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What’s the story on the Confederate Shipyard on Eagles Island?

Ben Steelman

In May 1861, brothers Benjamin and William Beery bought the “Cape Fear Marine Railway” on Eagles Island, on the west bank of the Cape Fear River, to produce vessels for the New Confederacy. This yard is often referred to as “the Confederate Navy Yard” or just “the Navy Yard,” to distinguish it from Robert H. Beery’s shipyard, which operated after the Civil War at the foot of Castle Street.

The Beery-Confederate yard was located just north of the present location of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. (“The Big Book of the Cape Fear” by Claude V. Jackson III and edited by Jack Fryar, reproduces a contemporary photo of the site, with a wrecked tugboat moldering in the foreground.)

Its first project was converting the 285-ton steam tug Mariner into a Confederate privateer. Benjamin Beery was commissioned the Mariner’s first captain and took several prizes under letters of marque issued by President Jefferson Davis before relinquishing command and returning to full-time shipbuilding.

The yard’s most famous product was a Richmond-class ironclad steamer, begun in July 1862 and named CSS North Carolina by Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory in October 1862, At 150 feet long, with a displacement of 700 tons, it was the largest vessel built in Wilmington during the war.

Unfortunately, due to a timber shortage, the Beerys were forced to use unseasoned green pine in construction, which began to warp and split almost as soon as the ironclad was completed in June 1863. Never intended for use in open waters and crippled by an undersized engine (salvaged from an old steam tug) the North Carolina was used only as a floating battery near Smithville (now Southport). Infested by shipworms, it sank off Southport on Sept. 27, 1864.

Bad luck seemed to dog the Beerys. Workers fled when a yellow fever epidemic hit Wilmington in the fall of 1862. At least two wartime fires damaged the shipyard, including a blaze in April 1864 that destroyed sheds and sawmill machinery.

Nevertheless, the yard was able to complete the steamer Yadkin, a dispatch boat and a number of steam launches. Jackson, in “The Big Book of Cape Fear” notes one account claiming that the Beerys finished work on a submarine, which was burned to prevent capture when Union forces occupied Wilmington in February 1865. Benjamin Beery also set fire to his own yard as the Yankees approached.

The site is apparently accessible from Battleship Road but lies on private property and is posted against trespassers. The property was apparently part of a tract proposed for the City View highrise project, which was scuttled by local opposition and the real estate downturn; this property was bought May 1, 2013, in a foreclosure auction by Muddy Waters Properties. The land would be difficult to develop, since it lacks water or sewer access.


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