Fort Fisher vs. Mother Nature

Chris-Ft. Fisher MonumentFort Fisher, situated between the Atlantic shore and the Cape Fear River less than twenty miles south of Wilmington, NC, was one of the last hold-outs of Confederate resistance to the Federal blockade. After a pair of attempts to capture the fort, it finally fell to Federal assault on January 12, 1865.

I had the opportunity to visit Fort Fisher earlier this week courtesy of the fine folks of the Brunswick (NC) Civil War Roundtable. It was my first time visiting. I’ll share details next week, but in the meantime, I wanted to share an interesting set of images that tells a different but equally fascinating story about the fort.

These images come from a display at the fort’s visitor center, operated as a state historic site by North Carolina. The display shows the original location of the fort in 1865: an L-shaped structure that stretched from the Cape Fear River on the west to the Atlantic Ocean on the east.

Sliding panels show how the ocean has encroached on the fort since the Civil War. (Please pardon my reflection on the clear-plastic panels as I snapped their photos.)

1865 Shoreline 1931 Shoreline 2000 Shoreline

This is, of course, the story of the entire Carolina coast. Beaches are in constant motion as tides deposit and sweep away sand. Each wave changes the shoreline imperceptibly, but the combined movement over time can change the overall shape dramatically.

Where once there was space between the eastern face of the fort and the ocean, by 1931 (middle photo) the ocean had swept right up to the fort’s main bastion, located on the fort’s northeast corner. By 2000, the ocean had swallowed nearly all of the eastern face.

This is a far different kind of preservation fight than those we typically hear about, where developers might threaten to gobble up battlefield lands. In this case, it’s the inexorable tide of Mother Nature herself assaulting the fort. A similar instance, perhaps more famous, was her assault on Battery Wagner on Morris Island outside Charleston. The site where the final assaults made famous in Glory is, today, a pristine beach.

Fort Fisher, as a historic site, also boasts a wonderful beach, and there’s a first-class state aquarium on the grounds, too. The remains of the fort’s northern wall still rise up out of the sand like ominous, goliath dunes. Were the full fort still standing, it would undoubtedly be an awe-inspiring site, but even the portion that remains was definitely worth a visit.

How ironic, standing on the shoreline, looking out across the ocean, that the scene evokes such serene calm. Even as I watch, Mother Nature is destroying the fort one grain at a time.

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