The enemy was hitting the beach! Colonel Thomas M. Jones was stunned by what he saw through his field glasses as he stood upon the ramparts of Fort Caswell on Oak Island. Peering eastward into the distance, he observed Union sailors going ashore on Bald Head Island. No Confederate soldiers were stationed over there, so the blue-uniformed intruders landed uncontested.
Gravely concerned, Jones quickly dispatched troops over to Bald Head, directly across Old Inlet at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Before they reached the enemy’s beachhead, however, the Union sailors had shoved off to return to their ship.
After getting a report from his reconnaissance party, Colonel Jones telegraphed headquarters upriver in Wilmington: “Yesterday [September 6, 1863] one of the enemy’s gunboats sent ashore two boatloads of men. I think the enemy is planning to occupy the island before we do, and therefore request permission to keep one of my companies over on Bald Head, or at least a detachment of men and a piece of artillery.”
The local Confederate high command shared Jones’s anxiety about the security of Bald Head Island. Less than two weeks prior to the Federal landing, Major General W.H.C. Whiting, the commander of the District of the Cape Fear, had instructed engineers to find a suitable spot on Bald Head to construct an artillery battery. A fortification was desperately needed to keep the U.S. Army and Navy from attempting to capture the vacant island, and to bolster the Confederate defenses guarding Old Inlet, the main entryway into the Cape Fear River. “The occupation of Bald Head on our part is a matter of necessity, daily growing greater. It should be held by a large force,” Whiting informed his superiors in Richmond. “This matter of Bald Head is of very great importance.”
Given the natural beauty and serenity of Bald Head Island today, it is almost unimaginable that it was the site of so much military activity during the American Revolution and the Civil War. But it was.
The Battle of Moores Creek Bridge was the first full-scale engagement in North Carolina during the American Revolution. Fought near Wilmington on February 27, 1776, American Patriots intercepted and defeated American Loyalists, most of them immigrants from Scotland, as they marched from Cross Creek (modern Fayetteville) toward Brunswick Town on the lower Cape Fear River. There the Loyalists, who supported the British government in its struggle against the colonies, had planned to join forces with regular British troops coming by sea from New England and Ireland to assist North Carolina’s recently deposed royal governor, Josiah Martin, regain control of his lost colony, and then launch an ambitious assault into South Carolina.
Between late March and early May 1776, roughly 5,000 Redcoats, under the command of Generals Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis, finally arrived for the first phase of Martin’s campaign—an invasion of the Cape Fear River Valley. Upon learning of the Loyalists’ licking at Moores Creek, the British retaliated by marauding up and down the Cape Fear River. They plundered plantations, liberated slaves, and burned Brunswick Town.
In late May, Clinton and Cornwallis largely abandoned the Cape Fear to go after Charles Town, South Carolina instead, but left behind several warships to blockade the river and at least one regiment of troops, the 71st Regiment of Foot, to occupy the estuary.
The enemy’s continued presence and raids in the area greatly annoyed Patriot residents. On September 6, 1776, an American expeditionary force mobilized at Snow’s Point below Brunswick Town for an assault on Bald Head Island. Its target was Fort George, a palisade work named for the ruling monarch, King George III, constructed by British troops in the northwest sector of the island. Although remains have never been found, the work was probably located in what is today the marsh between Lighthouse Creek and Old Baldy Lighthouse. The island’s landscape has undergone significant change since 1776. Ferried across the river on transports, 150 soldiers of the 4th N.C. Provincial Troops commanded by Colonel Thomas Polk, made landfall at Buzzard’s Bay on the north end of Bald Head Island, marched down the present day east beach, and then turned west to make their assault.
Fort George’s garrison managed to repulse the attack with the assistance of the warships Cruizer, Falcon, and Scorpion that bombarded the Americans from their anchorage near Old Inlet. As the Patriots attempted to retreat back across the river from their landing zone at Buzzard’s Bay, British naval forces rowed upstream to intercept them. After an exchange of cannon fire, however, the Redcoats withdrew. Occurring only two months after the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Fort George on Bald Head Island, N.C., was arguably the first amphibious operation in United States military history. By November 1776, the British had evacuated the Lower Cape Fear and did not return for more than four years.
Confederate troops that occupied Bald Head Island during the Civil War made no mention of British Fort George in their letters and reports, if any evidence of the old fort even existed eighty years after the War of Independence. Nevertheless, possession of the island became just as important to them as it had been to the British.
By the summer of 1863, Wilmington was the main port of entry for commerce vessels—known as blockade-runners—that smuggled military arms, equipment, and supplies through the Union naval blockade of the South. So vital was the trade to the Confederacy’s war effort, that the supply route through Wilmington became known as “Lee’s Lifeline” and the “Lifeline of the Confederacy.” More blockade-runners traded at the Tar Heel town than all the other Southern seaports.
One of the biggest concerns for General W.H.C. Whiting, who commanded the District of the Cape Fear for most of the war, was the security of Bald Head Island. The stubborn vigilance of Union blockading ships, the menace they posed to maritime trade and commerce, and the threat of an amphibious assault were constant reminders of the tenuous grip the Confederates held at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Undefended as it was, Bald Head was the most vulnerable position, yet none was more important. As Whiting pointed out to General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederacy’s main army: “Bald Head is the key of the harbor, affecting both entrances” into the Cape Fear River—Old Inlet to the west and New Inlet to the north.
Due to a lack of troops, laborers, and resources, the Confederate army did not occupy Bald Head for almost two-and-a-half years after the war began. When Union sailors went ashore in early September 1863, however, the Southerners had little choice but to do the same. Soon the island was abuzz with activity as soldiers—working side-by-side with enslaved African Americans, free blacks, and white convicts—cleared portions of the maritime forest, cut roads, and converted homes into quarters and buildings into storehouses. Old Baldy Lighthouse became a supply warehouse. They also constructed earthworks, cannon emplacements, and ordnance magazines. In October 1863, Whiting named the rapidly expanding works Fort Holmes for General Theophilus H. Holmes, a native North Carolinian and former commander of the state’s coastal defenses.
By late 1864, Fort Holmes was one of the most formidable fortresses along the Atlantic seaboard. It’s massive sand ramparts stretched for about a mile-and-a-half and bristled with heavy seacoast cannons. “I had the satisfaction of seeing for myself the works on [Bald Head Island],” wrote Lieutenant William Calder of the 1st Battalion N.C. Heavy Artillery, “and I [am] convinced that from that direction at least we are impregnable.”
The works greatly strengthened the network of defenses protecting Wilmington against an enemy assault General Whiting was convinced would soon occur. Although uncertain of the point of attack, he was sure Bald Head Island would be a high priority for Union forces. To counter an attack there, he stationed 1,100 soldiers at Fort Holmes, more than any other fortification in the Lower Cape Fear. The principal garrison unit was the 40th North Carolina Troops, commanded by Colonel John J. Hedrick.
Such defenses would be needed to safeguard Wilmington, which General Lee desperately needed to remain open to trade with the outside world. “If Wilmington falls,” he stated, “I cannot maintain my army.” The survival of both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate government depended on Wilmington’s survival.
When Union attacks on Wilmington finally came in the winter of 1864-1865, Fort Fisher was their target and not Fort Holmes. After Fisher finally fell to the largest land and sea operation of the war on January 15, 1865, the Confederates abandoned Fort Holmes within thirty-six hours. The evacuating soldiers burned the barracks and storehouses and their contents and then withdrew upriver to forts closer to Wilmington. Blockade running into the South’s last major seaport was effectively cut off. Union sailors came ashore on January 19 and briefly occupied Fort Holmes.
Nature soon reclaimed the area of Confederate military activity on Bald Head, mostly on the island’s west side. When residential development began there in the mid-1970s, remains of the once mighty stronghold of Fort Holmes were discovered. The homeowners’ association has preserved one imposing artillery position, known as Battery No. 4, located on the east end of Bald Head Village. It has also erected a number of bronze markers to commemorate British Fort George, Confederate Fort Holmes, and the wrecks of the blockade-runner Ella off the island’s south beach, and the Union blockader Peterhoff off the east beach. Bald Head Island’s rich history during the American Revolution and the Civil War is today a big draw for residents, visitors, and tourists to the Lower Cape Fear.
Written by Dr. Chris Fonvielle Jr.
Associate professor of History at UNCW
Author of “The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope”.