Kure Beach, NC – Fort Fisher, the remains of a Confederate Civil War earthen fort, is located in the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area at the southern end of Kure Island, NC on what is now known as Pleasure Island, but was then known as Federal Point or Confederate Point. Fort Fisher was placed where it is to help protect the entrance to the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, NC which was upriver from Fort Fisher. The fort consisted of land-facing defenses, which faced north, looking back up the island and sea-facing defenses which faced out onto the Atlantic Ocean. The land-facing defenses held 25 guns mounted in 15 mounds which were connected by underground tunnels. The sea-facing defenses stretched for a mile along the Atlantic Ocean side of the island and were equipped with 22 guns including a 150 pounder Armstrong Gun. Because of the strong earthworks and how heavily the fort was, Fort Fisher was called “The Gibraltar of the South.”
There were two battles at Fort Fisher in which Union Forces attempted to take Fort Fisher and close access from the port of Wilmington. The first Battle of Fort Fisher occurred in December 1864 and was unsuccessful. The second Battle of Fort Fisher occurred in January 1865 and successfully closed the port of Wilmington.
The Union Army of the James under General Benjamin Butler and U.S. Navy North Atlantic Blockading Squadron attempted to take Fort Fisher in December 1864. On 23 December 1864, the Blockading Squadron began bombarding Fort Fisher before Butler’s troops arrived and the USS Louisiana, a steamer packed with explosives, was run aground next to the fort in the hopes that its explosion would put the fort out of commission. The shelling caused minor damage to the fort and blowing up the USS Louisiana failed to cause any damage. At this point, Butler believed that by starting the bombardment early, the assault had been telegraphed, enabling the Confederates to bring up reinforcements (Hoke’s Division of the Army of Northern Virginia had been sent to the area). Ultimately, he disregarded Grant’s orders to take the fort, or if unable to besiege it, and brought what troops had been put ashore back on their transports and gave up on the assault. As a result, Butler was sacked by Grant and a force under General Alfred Terry would try again in January.
On 13 January 1865, the Second Battle of Fort Fisher began when General Terry landed his forces on the island between Fort Fisher and Hoke’s Division. Part of Terry’s force was detailed to block Hoke. The main part of Terry’s force assaulted the land-facing defenses of Fort Fisher while a landing force of Marines and Sailors was sent to attack the sea-facing defenses by Admiral Porter. On 15 January, the Blockading Squadron began bombarding the sea-facing defenses, knocking out all but four of its guns. Hoke tried to send reinforcements to Fort Fisher, but less than half made it to the fort. An attack by the Marines and Sailors on the point where the sea-facing and land-facing defenses met was repulsed, but it distracted the Confederates while Terry’s force attacked the fort at “The Bloody Gate.” After heavy fighting, Terry’s force managed to get into the fort through the gate. After hours of fighting, with the Union troops supported by gunfire from Admiral Porter’s gunboats, Fort Fisher was surrendered by its commander Col. William Lamb.
The Second Battle of Fort Fisher was an important victory for the Union. Wilmington, NC had been the Confederate States of America’s last open port and when the Union took Fort Fisher, Wilmington was closed. Within a month, the Union Army would move north and capture Wilmington. The Confederacy no longer had much hope of keeping its armies supplied. It also destroyed any lingering hopes of European recognition. By April, Confederate armies including Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia would surrender and the fighting of the Civil War would come to an end.
Coastal Georgia residents could think of Fort Fisher as somewhat of a Fort McAllister on steroids as far as its construction goes, but it served a purpose more like Fort Pulaski did. Just as the port of Savannah was closed when Fort Pulaski fell, so did the port of Wilmington when Fort Fisher fell. Having visited Fort Clinch, Fort McAllister, Fort Pulaski, and Fort Sumter/Fort Moultrie, it was good to add Fort Fisher to the list of east coast Civil War forts that I’ve visited and add to my understanding of how the Atlantic ports were closed. If you’re interested in Civil War History, Fort Fisher should be on your list of Civil War historic sites to visit.