THE GIBRALTAR OF THE SOUTH HAS FALLEN

I have come to share your fate…”-General W.H.C Whiting (January, 15th 1865)

Written By: Kevin Ward | Photographed By: Arthur Green (Black & White Photographs Courtesy of New Hanover Public Library)

I have been accused once or twice of being a history lover; if I am, I have come by it, honestly, from my father. He was the first to tell me things like what the Revolution was and who our first president had been, but the thing he was most passionate about was the Civil War. We had a painting on our wall of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on horseback; it was simply titled “The Last Meeting.” I remember asking my pop about that painting. He wasted no time and invited me to sit on the couch as he told me about our War Between the States. He started my passion that day to learn as much as I could about not just the men in the painting but the entire war itself.

It was such a pivotal few years in our nation’s history In the broad view it was the North vs. the South but from a more human perspective it was brothers fighting brothers and friends killing friends. It was not until the election of Lincoln in 1860 that the long-running animosity over slavery and states’ rights between the two regions of our country finally came to a boiling point. Lincoln was a known abolitionist and the first president from the Republican Party, a political party founded with the intent of stopping the spread of slavery to new territory and states; this caused panic in the Plantation class of the South.

I will not go into all the details of the war, but as we know, the war started with the shelling of Fort Sumter in April of 1861. By June of 1861, 11 states had left the Union and formed the Confederacy. The four years that followed saw giants like Lee and Grant map out battle plans to ensure victory for their side, and hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives on those battlefields.

When we think of these battles, we’re reminded of the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia where the first battle occurred, or the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, the turning point of the war, or the Battle of Appomattox Court House (also in Virginia) where it all ended with Robert E. Lee surrendering his Army of Northern Virginia to Grant. You may not think of North Carolina, but it was home to a few battles and even more skirmishes in those four years. The most important battle in our state happened right down the road at Kure Beach. I say most important because the outcome of that battle helped bring about the end of the war. It was of high priority for he Union forces and Lincoln himself.

In August of 1864, the Confederate Port in Mobile Alabama fell to the Union Navy; this left the already struggling Southern war effort with only one seaport, Wilmington, NC. This meant that all the much-needed supplies for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could only come through there.

The sea entrance to Wilmington was protected by a single but powerful fortress named after Colonel Charles F. Fisher of the 6th North Carolina Infantry. Fort Fisher physically may not have looked much like a classic fort, but was just as impressive as any stonework structure. Designed to be an earthwork fortification, it was built with mostly sand and earth as opposed to bricks and stones. This was done in some small part to conserve building material, but far more importantly sand and earth proved to be more effective in absorbing explosions and shellfire.

When originally designed in 1861, the defense was rather paltry for the task they were needed for. That changed in 1862 when Colonel William Lamb was put in command of the defensive structure. He turned the Fisher into an opposing citadel with over 40 artillery pieces and 2000 troops; that would give anyone second thoughts before attacking it. It was such a threatening defense, it was given the nickname of “The Gibraltar of the South.”

The earthwork fort defense was first put to the test in December of 1864 when Union forces attempted to overtake Fisher in a daring assault that lasted from the 23rd till the 27th. In what is now known as the First Battle of Fort Fisher, the Southern defenders were able to repel an assault by Union Major General Benjamin Butler. Butler had no choice but to withdraw after his defeat, but he planned to return.

Almost immediately after their defeat, the Union started work on plans for a second assault on the fort. Cutting off the Confederate’s supplies were essential to victory, so Fisher had to fall.

By the 13th of January, 60 warships loaded with enough munitions to level a city weighed anchor off the coast of North Carolina. On the 15th, the second siege of Fort Fisher started when gunboats opened fire on the Forts seaside defense. By midday, they had destroyed all but 4 of the forts big guns. Fisher had around 1,900 defenders, while the Union’s combined army and navy landing forces were nearly 10,000 strong. Needless to say, the numbers were not in Fort Fisher’s favor.

Confederate Major General W.H.C. Whiting commanded the District of Cape Fear and had gone to the Fort to personally lead the defense after his request that reinforcement be sent from Wilmington fell on mostly deaf ears. They would eventually send 1000 men to help the fort, but less than 400 made it to the battle.

The first of the Union ground assaults were largely an unorganized mess of troops rushing the fort’s walls. General Whiting and his men were able to rout the attack and stop them from making any gains. The attack, however, drew Confederate attention away from the river gate, which is where another Union assault was preparing to occur—a true example of divide and conquer. This charge was more of a success; the Union was able to seize some of the forts. With the help of the Union fleets deadly accurate bombardments and their superior manpower, by 10 p.m. the Confederate Garrison was completely defeated. General Whiting, who had been wounded several times during that battle, had to surrender to Union General Terry as he lay on a cot in a makeshift field hospital (he would eventually die from his wounds as a Union prisoner).

About a month after that, our fair city of Wilmington also fell to Old Honest Abe’s boys in blue. If not clear before then, it became crystal clear that the Confederacy days were nearing an end.

Today only about 10% of the fort remains, but it is not hard to imagine as you gaze at the sea how it must have looked that day in 1865. Dozens of Union ships on the horizon, and a large earthwork wall lining the coast with cannon ready to fire. However, if you need help picturing that, you are in luck, as there is a museum on the site that is overflowing with knowledge and even replica cannons to help get your mind in that space. Admission is free to the museum, although they do appreciate donations.

Every year, Fort Fisher Historic Site and Friends of Fort Fisher host a Living History event on the site, and the 152nd anniversary is no different. You can expect Cannon firings as well as period authentic reenactors all during the day. This fun and informative event is free to the public and runs from 10 p.m.- 4 p.m., so get the family and some friends together and learn about the crucial battle that happened right here! 

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