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How many battles were fought in New Hanover County? How many casualties were there?

Ben Steelman
Chris Fonvielle

Chris Fonvielle, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, with a Civil War-era cannon at Fort Fisher. (StarNews file photo)

This is a bit of a trick question since, until its creation in 1875, Pender County was part of New Hanover County. Thus, the Battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, on Feb. 27, 1776, technically took place in New Hanover County, although the Moore’s Creek National Battlefield near Currie, N.C., is now in Pender County.

If you go by the present New Hanover boundaries, standard histories record two land engagements in the Revolutionary War and two in the Civil War:

  • The Battle of Heron’s Bridge, Jan 30-31, 1781, between about 250 Patriot militiamen under Col. Henry Young (who had just evacuated Wilmington) and a force of about 250 British soldiers (troops of the 82nd Regiment n of Foot and Royal Marines) under Maj. James Craig.
  • The engagement took place in Rocky Point, near Heron’s Bridge, a remarkable early drawbridge over the Northeast Cape Fear River (not far from the present I-40 bridge),built by Benjamin Heron around 1768. The British, who had the advantage with two 3-pound artillery pieces, managed to surprise the Patriot camp and drive Young’s forces away. Craig then had the bridge burned and marched back to Wilmington.

     Sketchy records indicate the Patriots lost three killed, eight captured and an unknown number wounded. British casualties were placed at seven wounded. 

  • The “Battle” of Rouse’s Tavern, sometime in early March 1781, when a detachment of 60 to 70 British soldiers of the 82nd Regiment and an unknown number of Loyalist militiamen under Maj. Craig (again) surrounded Rouse’s Tavern, about 8 miles outside Wilmington on “the New Bern Road,” They trapped a party of Patriot militiamen “drinking as men would do.” It was an uneven fight, sometimes referred to as “the Rouse’s Tavern Massacre.” The Patriot death toll is put at between eight men (according to historian Robert Dunkerly) and perhaps 11. Little is known about the engagement, and what few accounts we have come from pension applications filed decades after the war. Even the exact date is lost.
  • The siege of Fort Fisher, Jan. 13-15, 1865, when a Union landing force of about 9,600 men under Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry, assisted by a landing force of sailors and Marines from a naval flotilla under Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter, succeeded in capturing the Confederate earthworks under Col. William Lamb. Maj. Gen. William Henry Chase Whitling, who had been relieved as commander of the Cape Fear defenses, was nevertheless present at the battle and was wounded and captured with the rest of the garrison.
  • According to Chris Fonvielle of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, estimating casualties at Fort Fisher is a tricky business, since sources disagree about how many Confederates were actually there. Lamb, after the war, maintained he had no more than 1,900 men on duty, but Union sources estimate the Confederate garrison at 2,100 or more. Some evidence suggests Lamb might have underestimated the number of South Carolina reinforcements he received on the eve of the battle.

    On the Confederate side, some 500 Confederates were killed or wounded in the battle proper, with 1,400 to 1,500 captured. Of these, some 1,100 were sent to the federal prison camp at Elmira, N.Y., where — according to figures compiled by author Richard Triebe in his book “Fort Fisher to Elmira,” – 46 percent of them died before release. Causes of death ranged from pneumonia, smallpox and measles to diarrhea. An exceptionally cold winter and poorly built barracks (in what was originally intended only as a transit camp) took their toll among stressed and often wounded Southerners, unused to Northern weather.

    Union casualties from Fort Fisher are just as hard to compute, Fonvielle noted, since official records did not include naval losses — when sailors armed with pistols and cutlasses made a forlorn rush against the surviving cannon on the beach earthworks — or casualties from the 25th Corps of “U.S. Colored Troops.” The federal tally was somewhere between 1,166 and 1,452 killed, wounded and missing. These include 664 casualties from Gen. Adalbert Ames’ division whose three brigades had directly attacked the fort. Another 105 Union soldiers were killed or wounded on the morning of Jan. 16, 1865, when the captured fort’s main powder magazine accidentally exploded.

  • The Battle of Forks Road, sometimes called “The Battle of Jump ‘n’ Run,” Feb. 20-21, 1865, marking the last stand of Confederate defenders of Wilmington, under Maj. Gen. Robert Frederick Hoke, against Union forces marching north from Fort Fisher. Earthworks from the battle can still be found south of Shipyard Boulevard, on the grounds of the Cameron Art Museum. U.S. Colored Troops led the assault. Union losses were put at one killed and 48 wounded. The Confederates evacuated the trenches in the night and abandoned Wilmington the following day.
  • User-contributed question by:
    Harold Jamison

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    One Response to “ How many battles were fought in New Hanover County? How many casualties were there?”

    1. On September 28, 2011 at 10:59 am martyn hawkins wrote:

      I am sure that you will be innundated by people reminding you that there were two distinct battles for Ft. Fisher. The first time, the Federals were driven off.

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