Forts: Fort Fisher in Fiction

While search an online archive of public domain books, I stumbled across a unique volume entitled Fort Fisher or The Thunder of Siege Guns: A Story of the Great Bombardment. Authored by Major A.F. Grant and published in 1883 by a New York novel printer, this tale has many typical tropes of Civil War novels written in the 19th Century. Spies, brave and swoony women, a terrible love triangle, duels, revenge, escaped slaves, and rather detailed descriptions about actual military events that doesn’t always mesh well with the flowery tale.

I haven’t found much information on “Major A.F. Grant” other than the citable fact that he wrote “dime novels.” However, it appears that it’s probably a pseudonym and likely for Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh who was a 19th Century American novelist. It’s not clear after some quick searching if Harbaugh served in the Civil War; he was born in 1849, about would have been quite young but not impossibly young to have seen military service. However, he had some knowledge of Fort Fisher and the capture either through personal experience or talking to veterans.

If you want to read the whole story, you can find it here on, but I just wanted to highlight a couple of descriptions of Fort Fisher. The fort protected the access to Wilmington’s harbor in North Carolina, one of the last major ports that the Federals captured. The fall of Fort Fisher in 1865 ended the effectiveness of the Confederacy’s blockade runners and was one of the “nails in the coffin” leading to the surrenders of the southern armies later in the year.

Fort Fisher, hereafter to be described, occupied the southernmost extremity of a narrow neck of land which branches out from the North Carolina coast and separates Cape Fear River from the Atlantic. (Page 7)

The most formidable fort that opposed the Union forces was that of Fort Fisher which was situated on the southern point of the Neck, and north of New Inlet, in which the transports had dropped anchor.

The fort and its commanding batteries consisted of two fronts, one extending nearly five hundred yards across the Peninsula, the other running parallel with the beach and terminating with the southernmost or Mound Battery, and thirteen hundred yards in length.

The land front was intended to resist successfully any attack from the north, while the sea angle would prevent the enemy from landing troops on the beach washed by the waters of New Inlet.

The land side of Fort Fisher possessed a parapet twenty feet high, with strong traverses ten feet higher.

These traverses ran back on their tops, and were ten feet thick.

Between each pair were two heavy guns loaded with grape and canister, and so planted as to command a splendid view of the ground over which the enemy would have to advance.

There were traverses on the right and the left of the fort’s front; some of them were protected by a strong pallisade, which was loopholed for riflemen, and provided with banquettes.

The men who had superintended the erection of Fort Fisher had neglected nothing, and proved themselves able engineers.

They had built bomb-proofs in the traverses for the men and had placed two field pieces for flank fire at the small redan which covered the bombproof portion of the middle traverse.

Strong as the land front of the fort was, the sea angle was equally formidable.

It possessed twenty-four guns and its different batteries were connected by an infantry parapet which formed a continuous line.

The works were guarded by nearly two thousand Confederate troops under the command of General Whiting…. (page 21)

Photograph of the sea-facing side of Fort Fisher

Toward the very end of the novel, the assault on the fort is described:

Minutes seemed hours to the men of both armies.

All knew that the assault would prove one of the bloodiest on record, but the Union troops were as determined to take the fort as the rebels were to drive them back with terrible slaughter….

Everything was in readiness now.

“Forward!” rung out loud and clear along the Union lines.

…What if they met a galling fire of musketry and artillery full in the face?

What if the ground they were compelled to tread was marshy and full of suck holes?

The line never wavered, the bluecoats never faltered.

On, through that terrible hailstorm of lead and iron, straught toward the parapets and the flag that floated in defiance above them.

It was the most gallant assault of the whole war. 

The heroism of the men behind the rebel ramparts could not check that brave brigade, each member of which seemed to have registered above a vow to conquer or die.

They reached the shot-shattered palisades, but behind them lay a line of dead men.

They broke through the obstruction despite the front and enfilading fire to which they were exposed, and scaled the parapet….

It was a carnival of war, the harvest of death, the triumph of destruction…. Night came, but the work went on.

In the flashes of their guns, foe met foe, and cheer encountered cheer over the bloodstained parapets of Fort Fisher. (Pages 92-93)

The climactic scene also acts as the background for hero and the revenge of the fictional story. In real history, Fort Fisher fell on January 15, 1865 after serious fighting.

It’s interesting to look at this example of historical fiction written just a couple decades after the Civil War and see how storytelling played a role in both explaining a historical event and weaving memory around dramatic events from the conflict.

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