Battle of Wilmington

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Battle of Wilmington
Port City of Wilmington, N.C. 

Civil War Wilmington History
Battle of Wilmington, North Carolina

Battle of Wilmington Civil War Map
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Civil War Wilmington History Map

Battle of Wilmington
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Battle of Wilmington

Importance of Wilmington: How important was Wilmington, North Carolina? Wilmington was so vital, it was the critical port that supplied General Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. It was protected by a string of forts, including Fort Fisher, the South's largest and most formidable fortress. Several attempts were made to isolate and capture both Fort Fisher and Wilmington: from battles, amphibious assaults, the largest naval bombardment of the conflict, and a massive Naval Blockade spanning some 3,000 miles of Southern shoreline. Once the fort fell into Union hands, so went Wilmington, the remaining port of the Confederacy. Lee would now be denied the critical supplies needed to sustain his army in the field. He had referred to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad as the lifeline of the Confederacy, and when it was captured, the Confederate general would surrender his beleaguered army to Lt. Gen. Grant is merely six weeks.
 
Battle: The Battle of Wilmington was fought February 11 – February 22, 1865, during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and was a direct result of the Union victory at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher. After the fall of Fort Fisher, North Carolina, Wilmington was effectively lost. The city was 28 miles up, or north, the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher and protected by a series of Confederate defenses, known as the Cape Fear River Defense System, along the route. In February 1865, the Union XXIII Corps arrived to reinforce the Fort Fisher Expeditionary Corps, and Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield assumed command of the combined force and moved against the city.

Wilmington to Richmond : A Major Supply Line
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Route from Wilmington to Richmond during the Civil War

Fall of Wilmington: Historical Marker
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The Battle of Wilmington

The Battle of Wilmington consisted of three smaller engagements along the Cape Fear River. Confederate forces under General Robert Hoke occupied the Sugar Loaf Line north of Fort Fisher. On February 11, Schofield attacked the Sugar Loaf Line with Alfred Terry's corps and drove back the defenders. Next, General Jacob D. Cox's 3rd Division, XXIII Corps was ferried to the west bank of the Cape Fear River to deal with Fort Anderson the main fortress guarding Wilmington.

North Carolina Coast and the Civil War Map
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Map shows defenses up the Cape Fear and in the direction of Wilmington

Fort Anderson: Rear Admiral David D. Porter's gunboats sailed up the river and shelled Fort Anderson silencing all 12 guns. Under the direction of Lt. Commander William B. Cushing the Federal Navy constructed a Quaker (or fake) monitor to trick the Rebels into detonating their water mines to make way for Porter's gunboats. Both Cushing and Porter were highly pleased with the success of the ploy, but later Confederate reports claimed the garrison was expecting a dummy boat and were prepared. Meanwhile Cox, supported by General Adelbert Ames' division, advanced up the west bank towards the fort. Cox sent the brigades of Colonel Thomas J. Henderson and Colonel Orlando Moore against the garrison itself while Col. John S. Casement and Col. Oscar Sterhl marched through the swamps around the Confederate flank. 

Casement and Sterhl encountered Confederate cavalry and pushed it back after a short fight. The fort's commander, General Johnson Hagood sensed the trap received confirmation from Gen. Hoke to pull back to a defensive line along Town Creek to the north. Just as Hagood's troops began their retreat, Henderson's brigade attacked thus taking the fort rather easily along with a few prisoners.
 
(Right) Coastal Carolina map.
Map also shows current military installations:
(A) Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station
(B) Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base &
New River Marine Corps Air Station
(C) US Army Sunny Point Ocean Terminals
 
Town Creek: Cox pursued Hagood from Fort Anderson, and on February 19 caught up to the Town Creek Line while Terry's remaining troops advanced up the east bank of the river towards the Confederate's Sugar Loaf Line manned by Gen. Hoke's troops. By this time Hoke actually outnumbered Terry as Ames' division was now on the west bank with Cox. Therefore Ames was ferried back across again, but since Fort Anderson had fallen and Porter's fleet was now behind the Sugar Loaf Line, Hoke quickly withdrew to avoid encirclement.

Hagood had burned the only bridge across Town Creek to slow down Cox and entrenched on the north side of the river. Cox was eager to attempt his encircling plan that, due to Hagood's retreat at Fort Anderson, the Federals had been unable to complete. So on February 20 Cox's troops found a single flat-bottom boat in the river and used it to ferry three brigades across the creek while the fourth fronted Hagood. The Federals then waded through the swamp and attacked the Confederate flank, routing them, and taking 375 prisoners along with 2 pieces of artillery. The next day Cox rebuilt the destroyed bridge and Schofield's artillery crossed and along with Porter's gunboats both were within range of the city itself. General Bragg saw the hopelessness of the situation and ordered the city abandoned. On February 22 Cox's division marched into the city.

Fort Fisher (A) to Wilmington (B) Route Map
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Fort Fisher (A) to Wilmington (B) route during the Civil War

Wilmington Confederate Monument
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Wilmington Confederate Monument

(Right) Confederate Soldiers Monument at Oakdale Cemetery, Wilmington, N.C. This monument was dedicated on May 10, 1872.

Aftermath: The Battle of Wilmington closed the last major port of the Confederate States on the Atlantic coast. Wilmington had served as a major port for blockade-runners, running tobacco, cotton, and other goods to places such as Britain, the Bahamas, and Bermuda. With the port under Federal control, the Union blockade had accomplished its objectives. Bragg next 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 General William T. Sherman's forces. Casualties at Wilmington totaled 1,150. The Union suffered 305 casualties, while confederate casualties were 845.

(Sources and related reading are listed below.)

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. Continued below…

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."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

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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

 

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: 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: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.

 
 
Sources: Kennedy, Frances H., Ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998; National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1, vol 47, Part 1, Page 909; North Carolina Office of Archives and History; Maps courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth (2D) and (3D).

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