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Mr. Binder goes to war

July 11, 2011

Lithograph after a drawing by T.F. Laycock, published by Endicott & Co., New York, 1865, depicting the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron bombarding Fort Fisher, North Carolina, in preparation for its capture. The print is dedicated to Commodore S.W. Godon, USN. Ships present, as named on the original print, are (from left to right in the main battle line): USS Tacony; USS Maumee; USS Ticonderoga; USS Shenandoah; USS Tuscarora; USS Juniata; USS Wabash; USS Susquehanna; USS Colorado; USS Minnesota; USS Brooklyn; USS New Ironsides and USS Mohican. Ships in the foreground are (left to right, from the center of the view): USS Powhatan; USS Mackinaw; USS Vanderbilt and USS Malvern (Flagship of Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter). Monitors in the right middle distance are: USS Monadnock (with two turrets); USS Mahopac; USS Saugus and USS Canonicus. Collections of the Library of Congress.

In a recent post, Signs of the Times, I discovered some interesting signs from a 19th century shop on South 13th Street.  Since then, I made an interesting discovery about the man that owned the shop.  Mr. Binder, he of the latest hair fashions for special occasions, was a Civil War hero, a Medal of Honor recipient!

Richard Binder (Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

I discovered an account of the battle of Fort Fisher in Deeds of Valor, published in 1907.  This is an excerpt, featuring an eyewitness account by Sergeant Binder.

On the morning of the 24th, Admiral Porter, according to agreement with Butler, proceeded with his fleet to the attack. Shortly before noon the bombardment began, the ironclads Canonicus, Ironsides, Monadnock and Mahopac leading. Then followed the Minnesota, Colorado and Montana; the Ticonderoga, Shenandoahf Tacony, Mackinac and Vanderbilt; the Osceola, Santiago de Cuba, Fort Jackson, Sassacus, Chippewa, Monticello, Rhode Island, Quaker City and Josco, in the order named. They all reached their prescribed position with splendid, seaman-like quickness and accuracy, and by noon the pandemonium of battle had broken loose with its utmost fury. The shot and shell crashed into the fort at the rate of 115 per minute; it was impossible to stand such infernal fire. Two magazines blew up, the woodwork of the works was in flames, and an hour and a quarter after the first shot had been fired into it the fort was silenced. As this was all the navy could do, the admiral reduced the activity of his ships to moderate firing and waited for the army. At sunset General Butler arrived with a few transports.

The tremendous fire of the fleet had so quickly chased the gunners in the fort under shelter that not a single man on board had been injured by the enemy. But the 100-pounder Parrott guns proved treacherous weapons for those who worked them. On not less than five ships of the fleet there were casualties from the bursting of these guns. One burst on the Yantic, killing an officer and two men; one on the Juanita, killing two officers and wounding ten men; one on the Ticonderoga, killing ten men and wounding fifteen; one on the Mackinac, killing one officer and wounding five men; one on the Quaker City, injuring three men, making forty-nine casualties in the fleet caused by the inferiority of the material of its own guns. The men thereafter handled the 100-pounder Parrotts with suspicion and evil forebodings.

On the 25th the rest of the transports arrived. The squadron detached seventeen gunboats to protect the army forces and aid them in landing. The fleet formed in line of battle, and the attack was renewed. As the firing from the forts was slow, the ships confined themselves to the same practice, their purpose being to distract the enemy’s attention from the army without wasting ammunition.

While the admiral was watching the soldiers reconnoitering and skirmishing near the forts, some men even reaching the parapets, the startling communication reached him that the army was re-embarking. In spite of this news, and although ammunition began to run short, the fleet kept up a moderate cannonade until sunset.

Next morning the admiral received the astonishing information that the generals found the assault impracticable, and General Butler stated in a letter that it was his intention to return with his command to Hampton Roads, which he did.

General Grant, at Admiral Porter’s request “to send other troops and another general,” ordered General A. H. Terry to take command of the army end of the expedition, and on the 12th of January the fleet and transports started again for Cape Fear.

Early the next morning, the 13th of January, 1865, the landing of the troops began; by 2 o’clock 8,000 men, with cannon and provisions, were on shore. One hundred and twenty boats had been employed in the landing, and seventeen gunboats, anchored inside the line of transports about a hundred yards from shore, swept the ground during the whole operation with a terrific fire way down to Cape Fear River, a distance of about 1,000 yards. This was to protect the landing forces from a sudden land attack by the Confederates.

The Confederate garrison had been increased to 2,500 men, and General Bragg had been put in command of the defenses, General Hoke having the immediate command of the troops.

While the Federal forces were being landed under the protection of the gunboats the rest of the fleet proceeded to the attack, in three columns, together with the four ironclads on an inner line. The Saugus, Ironsides, Canonicus, Monadnock and Mahopac, anchored within 800 yards from the fort to draw the fire from the batteries and unmask the guns for the fleet. The three lines took their respective positions handsomely, and the ships kept firing until some time after dark. Then the wooden ships were withdrawn.

As the admiral noticed that some of the heavy guns in the fort were still standing, and as he wished that there should be no guns to bear upon the assaulting forces, he renewed his attack on the 14th at noon, the small gunboats being particularly directed to go in and fire their heavy 11-inch guns at the pieces in the fort.

At a conference after this day’s work between the admiral and General Terry the hour for the assault was set for 3 o’clock P. M. next day, and the fleet was to furnish 1,600 sailors and 400 marines to assault the fort from the sea-side.

Thus on the 15th the fleet renewed its attack, beginning the bombardment at about 11 o’clock, preparatory to the assault. The naval brigade, which had been landed, had intrenched itself some 600 yards in front of the fort and was awaiting the signal to storm. The plan was to let the sailors rush the parapets while the marines were to act as sharpshooters and keep the defenders in check. Unfortunately most of \he sailors were only armed with cutlasses and revolvers, the marines alone carrying the Sharpe rifle.

"We crawled the entire distance to our posts." Assault on Fort Fisher, 15 January 1865, as described by Richard Binder, Image: U.S. Naval Historical Center

At 3 o’clock the signal was given for the general assault, but as the army was a trifle late in reaching its place, the sailors were the first to rush on. The Confederates, taking the naval men for the main assaulting forces, massed upon the parapets and opened a withering fire upon them. The failure of the marines to support the latter by their fire, together with the steady and accurate fire of the enemy, caused the sailors to become demoralized, and although some naval officers, among them Cushing, Breeze, Parker, Preston, and B. H. Porter, dashed ahead with great daring and intrepidity, still the sailors could not be induced to charge; they retired precipitately, only the following men remaining at the front near the fort, until night set in, for which bravery and good conduct they were awarded the Medal of Honor: Gurdon H. Barter, landsman; David L. Bass, seaman; John Rannahan, corporal of marines; John Shivers, marine; Henry Thompson, marine; Othniel Tripp, chief boatswain’s mate; Franklin L. Wilcox, seaman; Henry S.Webster, landsman; Philip Bazaar, seaman; Thomas Connor, seaman; John Griffiths, captain of forecastle; Thomas Harcourt, seaman; Thomas Cane, captain of the hold; Charles Mills, seaman; George Province, seaman; Auzella Savage, seaman; Lewis C. Shepard, seaman”, John Swanson, seaman; Edward Swatton, seaman; A. J. Tomlin, corporal of marines; Albert Burton, seaman; Isaac N. Fry, sergeant of marines, and Richard Binder, sergeant of marines.

Sergeant Binder says of this assault: “After the storming parties had formed in line volunteers were called for to go to the front and act as sharpshooters. The advanced position that was to be occupied was extremely dangerous owing to the nearness of the enemy and the continuous rain of shot and shell that swept over it, also to the unpleasant fact that the whole ground immediately in front of the fort was mined. Volunteers were not plentiful; indeed for a time not a single one offered his services for the undertaking. Then Lieutenant Williams volunteered the whole guard of which I was sergeant as sharpshooters. We fixed our accoutrements and started for our position, Lieutenant Williams, Sergeant Isaac N.Fry and I in the lead. We crawled the entire distance to our posts, and when we got there we were compelled to stay from 1 o’clock until dark amid the bursting of shells and the whizzing hail of bullets. During that time no one would venture to go to the rear, nor did anyone from behind come out to us; to show your hat above cover meant almost instantly to have it knocked off by a bullet.

“As it began to get dark we left our posts and returned to the rear. Lieutenant Williams and I were the last to leave our position in the front.”

Eight of the above men—John Griffiths, captain of forecastle, and John Swanson, Edward Swatton, George Province, Auzella Savage, Philip Bazaar, Lewis C. Shepard, and Albert Burton—further distinguished themselves at the time of the panic among the sailors by entering the fort, they being the only ones who did so.

The naval attack, although repulsed, had by no means been in vain, for the enemy, taking these storming parties as the main column, concentrated their forces against them. The surprise of the Confederates when they suddenly received the deadly fire of the assaulting army forces from the rear was complete.

A furious hand-to-hand fight began and lasted for nearly five hours in the fort. From traverse to traverse the rebels defended every inch with stubbornness and reckless bravery. Upon the admiral’s orders the Ironsides trained her guns by the aid of the calcium lights from the ships—for it was dark by this time—upon the struggling mass of Confederates on the traverses and mowed them down by the score.

At last the gallant soldiers of General Terry forced the fighting foe out of the central fort towards the Mound, or Battery Lamb, and from there to Federal Point. Here the enemy finally surrendered at 10 o’clock that night. Fort Fisher and the inlets were won to the Union. When the shouts of the victorious army rang out from Federal Point as the Confederates laid down their arms the ships’ crews answered with ringing cheers and the blowing of whistles.

While the forces on shore were so desperately engaged the men aboard the various ships were performing heroic work in the bombardment, and among the more prominent individual deeds which were rewarded by the Medal of Honor were the following:

Daniel D. Stevens was quartermaster on board the ironclad Canonicus, and in order to attend to the signals during the attack he had to remain outside the turret exposed to the enemy’s fire; he had also to take and call the soundings under a terrific fire, a most important duty, as the Canonicus went so near the fort on that day that time and again there was not more than a foot and a half of water under her keel. The flag of the ship was shot away three times, and three times Stevens replaced it; the first two times he climbed the staff in accomplishing the work, but the third time, the staff being broken by a shot, Acting Master Decker aided Stevens in fixing the flag in its place.

USS Ticonderoga (1863-1887) Heavily retouched photograph by P.F. Cooper, Philadelphia, dated 8 April 1864. The original print is mounted on a Carte de visite. The view shows Ticonderoga in her original configuration, without the bowsprit fitted in 1865. Photo: U.S. Naval Historical Center

As has been narrated above, during the first attack on Fort Fisher, December 24, 1864, five 100-pounder Parrott guns burst on different ships, one of them on the Ticonderoga, killing ten and wounding fifteen men. William Shipman was captain of a gun next to the one that burst. When the catastrophe happened and his men saw so close before them the fearful havoc that had come like a flash upon the ship, the mangled bodies of the dead, the mutilated wounded writhing and groaning in indescribable agony, courageous hearts stood still for a moment, and horror shook the crew of Shipman’s gun and made them weak. Shipman alone did not lose his composure for a second. Coolly turning towards his men he said aloud: “Go ahead, boys; that’s the fortune of war.” These words reassured the men, and in another second Shipman’s gun let fly at the enemy again as if nothing had happened.

In addition to those already mentioned the following men were awarded the Medal of Honor for highly meritorious conduct during the several engagements with Fort Fisher, in December, 1864, and January 1865: James Barnum, boatswain’s mate; John Dempster, cockswain; William Dunn, quartermaster; Thomas English, signal quartermaster; Charles H. Foy, signal quartermaster; Joseph B. Hayden, quartermaster; Edmund Haffee, quarter-gunner; Thomas Jones, cockswain; Nicholas Lear, quartermaster; Daniel S. Milliken, quartergunner; George Prance, captain of the maintop; William G.Taylor, captain of forecastle; Joseph White,cockswain; Augustus Williams, seaman; Kichard Willis, cockswain; Edward R. Bowman, quartermaster; William Campbell, boatswain’s mate; Robert Summers, chief quartermaster.

The navy lost 21 officers and 309 men killed and wounded, the casualties having been almost entirely due to the fire of the rebel sharpshooters during the assault.

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