Fort Fisher Civil War History

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Fort Fisher Civil War History: The Gibraltar of the South

Cape Fear River Defense System Map
Caper Fear Civil War.gif
Battle of Fort Fisher Map

Located on the coast near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Fort Fisher protected blockade-runners as they dashed through the Federal blockade (see The Blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina, and Anaconda Plan). The largest earthen fort in the world, Fort Fisher was essential for the protection of the port of Wilmington. Work on the fort began soon after North Carolina left the Union, and at times more than a thousand Confederate soldiers and African American freedmen and slaves labored together on the construction. In January 1865, the fort had twenty-two cannon facing the Atlantic Ocean, and another twenty-five facing the land approach.

The Battle of Fort Fisher and the Fall of Wilmington

It was a splendid yet wicked sight-what a shower of shell we must have pounded down on their devoted heads.—Union seaman B. F. Blair, December 27, 1864

Aware of the strategic importance of Fort Fisher and Wilmington, the Union army and navy planned to assault and capture the fort. The first major Federal attack came in late December 1864 but ended in dismal failure and embarrassment for the Union commanders (First Battle of Fort Fisher). The second attack, which brought victory to the North, began January 13, 1865, when 8,000 Union troops landed after an extensive bombardment by United States ships. On January 15, the fort surrendered after failing to receive support from nearby Confederate forces (Second Battle of Fort Fisher). The fall of Fort Fisher, along with smaller forts in the Cape Fear defense system, left Wilmington unprotected. Federal troops occupied the city on February 22. (Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington.)

US Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher
The US Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher.jpg
Courtesy of the US Navy

Source: North Carolina Museum of History

Recommended Reading: Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. Description: Even before the rest of North Carolina joined her sister states in secession, the people of the Lower Cape Fear were filled with enthusiasm for the Southern Cause - so much so that they actually seized Forts Johnston and Caswell, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. When the state finally did secede, Wilmington became the most important port city of the Confederacy, keeping Robert E. Lee supplied with the munitions and supplies he needed to fight the war against the North. Continued below…

Dedicated soldiers like William Lamb and W.H.C. Whiting turned the sandy beaches of southern New Hanover and Brunswick Counties into a series of fortresses that kept the Union navy at bay for four years. The mighty Fort Fisher and a series of smaller forts offered safe haven for daring blockade runners that brought in the Confederacy's much-needed supplies. In the process, they turned the quiet port of Wilmington into a boomtown. In this book that was fifteen years in the making, James L. Walker, Jr. has chronicled the story of the Lower Cape Fear and the forts and men that guarded it during America's bloodiest conflict, from the early days of the war to the fall of Wilmington in February 1865.

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Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher, by Mark A. Moore. Description: Full campaign and battle history of the largest combined operation in U.S. military history prior to World War II. By late 1864, Wilmington was the last major Confederate blockade-running seaport open to the outside world. The final battle for the port city's protector--Fort Fisher--culminated in the largest naval bombardment of the American Civil War, and one of the worst hand-to-hand engagements in four years of bloody fighting. Continued below…

Copious illustrations, including 54 original maps drawn by the author. Fresh new analysis on the fall of Fort Fisher, with a fascinating comparison to Russian defenses at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. “A tour de force. Moore's Fort Fisher-Wilmington Campaign is the best publication of this character that I have seen in more than 50 years.” -- Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus, National Park Service

 

Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign: Last Departing Rays of Hope. Description: While prior books on the battle to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, have focused solely on the epic struggles for Fort Fisher, in many respects this was just the beginning of the campaign. In addition to complete coverage (with significant new information) of both battles for Fort Fisher, "The Wilmington Campaign" includes the first detailed examination of the attack and defense of Fort Anderson. It also features blow-by-blow accounts of the defense of the Sugar Loaf Line and of the operations of Federal warships on the Cape Fear River. This masterpiece of military history proves yet again that there is still much to be learned about the American Civil War. Continued below…

"The Wilmington Campaign is a splendid achievement. This gripping chronicle of the five-weeks' campaign up the Cape Fear River adds a crucial dimension to our understanding of the Confederacy's collapse." -James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom

 

Recommended Reading: Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History. Reader’s Review: In the thirty years since this book was published, one always hoped another would equal or surpass it. None has, or perhaps ever will. It is a marvelous history of the Forts along the American Seacoast, both Atlantic and Pacific, and even the Philippines. …Any Fort enthusiast must read this book. The author captures so much information, so many views, so much perspective in so few pages, the book is breathtaking. It is easily the finest book on its chosen subject, which is why it never goes out of print. “If forts interest you, read it, period.” The photographs from the author's collection, the army's files, the National Archives, etc., make it an invaluable edition. Continued below…

But the text, the clear delineation of the periods of fort building since 1794 in the US, and the differentiation of the periods, are so worth while. Ray manages to be both terse, and pithy. It is a great tribute to any author to say that. “This is a MUST read for anyone interested in the subject, even one only interested in their own local Fort, and how it relates to the defense plans of the United States when it was built.” “[T]here is NO better book to read on the subject.”

 

Recommended Reading: Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear : Running the Civil War Blockade. Description: After the elimination of Charleston in 1863 as a viable entry port for running the blockade, Wilmington, North Carolina, became the major source of external supply for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The story of blockade running on the Cape Fear River was one of the most important factors determining the fate of the South. With detailed and thought-provoking research, author Dawson Carr takes a comprehensive look at the men, their ships, their cargoes, and their voyages. Continued below…

In mid-1863, the small city of Wilmington, North Carolina, literally found itself facing a difficult task: it had to supply Robert E. Lee's army if the South was to continue the Civil War. Guns, ammunition, clothing, and food had to be brought into the Confederacy from Europe, and Wilmington was the last open port. Knowing this, the Union amassed a formidable blockading force off storied Cape Fear. What followed was a contest unique in the annals of warfare. The blockade runners went unarmed, lest their crews be tried as pirates if captured. Neither did the Union fleet wish to sink the runners, as rich prizes were the reward for captured cargoes. The battle was thus one of wits and stealth more than blood and glory. As the Union naval presence grew stronger, the new breed of blockade runners got faster, quieter, lower to the water, and altogether more ghostly and their crews more daring and resourceful. Today, the remains of nearly three dozen runners lie beneath the waters of Cape Fear, their exact whereabouts known to only a few fishermen and boaters. Built for a special mission at a brief moment in time, they faded into history after the war. There had never been ships like the blockade runners, and their kind will never be seen again. Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear tells the story of their captains, their crews, their cargoes, their opponents, and their many unbelievable escapes. Rare photos and maps. “This book is nothing shy of a must read.”

 

Recommended Reading: Masters of the Shoals: Tales of the Cape Fear Pilots Who Ran the Union Blockade. Description: Lavishly illustrated stories of daring harbor pilots who risked their lives for the Confederacy. Following the Union's blockade of the South's waterways, the survival of the Confederacy depended on a handful of heroes-daring harbor pilots and ship captains-who would risk their lives and cargo to outrun Union ships and guns. Their tales of high adventure and master seamanship became legendary. Masters of the Shoals brings to life these brave pilots of Cape Fear who saved the South from gradual starvation. Continued below…

REVIEWS: "A valuable and meticulous accounting of one chapter of the South's failing struggle against the Union." -- Washington Times 03/06/04

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Well documented...an easy read." -- Civil War News June 2004

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Will be of special interest to Civil War naval enthusiasts." -- Civil War News May 2004

"Offers an original view of a vital but little-known aspect of blockade running." -- Military Images 03/01/04

"Surveys the whole history of the hardy seamen who guided ships around the Cape Fear's treacherous shoals." -- Wilmington Star-News 10/26/03

"The story [McNeil] writes is as personal as a family memoir, as authoritative and enthusiastic as the best history." -- The Advocate 11/15/03

“Outstanding depictions of seamen courage and tenacity...Heroic, stirring, and gripping stories of the men that dared to confront the might and power of the US Navy.” – americancivilwarhistory.org

 

Recommended Reading: Gray Raiders of the Sea: How Eight Confederate Warships Destroyed the Union's High Seas Commerce. Reader’s Review: This subject is one of the most fascinating in the history of sea power, and the general public has needed a reliable single-volume reference on it for some time. The story of the eight Confederate privateers and their attempt to bring Union trade to a halt seems to break every rule of common sense. How could so few be so successful against so many? The United States, after Great Britain, had the most valuable and extensive import/export trade in the world by the middle of the 19th century. The British themselves were worried since they were in danger of being surpassed in the same manner that their own sea traders had surpassed the Dutch early in the 18th century. Continued below…

From its founding in 1861, the Confederate States of America realized it had a huge problem since it lacked a navy. It also saw that it couldn't build one, especially after the fall of its biggest port, New Orleans, in 1862. The vast majority of shipbuilders and men with maritime skills lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the United States, and mostly in New England. This put an incredible burden on the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory. When he saw that most of the enemy navy was being used to blockade the thousands of miles of Confederate coasts, however, he saw an opportunity for the use of privateers. Mallory sent Archibald Bulloch, a Georgian and the future maternal grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt, to England to purchase British-made vessels that the Confederacy could send out to prey on Union merchant ships. Bulloch's long experience with the sea enabled him to buy good ships, including the vessels that became the most feared of the Confederate privateers - the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. Matthew Fontaine Maury added the British-built Georgia, and the Confederacy itself launched the Sumter, the Nashville, the Tallahassee, and the Chickamauga - though these were generally not as effective commerce raiders as the first four. This popular history details the history of the eight vessels in question, and gives detailed biographical information on their captains, officers, and crews. The author relates the careers of Raphael Semmes, John Newland Maffitt, Charles Manigault Morris, James Iredell Waddell, Charles W. Read, and others with great enthusiasm. "Gray Raiders" is a great basic introduction to the privateers of the Confederacy. More than eighty black and white illustrations help the reader to visualize their dramatic exploits, and an appendix lists all the captured vessels. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in the Confederacy, and also to all naval and military history lovers.

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