The River Defenses

Illustration of the Confederate Defenses at Old Inlet 1865 published in Harper's Weekly
Confederate Defenses at Old Inlet —
Cape Fear, Ca. 1865 Harper's Weekly —
A Journal of Civilization

"That Wilmington has not hitherto been attacked is owing to the fact that to overcome her natural and artificial defense would require the withdrawal of too large a force from operations against points which [Northern policy makers] deem more important to us. If that cause should ever cease to exist we may expect [the enemy] fleets and armies at the mouth of the Cape Fear." — Jefferson Davis, Confederate president, December 15, 1864

The Cape Fear River's formidable defensive works were the crowning addition to the ideal geographical location Wilmington enjoyed as a haven for blockade-runners. The fall of Norfolk, Virginia, in May 1862, rendered Wilmington the closest active seaport to the Eastern Theater battlefront, and as the town's importance grew so did its network of defenses. The efforts of Confederate soldiers, together with forced labor from Indians and numerous slaves impressed from neighboring plantations, produced a vast array of earthen forts and batteries to protect the South's most important seaport. After Charleston, South Carolina, it was the most heavily fortified city on the Atlantic seaboard.1

In addition to the inner and outer defenses of the town itself,2 four large river batteries dominated a bluff about three miles below Wilmington. From north to south, these were Forts Davis, Lee, Campbell and Meares. These batteries commanded the river approach to Wilmington, while sunken cheveaux-de-frise and other obstructions blocked the narrow channel below Eagles Island. Blockade-runner pilots were given instructions on how to safely navigate these dangerous obstacles.

Guarding the western land approaches 15 miles south of Wilmington was Fort Anderson. Originally named Fort St. Philip, this massive collection of earthen batteries was erected by Confederate engineers in 1862, amid the decaying ruins of a colonial settlement known as Brunswick Town. In the days before the American Revolution, Brunswick had served as Great Britain's main port of entry into North Carolina, and it was the British who burned the little town in 1776. Fort Anderson's largest batteries, mounting nine heavy cannon, dominated the low bluffs on the west bank of the Cape Fear, where the navigation channel would bring approaching enemy vessels directly under its guns. A series of aquatic mines known as "torpedoes" further obstructed the river channel here, while a low sand curtain stretched westward from the main batteries for nearly a mile to Orton Pond. Though Fort Anderson weighed in as the largest interior structure in the Cape Fear defensive network, its weaknesses would be quickly exploited by invading Union troops in February 1865.

Several miles below Fort Anderson, at the mouth of the Cape Fear, stood the small and rustic village of Smithville (present-day Southport). Having neither railroads nor major highways, Smithville lacked the necessary infrastructure to sustain itself as a viable port town. It was, however, an important stop for out-bound blockade-runners. At anchor in the harbor at Smithville, the heavily laden steamers could easily view the Federal blockading forces guarding both Old Inlet and New Inlet. The runners used this vantage point to assess the chances of a successful breakthrough, and to choose which inlet from which to run the gauntlet. Protecting the harbor at Smithville was Fort Pender, a small four-gun earthwork that the Confederates had erected over the existing structure of colonial Fort Johnston.

illustration of the Federal Blockaders off Fort Fisher 1865 published in Harper's Weekly
Federal Blockaders off Fort Fisher —
New Inlet, Cape Fear, Ca. 1865 Harper's
Weekly — A Journal of Civilization

Guardians of the Estuary

That there were two entrances into the Cape Fear River was a source of major frustration for the Federal blockaders. Stemming the flow of contraband shipping was a difficult task made worse by an uncertainty as to which inlet would be chosen at any given time by a blockade-runner. The overwhelming success of running the blockade at Cape Fear was due in no small part to two shallow inlets heavily fortified against the threat of naval or amphibious assault.

Old Inlet, the main river entrance and known as the Western Bar, was well guarded from both east and west. The defenses at Oak Island were anchored by Fort Caswell and Fort Campbell, with the tiny, single-gun Battery Shaw located midway between the two. Fort Caswell was an old masonry structure built between 1826 and 1838 by U.S. army engineers. Forts Caswell and Johnston were seized from Federal authorities at the outbreak of the war. As they had with Fort Johnston, Confederate troops strengthened Fort Caswell and brought in more heavy seacoast artillery pieces.

Situated at the tip of Bald Head Point on Smith's Island, Fort Holmes dominated Old Inlet from the east. This large earthwork fortification was begun in September 1863, and remained a work in progress for the remainder of its brief existence. Conforming to the southern and western shores of the island, its combination of sand curtains and gun emplacements stretched for one-and-a-half miles.

East of the Cape Fear River, on a narrow peninsula known as Federal Point, lay the key to Wilmington's defense — the behemoth Fort Fisher, which protected New Inlet. Fisher was constructed much like the other large forts in the system, but on a much more grand scale. At the tip of Federal point was Battery Buchanan, which commanded both the inlet and the river behind Fort Fisher.

This elaborate system of protective installations drew praise from all who viewed it, and Confederate authorities were banking on the impregnability of Fort Fisher to sustain Wilmington in its vital role as "lifeline" to the Confederate war effort. Indeed, the works were strong; but would there be enough manpower to hold them during an enemy attack?

1 Wilmington's city and river defenses were begun under Confederate District of the Cape Fear commander Joseph R. Anderson, and his successor, Samuel G. French. William H. C. Whiting assumed command of the district on November 8, 1862.

2 For a map of the city's earthwork system, refer to Federal and Confederate maps of Wilmington.

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