Location: Wilmington, North Carolina
Webpage: North Carolina State Park
General Description: During the Civil War, Wilmington, North Carolina, was a major seaport for supplies for the Confederacy. Wilmington is about 30 miles north on the Cape Fear River, which protected it from Union blockade ships. Therefore, protecting the river access to Wilmington was of great importance. This protection was provided on the east side of the Cape Fear River by Fort Fisher and on the west side by Fort Anderson. Gun emplacements on both shores made a sea invasion or an effective blockade nearly impossible. In addition, there are two inlets from Cape Fear River through the Outer Banks the were separated by Smith Island. Fort Fisher consisted of a series of batteries that cut across the peninsula between the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean and extended down the coast along the Ocean. Beginning in 1861, Fort Fisher began as a series of 5 batteries that were unconnected. When Colonel William Lamb took over as commander in July, 1862, he began the construction of earthworks to connect the batteries beginning with fortifications running east to west across the peninsula to protect from land attacks and over the next three years was extended down the coast. The batteries along the coast protected blockade runners bringing supplies from England by transhipment of the cargo in Bermuda and the West Indies. Unlike earlier brick forts that were vulnerable to enemy cannon fire, these forts were built by piling sand over wooden bomb shelters and ammunition rooms. The sand would absorb the impacts of cannon shells and proved to be very effective. In December of 1864, General Grant decided it was time to take Fort Fisher and open the way to Wilmington. On December 23, 1864 the Union attempted to destroy part of the fortifications at the Northeast Bastion by filling the USS Louisiana with gun powder and towing it to within 300 yards of the shore. At 1:04 on December 24, the US Louisiana was blown up which awoke the Confederate troops, but did very little other damage. A naval bombardment followed for the rest of the day followed by a landing of Union troops north of the fort. However, this force was intercepted by General Hooke’s forces that had been dispatched by General Lee to meet the attack and by December 27, the troops had been withdrawn from the beaches. On January 12, 1865 the Union tried again beginning with two and a half days of bombardment from 55 ships and on January 15 landed 8000 Union soldiers to attack the land face and 2000 sailors to take the Northeast Bastion where the land face and sea face met. The sailors were repulsed, but the Union soldiers were successful in overrunning Shepard Battery at the west end of the land face. Faced with soldiers within the fort and continuing naval barrage from the ships, the Confederate soldiers had to retreat. The battle lasted for 6 hours with the Confederates surrendering finally at Battery Buchanan at the southern tip of the peninsula. Today there is not much remaining of Fort Fisher outside of the land face earthworks. From years of beach erosion all of the sea face has been lost and the US Army leveled part of the earthworks in order to construct a small airstrip as part of Camp Davis in 1940 to train anti-aircraft units.
1) The small Visitor Center at the north end of the fort is very well down with a good video and a map display showing troop movements with lights that accompanies an audio program on the battle. In combination it provided a good understanding of the day long battle on January 15. Displays also provide the history of the blockade runners and their importance to the Confederates.
2) There is a wooden walkway that takes you around the remaining earthworks including a reconstruction platform that would have held the cannons of Shepard Battery that was the entry point of the Union soldiers. They have also reconstructed the wooden palisade that would have been outside the fort to slow the attackers.
3) It was interesting to learn that much of the erosion of the sea face was due to construction of the highway itself. They took much of the building materials for the road from the rocks that were protecting the coast, thus causing major damage to the fort. Also past hurricanes have had major impacts. There is literally nothing left to see. We did go down to Battery Buchanan on the southern tip which is a nice pile of sand today.
4) The only other Battery still in existence outside of the land side earthworks is Battery Buchanan where the Confederates surrendered at the end of the day. It is little more than a pile of sand, which is little more than it was during the Civil War.
5) While this fort was little more than large piles of sand, it is interesting to note that it was more effective in taking naval bombardments than the more highly engineered brick forts of the time. Sometimes simple solutions are better than more advanced technology!! It certainly was in this case. All told Fort Fisher is an important site for understanding the Civil War and the challenges faced by the Confederacy, which did not have the manufacturing capabilities of the Union. Especially General Lee’s Army of Virginia was dependent on the ammunition and other supplies being provided by their English allies. Nearly all of which, after the fall of Norfolk, depended on Wilmington.