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What is Fort Fisher?

Ben Steelman

A former Confederate fort on Federal Point, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Fort Fisher was the site of the largest Civil War battle in Southeastern North Carolina — the largest U.S. amphibious operation, in fact, until the “D-Day” Normandy invasion of 1944.

Today, its remains are preserved as a North Carolina state historic site.

Gradually constructed under Col. William Lamb from 1862 through 1864, the network of earthwork fortifications guarded the New Inlet, a now-closed channel to the Cape Fear River through which Confederate blockade-running vessels could elude the U.S. Navy warships waiting offshore. (It was named for Col. Charles F. Fisher of the 6th North Carolina, who was killed at the first Battle of Manassas [Bull Run]).

Improvements in artillery in the mid-1800s meant that earthwork fortifications could withstand a heavy bombardment better than the earlier brick-and-masonry forts like Fort Sumter at Charleston. The fort’s designers — including Lamb’s superior, Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, who commanded all the Cape Fear River defenses — closely copied the Malakoff Tower at Sebastopol, a widely admired Russian earthwork during the Crimean War. Some observers called Fort Fisher “the American Sebastopol.”

By mid-1864, with the fall of Mobile, Ala., Wilmington was the last major port open to the Confederacy — and a lifeline for scarce supplies to Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Carolina. Wilmington stayed open because of Fort Fisher, whose heavy naval guns kept Union warships from closing on incoming blockade runners. Lee wrote, “If Fort Fisher falls, I will have to evacuate Richmond,” the Confederate capital. U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles deemed Wilmington “more important, practically, than the capture of Richmond.”

By the autumn of 1864, Union Army and Navy officers began to plan a coordinated attack on the fort. In October 1864, Adm. David Dixon Porter assembled a fleet of 150 warships for the attack, based from Hampton Roads, Va. In November, command of the Army’s side of the operation was turned over to Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler (who had earned the nickname “Beast” for his supposedly rude treatment of the ladies of occupied New Orleans).

A pre-war civilian with almost no prior military training, Butler was enchanted with the idea of blowing down Fort Fisher’s sea walls with a gigantic floating bomb. He found supporters in the Navy Department, so the aged warship Louisiana was loaded with 215 tons of gunpowder. The plan was to sail it close to the fort, then detonate it. After that, 6,500 Union soldiers from Butler’s Army of the James would be landed to mop things up.

The combined Union fleet arrived off Cap Fear on Dec. 23, 1864, and under cover of darkness, the Louisiana was towed into position, some 300 yards off Fort Fisher. Then at 1:40 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the “powder boat” blew up. Unfortunately, currents had pulled the Louisiana out of position, and the result was a spectacular fireworks display — heard as far away as Wilmington — causing only minimal damage to the Confederate earthworks. The Union fleet bombarded the fort on Christmas Day, and a party of several hundred Federals landed north of the fort (at the approximate location of Big Daddy’s Restaurant, 206 K Ave., Kure Beach [Map this]) and skirmished with defenders. By the end of the day, however, Union commanders decided to call it quits and recalled the forces left ashore. By Dec. 27, 1864, the Union fleet was steaming back to Hampton Roads.

An angry Ulysses S. Grant, as commanding general of the U.S. Army, relieved Butler and put Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry in charge of the land forces. On Jan. 6, 1865, the Union fleet again set sail from Hampton Roads, arriving off Fort Fisher on the evening of Jan. 12.

On Jan. 13, the U.S. Navy began a massive bombardment of the fort, cutting its telegraph lines, while a flotilla of gigs and launches began landing Terry’s soldiers at Myrtle Sound, about a mile north of the earlier landing point. At this time, Gen. Braxton Bragg, the commander of the Wilmington area, had a division of nearly 5,000 soldiers under Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke stationed at the Sugar Loaf sand dune, in the vicinity of the modern-day Carolina Beach State Park. For reasons remaining unclear to this day, the Confederates did little to block the Union forces as they quickly dug earthworks to ward off an attack from the North.

The Fort Fisher garrison, reinforced to barely 1,900 men, was thus isolated.

On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1865, Adm. Porter landed some 2,200 sailors and Marines, mostly armed with revolvers and cutlasses, and sent them charging at the fort’s northeast bastion. Lamb and Whiting, who was on hand, quickly repulsed the attack with heavy losses. The landing, however, was a ruse; at almost the same time, Union troops from Maj. Gen. Adalbert Ames’ division, rushed the fort’s western, landward salient and began to break through the walls.

A desperate battle, often hand-to-hand, ensued. By 4 p.m., 4,000 Union soldiers were over the walls and pouring into Fort Fisher’s parade grounds. Both Lamb and Whiting were wounded in the melee, and by 9 p.m. the remaining defenders were forced down to Battery Buchanan, an earthwork mound near the modern-day Southport-Fort Fisher ferry landing. Around 10 p.m. Maj. James Reilly, the senior uninjured Confederate officer surrendered the fort, and his sword, to Gen. Terry.

(By one of those weird coincidences of war, James Reilly had been a U.S. Army ordnance sergeant in charge of the mothballed Fort Johnston at Smithville [modern-day Southport] in 1861. As such, he had surrendered the facility to secessionist state militia forces from Wilmington. Reilly ended up surrendering major forts twice — first in a blue uniform, then in a gray one.)

Approximately 500 Confederates were killed and wounded in the battle, vs. fewer than 400 Union soldiers killed, wounded and missing. Officials later tallied that the Union had rained more than 1.6 million pounds of projectiles onto Fort Fisher during the three-day siege. Another 200 soldiers, on both sides, were killed on Jan. 16, 1865, when the fort’s main powder magazine exploded. Union officers at first suspected sabotage, but a court of inquiry blamed carelessness on the part of soldiers or sailors “running about with lights [torches and candles] in the fort, entering bombproofs with these lights, intoxicated and discharging firearms.”

Wilmington fell to Union forces on Feb. 22, 1865. The Confederate government evacuated Richmond on April 2, less than 90 days after Fort Fisher fell, and Lee surrendered his army to Grant a week later, on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Courthouse.

During World War II, from 1941 to 1944, Fort Fisher was used as a satellite base and target range for Camp Davis, the U.S. Army’s massive anti-aircraft training facility near Holly Ridge. The modern U.S. 421 was dug through the old fortifications at this time, and a grass-top air strip was leveled at the facility.

The remains of Fort Fisher suffered the effects of rapid erosion from the 1930s onward, possibly as a result of the opening of Snow’s Cut to the north. By the 1980s, much of the sea face of the fort had washed away, although much of the land face remains (along with Battery Buchanan). Erosion was essentially halted in 2000 by a controversial seawall project.

Today, the Fort is operated as North Carolina state historic site, located at 1610 Fort Fisher Blvd. South, Kure Beach [Map this]. A visitors’ center has exhibits related to the fort and its history, including a fiber-optic map that illustrates the course of the final battle. Visitors can also take a self-guided tour of the grounds. The N.C. Office of Underwater Archaeology is located nearby, with a small gallery of artifacts.

Fort Fisher hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. (Winter hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 1-March 31.) The site is closed for most major state holidays.

Notable books about the fort and the battle include “Confederate Goliath” by Rod Gragg (Louisiana State University Press, $19.95 paperback), “The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope” by Chris Fonvielle (currently out of print) and “The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher” by Mark A. Moore (currently out of print).

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