Shortly after sunrise on January 16, 1865, Fort Fisher's main magazine exploded — a tremendous blast that killed at least 200 men of both sides.
The tragedy sparked a heated debate, as the Union victors were eager to blame the Confederates for dastardly behavior. But the previous night's giddy celebration among the Federals had spawned many a drunken reveler; and the accident occurred despite the posting of guards at the fort's magazines.
An official Court of Inquiry determined the following:
After mature deliberation upon the foregoing evidence the court finds that the following are the main facts, viz:
- Immediately after the capture of the fort General Ames gave orders to Lieut. Samuel M. Zent, Thirteenth Indiana Volunteers, through Capt. George W. Huckins, Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers, acting assistant adjutant-general, Third Brigade, Second Division, to place guards on all the magazines and bombproofs.
- Lieutenant-Colonel Zent commenced on the northwest corner of the fort next [to] the river, following the traverses round, and placed guards on thirty-one entrances under the traverses. The main magazine which afterward exploded, being in the rear of the traverses, escaped his notice, and consequently had no guards from his regiment or any other.
- That soldiers, sailors and marines were running about with lights in the fort, entering bombproofs with these lights, intoxicated and discharging firearms.
- That personas were seen with lights searching for plunder in the main magazine some ten of fifteen minutes previous to the explosion. The court do not [sic] attach any importance to the report that a magnetic wire connected this work [fort] with some work on the opposite side of the Cape Fear River.
The opinion of the court, therefore, is that the explosion was the result of carelessness on the part of persons to them unknown. The court then adjourned sine die.
JOSEPH C. ABBOTT,
Brevet Brigadier-General, U.S. Volunteers, President of Court.
GEORGE F. TOWLE,
Captain Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers,
Acting Assistant Inspector-General and Recorder.
Source: United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. (Series I, Vol. 46, Reports, pp. 430-431).