For much of the war, Fort Fisher saw little combat. Incoming blockade runners caused momentary excitement as they attempted to run past the Union warships arrayed around New Inlet. During these runs, the guns of Fort Fisher were fired to protect the inbound blockade runner from any pursuing Federal warship. Episodes like these were the only times the fort's guns were fired, outside of training, until the end of December 1864, when the North made its first attempt to capture Fort Fisher and close the port of Wilmington.
This first attack, from December 24 to December 27, 1864, ended in a fiasco for the Union. This was largely due to poor coordination between its two commanders, Gen. Benjamin Butler and Adm. David Porter. The attack was preceded by the detonation of a Union warship, the U.S.S. Louisiana. The ship was stripped down, packed with over two hundred tons of black powder, positioned near the wall of Fort Fisher, and exploded. The force from the explosion was expected to level the fort's walls, stun the garrison, and allow the Union troops to easily capture the fort. When the smoke cleared, the walls of Fort Fisher were untouched, and the Confederate garrison was well aware that an attack was imminent. With the failure of the powder boat, the Union forces continued with a more conventional attack.
Starting in the early dawn of Christmas Eve, the Northern armada of sixty-two warships and 6,500 troops began to assemble in waters off Fort Fisher. At roughly 1:00 pm, the ships began a bombardment of the fort that would last until dusk. Many of the thousands of rounds fired were either wasted trying to shoot down the fort's flag pole or splashed harmlessly into the Cape Fear River behind the fort. The following morning, Christmas Day, twenty of the warships began shelling the area north of the fort to prepare a landing site for the Union infantry. At 2:00 pm the troops came ashore. By dusk the leading elements had reached the palisade fence in front of the land face of the fort, only to find the heavy artillery still intact there. Deciding the fort could not be taken without a general siege, General Butler ordered Union troops to retreat. A large part of the Union ground force was stranded on the beach due to heavy seas and bad weather until December 27, 1864.