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 is today known as Pleasure Island. Because of the roughness of the
seas there, it was known as the Southern Gibraltar.
The city of Wilmington is located 30 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
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
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. W. 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:
Zeke's Island 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.
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 workers from nearby plantations. Some Native Americans, mostly
Lumbee Indians, also had been brought to assist with work on the
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
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.
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.
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.
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, along
with a few 10 inch. Barbette carriages were installed around each of the
canon, and the canon extended along both faces of Shepherd Battery and
Mound Battery. Siege weapons included 4.5 inch Parrott Rifles at the
Shepherd Battery, and a 24-pound Coehorn Mortar and two 8 inch mortars
along the land face. Along the entrance was stationed a 12 pound
Napoleon-M1857 and a 3 inch Parrott Rifle.
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 over either Charleston or Wilmington.
2,400 men were at Fort Fisher, and they had insufficient training for
defending against land attack. Because of demands from other
battlefronts—particularly Richmond—the defense was slowly augmented by
local veteran forces from North Carolina. Meanwhile, some special measures
were also taken around Fort Fisher. For example, Cape Fear River was
further filled with more "torpedoes", and a breastwork was built at the
northern vicinity of the fortification in order to contain any landing
Because of alcoholism and other personal problems, Gen. Lee removed
Whiting from command, and Gen. Braxton Bragg was assigned as the new
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.
On December 15, 1864, Jefferson Davis mused 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 Maj. Gen. 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 the 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 total command of all Confederate forces in the Wilmington
The Union attack started on December 24, 1864, by means of Admiral
Porter's naval bombardment. It was so effective that the firepower of Fort
Fisher was temporarily silenced because some of its gun positions
exploded. This allowed the Navy to land the Union infantry. The landing
force was intercepted by the arrival of Hoke's troops. The Union attack
was thus effectively thwarted, and on December 27 Benjamin Butler ordered
the withdrawal of his 1,000 soldiers who were still on the beach.
By direct order of Grant, Butler was replaced by Major General Alfred
Terry, and thus 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.
The first attacking phase of strong bombardment from 56 ships lasted two
and a half days. It targeted both of Fort Fisher's fronts. On January 15
at 3 p.m., the disembarking took place. It comprised 9,000 Union soldiers
who landed at the Land Face. While ships shot specifically over the
uppermost batteries, the Union army reached the fortification and entered
through Shepherd Battery. Subsequently, the Confederate soldiers found
themselves battling behind walls, and they 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 captured and was
imprisoned for life. The Confederates who had been captured were taken to
prisons at New York.
The battle was the largest amphibious operation until the Second World
After the fall of Fort Fisher, the trading route toward Wilmington was
cut. On February 22, the Union occupied Wilmington definitively. As he
predicted, General Lee was able to hold out only three months after the
fall of Fort Fisher.
Because of natural sea attrition, just few of the original sand mounts
have survived. Nevertheless, a part of the original Front-Side fence has
The site has been declared national historic landmark and a state
recreation area which features the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher,
a museum and a visitor center. Undersea archaeology is also practiced
around the site.
That night a company of New York soldiers slept on a grassy spot that was
also the roof of the fort's main powder magazine. A pair of drunken
sailors with torches stumbled into the magazine at dawn, touching off an
explosion that killed or wounded another 104 Yanks.
Porter, a lifelong navy man, instructed his volunteer
sailors-turned-soldiers to "board the fort on the run in a seaman-like