Wilmington: The Last Open Port on the Confederate Coast

“Though the popular clamor centers upon Charleston, I consider Wilmington a more important point,”[i] stated Gustavus V. Fox to Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillip Lee in the fall of 1862.

Wilmington, N.C. arose along the banks of the Cape Fear River, expanding rapidly during its early colonial years to become a center for trade and transportation. By 1860, the town was one of the east coast’s largest ports. Eventually, after the South succeeded from the Union, Wilmington became one of the top blockade running ports of the Confederacy and earned its nickname “Lee’s Lifeline.”

Gustavus V. Fox was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy before the war; he played a key role in the attempt to resupply Fort Sumter in 1861 and afterwards was appointed to the newly established role Assistant Secretary of the Navy.  It was Fox who first proposed and planned an attack on Wilmington.

Fox’s proposed a two-pronged approach. The Union Navy would attack Fort Fisher, located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River just south of Wilmington, while the Union Army would descend upon Wilmington from the north. Fox thought that a duel attack would prevent the Confederate locations from reinforcing each other. Samuel Phillip Lee, recognizing Wilmington’s significance as a port city, sent out inquires about the possibility of sending ironclads up the Cape Fear River to aid in the effort of this attack.  When commander J.P. Bankhead of the U.S.S. Monitor responded to Lee, his words echoed the thoughts of many others who had received the query: “In obedience to your request … as to the practicability of entering Cape Fear River with the vessel under my command, ect., I have to state first, that the New Inlet channel is not in my opinion, feasible for vessels of the draft of the Monitor ...” He goes on to say that the supply of ammunition would run out before an attack would be successful but that he is “perfectly ready and willing to make an attempt to overcome those difficulties whenever I [he] may be ordered to do so.”[ii]

As it turns out, Bankhead would not be forced to make such an attempt because the proposed attack did not go forward. Major General J.G. Foster’s Army division was supposed to make the assault on Wilmington. Foster found many flaws when he later reviewed the battle plan. The most important of which was relayed via reports by naval officers: it was not likely the ironclads would be able to make it up the Cape Fear River to provide the needed support for Foster’s troops during the attack. If the ironclads could not make it up the river, Foster stated, “They cannot, therefore, obtain — what is so much needed against the earthen batteries of Fort Fisher … The only attack, therefore that the naval forces can make on Fort Fisher will be from the outside. Against such an attack, however strongly made, the fort is so strongly defended … that the attack in all probability will fail to reduce the work.”[iii] Without the diversionary attack on Fort Fisher, the campaign’s success would rely solely on Foster and his troops. Even if the Union Navy did make it up the river, Foster pointed out, his division still had several obstacles to contend with – including the fact that his force was probably too small to capture Wilmington.

Looking at all the possible errors, Foster proposed that the attack should target Fort Caswell instead of Fort Fisher: “I propose, which is in accordance with your own views, to make Fort Caswell the first point of attack; the monitors to attack from the channel and my force to besiege the fort after landing upon Oak Island.”[iv] When the USS Monitor and the USS Rhode Island set out at the end of December 1862, they were in fact heading straight for Fort Caswell.

From Fort Caswell, the Union Navy would have better access points from which to launch an attack against Fort Fisher, and thus Wilmington. However, severe weather struck the coast of Cape Hatteras while the USS Monitor was en route. The ship, along with the possibility of a successful attack and hopes of capturing Lee’s Lifeline, sank beneath the waves.

Wilmington was virtually ignored for the next two and a half years. The Union turned its focus to places such as Charleston, New Orleans, and Mobile. When the Confederate ports in coastal states like South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana began to fall, the blockade runners were forced to move their operations to Wilmington. And while the Union Navy concentrated its resources elsewhere, the blockading force outside of Wilmington was left weak at best. “The difficulty of maintaining an effective blockade at Wilmington, with none but slow steamers is evident”[v] wrote Rear Admiral Lee in January 1863. Lee would not learn that ships were being prepared to reinforce the Wilmington blockade until March of the same year. But even with the addition of more blockading vessels, the line was slow moving and spread out.

A year passed and it seemed the Union had all but forgotten Wilmington; however, Lieutenant-General Grant had not. In his order to Major-General Butler about an expedition against Fort Fisher, Grant stated, “The first objective of the expedition under General Weitzel is to close the enemy port of Wilmington. If successful in this, the second will be to capture Wilmington itself. There are reasonable grounds to hope for success, if advantage can be taken of the absence of the greater part of the enemy’s forces now looking after Sherman in Georgia.”[vi]  And so the stage was set for another attack on Lee’s Lifeline.

“The enemy’s fleet … formed in line of battle and opened fire at 1 o’clock on the 24th, bombarding the fort (Fisher) continuously until 5:30, when they hauled out. We replied very slowly, firing only 600 rounds, while it was estimated the enemy fired 6,000,”[vii] wrote Lieutenant Armstrong of the C.S. Navy. Shortly after the bombardment the Union made a land invasion. The attack was repulsed and the fort remained in Confederate hands.

Perhaps it was already weakened by the first bombardment – whatever the reason, Fort Fisher quickly fell to the Union one week later during a second bombardment.

With Fort Fisher securely under the Union’s control, attentions moved inland towards Wilmington. On February 22, 1865 Union forces marched on Wilmington in a three-pronged attack. Troops approached the port city from both the east and the west with gunboats approaching up the river. Despite North Carolina’s efforts, Wilmington was less than formidable. In a matter of hours, Wilmington’s defenses were shattered and Lee’s Lifeline fell to the Union.

“I know that a move on Wilmington is the only way to go to work. That kills Charleston without stopping on the way. In fact it kills the rebellion”[viii] wrote Rear Admiral Lee in a January 1863 report. Lee’s words rang true when Wilmington fell. The surrender at Appomattox was in fact less than three months after the fall of Wilmington, making this port city one of the final nails in the coffin for the doomed Confederacy.

[i] James M. McPherson, War on the Waters: The Union & Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (The University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 133.

[ii] ORN, I, 8:327-328

[iii] ORN, I, 8:399

[iv] ORN, I, 8:400

[v] ORN, I, 8:418

[vi] ORN, I, 11:149-150

[vii] ORN, I, 11:374-375

[viii] ORN, I, 11:408

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