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London: Saturday, January 14, 1865

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1297, p. 30-31.

January 14, 1865

London: Saturday, January 14, 1865.

"From Erith to Wilmington." The quiet little village, on the right bank of the Thames, with its interesting old church and sundial thereon, its yacht proclivities, and its water-side population, who seem to get their living by leaning, in a long row, against the wooden rails and abusing one another in some dialect of Kent, was awfully astonished on the morning when the powder blew up, by nobody's fault, and in a second converted a scene of orderly industry into a hideous ruin. But it must be almost as much astounded to learn that the story of that explosion, having found its way across the Atlantic, set

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the Federal Admiral Porter upon a scheme for reducing a strong Confederate fortress. Such, it appears, was the case; and the ruin wrought by that Erith catastrophe would, it was hoped, be paralleled at Fort Fisher. Every clever precaution was taken to ensure success. A tremendous quantity of powder was stowed on board a ship, and the most ingenious system of clockwork was devised to fire the train at the right moment. A grand expedition sailed against Wilmington, bearing this floating mine with it, and in due course, and under favourable circumstances, the powder-vessel was moored at the spot which had been judged the best. Brave men fixed her at her moorings, set the terrible clocks going, and escaped. The expedition watched with bated breath for the eruption of the volcano. The clocks were faithful,

The nitre fired, and, while the dreadful sound
Responsive shook the yielding air around,

the assailants' hearts beat high; and, as the smoke cleared, the Federals hoped to see a ruin where Fort Fisher had been. "The shock was nothing like so severe as was expected," writes the frank sailor; "it shook the vessel some, broke one or two glasses, but nothing more." Wilmington is luckier than Erith.

However, Admiral Porter, with a fine squadron, was not the man to be satisfied with one failure. The experiment had been fruitless; but he had his guns, and plenty of them, and he brought up his ironclads, and commenced a fierce bombardment, which he describes, in the language of the defender of Sebastopol, as a feu d'enfer. It silenced several of the fort batteries, blew up two magazines, and set the place on fire. But there was delay in bringing on the troops for the assault; and when it was effected the assailants found that they could not succeed. When 3000 men had landed, the Admiral was informed that they were re-embarking. Some brave feats were performed, but General Butler did not see his way to storm. The Admiral was clearly disgusted. He uses the ordinary civil language towards a brother officer, and is certain that the latter had good reasons for his conduct, but the gallant Porter thinks that it "would have been worth while to make the attempt after coming so far." But then he is only a smart sailor, while Butler, who has been an attorney, may have known better when to issue his nolle prosequi. Finally, the attack was given up, the expedition returned to head-quarters, and Wilmington is safe and defiant.

This is an item which the Confederates are proud to set against the series of Federal successes that marked the close of the year. They have fairly beaten off one of the most formidable squadrons ever sent against a fortress, and have been able to laugh at the failure of a new and terrific-seeming engine of war. They gain nothing, it is true; while Atlanta has been destroyed, and Savannah has been captured; but they have saved a far more important port than either, and may reasonably be exultant.

As regards the state of the war generally, at the opening of 1865, we have less reason to be ashamed of stating that it is impossible for people here to form a decided opinion, inasmuch as it is clear that neither North nor South has an exact knowledge of the case. Sherman's brilliant retreat, or march, has proved this. The Americans do not know their own country. No one in the Federal district would speak confidently of the probable success of Sherman; but those who did attempt to demonstrate the truth were all wrong. They thought that he was to pass through a poor and needy country; and so sincere was their pity for the hardships he was to undergo that the most compassionate articles were written upon the state of his army, and a painful contrast was drawn between the meagre Christmas fare of his troops and the ample comforts provided for the grand army of the Potomac. The truth turned out to be that Sherman's men were marching through a rich agricultural region, had the best food, never wanted a meal, and arrived at Savannah in the highest health and strength. The Northern writers now admit that folk generally did not know the resources of Georgia. The truth is that the masses in America, with all their real sharpness and all their flood of cheap newspapers, are very ignorant about most things; and smart as is their talk, its chief cleverness is that it covers a singular absence of exact knowledge. But, on the other hand, the Confederates seem to have been equally uncertain as to what Sherman could or could not do. His able feints at Macon and Augusta no doubt bewildered them; but they must have known, one might suppose, whether he could be encountered at all; and yet the most opposite statements on the subject proceeded from the Richmond papers. They know now that he marched all the way in triumph, his main body scarcely hearing a cannon, his detachments burning and laying waste, his whole force feeding on the fat of the land, and the negroes crowding to his ranks, and having to be sent away sometimes by force. But until the event had occurred neither South nor North could give solid reasons for its anticipations. It is hardly to be expected that English readers, even with the beautiful maps published under Federal authority, should know more; although we have some idea that our military men, with those charts before them, arrive at sounder judgments than many folk in America, and that some of our journalists give far more complete and truthful details than we find in the Northern or the Southern press. But, so far as we can venture on a decision, we must say that the enormous resources of the North are now telling distressingly upon its antagonist, and that the admitted want of men in the South, evidenced, too, by the renewed proposal to arm the negroes, seems to point towards a crisis. The splendid valour which the Confederates have displayed is unabated, and must not only command respect in Europe, but in the North, and, with a generous enemy, will certainly improve the terms on which the two parties will soon, we trust, confer. Our own Foreign Secretary has said that, though we are strictly neutral, the subjugation of the South would be an injury to the cause of humanity, and we trust that both the word and the idea will be alike discarded. The moment is not inopportune for the discussion of an honourable peace, which must be obtained by mutual concessions; and it could be wished that some Nestor could step in between the Transatlantic Ajax and Ulysses, and say,

Forbear, my sons, your further might to prove.
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