In the long and storied history of the Marine Corps, its contributions to the Union effort during the Civil War have often been relegated to a mere footnote. An aged officer corps on the defensive against both attacks in Congress and the whims of senior naval authorities, chronic manpower shortages, and its traditional duties all contributed to limiting the Corps' role. Bad luck and the bookend humiliations at Bull Run in 1861(also known in the South as First Manassas) and at Fort Fisher in 1865 on the North Carolina coast not only overshadowed the service of Marine battalions but also many instances of individual courage.
The Fort Fisher campaign, which spanned from December 1864 to January 1865, consisted of two separate battles in which Marines from both sides took part. The engagements marked the final large-scale amphibious operations of the war. While today many would naturally associate Marines and amphibious warfare, the Civil War was a time of ill-defined roles in which the U.S. Army took the lead in joint operations with the U.S. Navy.
Fort Fisher, long a thorn in the side of the Union, remained in the closing days of the war as a last hope for a dying Confederacy to prolong the conflict long enough for a political settlement. After years of disagreement over timing and resources, the U.S. Army and Navy finally agreed on the need for a joint—"combined" as it was known at the time—operation against the fort. For Marines on board ships of the U.S. fleet, bombarding the fort showcased their individual courage and skill manning large-caliber deck guns as they engaged in a deadly duel with Confederate batteries inside the fort. Ultimately, a combination of interservice rivalry, poor planning, and ego doomed the first attempt to take the fort.
In reaction to the fiasco, the Union Army swiftly dismissed its landing force commander to quell friction with the U.S Navy. With personality conflicts largely resolved, the second attack on Fort Fisher succeeded despite lingering interservice rivalry. To prevent the Army from gaining all the glory, the fleet commander sent a naval brigade ashore to take part in the final assault on the fort. Some 400 Marines who landed to support the attack found themselves assigned a difficult mission without benefit of adequate planning, coordination, or training.
On a sandy beach facing veteran Confederate infantry and the South's most formidable fort, the Marines and their naval brethren paid dearly for a flawed system, which on the whole produced a generation of naval officers largely ignorant of operations ashore. In the wake of the embarrassing retreat of the naval brigade, the Marines made a convenient scapegoat for the costly assault. The bloody debacle also soured some naval officers on the idea of contested amphibious landings and even in later years the value of Marines on board ship.