I finally had an opportunity to visit Fort Fisher on the Cape Fear River, guardian of the blockade-running port at Wilmington. It was a gorgeous early November day, warm sun in ideal jacket temperatures and fresh breezes off the water.
In early 1865, massive earth and sand ramparts, 30 to 60 feet high, extended 1/3 mile on the land front mounting 25 large guns, and a mile along the beach with 22 more. Underneath was an impenetrable network of tunnels, bombproofs, and ammunition depots. A tall stake fence fronted the land batteries with a field of electric torpedoes before that.
The “Gibraltar of the South” was the site of the mightiest U.S. joint amphibious operation before WWII. On January 12, 9,000 Union troops under Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry, including the 27th U.S. Colored Regiment, and a landing force of 2,000 sailors and Marines took on 2,400 Rebels led by Col. William Lamb. Rear Adm. David D. Porter’s 56 warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron lay just offshore.
Three days of massed shore bombardment from hundreds of guns followed by bloody assaults finally subdued the citadel, isolated the last major Confederate harbor, and severed the lifeline to the Army of Northern Virginia. Many Union soldiers and sailors received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Only about ten percent of the fort still stands along with a restored palisade fence, but that is impressive enough. The advancing Atlantic washed away much of the remainder (since stabilized). The army bulldozed sections for a WWII airstrip where female army pilots flew target-towing planes for live anti-aircraft practice.
I visited in conjunction with a presentation for the Brunswick Civil War Round Table in Southport at the river’s mouth. Southport is a lovely small beach and resort community with shopping, good seafood restaurants, a small maritime museum, and river-view accommodations. (I’m told that summers are hot and touristy.)
The half-hour ferry trip upriver to Fort Fisher is much shorter and more fun than the drive from Southport around through Wilmington. Gnarled live-oak groves and golden marsh grasses surround the fort. The small visitor center at the state historic site has interesting exhibits including items recovered from sunken blockade runners, an introductory film, and gift shop manned by knowledgeable guides. New exhibits are planned.
A scenic trail leads visitors past gigantic earthworks and around the rear of the fort with informative signage. Guided tours are available. The North Carolina Underwater Archaeology headquarters shares fort property; the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher are nearby.
If you are in the Wilmington area, a visit to Fort Fisher is highly recommended.