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What is Fort Caswell?

Ben Steelman

A coastal fort guarding the entrance to the Cape Fear River between Bald Head Island and Smithville (modern-day Southport), Fort Caswell was begun in 1826 and garrisoned during the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and both world wars.

Declared war surplus in 1946, it was sold in 1949 to the N.C. Baptist State Convention, which continues to operate it as the N.C. Baptist Assembly Retreat, 100 Caswell Beach Road, Oak Island [Map this].

Constructed between 1826 and 1836, Fort Caswell began as a brick-and-masontry pentagon near the eastern end of Oak Island. It was named for Richard Caswell, a Revolutionary War hero who commanded Patriot forces at the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge and who later became the first non-royal governor of North Carolina.

With space for 64 gun mounts, the original Fort Caswell was designed for a garrison of 400. For years, however, it was tended only by a caretaker sergeant. As such, it was seized early in 1861 by militia units from Wilmington — months before North Carolina seceded. Gov. John W. Ellis ordered the militiamen to give it back, but then ordered it retaken after President Lincoln issued his famous call for troops to suppress the rebellion.

During the Civil War, Fort Caswell provided covering fire for incoming blockade runners and occasionally traded fire with U.S. Navy ships. Its only casualties, however, were from yellow fever, smallpox and other diseases. Until the fall of Fort Fisher, it proved intimidating and several Union plans to attack it came to nothing. In 1865, after Fort Fisher fell, the Confederate garrison evacuated and withdrew to Wilmington — blowing up the powder magazine and toppling part of one wall as they left.

The fort lay deserted until 1896, when Congress appropriated funds for its reconstruction. Seven long, concrete batteries were added around the turn of the century, along with barracks, officers’ quarters, a hospital/morgue, bakery, horse barn, firehouse and stockade.

The U.S. Coast Artillery occupied the fort in 1909 and remained on station there until 1923. During World War I, the post housed three artillery companies and was also used to train troops bound for deployment overseas.

Abandoned in the ’20s because of its isolation — no road reached Oak Island until 1928 — Fort Caswell was reoccupied during World War II as an Army base and submarine lookout post.

A footnote to Fort Caswell’s military history came during the Persian Gulf War, when the facility housed 165 military personnel who were sent in to work at the nearby Military Ocean Terminal at Sunny Point. Personnel were also based there during the U.S. military’s deployment to Haiti in the 1990s.

On Sept. 29, 1949, the Baptist State Convention bought the 250-acre fort and its 77 existing buildings for the sum of $86,000. The facility was renovated as a religious retreat and conference center.

In service year-round, the N.C. Baptist Assembly is normally closed to the general public. The facilities include 1,000-seat Hatch Auditorium, the 200-seat Sherrill Chapel, the Smith Conference Center, 32 classrooms, a large cafeteria and smaller cafe, a gift shop, an indoor gym, outdoor volleyball courts, a tennis court, softball field, fishing pier, swimming pool and an 18-hole mini-golf course. Boat slips are available for rent at the retreat’s marina.

More than 10,000 visitors pass through the facility during a typical summer, including students at a youth camp and various day-camp programs.

Hotel-class lodging is available at Fort Caswell in the Smith Convention Center, the Oceana Hotel, Lantana Lodge and the four officers’ quarter buildings. Dormitory-style housing is available in six residence halls, and 12 cottages offer beds, kitchens and dining facilities.

The Baptist Assembly books space for churches, choirs, church groups, school groups and youth groups; organizations do not need to be Southern Baptist, although affiliates of the N.C. Baptist State Convention are given preference. Rates range from $17 per night for barracks accommodations to $65 per night for a private room at Lantana Lodge.

Lifeguards are posted on the beach during summer. Kayaks may be rented to groups during the spring and fall, based on availability and weather conditions. Tours of the historic fort — parts of which are in ruins — are available upon request.

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