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Do any descendants of Maj. James Reilly still live in the area?

Ben Steelman

Quite a few, according to our genealogical sources. But first, who’s Major Reilly?

James Reilly (1822-1896) was born in Ballydonagh, Ireland and immigrated at an early age to America. He served under Winfield Scott in the Mesican War, fighting in most of the battles up to the occupation of Mexico City. After the war, he was strongly recommended for a commission in the regular Army — according to tradition Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting, who commanded Wilmington through much of the war, was a particular champion — but he was passed over.

In January 1861, Reilly was an ordnance sergeant serving as caretaker for Fort Johnston near Smithville (modern-day Southport) when rogue militia units from Wilmington and Smithville, fearing reinforcements from the North, showed up to occupy the facility. Reilly turned over the keys — but took them back days later when Gov. John W. Ellis ordered the militiamen to stand down. (At this point, North Carolina had not yet seceded from the Union.)

In April 1861, however, Reilly sent in his resignation to the War Department and joined the Confederate side. He served with distinction, commanding the Rowan Artillery battery and rising to the rank of major.

After years with the Army of North Virginia, Reilly and his battery were detached to Fort Fisher. In the final siege of Jan. 13-15, 1865 — with Whiting and Col. William Lamb both wounded — Reilly was the senior remaining Confederate officer on duty, so he officially offered the surrender of the fort. By a peculiar quirk of history, he managed to surrender forts both at the beginning of the war, to one side, and at the end of the war, to the other.

After being held as a prisoner of war in the North, Reilly returned to Wilmington, where he lived for many years at 111 S. Sixth St.  Later, he kept a small farm in the Maco community of Brunswick County. He died in 1896 and is buried at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery.

Here’s a lengthy reminiscience of Reilly by the longtime Citadel history professor E. Lawrence Lee: http://susantaylorblock.com/2011/09/11/lawrence-lee-speaks-of-major-james-reilly/.

Lee (1912-1996) was probably the area’s most notable Reilly descendant. (The major was his maternal grandfather.) The author of “The Lower Cape Fear in Colonial Days” and “Indian Wars in North Carolina,” Lee did much of the initial survey work on the colonial Brunswick Town site, which led to the excavations by Dr. Stanley South and the creation of the Brunswick Town State Historic Site.

Lee’s children no longer live in the area, but plenty of other Reilly descendants are still around, according to Civil War historian Chris Fonvielle of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, including members of Newell< Symmes and Bethune families.


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5 Responses to “ Do any descendants of Maj. James Reilly still live in the area?”

  1. On May 30, 2012 at 10:46 am KEN FORTIER wrote:

    They forgot the Lockfaw family who resides here in Wilmington! They still have some of his personal items & pictures.

  2. On July 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm Cathy Symmes Williams wrote:

    I don’t live in Wilmington but do have a condo at Carolina Beach not far from Ft Fisher
    I am a descendant – Grandmother was Catherine Reilly Symmes

  3. On March 31, 2015 at 6:17 pm Elizabeth Moore Lee wrote:

    I am a direct decend of Major Jame Reilly. I still live in the area. Lawrence Lee did not want it known that others live in the area. My grandmother told me much history of her father Major Reilly. I am also a direct decent of the Moores of Orton, Lawrence Lee would have not know of Old Brunswick Town had it not been for my family and their pictures at St. Phillips. Along with fact he did not want known.

  4. On May 12, 2016 at 3:12 pm Ken Fortier wrote:

    The Lockfaw side of the Reilly family is still here in Wilmington, NC.

  5. On August 26, 2016 at 4:13 pm Lawrence Borden Lee Jr wrote:

    Thanks for your article. Dr. Lawrence Lee’s descendants have kept a connection to Wilmington – and also the family home on Wrightsville Beach – to return every summer. We still visit Ft. Fisher and have stories of Major Reilly to pass down to our children thanks to my grandfather.

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