Fort Anderson, North Carolina

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Fort Anderson and the American Civil War


Fort Anderson
Fort Anderson, North Carolina.jpg
Fort Anderson, North Carolina

Today, Fort Anderson remains largely intact and the atmosphere is calm, but 150 years ago it was the scene of a struggle between two ideologies during the American Civil War. This photo shows the approximate center of the crude fort, while Battery A, not seen, was located to the left during the Civil War, and Battery B, not visible, was to the right. The Cape Fear River is just beyond the mounds, and about 150-200 yards to the right is the remains of the St. Phillips Church.
Fort Anderson was a large earthen fort made of earth and sand. While it sounds like some primitive, cheap defense compared to those expensive brick and mortar forts of Sumter and Pulaski, the earthen fortress, unlike brick, rock, mortar, was nearly impervious to cannon and artillery fire. Forts similar to Anderson had to be taken by other means, such as assault or siege.
Riverine boats were also used to battle earthen forts of the Civil War (1861-1865). With their shallow drafts, these brown-water navy boats could employ mortars capable of firing projectiles at very high arcs and down into the fort. After several hours of shrapnel raining down on the interior of an earthen fort, and with the inability to answer because its artillery batteries were now silenced or disabled, surrendering of the fort was often the outcome. And unless the bombproofs, the bunkers, withstood the barrage, there was the added risk of magazines exploding. So there were a variety of ways to force these forts to capitulate.

Fort Anderson / Saint Philips Church Interior
Fort Anderson.jpg
Fort Anderson, North Carolina

After decades of calm, the site of Fort Anderson once again entered the forefront of history in a national storm, the Civil War. In 1861 the Confederate States of America decided to build a large fort at the site as part of the river defense of Wilmington. Touted as the Cape Fear River Defense System, the forts and batteries from the mouth of the Cape Fear to the port of Wilmington had been approved by Gen. Robert E. Lee himself. The Cape Fear was an essential route for supplies arriving by blockade-runners and moving by rail on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad from Wilmington to Petersburg and Richmond for General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The importance of the region's railroad can not be overstressed, because it was the sole supply route for Lee's army during the Siege of Petersburg. To protect the strategic port city of Wilmington, the Confederacy would build a series of forts and batteries along the Cape Fear River.
The Confederate army used manual labor to construct the large sand fortification originally named Fort St. Philips. There were two batteries, each with five cannons overlooking the shipping channel and providing protection to blockade runners. (See The Blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina). In February 1865, following the fall of Fort Fisher at the mouth of the river, Union forces repositioned to attack Fort Anderson. Federals attacked from the land and river. After three days of fighting, the Confederates evacuated the fort at night. Union gunboats started firing at first light; unaware Federal soldiers were breaching the walls of the fort. The infantry frantically waved sheets and blankets to stop the deadly fire from their own forces. There was a one-day fight north of the site at Town Creek before the Federals occupied Wilmington on George Washington's birthday, February 22, 1865.

Fort Anderson Historical Marker
Battle of Fort Anderson Civil War History.jpg
Fort Anderson Historical Marker

(Right) Fort Anderson was one of many forts along the Cape Fear River protecting Wilmington, a port city, which was the largest city in North Carolina during the Civil War.


Present-day Fort Anderson
Fort Anderson.jpg
Present-day Fort Anderson

Completed in 1768, St. Phillip's Church was constructed when the nation's Founding Fathers reigned and declared Independence from Great Britain. Although it took some 14 years to complete, it only took the British a single-day to burn it to the ground during the American Revolution. 
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, archaeologists uncovered foundations from Brunswick's earliest days. The most visible structure is the hulk of St. Philip's Anglican Church with its surviving walls dating back to 1754. Another interesting foundation is Russellborough, an old sea captain's house that was used by royal governors Tryon and Dobbs.
The visitor center houses several displays that cover the time periods of both the old town and the fort. In the lobby is a colorful mural created by Claude Howell and Catherine Hendricksen depicting a scene from a Spanish attack on the town in 1748. A cannon currently on display was recovered from the river in 1986 and is believed to be from the Spanish ship Fortuna, which blew up in the river as the townspeople regained control of the port.
The remains of homes, businesses, and other buildings bear witness to the story of Brunswick. Along with artifacts from the Civil War and the imposing mounds of Fort Anderson, this site offers a unique look at two fascinating periods of American history. On February 26, 1970, the St. Philip's Church Ruins was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

"For there are deeds that should not pass away, And names that must not wither." —plaque in St. Philip's Church

Adapted from Fort Anderson, North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

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.

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Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.


Recommended Reading: American Civil War Fortifications (1): Coastal brick and stone forts (Fortress). Description: The 50 years before the American Civil War saw a boom in the construction of coastal forts in the United States of America. These stone and brick forts stretched from New England to the Florida Keys, and as far as the Mississippi River. At the start of the war some were located in the secessionist states, and many fell into Confederate hands. Although a handful of key sites remained in Union hands throughout the war, the remainder had to be won back through bombardment or assault. This book examines the design, construction and operational history of those fortifications, such as Fort Sumter, Fort Morgan and Fort Pulaski, which played a crucial part in the course of the Civil War.


Recommended Reading: Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History. Reader’s Review: In the thirty years since this book was published, one always hoped another would equal or surpass it. None has, or perhaps ever will. It is a marvelous history of the Forts along the American Seacoast, both Atlantic and Pacific, and even the Philippines. …Any Fort enthusiast must read this book. The author captures so much information, so many views, so much perspective in so few pages, the book is breathtaking. It is easily the finest book on its chosen subject, which is why it never goes out of print. “If forts interest you, read it, period.” Continued below...

The photographs from the author's collection, the army's files, the National Archives, etc., make it an invaluable edition. But the text, the clear delineation of the periods of fort building since 1794 in the US, and the differentiation of the periods, are so worth while. Ray manages to be both terse, and pithy. It is a great tribute to any author to say that. “This is a MUST read for anyone interested in the subject, even one only interested in their own local Fort, and how it relates to the defense plans of the United States when it was built.” “[T]here is NO better book to read on the subject.”

Recommended Reading: Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.

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