Confederate Supply Line

Until the last few months of the Civil War, Ft. Fisher kept North Carolina's port of Wilmington open to blockade runners supplying necessary goods to Confederate armies inland. By 1865, the supply line through Wilmington was the last remaining supply route open to Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. When Ft. Fisher fell after a massive Federal amphibious assault on January 15, 1865, its defeat helped seal the fate of the Confederacy. Visitors are invited to tour the remains of the fort's land face featuring an impressive reconstruction of a 32-pounder seacoast gun at Shepherd's Battery. Shaded by gnarled live oaks, a scenic trail leads tourists from the visitor center past the gigantic earthworks and around to the rear of the fort. Guided tours and wayside exhibits provide historical orientation. Other exhibits include items recovered from sunken blockade runners.

At the dawn of the American Civil War, the Confederacy took control of a neck of land in southern North Carolina near the mouth of the Cape Fear River and constructed what was to become the largest and most important earthwork fort in the South. Two major battles were fought there, and many Union soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their gallant participation in that fighting. Today only a few of the mounds remain, since much of the fort has been eroded by the ocean.

Gibraltar of the South

Until the arrival of Col. William Lamb in July 1862, Fort Fisher was little more than several sand batteries mounting fewer than two dozen guns. Under Colonel Lamb's direction and design, which was greatly influenced by the Malakoff Tower (a Crimean War fortification) in Sebastopol, Russia, expansion of the fortress began. By January 1865, Fort Fisher embraced one mile of sea defense and one-third of a mile of land defense. More than five hundred African Americans, both slave and free, worked with Confederate soldiers on construction; occasionally as many as one thousand men were working, although maintaining adequate labor was difficult.

Unlike older fortifications built of brick and mortar, Fort Fisher was made mostly of earth and sand, which was ideal for absorbing the shock of heavy explosives. The sea face, equipped with 22 guns, consisted of a series of 12-foot-high batteries bounded on the south end by two larger batteries 45 and 60 feet high. Of the smaller mounds, one served as a telegraph office and another was converted into a hospital bombproof. The land face was equipped with 25 guns distributed among its 15 mounds. Each mound was 32 feet high with interior rooms used as bombproofs or powder magazines and connected by underground passageways. Extending in front of the entire land face was a nine-foot-high palisade fence.

Colonel Lamb recognized the importance of Fort Fisher to the defense system of the Cape Fear, to the security of Wilmington, and to the survival of the entire Confederacy. Massive and powerful, Fort Fisher kept Federal blockading ships at a distance from the Cape Fear River, protecting Wilmington from attack and ensuring relatively safe passage for Confederate naval travel. Wilmington was the last major port open to the Confederacy and the destination of steamers called blockade runners, which smuggled provisions into the Southern states and supplied General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. These ships traveled from Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Nova Scotia, where southern cotton and tobacco were exchanged for food, clothing, and munitions from British traders.

Federal Infantry Attack Fort Fisher January 15, 1865
Federal Infantry
Attack Fort Fisher
January 15, 1865
Harper's Weekly

The Union army and navy planned several attacks on Fort Fisher and the port of Wilmington, but made no attempt until December 24, 1864. After two days of fighting with little headway, Union commanders concluded that the fort was too strong to assault and withdrew their forces. However, they returned for a second attempt on January 12, 1865. For two and one-half days, Federal ships bombarded the fort on both land and sea face. On the fifteenth, more than 3,300 Union infantry, including the 27th U.S. Colored Troops, assaulted the land face. After several hours of fierce hand-to-hand combat, Federal troops captured the fort that night.

Attacks on Fort Fisher

The Confederate army evacuated their remaining forts in the Cape Fear area, and within weeks Union forces overran Wilmington. Once Wilmington fell, the supply line of the Confederacy was severed, and the Civil War was soon over.

Fort Fisher Today

Approximately ten percent of Fort Fisher still stands along with a restored palisade fence. All tours of the grounds begin in the visitor center. This recently renovated facility contains an audiovisual program that presents the history of the fort. New exhibits are currently being designed for the visitor center. The North Carolina Underwater Archaeology headquarters is also located on the property.

Further Reading

Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign

by Chris E. Fonvielle Jr.
623 pp; 32 maps by Mark A. Moore
Campbell, Cal.: Savas, 1997.

The Wilmington Campaign and the Battles for Fort Fisher
by Mark A. Moore
224 pp; 54 maps by M. A. Moore
Da Capo Press, 1999.

Confederate Goliath
by Rod Gragg
343 pp; 2 maps
New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Hurricane of Fire
by Charles M. Robinson
256 pp; 6 maps
United States Naval Institute, 1998.

Maps, Cannon and Blockade-Runner graphics © Mark A. Moore.
All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.