fourth traverse. He prudently ordered Bell's Brigade forward, but Bell was shot dead by the fort’s snipers. General Whiting led his men in attacking the union force but was shot down after he refused to surrender.
The naval force under Porter continued fighting as Curtis’ troop gained control of the fourth traverse. Colonel Lamb mobilized his soldier but was shot down before he could order any attack. As the attack continued, Colonels Pennypacker and Curtis fell down injured. Seeing that Ames’ brigade leaders and soldiers were being going down with injuries, General Terry sent a reinforcement brigade and personally joined in. By the time General Bragg sent reinforcement and replaced General Whiting with General Alfred H. Colquit, Terry’s union force had gained control over most of Fort Fisher. Terry ordered Ames to continue with the assault. In response, Ames re-organized his men and executed a flanking ploy, whereby he ordered his soldiers to move outside the land wall, so that they could attack the defenders of the last traverse from behind. Outflanked, the confederate defenders were forced to surrender. General Terry was at hand to acknowledge the confederate’s surrender from General Whiting, marking the end of the grueling battle. Terry and Ames had won the war.
Significance of the Action
It is evident that the second battle of Fort Fisher was based on a joint attack game plan. The joint attack actions were significant in defeating the fortress, which had been the last open seaport to the confederacy. The main significance of the assault actions was seizing the fort, which would cut off trade and supplies to the confederacy. Fort Fisher was a key port for blockade runners who were supplying weapons and other supplies to the Army of Northern Virginia. It was the only remaining port for ships leaving Wilmington to Nova Scotia, Bermuda and Bahamas through Cape Fear River, which ferried the cotton and tobacco, which would be traded for supplies from the British.
Defeating the highly defensive confederacy required a well-planned attack. The preliminary attack launched by Porter’s naval force played a key role in diverting the confederate defenders’ attention to the river gate, giving Terry’s force a good chance to advance forward into the fort. It may be argued that without the naval force’s actions, Ames’ men may have found it more challenging breaking the fort’s defense. Moreover, Ames’s strategic order of his brigades, whereby he systematically ordered one brigade at a time and sent reinforcement as was deemed necessary, was significant in the success of the mission. It created organization in the attack and gave the force an advantage over the defenders, since after one troop had made its progress but faced challenges the next brigade was at hand to strengthen the forward march into the fortress.
The Commander’s Performance
It is perhaps evident that Alfred Terry performed notably well in the aforementioned mission, which may be attributed to high levels of organization, mutual trust, prudent management of risks and commitment to the ultimate goals. His performance can be analyzed using the six principles of mission command.
Secondly, Terry’s ability to create a shared understanding of the parameters of the operation was central to executing the mission successfully. To this end, the commander established a shared understanding with regard to the purpose of the operation, the real and perceived risks and problems and the appropriate solutions for the issue identified, as is evident in the troop’s dedication to get the results. Shared understanding of the operation was especially essential in building mutual trust and unity among the force members and commanders, and commitment towards the goals of the mission. It may be concluded from the second battle of Fort Fisher that Terry has invested in creating shared understanding, in which his troops and those of General Porter knew the goals, problems and potential solutions of the issues. Shared understanding played a key role in the forces’ collaborative actions as evidenced by the communication and unity between the navy and army, and among all brigade commanders and other leaders and soldiers in the joint mission. Shared understanding of the operation and collaboration between the army and navy contributed to the commander’s exceptional performance in the mission.
Thirdly, Generals Terry’s and Porter’s clear intent helps in giving the military staff a specific focus and acts as a motivator that keeps the soldiers going to realize the goal even without direct orders. Generals Terry and Porter make their intent clear to their subordinates and justify the need to defeat and capture the fort’s garrison using all means available. The commander’s plans included a clear articulation of his main intent, which was to capture Fort Fisher and bring it under control. His subordinates, including the soldiers understood this and were focused on that goal. Their actions were therefore geared towards that objective even when no direct orders were coming from the commander himself. This contributed greatly to the performance of the commanders and their teams, because they knew the intent of the mission and was committed to the cause.
Fourthly, General Terry exercised initiative by landing with the team, and allowing the junior commanders and troop leaders to exercise their own independent actions aimed at achieving the mission goals. The commander’s initiative was evident when he directed General Ames to continue with the assault that sought to dethrone the confederate’s defenders. The brigade leaders and their troops exercised their individual initiative as they unleashed the assault, because the commander had specific goals and had instilled confidence and commitment in his troops to exercise discretion, making alterations to suit emerging situations and exploiting opportunities that would lead to achieving the main goal. Terry’s and his naval counterpart’s exercise of initiative enables them to influence their forces to achieve the intent of the mission.
Lastly, Gen. Terry took prudent risks to exploit opportunities by making decisions that involved potential loss or injury, but the results are worth the cost, including ordering Ames to keep the offensive despite many casualties. The second battle of Fort Fisher involved extensive risk taking by the two commanders. For example, cutting through the palisades into the fort by the union force was a good opportunity to achieve the desired goals. However, the move involved great risks, including loss of soldiers. Reasoning that the potential risk was prudent and that the result was worth the risk, General Terry ordered the brigades into the fort. This prudent risk taking was important in the notable performance of the commander and his troops.
In conclusion, a commander’s performance in a mission depends on their application of the six principles of mission command as discussed in this paper. In the second battle of Fort Fisher, General Terry performed notably well. The commander’s performance can be attributed to his ability to constitute a cohesive team which he influenced to achieve the stated goals, taking prudent risks and initiatives.