Fort Fisher State Historic Site in New Hanover County, North Carolina

Photo by Michael Kleen

The fall of Fort Fisher in January 1865 marked the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in North Carolina.

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The Union Army and Navy made two attempts to capture Fort Fisher during the American Civil War. The first, in December 1864, was unsuccessful. The second battle, fought from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15, 1865 between Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry and the Confederate garrison commanded by Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting and Col. William Lamb, was a complete Union victory.

After Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s embarrassing failure in December 1864, Generals Adelbert Ames, Alfred Terry, Charles Paine, and Admiral David Porter were determined to take Fort Fisher and close the Confederacy’s last trading port. These supplies were critical to keeping Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia fighting in the trenches around Petersburg, Virginia.

On January 12, 1865, the Union fleet returned, this time carrying approximately 9,600 troops and 2,260 sailors and marines. Alfred Terry planned a three-pronged assault: a division of United States Colored Troops commanded by Charles J. Paine would attack Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division south of Wilmington, Adelbert Ames’ division would attack Fort Fisher from the north, and 2,000 sailors and marines would attack from the sea.

Col. Lamb and his 1,900-man garrison stood little chance in the face of this overwhelming assault. To make matters worse, Hoke’s division withdrew to defend Wilmington, and Maj. Gen. W.H.C. Whiting personally arrived to tell Lamb, “You and your garrison are to be sacrificed.”

The Confederates repelled the disordered Union beach landing on the morning of January 15, but Ames’ assault from the peninsula later that afternoon was tenacious. Despite confusion caused by a high number of casualties among his officers, Ames’ men were able to breech Fort Fisher’s defenses after hours of brutal fighting, and desperate counter-charges were unable to dislodge the victorious Yankees. The remaining Confederates were forced to surrender.

Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.

After the war, Fort Fisher fell into disrepair. Natural erosion and construction on US 421 and a WW2-era landing strip further deteriorated the earthworks. A small rectangular stone marker was added in 1921, followed in 1932 by a 24-foot tall granite column topped with a bronze eagle designed by Charles C. Johnson and dedicated to Confederate soldiers.

In 1961, the site was declared a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places five years later. A museum filled with artifacts and dioramas tells the story of the fort’s construction and role in the war. Today, you can tour the grounds but the fort’s interior is off limits to visitors.

Fort Fisher State Historic Site is located at 1610 Fort Fisher Blvd South in Kure Beach, North Carolina south of Wilmington. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (closed Mondays), and Sunday, 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm, Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission is free. For more information, call (910) 251-7340 or email fisher@ncdcr.gov.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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