Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington

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Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington [January-February 1865]

How important were Wilmington and Fort Fisher, North Carolina, during the Civil War? Wilmington was a vital and critical port that supplied General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. It was protected by the South's largest and most formidable fort, Fort Fisher. Once the fort fell into Union hands, so went Wilmington and it supplies and so went the vital Wilmington and Weldon Railroad -- the crucial supply line to the north. And soon the Civil War would end.
As the battlefields of the Civil War are viewed, a common theme is noted -- railroads. The majority of the conflict's battles were fought along the tracks that were necessary to rapidly move troops, ammunition and supplies to and fro the theaters of the fight. Whereas Wilmington was a bustling port city and formidable Fort Fisher protected it, the region's railroads allowed the flow of goods to the nation's interior as well as to the nearby ships bound for Europe.

Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington Map
Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington.jpg
Civil War Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington Map

"The Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington consisted of the following battles: Battle of Fort Fisher (aka Second Battle of Fort Fisher) and Battle of Wilmington (aka Fort Anderson, Town Creek, Forks Road, Sugar Loaf Hill)."

Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington Map
Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington.jpg
Civil War Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina, Map

Fort Fisher was the stronghold that protected Wilmington and was considered the lifeline of the Confederacy. Without the formidable Fort Fisher, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad that supported Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was vulnerable. While Fort Fisher was under constant bombardment, Grant, to the north, was engaged in the Siege of Petersburg and its railways.

Vintage Civil War Map of Fort Fisher & Wilmington
Civil War Battle of Fort Fisher Wilmington.jpg
(January 3, 1865: Union Map of Operations against Fort Fisher)

The Battles

The Second Battle of Fort Fisher, January 13–15, 1865, was a joint assault by Union army and naval forces against Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, North Carolina, at the end of the Civil War. Sometimes referred to as the "Gibraltar of the South" and the last major coastal stronghold of the Confederacy, Fort Fisher had tremendous strategic value during the war. The Battle of Wilmington was fought February 11–February 22, 1865, and It was a direct result of the Union victory at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher.
The Union army and navy planned several attacks on Fort Fisher and Wilmington, but made no attempt until Dec. 24, 1864. After two days of fighting and little headway, Union commanders concluded that the fort was too strong. The first assault, known as the Expedition against Fort Fisher, had resulted in a Union withdrawal. However, they returned for a second attempt on Jan. 13, 1865, and for more than two days federal ships bombarded Fort Fisher from both land and sea.

Cape Fear Civil War Defense System Map
Fort Fisher and Wilmington Civil War Map.gif
(The Civil War Defenses of the North Carolina Coast)

The Union army returned to Fort Fisher in mid-January, this time under the command of General Alfred Terry, who was chosen by General Ulysses S. Grant, to lead a Provisional Corps of 9,000 troops from the Army of the James. Federal Rear Admiral David D. Porter also returned to the North Carolina coast with 60 vessels of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (The Civil War Blockade Organization  and The Blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina). When Fort Fisher finally capitulated, in concert with Grant's Siege of Petersburg, it allowed the subsequent attack on Wilmington, the South’s last major port and resupply route to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Soon, the Civil War would be over…

Operations Against Fort Fisher and Wilmington
(Fort Fisher Civil War Battle.jpg
(Fort Fisher Civil War Battle Map)

Fort Fisher and Wilmington Civil War
Fort Fisher and Wilmington Civil War.jpg
(Fort Fisher and Wilmington Campaign)

Ca. Union map of Battle of Fort Fisher
Union map of Battle of Fort Fisher.jpg
Civil War Battle of Fort Fisher Battlefield Map

(Right) Vintage Union Civil War map of the Battle of Fort Fisher. It also displays numerous surrounding forts and batteries.

On Jan. 15, more than 3,300 Union infantry, including the 27th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), advanced and attacked. After several hours of fierce combat, Union troops captured the fort. The Confederate army evacuated their remaining forts in the Cape Fear area and within weeks Union forces overran Wilmington. Once Wilmington fell, Feb. 22, the Confederacy’s supply line, including the vital Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, was severed and the Civil War was soon over. (Battle of Wilmington: A History)

Cape Fear and the Confederacy

South of Wilmington, along the Cape Fear River's last 20 miles (30 km), a handful of Confederate forts and batteries protected the daily flow of ships. Also, the channel had been purposely jammed with loads of wreckage and aquatic mines, which were referred to as "torpedoes." The Confederate officers conducted each ship cautiously through this barrier. Particularly at Cape Fear's outlet to the Atlantic, the area was enclosed by a half dozen Confederate positions. The river flowed to the sea through two relatively shallow inlets, which were partitioned by Smith Island. The existence of two inlets resulted in a crucial advantage: guided by the Confederates, the blockade runners were capable of avoiding the Union ships. They simply had to change course unexpectedly, alternatively between the two inlets. Near the beginning of the war, the Confederacy occupied the Federal Point peninsula, which was located at an advantaged location upon Cape Fear's New Inlet.

(A) Fort Fisher to (B) Wilmington Route Map
North Carolina Civil War battlefields.jpg
Two strategic North Carolina Civil War battles

"Wilmington was the port into which the blockade runners were bringing so large a portion of the supplies necessary for the Confederacy that General Lee said if Fort Fisher fell he could not subsist his army." (See Fort Fisher Civil War Battles, by D. H. Hill, Jr.)

Cape Fear Defense System Civil War Map
Cape Fear Defense System Civil War Map.jpg
Fort Fisher to Wilmington: A Massive Defense System

Guardians of the Estuary:
[A] — River Batteries Below Wilmington
[B] — Fort Anderson
[C] — Fort Pender (Johnston), at Smithville
[D] — Defenses at Old Inlet
[E] — Fort Fisher and Battery Buchanan, at New Inlet

(Adapted from: The Wilmington Campaign and the Battles for Fort Fisher, by Mark A. Moore — Da Capo Press, 1999)

The formidable Fort Anderson, one of many forts located on the Cape Fear River Defense System, guarded Wilmington and during a thirteen hour Federal bombardment it sustained three hundred and eighty shells per hour.

Map of Fort Fisher and vicinity, North Carolina
Union Map of Battle of Fort Fisher.jpg
Ca. 1865 Civil War map of second Union plan of attack on Fort Fisher


The loss of Fort Fisher sealed the fate of the Confederacy's last remaining sea port. This was important because the South was cut off from the newly forming industrialized global trade markets. A month later, a Union army under General John M. Schofield would move up the Cape Fear River and capture Wilmington.

On January 16, Union celebrations were dampened when Fort Fisher's magazine exploded killing and wounding 200 Union and Confederate soldiers that were sleeping on the roof of the magazine chamber or nearby. U.S. Navy Ensign Alfred Stow Leighton died in the explosion while in charge of a squad trying to recover bodies from the fort parapet. Although several Union soldiers initially thought Confederate prisoners were responsible, an investigation opened by Terry concluded that unknown Union soldiers (possibly drunken marines) had entered the magazine with torches and ignited the powder.
The Battle of Wilmington, furthermore, closed the last major port of the Confederate States on the Atlantic coast. Wilmington had served as a major port for blockade-runners, carrying tobacco, cotton, and other goods to places such as Britain, the Bahamas, and Bermuda. Now with the port closed, the Union blockade was complete. Bragg ordered bales of cotton and tobacco burned so that they would not fall into Union hands. Schofield's forces were reorganized into the Army of the Ohio and from Wilmington he marched inland to join with the rest of Maj. Gen.William T. Sherman's forces.

Civil War Wilmington Railroad Operations Map
Railroads Civil War Wilmington Operations Fort.gif
Civil War Fort Fisher Operations Map

North Carolina Civil War Map of Battles
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Civil War Battle of Fort Fisher and Wilmington North Carolina Map

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign and the Battle for Fort Fisher, by Mark A. Moore. Description: Full campaign and battle history of the largest combined operation in U.S. military history prior to World War II. By late 1864, Wilmington was the last major Confederate blockade-running seaport open to the outside world. The final battle for the port city's protector--Fort Fisher--culminated in the largest naval bombardment of the American Civil War, and one of the worst hand-to-hand engagements in four years of bloody fighting. Continued below…

Copious illustrations, including 54 original maps drawn by the author. Fresh new analysis on the fall of Fort Fisher, with a fascinating comparison to Russian defenses at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. “A tour de force. Moore's Fort Fisher-Wilmington Campaign is the best publication of this character that I have seen in more than 50 years.” -- Edwin C. Bearss, Chief Historian Emeritus, National Park Service

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Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington [January-February 1865]
Battle of Fort Fisher (aka Second Battle of Fort Fisher)
Battle of Wilmington (aka Fort Anderson, Town Creek, Forks Road, Sugar Loaf Hill)
Related Studies:

Recommended Reading: Rebel Gibraltar: Fort Fisher and Wilmington, C.S.A. Description: Even before the rest of North Carolina joined her sister states in secession, the people of the Lower Cape Fear were filled with enthusiasm for the Southern Cause - so much so that they actually seized Forts Johnston and Caswell, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. When the state finally did secede, Wilmington became the most important port city of the Confederacy, keeping Robert E. Lee supplied with the munitions and supplies he needed to fight the war against the North. Continued below…

Dedicated soldiers like William Lamb and W.H.C. Whiting turned the sandy beaches of southern New Hanover and Brunswick Counties into a series of fortresses that kept the Union navy at bay for four years. The mighty Fort Fisher and a series of smaller forts offered safe haven for daring blockade runners that brought in the Confederacy's much-needed supplies. In the process, they turned the quiet port of Wilmington into a boomtown. In this book that was fifteen years in the making, James L. Walker, Jr. has chronicled the story of the Lower Cape Fear and the forts and men that guarded it during America's bloodiest conflict, from the early days of the war to the fall of Wilmington in February 1865.


Recommended Reading: Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher. From Publishers Weekly: Late in the Civil War, Wilmington, N.C., was the sole remaining seaport supplying Lee's army at Petersburg, Va., with rations and munitions. In this dramatic account, Gragg describes the two-phase campaign by which Union forces captured the fort that guarded Wilmington and the subsequent occupation of the city itself--a victory that virtually doomed the Confederacy. In the initial phase in December 1864, General Ben Butler and Admiral David Porter directed an unsuccessful amphibious assault against Fort Fisher that included the war's heaviest artillery bombardment. Continued below…

The second try in January '65 brought General Alfred Terry's 9000-man army against 1500 ill-equipped defenders, climaxing in a bloody hand-to-hand struggle inside the bastion and an overwhelming Union victory. Although historians tend to downplay the event, it was nevertheless as strategically decisive as the earlier fall of either Vicksburg or Atlanta. Gragg has done a fine job in restoring this important campaign to public attention. Includes numerous photos.


Recommended Reading: The Wilmington Campaign: Last Departing Rays of Hope. Description: While prior books on the battle to capture Wilmington, North Carolina, have focused solely on the epic struggles for Fort Fisher, in many respects this was just the beginning of the campaign. In addition to complete coverage (with significant new information) of both battles for Fort Fisher, "The Wilmington Campaign" includes the first detailed examination of the attack and defense of Fort Anderson. It also features blow-by-blow accounts of the defense of the Sugar Loaf Line and of the operations of Federal warships on the Cape Fear River. This masterpiece of military history proves yet again that there is still much to be learned about the American Civil War. Continued below…

"The Wilmington Campaign is a splendid achievement. This gripping chronicle of the five-weeks' campaign up the Cape Fear River adds a crucial dimension to our understanding of the Confederacy's collapse." -James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom


Recommended Reading: Fort Anderson: The Battle For Wilmington. Description: A detailed but highly readable study of the largest and strongest interior fortification guarding the Confederacy's last major seaport of Wilmington, North Carolina. An imposing earthen bastion, Fort Anderson was the scene of a massive two-day Union naval bombardment and ground assault in late February 1865. Continued below…

The fort's fall sealed Wilmington's doom. More than a military campaign study, Fort Anderson: Battle for Wilmington examines the history of the fort's location from its halcyon days as North Carolina's leading colonial port of Brunswick to its beginnings as a Confederate fortification in 1862 and its fall to Union forces three years later. The fort also had several eerie connections to President Abraham Lincoln's assassination. Today the fort is part of the tranquil Brunswick Town State Historic Site. Fort Anderson: Battle for Wilmington is liberally illustrated with maps and illustrations, including many previously unpublished soldiers' images. It also contains an order of battle, endnotes, bibliography and index.


Recommended Reading: Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear : Running the Civil War Blockade. Description: After the elimination of Charleston in 1863 as a viable entry port for running the blockade, Wilmington, North Carolina, became the major source of external supply for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The story of blockade running on the Cape Fear River was one of the most important factors determining the fate of the South. With detailed and thought-provoking research, author Dawson Carr takes a comprehensive look at the men, their ships, their cargoes, and their voyages. Continued below…

In mid-1863, the small city of Wilmington, North Carolina, literally found itself facing a difficult task: it had to supply Robert E. Lee's army if the South was to continue the Civil War. Guns, ammunition, clothing, and food had to be brought into the Confederacy from Europe, and Wilmington was the last open port. Knowing this, the Union amassed a formidable blockading force off storied Cape Fear. What followed was a contest unique in the annals of warfare. The blockade runners went unarmed, lest their crews be tried as pirates if captured. Neither did the Union fleet wish to sink the runners, as rich prizes were the reward for captured cargoes. The battle was thus one of wits and stealth more than blood and glory. As the Union naval presence grew stronger, the new breed of blockade runners got faster, quieter, lower to the water, and altogether more ghostly and their crews more daring and resourceful. Today, the remains of nearly three dozen runners lie beneath the waters of Cape Fear, their exact whereabouts known to only a few fishermen and boaters. Built for a special mission at a brief moment in time, they faded into history after the war. There had never been ships like the blockade runners, and their kind will never be seen again. Gray Phantoms of the Cape Fear tells the story of their captains, their crews, their cargoes, their opponents, and their many unbelievable escapes. Rare photos and maps. “This book is nothing shy of a must read.”


Recommended Reading: Masters of the Shoals: Tales of the Cape Fear Pilots Who Ran the Union Blockade. Description: Lavishly illustrated stories of daring harbor pilots who risked their lives for the Confederacy. Following the Union's blockade of the South's waterways, the survival of the Confederacy depended on a handful of heroes-daring harbor pilots and ship captains-who would risk their lives and cargo to outrun Union ships and guns. Their tales of high adventure and master seamanship became legendary. Masters of the Shoals brings to life these brave pilots of Cape Fear who saved the South from gradual starvation. Continued below…

REVIEWS: "A valuable and meticulous accounting of one chapter of the South's failing struggle against the Union." -- Washington Times 03/06/04

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Well documented...an easy read." -- Civil War News June 2004

"An interesting picture of a little appreciated band of professionals...Will be of special interest to Civil War naval enthusiasts." -- Civil War News May 2004

"Offers an original view of a vital but little-known aspect of blockade running." -- Military Images 03/01/04

"Surveys the whole history of the hardy seamen who guided ships around the Cape Fear's treacherous shoals." -- Wilmington Star-News 10/26/03

"The story [McNeil] writes is as personal as a family memoir, as authoritative and enthusiastic as the best history." -- The Advocate 11/15/03

“Outstanding depictions of seamen courage and tenacity...Heroic, stirring, and gripping stories of the men that dared to confront the might and power of the US Navy.” – americancivilwarhistory.org

Studies for the following subjects may be found on this page: Operations against Fort Fisher and Wilmington Civil War History, Battle of Fort Fisher, Second Battle of Fort Fisher, Battle of Wilmington, Battle of Sugar Loaf Hill, Battlefields, Maps, 2nd Fort Fisher.

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