The Cape Fear Museum downtown Wilmington has an extensive collection dedicated to the Civil War Blockade and the Battle of Fort Fisher. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors, military and students, and $3 children 3-17. Historic data, descriptions and quotes are from the museum exhibits.
In April 1862, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade of the Confederates states. During the war more than 130 ships were wrecked, captured or destroyed off Wilmington harbor. However, many more ships reached the port successfully.
“After the Capital of the Confederacy , there was not in the South a more important place than the little town of Wilmington, North Carolina…Through the port were brought all the stores and materials needed, cannon, muskets, and every munition of war, and with medicines, cloth, shoes, bacon, etc.”
– John Johns, Confederate officer stationed in Wilmington, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
The U.S. Navy had to position its fleet along a 50 mile arc to guard against ships trying to enter the Cape Fear River from two separate points.
“From Smithville…both blockading fleets could be distinctly seen, and the outward bound blockade-runners could take their choice through which of them to run the gauntlet…the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blockade-running.
It was, indeed, impossible to do so; the result to the very close of the war proves this assertion; for in spite of the vigilance of the fleet, many blockade-runners were afloat when Fort Fisher was captured.”
– John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner
Models of blockade-running ships
The 1863 Scottish-built Dare was a good example of the ships purposely designed to run the blockade. The Dare did not reach Wilmington. On January 7, 1864, it was destroyed off the coast of South Carolina during its first attempt to break the Union blockade.
Lower Cape Fear residents hoped that Confederate ironclad warships will destroy the Union blockade. The Confederate military contracted with a Wilmington shipyard to build the ironclad Raleigh. It was not an effective warship.
The Raleigh fought in a brief and indecisive battle off Fort Fisher.
While returning from the battle it ran aground and sank.
“The ironclad that scared the Yankee fleet so got aground in the mouth of New Inlet and is reported a total wreck.”
– James W. Albright, on the fate of the confederate ironclad Raleigh, 1864
Civil War weapons: swords, rifles, revolvers
1862 Confederate artillery short sword used by soldiers in hand to hand combat.
1850 foot officer’s saber and scabbard belonging to Captain James Adams Metts, who served in the Wilmington Rifles Guards and the 3rd North Carolina Regiment. Captain Metts was wounded and captured at Gettysburg where he gave his sword to a doctor for safekeeping. The doctor returned it in the 1880s.
Also a Confederate ceremonial set presented to Major John J. Hendrick, 36th North Carolina Troops by the Cape Fear Light Artillery. Probably made by Broyle & Gamble, sword manufacturers in Richmond, Virginia.
1860 U.S. Navy revolver manufactured by Savage Revolving Firearms in Middletown Connecticut and a 1865 holster designed for a Colt revolver used by U.S. Army.
1860 Confederate carbine captured by Union soldier J. Crow in the battle of Crater in Petersburg, Virginia. Other artifacts include a 1863 .58 caliber rifle-musket with lock mechanism manufactured by the Confederate Armory in Fayetteville, North Carolina and a 1861 British made Enfield .58 caliber2-band rifle-musket.
Battle of Fort Fisher
“I commenced the new Fort Fisher, and from that time, the summer of 1862 until the morning of 24th December, 1864, I never ceased to work…having at times over one thousand men, white and colored, hard at work.” - Colonel William Lamb, former commander of Fort Fisher
Inspired by the Malakoff Tower from the Crimean War in Sebastopol, Russia, Fort Fisher became the largest fortification of its kind in the South.
The fort consisted of huge mounds of sands, 20 feet high and 25 feet thick, ideal for absorbing the shock of naval bombardments.
Its strategic location and size made it the most critical component of the region’s defense system.
As the war progressed, Wilmington became the last major port open to the Confederacy and the supply life line to General Lee’s Army in Virginia, making Fort Fisher essential not only to the city but to the entire Confederacy.
“It is a formidable work and the very key & Eye of the Defenses of Wilmington.” – Charles A. Mill, describing Fort Fisher in 1865.
Two major battles were fought at Fort Fisher, and many Union soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor. In January 1865, after a 2 day massive assault by the U.S. Navy, Fort Fisher capitulated and the fate of the Confederacy was pretty much sealed. Soon the war was over.
Check the official Fort Fisher website for battle details, maps, weapons used, armies deployed exhibit photos and artifacts. The Fort Fisher museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 9AM - 5PM and Sunday 1-5PM. Admission is free.
1861 small canister ball used by the Confederate cannons at Fort Fisher.
1865 Sutler’s token issued to the 27th U.S. Colored Troops, “Paine’s Division” as currency to purchase goods. A sutler was a merchant traveling with and providing goods to the army.
Here are more details about the city life during the war and some quotes from the soldiers themselves.
History comes to life in Wilmington, NC!
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