Written by: Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. | Photography obtained from the Library of Congress, except where indicated
Dr. Fonvielle is an associate professor in the Department of History at UNC Wilmington, and is the author of books and articles on the Civil War in North Carolina, especially Fort Fisher and Wilmington. Visit his website at www.chrisfonvielle.com
History remembers Fort Fisher at the south end of New Hanover County as the site of the two heaviest U.S. Navy bombardments and one of the largest joint army and navy operations of the Civil War. Every year, Fort Fisher attracts 600,000 tourists, more than all of North Carolina’s other state historic sites combined.
Fort Fisher became a state historic site in the late 1950s, but half a century earlier, veterans of the two battles fought there at Christmas 1864 and in mid-January 1865, had lobbied the U.S. Congress to designate it a national military park. In 1906, Reverend James A. Smith, a Baptist minister from Wilmington, formed the Fort Fisher Survivors’ Association soon after visiting the ruins of the old fort where he had been wounded and captured in the second battle. He was lucky to count himself among the survivors.
Fort Fisher, the Confederacy’s strongest seacoast fortification, guarded New Inlet, the northern entryway into the Cape Fear River for commerce vessels, known as blockade-runners, that smuggled supplies through the Union naval blockade of Southern seaports along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. By 1863, Wilmington was the Confederacy’s principal seaport and by the following year, its most important city. In late 1864,
General Robert E. Lee warned: “If Wilmington falls, I cannot maintain my army.” The message was clear. The survival of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and thus the Confederacy depended upon Wilmington remaining open to trade with European countries, especially Great Britain. Fort Fisher was crucial to protecting the “Lifeline of the Confederacy.”
James A. Smith, a seventeen-year-old private from Robeson County, N.C. who served in the 1st Battalion North Carolina Heavy Artillery, helped defend Fort Fisher against the two Union attacks. After a Confederate victory in the first battle at Christmas 1864, Union forces returned less than three weeks later for another determined effort to take the mighty stronghold, to close the Cape Fear River to blockade running, and to capture Wilmington’s railroads and the river as part of final military operations in the Carolinas.
After more than two days of intense naval bombardment, January 13-15, 1865, some 7,000 blue-uniformed soldiers, sailors, and Marines launched a ground assault against Fort Fisher. Much of the combat early on occurred at the west end of the fort’s massive earthen ramparts near the riverfront. Here a chest-high wall of sandbags and two field cannons guarded an opening through a stockade fence where the main road from Wilmington entered the works. The fighting was so intense that the site became known as the “Bloody Gate.”
Captain James L. McCormic and his men of Co. D., 1st Battalion N.C. Heavy Artillery, manned at least one of the cannons at the “Bloody Gate” to stave off the Union onslaught. When McCormic’s company entered Fort Fisher as reinforcements, a few days before the battle, his haversack was filled with “nice eatables” sent to him by a lady friend, Jennet McLean, from back home in Robeson County. He also carried a five pound bucket of “fine, golden butter.”
Unable to hold the bucket of butter while commanding the cannon crew during the fighting, Captain McCormic gave it to Private James A. Smith with the promise that when the battle was over, he would share its contents with him. Smith hung it on his belt just as the enemy made another charge. Smith was quickly shot down with a severe wound to his mouth, and a few moments later Captain McCormic was killed.
Union soldiers soon overran the “Bloody Gate” and seized the Confederate survivors, including Private Smith. Marched with his captured comrades about one mile north of Fort Fisher, Smith realized that still strapped to his waist was Captain McCormic’s bucket of butter, which he refused to surrender to the Yankees. Distraught by the death of his commanding officer and friend, Smith later claimed that he would have “greased the guard with its contents rather than hand it over to him as one of the trophies of war.”
Union forces captured Fort Fisher that night, January 15, 1865. With blockade running into Wilmington now closed, General Lee could no longer arm, equip, and feed his army, and he surrendered to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia less than ninety days after Fort Fisher’s fall.
To garner support for preserving the remains and history of Fort Fisher, the Fort Fisher Survivors’ Association held veterans’ reunions in Wilmington in 1907 and in Utica, New York two years later. Reverend James A. Smith, one of the organization’s vice presidents, attended both large gatherings. So too, did the Union soldier who had captured him at the “Bloody Gate” in 1865—Corporal Benjamin F. Seelye of the 117th New York Infantry. “Once Were Foes But Now They Are Friends” read the caption underneath photographs of Smith and Seelye as elderly men in a report on the Utica reunion printed in the Wilmington Morning Star on September 5, 1909. A more poignant image of the two old veterans shaking hands in an act of reconciliation is in the possession of one of Smith’s great, great grandsons, Burrows Smith, a real estate developer from Wilmington. On the reverse, “TJC” scribbled a note that reads: “Your grandfather & the dam[n] Yankee (!) that captured him at Fort Fisher.” Some Southerners still harbored hard feelings toward Northerners in those days.
Reverend Smith died in 1914, and although unsuccessful in convincing Congress to appropriate funds for Fort Fisher as a national military park, he was successful in initiating the movement that eventually led to it becoming the Fort Fisher State Historic Site.