Fort Fisher: Gibraltar Falls

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Map of the Cape Fear River and the approaches to Wilmington, N.C. from C.S.A. Engineer Surveys. [Washington, DC: The Norris Peters Co., ?, 1862] Map. Courtesy Library of Congress.

As the Union warships sailed away from Cape Fear on December 27, 1864, Colonel William Lamb, Fort Fisher’s commander, wired Richmond, “This morning … the foiled and frightened enemy left our shore.”Richmond rejoiced as Wilmington, North Carolina, remained the Confederacy’s only outlet to the world.

Bragg Takes Command

Lamb quickly organized repairs to the minor damage the fort suffered during the bombardment. Both he and Major General W.H.C. Whiting knew the Federals would soon return. General Braxton Bragg had recently assumed command of the District of North Carolina. He rebuffed every request for reinforcements to the fort’s garrison. Bragg did not believe that the Federals would return and thought it more prudent to defend Wilmington.   Read more

First Assault on Fort Fisher: Ben Butler and the Powder Boat Scheme

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Fort Fisher, N.C., Interior view of first three traverses on land face, 1865. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had long recognized Wilmington, North Carolina, as the key blockade runners’ haven in the war. He had tried to create an expedition to capture Wilmington’s prime defender, Fort Fisher. Welles, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, conceived an attack where monitors would pass through Cape Fear’s Old Inlet and bombard Fort Fisher from the rear. A great idea: however, this mode of assault was impractical as the new Passaic-class monitors had too drafts too deep to enter the river. The Federals; nevertheless, did not forget about Cape Fear.

CONCEPT CONCEIVED

The Federals knew that Wilmington needed to be closed; yet, they also recognized the magnitude and extent of the Cape Fear defenses. Fort Fisher was key to General Robert E. Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The food, weapons, ammunition, clothing, and medicines that Lee’s army relied upon all came from Wilmington, North Carolina. If this port city were to be captured, Lee would have to abandon his trenches outside of Petersburg.   Read more

Fort Fisher: Defender of the Cape Fear

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Union Attack on Fort Fisher, NC, January 1865. Robert Knox Sneden, cartographer. Courtesy National Archives.

On April 19, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the Confederate coastline from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rio Grande. Wilmington, North Carolina, eventually became the leading haven for blockade runners on the east coast. Located 18 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington was only 570 miles from Nassau in the Bahamas, and 674 miles from Bermuda. 

Several factors facilitated the port’s blockade-running success. Wilmington was situated as an Atlantic railhead for major railroads leading up to Virginia and inland to Charlotte, North Carolina. Most importantly, the Cape Fear River had two entrances: the Old Inlet and the New Inlet; and there were major shoals off these entrances, including Frying Pan Shoals. This caused the US Navy to position their blockaders in a 50-mile arch. Even with almost 50 ships on station at any given time in 1864, the Union ships could not deter blockade runners from making dashes in and out of the Cape Fear.     Read more