ships once the attack was aborted. The Federal fleet withdrew. The final assault on Fort Fisher took place on January 13, 1865 on a much colder but still sunny, clear, high-blue winter day. Fort Fisher’s men had little ammunition and were unable to return fire because of the heavy Union bombardment. Federal shells shredded the fort’s palisades, dug great holes in sand earthworks, cut electrical wires to land mines and disabled cannons. No Rebel reinforcements rushed down from wealthy Wilmington to help. The fort’s defenders were left on their own. Great steam whistle blasts from the assembled Yankee armada signaled the beginning of the second amphibious attack. Federal troops again landed north of the fort. Once near the fort’s defenses, Lance saw the tall, wooden-stake fences backed by sand-mound earthworks as he moved forward with the other soldiers toward the prize. The capture of Fort Fisher would help end the Civil War. They were all for that. The war seemed like it had gone on forever. Men wanted to get back to their lives. Lance’s home town was located along the banks of the Hudson River. He made his living as a dairy farmer but was conscripted into Lincoln’s army to save the Union. Corporal Jacksland liked the look of the Cape Fear as the Federal warships steamed up the mouth of the broad water with low-slung oak forests on the west bank and the ugly mounds of Fort Fisher rising like contagious warts to the east. Lance nervously waited, like the rest of the Federal troops, until the second bombardment was over, hoping this time the Yankee naval gunners proved more accurate. They were. Big Rebel guns on swivel pedestals were torn apart by the two-day bombardment. The earthworks lay in shambles. Rebel cannons, the mainstay Columbiad, a massive smoothbore that could fire a 120-pound round ball about three miles, remained silent as the Federal troops fought their American brothers, hand-to-hand, in the trench works. That night, when the fighting was over, Jacksland spread his bedroll upon the soft grass on that high spot overlooking the river. Union ironclads, moored just offshore, resembled squat drum cans set atop big sheets of metal under the stars. The masts of man-of-wars looked like tall trees. The men around Jacksland felt the expectation and terror of the day wear away into a bone tiredness from which Lance felt impossible to awake. He thought about his wife and daughter in New York. He thought about milking cows in a cold barn, the plume of his breath, the smell of manure and dry hay, remembered the deep white snow spread across rolling fields in January and the way the north winds swept down from Canada to pile high drifts along the glacierstone-fence-rows. Lance remembered the way the Hudson River always froze solid this time of year.
The infantryman woke just before sunrise to sounds of drunken shouting. It was cold and clear. Orion tracked far overhead. Lance willed himself awake. He saw reeling flames below him, dancing in the darkness. Two Union sailors, drunk on whiskey obtained from a plundered blockade runner and given to them by a Rebel soldier, carried pine-pitch torches to see their way back to the knoll where Lance and the others slept. The men had no idea where they were going. They were drunk, happy and flushed with victory. They came to the base of the knoll and stumbled into a slender door framed by heavy pine beams, carrying fire before them. The torches ignited a great store of Confederate munitions still held inside Fort Fisher’s main magazine. The grass, although dormant, was soft up there on the knoll. Lance never slept a better sleep his entire life. Much better than trying to sleep on a warship’s blood-stained deck where Parrot cannons had a tendency to explode, tearing apart their hard-working gun crews. When the fort’s magazine exploded, the blast sent Lance and 104 fellow Yankee soldiers, each a unique individual condensed like their Confederate brothers of that unique American character, skyward like angels to the Lord.The mangled bodies fell back into smoldering earthworks, a new pit of Hell on Earth, smoldering in the ruins of black powder smoke, a big fire now burning along a wide stretch of the river. Playing cards fluttered down from the sky after that final explosion. A Queen of Spades landed in the dry leaves at the base of a bare, wind-bent water oak. A large agate shooter, propelled by the force of the blast, landed in the Cape Fear, making a small splash near the shoreline beyond thin spires of grass. The ripple from the splash was felt on the other side of the universe. Lance’s corpse landed about one hundred feet away in the tan marsh grass. Corporal Jacksland would have liked that. It would have reminded him of the pasture grass lying dormant under deep snow ready to turn green and lush again in summer fields on his farm where, to this day, horse-drawn hay cutters driven by Amish farmers make that distinct, beautiful clicking sound of useful metal machines from another era. By August’s end in upstate New York, thistle and sumac still grow high along the fence rows. Confederate solders stationed at Fort Fisher smoked sumac when they ran out of tobacco. And when the sun finally rose over the Atlantic that morning after Fort Fisher fell, you could still see the fleet of man-of-wars, steamships and ironclads moored against the current, the largest armada (up until that time) ever assembled, big guns now silent, the Federal ships anchored at rest with their bows aligned north against the broad and powerful sweep of a big Southern river flowing slowly out to sea. encore | june 15-21 | www.encorepub.com 37
Your alternative voice in Wilmington, NC