With the neutralization of Mobile, the only remaining major Confederate Port was Wilmington, North Carolina. The city was major Atlantic Ocean port city which served as a lifeline for Confederate trade with Europe. The city was located 30 miles upstream from the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
For its time, Wilmington was a rather large city, being the 13th in population in the Confederacy with 9,553 in the 1860 census. That made it about the same size as Atlanta, Georgia.The port traded cotton and tobacco in exchange for foreign goods, such as munitions, clothing and foodstuffs.
The city was the terminus for the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad which transported freight through Petersburg to Richmond. By the middle of 1864, the railroad became a virtual lifeline of supplies for the Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The loss of the port facilities at Wilmington would spell slow starvation to the defenders at Petersburg.
The Union Navy found that blockading Wilmington was very difficult. There were two outlets out to the Atlantic Ocean that required blockade ships to be positioned on either side of Smith Island. The channels were rather shallow and were protected by a number of fortifications.
There were two paths to gain access to the Cape Fear and Wilmington: Old Inlet, to the south and west of Bald Head Island, and New Inlet, formed during a major hurricane in 1769, to the north of Bald Head Island. The existence of two inlets resulted in a crucial advantage: guided by the Confederates, the blockade runners simply had to change course unexpectedly, alternatively between the two inlets.
In order to hold the port open for blockade runners, the Confederate Army sited a number of fortifications to defend the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The largest of these was Fort Fisher which was sited along a peninsula that protected the river. The fort was named for Colonel Charles F. Fisher of the 6th North Carolina Infantry who fell at the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run).
Fort Fisher had both a land defense and a sea defense plus a battery at one end. The land face was 1,800 feet long over 15 dirt mounds. It had 25 guns which were positioned at 32 feet above sea level. In the mounds there was a tunnel network plus magazines for ammunition. In front of this wall of dirt, there was a 9 foot tall fence of wooden stakes.
The sea defense was one mile long and had a total of 22 guns at 12 feet above sea level plus two large batteries at the ends. Two additional bombproof-structures were also constructed to house the hospital and the telegraph office. The Buchanan battery was built at the extreme tip of the peninsula.
Fort Fisher was equipped with a variety of artillery pieces. This weaponry include a number 8 inch Columbiads, a few 10 inch Columbiads, a variety of 32-pounder rifled guns and Brooke rifles. An 8 inch Blakely was mounted in the Northeast Bastion. The innovative 150 pound Armstrong rifled gun was placed along the sea face.
To protect the guns barbette carriages were installed around each of the guns. These were early protective circular armor to protect the gun and its crew.
Siege weapons included 4.5 inch Parrott Rifles at the Shepherd Battery, and two 24-pound Coehorn Mortars and one 10 inch seacoast mortar along the land face. Along the entrance was stationed a 12 pound Napoleon-M1857 and a 3 inch Parrott Rifle. The middle sally port along the fort’s landface was protected by 2-12 pounders.
Fort Fisher was not the only defensive fortification guarding the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Both inlets had been seeded with obstacles and torpedoes (mines) that required the blockade runners to have an escort to enter the estuary.
Forts Caswell, Campbell, and Battery Shaw on Oak Island, along with Fort Holmes on Bald Head Island guarded the Old Inlet entrance to Cape Fear. Fort Pender built at Smithville. Smith Island, guarding the New Inlet, had a battery sited on it. Opposite the island on the mainland, there was Battery Lamb with a battery of 10 inch guns. A short distance up the river was Fort Anderson with 13 additional guns to prevent the penetration of the Cape Fear River. Throughout the passage upriver there were additional obstacles in the water.
The Wilmington defense was truly a formidable one and it would require a huge effort to defeat the Confederates.