Our Third Anniversary Trip, Part 3 || July 23, 2016 || Fort Fisher State Recreation area & Battleship North Carolina || Wilmington, NC – Featuring the historical side of our trip, brought to you by Curtis!
It just wouldn’t be a trip without at least some history. And lucky you, this history is almost a direct continuation of our last adventure to Morris Island.
On Saturday, we journeyed out to the coast and then South towards Cape Fear, a point of land jutting out into the ocean. This is also the egress of the Cape Fear river, the primary trade route from the ocean to the city of Wilmington. During the Civil War, Wilmington, like other Confederate ports, became increasingly important as the Union navy methodically blockaded and occupied more and more of the Southern Seaboard. In fact, Wilmington was the “last” port to fall into Union hands, but only outlasted Charleston by a few months. (And really, that’s when the ports effectively closed due to blockading, the cities themselves didn’t fall until February 18th and 22nd, Charleston/Wilmington respectively.)
Much like Charleston, Wilmington’s ability to withstand capture and blockade was due to a series of forts guarding both the coast and the river. Prior to the Civil War there were two forts located near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, defending a region now known as “The Old Inlet”. Part of the First and Second System of Seacoast defenses, they were largely outdated and obsolete, primarily because the primary mode of entering the Cape Fear River was through the “New Inlet” near Federal Point, a spit of land between the river and the sea.
After seceding, North Carolina militia seized the preexisting forts, and then set about constructing a more complete system of defense, the center piece of which would be Fort Fisher on Federal Point. Begun in 1861 as a mere battery guarding the inlet, over the course of the war it would become the largest Confederate fort in existence. It was primarily built of mounded soil and sand, making it especially resilient to bombardment. In its end state, it resembled the number 7; the vertical part of the seven extending almost a mile along the coast and the bar approximately 1800 feet long crossing Federal point from River to Coast, defending against any land assault. It was known as the Southern Gibraltar.
Perhaps because of its prominence, there were no assaults made on Fort Fisher until late in the war. By the fall of 1864, the war was going poorly for the Confederates and soldiers were needed more in the field to fight Sherman and Grant than in the forts. With the Fort’s garrison diminished, and with very few targets remaining, General Benjamin Butler and Admiral Dixon Porter organized an effort to reduce Fisher and take Wilmington.
On Christmas Eve, 1864, the Union began a Naval bombardment of the Fort and succeeded in landing a land force, but were soon turned back by the fortuitous arrival of Confederate General Robert Hoke. Butler retreated, disobeying Grant’s orders and was soon relieved.
And, because the Union operated on the premise of, “When at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again with more guns”, a second operation was organized under Admiral Porter and General Alfred Terry. General Terry had likely been present during the assault on Fort Wagner the following year (it was his command that ultimately forced the garrison to retreat) and knew the possible costs of a beach assault.
As such, Gen. Terry coordinated to land his division North of Fort Fisher cutting off General Hoke (who had returned to defend the road to Wilmington) from the garrison. They would then march south and, following an extensive naval bombardment, assault the fort (on the cross of the 7). This was to be coordinated with a second assault by a “motley crew” of sailors and marines assaulting from the beach.
On January 15, 1865, the Navy opened fire from 60 some vessels. The sailors and marines, armed with “cutlasses and revolvers” were supposed to assault the sea wall in three consecutive waves. But, not trained in military tactics, it turned into more of a mass charge. Because of the “slapdash” nature of the sea assault, many of the sailors and marines died. However, this assault managed to draw enough defenders from the landward side to significantly reduce the force opposing the main assault.
There, along the road to Wilmington, right near the river, the Army charged the fort in three separate waves. The Fort Commander, Colonel William Lamb, fought nobly against his assailants, and the battle lasted into the night. But the combination of a depleted garrison, being caught off balance, and the perpetual naval bombardment made the Confederate position untenable and they were forced to retreat. By the next day, the fort was in Union hands, and so too was the Confederacy itself. Within a month Wilmington would be occupied by the Union, and within three, Lee would surrender to Grant.
Today, approximately 90% of the fort is under water due to erosion of the beach with only the cross portion nearest the river remaining (also the site of the fiercest fighting). What remains has been restored to give the general idea of the layout and course of the battle. Visiting the fort is free and is a fun and educational walk if you’re in the area.
After visiting the Fort, we returned to our hotel to wait out the hottest part of the day and then, leaving Charlie behind, went to visit another North Carolinian piece of history: the USS North Carolina (BB-55).
The North Carolina was the lead ship of the North Carolina-class of Battleships (for those who don’t know, the class is always named after the first ship constructed.) Her keel was laid in 1937 and she was commissioned and completed sea trials before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Following the first World War, the “great nations” sought to prevent another great war by limiting the size of battleships being constructed. This effectively halted the construction of Battleships in the United states until the 1930’s. During that time, Japan refused to sign any further treaties and began rebuilding large battleships. The US retaliated with the North Carolina and the Washington (BB-56).
The result was a ship 728.8 feet long, 108.3 at her widest, 40258 tones loaded, a crew of 2339, nine 16 inch guns, and twenty 5 inch guns, along with an array of anti-aircraft guns and cannons.
After Pearl Harbor, the North Carolina was moved to the Pacific where she participated in the Island Hopping campaign in the South Pacific. During her time, she participated in practically every major engagement of the Pacific earning herself the unprecedented number of 15 battle stars (the most of any battleship). She participated in shore bombardments, anti-air defense, and even sank a Japanese transport, although her primary role remained to defend the Aircraft Carriers.
As I mentioned in describing our trip to Patriot’s Point, describing a ship is not like describing a battle, but more like describing a person and what I’ve said only grazes the surface of her illustrious career.
She was decommissioned shortly after the war (1947) having only served for effectively five years. But the age of the battleship was over and the age of the Aircraft Carrier had only just begun. The North Carolina was then donated to the State of North Carolina for a discounted price of $330,000 raised by school children.
Today one may tour most of the ship with a self-guided tour, taking you through most of the common spaces, the engine room, 16″ guns, and bridge. Perhaps the most beautiful portion of the ship is her deck. Originally made of over one acre of teak, by the time she was a museum ship, it was in much needed repair. By chance, senior officials from Myanmar visited the ship and then donated/sold at discount price the requisite lumber required.
By far my favorite portion of the preservation though is the testimonies. Perhaps other museum ships I’ve visited have also had them and I have simply failed to notice, but on the North Carolina, every informational placard has written testimonies from sailors who had served on the ship. They are often quite comical and at the very least insightful into the daily lives of sailors during that time period.
The ship is well worth the cost (which is cheap as far as museum ships go at only $14 per person, and $10 for military!) and is definitely a must see if visiting the Wilmington area.