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What’s the story behind Fort Johnston in Southport?

Amy Hotz
Garrison House

The Garrison House along the Cape Fear River in Southport. The site was where Fort Johnston originally stood. (StarNews file photo)

According to “A history of Fort Johnston on the Lower Cape Fear” by Wilson Angley, Fort Johnston’s history goes back much further than most people might realize.

It was built in colonial days out of local settlers’ nagging feelings that Spaniards would soon attack.

Back then, this possibility was very real. The colony of North Carolina was ruled by the English crown and the crown was at war with Spain. Spanish ships became a nuisance up and down our coast as they raided small towns and took the occasional ship. In 1731, settlers at Brunswick Town knew that Spaniards were to the north of them and the south of them. It would only be a matter of time before they hit the bull’s eye.

But it wasn’t until 1744, when France sided with Spain against England, that North Carolina Governor Gabriel Johnston created a committee to find a good site for a fort on the Cape Fear.

The wheels of politics turned slowly even then. The following year, the colony’s General Assembly enacted legislation for construction of “Johnston’s fort.”

It was to be “built with all convenient expedition.” But it didn’t come soon enough.

Spaniards harassed Ocracoke. And, while the fort was still under construction, they finally made their way up the Cape Fear River. On Sept. 4, 1748, two Spanish privateers and a captured sloop tried to seize slaves working on the fort. They didn’t succeed, but they did manage to move on and loot Brunswick Town for a couple of days.

According to Angley, there is some evidence that the displaced townspeople escaped to the unfinished fort while the Spaniards were at their homes drinking their wine and enjoying their tobacco.

In April 1749, the governor announced that his fort was complete – just in time to miss the whole conflict that caused it to be built in the first place. Its duties were cut down from a structure of war, to one of health. Its new jobs included ensuring contagious diseases from foreign ships did not spread and firing cannons on foggy days to prevent ship groundings.

But there were conflicts to come and Fort Johnston would play at least a small role in almost all of them.

In 1754, men from Fort Johnston were sent to help fight the French and Indian Wars. In 1759 they fought against the Cherokee.

When the Revolution broke out, North Carolina Governor Josiah Martin fled from New Bern to Fort Johnston, believing he would avoid kidnapping. This transferred the colony’s seat of government to this tiny fort.

Think of it as a mini Raleigh by the river.

Local patriots, however, did not make his stay welcome. A little more than a month after his arrival he fled again, this time to an awaiting British ship. And the “rebels” burned the fort, which to them was just another symbol of Red Coat tyranny.

Fort Johnston saw sporadic scuffles during this war but no structural improvements. When the Revolution ended, it was not long before it became grown over with bushes and vines.

Then George Washington and his congress stepped in. When they created the First American System of Fortifications, they listed Fort Johnston among strongholds that would get money to be rebuilt. By 1795 enough of the work had been done to allow Southport’s citizens to use it as a meeting place for their first documented Fourth of July celebration.

Fort Johnston’s garrison was increased even more for the War of 1812, although it saw little involvement in that event. And in 1836 it was mostly evacuated to provide troops in Florida for the Seminole War.

During the Mexican War it was used as a recruitment and training facility.

Then came the Civil War.

On Jan. 9, 1861 some fervent locals marched up to the still-Yankee fort and demanded the keys from its caretaker, Ordnance Sgt. James Reilly. As pretty much the only man around, he handed them over.

Two days later, North Carolina Governor John Ellis ordered them back. And, without a real army mustered up yet, the locals gave them back – to the same man, Sgt. Reilly.

On April 16, after Fort Sumter fell and full-fledged war broke out Confederates reoccupied, once again from Reilly.

This time, though, Reilly resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and Reilly’s story is proof. On Jan. 15, 1865 he would become the man who oversaw the surrender of Fort Fisher to Union forces.

Once again Fort Johnston became a hub for recruitment and training and provided some protection to blockade runners. During this time it was also occasionally called Fort Branch and Fort Pender. But Fort Johnston would ultimately be the only name that stuck.

We all know how the Civil War ended and with it went the life of the fort.

On Feb. 21, 1881, the U.S. government ended Fort Johnston’s role as a seacoast defense.

But it certainly did not die out altogether. From June 1881 through the present day the fort’s buildings have been variously used by the U.S. Signal Corps, the Weather Bureau (National Weather Service), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Surveying Corps.

During World War II it was used as a USO building. Then during the 1950s officers from an air rescue unit of the U.S. Air Force stayed there. It was transferred to Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal in 1955.

Later this year the Southport branch of the N.C. Maritime Museum will move to the Fort’s property.

It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

(As a side note, I had three relatives from Columbus County who enlisted at the fort for the Civil War. All served with the N.C. 20th Infantry Company D.)

UPDATE: Fort Johnston’s Garrison House ended up becoming the home of the Southport Visitor’s Center. The Maritime Museum is housed in buildings that were also part of the fort.



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