Sunday, December 29, 2013

'I'se broke my chains, I'se broke my chains'

Inside Fort Fisher, a Confederate bastion that protected the busy port of Wilmington, N.C. , for most of the Civil War.
This is a tale of two New Hampshire colonels and their military exploits on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina during the closing months of the Civil War. One was killed; the other lived to tell about his experience there.

Fort Fisher stood on the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, 29 miles downstream from Wilmington, N.C. Ships running a federal blockade used Wilmington as a port almost throughout the war. There the South traded cotton and tobacco to British smugglers for vital munitions and food. Fort Fisher, whose mounds and other fortifications were built mainly by slaves and American Indians, protected the port's batteries.

Louis Bell, who led a brigade at Fort Fisher.
In early 1865, the guns of Union ships’ pounded Fort Fisher for 2½ days to prepare for a landing and attack on Jan. 15 by 8,000 Union troops. Among the assault force’s leaders was Louis Bell, son of a New Hampshire governor and husband of Mary Anne “Mollie” Bouton, whose father, Nathaniel Bouton, was a prominent Concord pastor, abolitionist and historian. Bell, a native of Chester, N.H., who practiced law before the war, served as a captain in the 1st New Hampshire Volunteers and later as colonel of the 4th New Hampshire and as a brigade commander. At Fort Fisher, while leading his men, he was hit in the shoulder. The ball moved downward into his torso, and he died the next day of internal injuries.

The capture of Fort Fisher opened the way to Wilmington. Another New Hampshire colonel, Samuel A. Duncan of Meriden, commanded a brigade of African-Americans who helped take the port city after an 11-day standoff with Gen. Braxton Bragg’s Confederate defenders. Duncan wrote a vivid letter to his brother describing the historic event. The narrative begins with the men leaving their entrenchments near Fort Fisher on “Sun. morning last” – Feb. 19, 1865.

“We moved out from our entrenched line six miles north of Fort Fisher on Sun. morning last, in pursuit of the enemy who had evacuated the works in our front the night preceding. We pressed him on Sun. & Mon., losing 60 or 70 men from the Division in a charge upon his earthworks on Mon. Eve.

“Tues. night Bragg again hastily decamped, leaving the very strong line of fortifications which, well defended, would have made Wilmington almost impregnable. In these works, which encircle the town from the river above to the river below, and are built upon commanding elevations behind broad ravines and swamps and artificial ponds, the retreating rebels left all their heavy siege guns, from 30 to 50 in number, not even stopping to spike them.

Samuel A. Duncan
“On Wednes. we made 15 miles, passing thro’ Wilmington and reaching this point, the crossing of the Wil’n & Weldon road over the N.E. River. At this point we found the R.R. Bridge in flames, & had a smart little skirmish with the rear guard of the enemy, the firing pretty heavy tho’ casualties not large.

“Our passage thro’ Wilmington is an experience long to be remembered. Several Union flags were displayed; and the joy of the colored population was enthusiastic and unbounded. I have talked with many of the colored people of Wil’n & the contrabands coming daily into our camp, and am perfectly satisfied that the rebels can derive but little, if any, advantage from the arming of their slaves. The slaves comprehend the great question at issue, and invariably assert that they would not fight for their masters, but are ready to fight n our side.. They knew full well what our army signified to them as we passed into the city. They had hid away from the fleeing rebels, but all turned out to welcome us; and many a little wooly headed darkie came jumping & dancing along the street & shouting ‘I’se broke my chains; I’se broke my chains’ while the women were bowing and scraping and tossing their arms in the air and cryng, ‘Bress de Lord; Bress de Lord. De year of jubilee hab come.’ . . .

“A force moving out from New Berne has, I suppose, cut the railroad near Goldsboro’. Sherman’s cavalry advance is rumored to be in possession of Fayetteville, which if true secures us the entire right bank of the Cape Fear River. This leaves Bragg but a narrow chance to escape. Certain it is that he finds himself under these circumstances much encumbered by the prisoners which have been sent to him from Florence and elsewhere. Finding it impossible to keep these and save his army, he has made an unconditional surrender – not an exchange – of his prisoners who are now 9 miles ahead of us, and who are expected back here to-night or to-morrow morning. There are supposed to be from 5000 to 10000 of them.

“This is another feather for [Maj. Gen. Alfred] Terry [commander of Union forces in the expedition], who seems to be the luckiest man in the world, for I can not but look upon his marvelous successes as pure luck, and not by any means as indicative of extraordinary military initiative. Circumstances always seem to favor him. . . .

“I can not see how the rebellion can long survive.”

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