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Fort Fisher
New Hanover County,
near Wilmington, North Carolina
File:Battle of Fort Fisher flags stockade.jpg
Fort Fisher (painting/excerpt 1890): shows stylized earthen walls along the Northern Bastion.
Built 1861
In use 1861-1865
Battles/wars First Battle of Fort Fisher
Second Battle of Fort Fisher

Fort Fisher was a Confederate fort during the American Civil War. It protected the vital trading routes of the port at Wilmington, North Carolina, from 1861 until its capture by the Union in 1865. The fort was located on one of Cape Fear River's two outlets to the Atlantic Ocean on what was then known as Federal Point and today is known as Pleasure Island. Because of the roughness of the seas there, it was known as the Southern Gibraltar.




Fort Fisher

The city of Wilmington is located 29 miles (50 km) upstream from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, which flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

During the war, Wilmington was one of the most important points of entry for supplies for the Confederacy. Its port traded cotton and tobacco in exchange for foreign goods, like munitions, clothing and foodstuffs. This nourished both the southern states in general and General Robert E. Lee's forces at Virginia. Trade was based on the coming and going of steamer ships of British smugglers. These vessels were called "blockade runners" because they had to avoid the Union's imposed maritime barricade. Mostly, the blockade runners came indirectly from British colonies, such as Bermuda, Bahamas or Nova Scotia. Often, they were forced to fly the Confederate insignia since the Union had imposed the death penalty on British "pirates" captured in the region.

After the fall of Norfolk, Virginia in May 1862, the importance of Wilmington was further increased. It became the main Confederate port on the Atlantic Ocean. Considering the Atlantic seashore, Wilmington's defenses were so sturdy that they were only surpassed by Charleston's, in South Carolina. Wilmington resisted for a long time, mainly because of Fort Fisher's presence.

Cape Fear River[]


Region down Cape Fear River

South of Wilmington, along the Cape Fear River's last 20 miles (30 km), a handful of Confederate forts and batteries protected the daily flow of ships. Also, the channel had been purposely jammed with loads of wreckage and aquatic mines, which were called "torpedoes." The Confederate officers conducted each ship cautiously through this barrier.

Particularly at Cape Fear's outlet to the Atlantic, the area was enclosed by a half dozen Confederate positions. The river flowed to the sea through two relatively shallow inlets, which were partitioned by Smith Island. The existence of two inlets resulted in a crucial advantage: guided by the Confederates, the blockade runners were capable of avoiding the Union ships. They simply had to change course unexpectedly, alternatively between the two inlets.

Near the beginning of the war, the Confederacy occupied the Federal Point peninsula, which was located at an advantaged location upon Cape Fear's New Inlet.


Early structures[]

The first artillery batteries were placed in the spring of 1861, one mile (1,600 m) from the New Inlet. Maj. Charles Pattison Bolles supervised the works. The regional command was conformed by Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes and Maj. William H. C. Whiting (Bolles' brother-in-law), as chief inspector of North Carolina's defenses.

Later, when Bolles was transferred to Oak Island, Capt. William Lord DeRosset took his place. DeRosset brought Wilmington's Light Infantry to the primitive artillery position, and he named the place "Bolles Battery." Bolles Battery had a succession of interim commanders. Additionally, a training site, Camp Wyatt, was built north of the battery.

In the summer of 1861, the commander was Colonel Seawell L. Fremont. He was from the 1st NC Volunteer Artillery and Engineers. He added the following batteries along the isthmus:

  • Meade Battery
  • Zeke's Island Battery
  • Anderson Battery
  • Gatlin Battery

Around September, the placement was definitively christened "Fort Fisher", after Col. Charles F. Fisher who was from the 6th NC Infantry and fell at the First Battle of Manassas.

Along the peninsula, the civilian population was scarce and consisted of some small family farms. The region was surrounded by pine woods. Typically, Confederate pilots would climb the tall pine trees with large ladders, spot the nearest blockade runner and then depart, meeting the incoming ship to guide it past the several passive defenses to Wilmington.

Over time, Fort Fisher was further overhauled with more powerful artillery which had been provided from Charleston. So armed, the fortress could force the Union blockade to remain well offshore, which also ensured that the Union ships could not shell the shoreline.


In July 1862, Col. William Lamb assumed command of the fort. Soon after arriving, he expressed some displeasure at Fort Fisher's ongoing crude state. The fall of Norfolk increased the fort's prominence, since Wilmington's trading activity had to be secured. A line of soil-mounts was built which formed the Land Face, which extended along Shepherd Battery to the sea. The Sea Face was constructed later as a continuation of the previous mount line. It was extended down to a location which would constitute Mound Battery. At the intersection of both faces, the Northeast Bastion was erected, which was 30 feet (9 m) high. Mound Battery was the most important structure of Fort Fisher, and it was built during spring of 1863. It demanded a workforce of many hundreds and the use of a small locomotive which discharged the soil over the pile. A lighting beacon was installed at its pinnacle and was used to signal the blockade runners.


The sea face of Fort Fisher

Being built mostly of soil, Fort Fisher's structure was particularly efficient at absorbing salvos of heavy ordinance . This aspect of its design emulated the Tower of Malakoff which had been constructed at Sevastopol, Russia, during the Crimean War.

Over time, more than a thousand individuals including Confederate soldiers and slaves, had toiled at the location. The efforts had drawn more than 500 black slaves from nearby plantations. Some Native Americans, mostly Lumbee Indians, also had been impressed to assist with work on the fortifications.

After the improvements, Fort Fisher became the largest Confederate fort. In November 1863, President Jefferson Davis visited the facilities. In 1864, the complete regiment of the 36th North Carolina quartered inside Fort Fisher. In October 1864, Buchanan Battery was built.

Protecting Cape Fear's inlet[]

File:Fort Fisher Gun.jpg

Gun with muzzle shot away, 1865

As a rule, the menacing Union's battleships could not sidestep Fort Fisher's massive presence, and they were forced to remain far from shoreline because of the coastal artillery.

Land defense[]

The land defense extended 1,800 feet (540 m), over 15 mounts. It held 25 guns which were 32 feet (10 m) above sea level. The mounts shared an underground network which could not be penetrated by artillery. Downward, the refuge was also used as arsenal. Prior to the walls, a 9-foot (2.7 m) tall stake fence was used.

Sea defense[]

The sea defense extended one mile (1.6 km). It consisted of 22 guns at 12 feet (3.6 m) above sea level, with 2 large batteries at the extremes. Two ancillary pieces were built at two smaller mounts. Respectively, they housed a telegraphic office and a bomb-resistant hospital.

Buchanan Battery[]

The Buchanan Battery was a small fortification which was located at the furthest tip of the peninsula, right over Cape Fear's New Inlet.


Along the sea defense, there were numerous Columbiad 8 inch cannon,a few 10 inch columbiads and a mixture of rifled 32 pounders, and brooke rifles. An 8 inch Blakley was mounted in the Northeast Bastion and the innovative 150 pound Armstrong Gun was placed along the seaface. Barbette carriages were installed around each of the cannon, and the cannon extended along both faces of Shepherd Battery and Mound Battery. Siege weapons included 4.5 inch Parrott Rifles at the Shepherd Battery, and two 24-pound Coehorn Mortars and one 8 inch seacoast mortar along the land face. Along the entrance was stationed a 12 pound Napoleon-M1857 and a 3 inch Parrott Rifle. The middle sally port along the fort's landface was protected by 2, 12 pounders.


The Union planned to seize Wilmington after Mobile, Alabama fell in August 1864. By September 1864, a variety of sources—such as the Confederate intelligence and some Union newspapers—conjectured an imminent Union attack on either Charleston or Wilmington.

2,400 men were at Fort Fisher. Unfortunately, they were insufficiently trained for defending against a land attack. Because of demands from other battlefronts—particularly Richmond—the defenders were being slowly replaced by local forces from North Carolina. For example, the Cape Fear River was further filled with "torpedoes", and a breastwork was built at the northern end of the fortification in order to contain any landing forces.

Because of his alcoholism and other personal problems, Lee removed Whiting from command, and General Braxton Bragg was assigned as commander for the region. In November 1864, Bragg was ordered to join the battle against William T. Sherman in Georgia. For this, Bragg detached 2,000 troops from the already feeble Wilmington defensive lines. When Ulysses S. Grant was informed about this specific maneuver, he began formulating the definitive plan of invasion.

First battle[]

On December 15, 1864, Jefferson Davis supposed that Wilmington had not yet been attacked because it would have demanded "the withdrawal of too large a [Union] force from operations against points which they deem more important to us." Otherwise, "fleets and armies" would have already been "at the mouth of the Cape Fear."

In December 1864, Union Major General Benjamin Butler, together with the Expeditionary Corps of the Army of the James, was detached from the Virginia theater for an amphibious mission to capture Fort Fisher. He was joined by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter who commanded Union naval forces already in the region.

After being informed about the large Union army heading toward Wilmington, General Lee ordered Major General Robert Hoke's Division to Fort Fisher. Also, Hoke took command of all Confederate forces in the Wilmington area.

The Union attack started on December 24, 1864 with a naval bombardment. The firepower of Fort Fisher was temporarily silenced because some of its gun positions exploded. This allowed the Navy to land Union infantry. The landing force was intercepted by the arrival of Hoke's troops. The Union attack was effectively thwarted, and on December 27 Benjamin Butler ordered the withdrawal of his 1,000 soldiers who were still on the beach. This was in disobeyance of Grant's orders, which were to besiege the fort if the assault failed. Because Butler disobeyed his orders, he was relieved of command by Grant.

Second battle[]

File:Fort Fisher Bombardment.jpg

Ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron bombarding Fort Fisher prior to the ground assault January 15, 1865

After Butler's removal, he was replaced by Major General Alfred Terry, and the operation was dubbed "Terry's expedition." Admiral Porter was again in charge of the naval attack. They waited until January 12, 1865, for the second attempt.

They started with a strong bombardment from 56 ships for two and a half days. This targeted both of Fort Fisher's fronts. On January 15 at 3 p.m., 8,000 Union soldiers landed at the Land Face. While ships shot over the uppermost batteries, the Union troops entered the fortification through Shepherd Battery. Thus, the Confederate soldiers found themselves battling behind their walls, and were forced to retreat.

Altogether, the land battle lasted six hours. At nighttime, General William Whiting, who had been injured during the battle, surrendered as Commander of the District of Cape Fear. He was then imprisoned, where he died March 10, 1865. The Confederates who had been captured and were not wounded were taken to the Federal Prison located at Point Lookout Maryland and assigned to Company E, 3rd Division of Prisoners. Those Confederates that were wounded were admitted to Hammond General Hospital and upon recovery were discharged and transferred to the main prison complex. Hammond General Hospital was outside the Prison Compound at Point Lookout, Maryland. Many of the guards in the Prison at Point Lookout were former slaves that had joined the Union ranks.

This information is publicly available from "Selected Records of the War Department Relating to Confederate Prisoners of War, 1861-1865; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M598, 145 rolls); War Department Collection of Confederate Records, Record Group 109; National Archives, Washington, D.C." and is available online via[1][2]

The battle was the largest amphibious operation until the Second World War.


After the fall of Fort Fisher, the trading route toward Wilmington was cut. On February 22, the Union occupied Wilmington definitively. The war officially ended three months later.

Because of natural sea attrition, just few of the original sand mounts have survived. Nevertheless, a part of the original Front-Side fence has been reconstructed.

Fort Fisher State Historic Site[]

The site has been declared national historic landmark and is now part of Fort Fisher State Recreation Area which features the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, the Fort Fisher State Historic Site museum and a visitor center. Undersea archaeology is also practiced around the site.

The museum features a map of the 1865 battle with three-dimensional models of Fort Fisher and Battery Buchanan. The map features a narration of the battle and fiber-optic lights to show the troop activities and locations. Other exhibits highlight aspects of the battle, life at the fort, Union and Confederate soldiers' clothing and gear, weapons and armaments from the period, local cultural and natural history, Fort Fisher's history during World War II, and excavations and artifacts found at the fort.[3]

Visitors can take a tour around the reconstructed areas of the fort with trail marker displays. A restored 32-pound seacoast cannon is located at the Sheperd's Battery, and is fired on special occasions. Scheduled guided tours are given daily, and special costumed tours are held occasionally.[4]

The Magazine explosion[]

Shortly after sunrise on January 16, 1865, Fort Fisher's main magazine exploded — a tremendous blast that killed at least 200 men of both sides.

The tragedy sparked a heated debate, as the Union victors were eager to blame the Confederates for dastardly behavior. But the previous night's giddy celebration among the Federals had spawned many a drunken reveler; and the accident occurred despite the posting of guards at the fort's magazines.

An official Court of Inquiry determined the following:


After mature deliberation upon the foregoing evidence the court finds that the following are the main facts, viz:

Immediately after the capture of the fort General Ames gave orders to Lieut. Samuel M. Zent, Thirteenth Indiana Volunteers, through Capt. George W. Huckins, Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers, acting assistant adjutant-general, Third Brigade, Second Division, to place guards on all the magazines and bombproofs. Lieutenant-Colonel Zent commenced on the northwest corner of the fort next [to] the river, following the traverses round, and placed guards on thirty-one entrances under the traverses. The main magazine which afterward exploded, being in the rear of the traverses, escaped his notice, and consequently had no guards from his regiment or any other. That soldiers, sailors and marines were running about with lights in the fort, entering bombproofs with these lights, intoxicated and discharging firearms. That personas were seen with lights searching for plunder in the main magazine some ten of fifteen minutes previous to the explosion. The court do not [sic] attach any importance to the report that a magnetic wire connected this work [fort] with some work on the opposite side of the Cape Fear River.


The opinion of the court, therefore, is that the explosion was the result of carelessness on the part of persons to them unknown. The court then adjourned sine die

Brevet Brigadier-General, U.S. Volunteers, President of Court.
Captain Fourth New Hampshire Volunteers, Acting Assistant Inspector-General and Recorder.
United States War Department. The War of the Rebellion, A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901. (Series I, Vol. 46, Reports, pp. 430-431).[5]

See also[]


External links[]

Coordinates: 33°58′18″N 77°55′10″W / 33.971666666667°N 77.919444444444°W / 33.971666666667; -77.919444444444

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