Civil War Profiles: The Civil War in Wilmington, N.C.


When the newly formed Confederacy provoked a fight with the North by attacking Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861, both sides were aware that the South lacked the manufacturing capacity to sustain a war. Knowing the Rebels would have to rely on foreign sources for weapons and equipment, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of Southern ports.

The need to circumvent this barrier led to the lucrative business of blockade-running by Southern ships and those of foreign countries. Large European vessels carried weapons and equipment for the South to midway points such as Nassau, Bermuda and Havana, and from there, smaller and faster steamers carried the cargo past the blockade into Southern ports.

As the war progressed, the federal military was able to close Southern ports at Norfolk, Va.; New Bern, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Fernandina and Jacksonville, Fla., on the Atlantic Coast; as well as Pensacola, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and New Orleans, La., on the Gulf Coast.

In October 1864, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant approved an expedition to close the seaport at Wilmington, N.C., the South’s last lifeline to the outside world. Grant knew elimination of this safe harbor for blockade-runners would ultimately force Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to surrender his army.

During the war years, Wilmington — a cosmopolitan city of some 10,000 on the Cape Fear River, some 26 miles from the Atlantic Ocean — was the most active port in the Confederacy.

To close Wilmington, Grant organized a joint attack with the U.S. Navy; however, he was concerned that Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, an influential Massachusetts politician turned military officer, would be in charge of leading the task force to close Wilmington.

Grant’s fears were realized after Butler’s poor planning and excessive delays in launching the effort against Wilmington led to the attack being called off on Dec. 25. But Grant wasted little time in organizing another effort to shut down the Rebels’ lifeline.

Once Wilmington was captured, its railroads could be used to supply and reinforce Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s planned march northward from Savannah through the Carolinas following his devastating “March to the Sea” through Georgia. To head a second seaborne assault, Grant chose Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry to lead the ground forces, with Adm. David Porter as commander of an armada that included 60 warships, in addition to transports carrying almost 10,000 troops.

On Jan. 13, 1865, Terry’s infantry went ashore by boat to the north of Fort Fisher, which guarded the entrance to the Cape Fear River, and entrenched, while the Union fleet rained thousands of shells on the fort, causing considerable damage and casualties. Terry’s infantry attacked and captured the fort after overcoming stubborn resistance by about 2,000 Rebel defenders.

A few weeks later, Grant went to Fort Fisher to help plan the capture of the city of Wilmington, farther up the Cape Fear River. A Union ground offensive, supported by naval gunboats, forced the Rebels to retreat from Fort Anderson and Sugar Loaf Hill, the last strongholds defending Wilmington.

When the city fell on Feb. 22, 1865, federal forces gained control of the port and rail lines that would soon be used to support Sherman’s army. Less than two months later, Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Va., demonstrating that the capture of Wilmington was important to bringing an end to the war.

In January 2003, when I visited Wilmington, the Cape Fear Coast Visitor’s Bureau arranged tours, including the Bellamy Mansion Museum — Dr. John D. Bellamy’s 22-room home, built by free blacks and slaves, including formal gardens, a carriage house and slave quarters.

Bellamy’s daughter, Ellen Douglas Bellamy, later published a melancholy memoir titled “Back with the Tide,” which echoes Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” in describing life in the Old South.

For further reading, see “Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign” by Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. To learn more about visiting Wilmington, N.C., contact the Visitor’s Bureau at (910) 341-4030.

Next on the agenda is a tour of Montgomery, Ala. — the first capital of the Confederacy.

Tom Ryan is the author of the multiple award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War;” of which signed copies available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point