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Friday, August 12, 2011

The Greatest Civil War Battle You've Never Heard Of

By McKenna Darby

A Civil War-era view of Battery Buchanan, the highest battery at Fort Fisher. Thanks to the fort, Wilmington, N.C., was the last Confederate port to fall to the Union.

Shiloh. Antietam. Cold Harbor. Gettysburg.

Most Americans, even if they don’t remember the details of the U.S. Civil War’s great conflicts, will never forget their names. But one of the war’s greatest offensives – the largest combined land-sea assault in the history of warfare until D-Day – may be the greatest Civil War engagement you’ve never heard of: The First and Second Battles of Fort Fisher.

Even today, the eroded remains of Fort Fisher, built under the command of Confederate Col. William Lamb, stand at the southern tip of New Hanover County, North Carolina, on a thin strip of land wedged between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.

From its highest batteries, the fort’s guns could pick off any ship of the Union blockading squadron foolish enough to stray within five miles of the Carolina coast. Known as “the Confederate Goliath,” the earthwork fort guarded New Inlet, the main access from the Atlantic into the Cape Fear River, which twists and turns 17 miles until it reaches the scenic port city of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Wilmington, which is still a port today, as well as a thriving resort town, was the Confederacy’s leading port for most of the Civil War, thanks in large part to geography. With Norfolk and Baltimore in Union hands almost from the start of the war, Wilmington was the Confederate port closest to the main battle lines in Virginia. The city also was a quick four-day sail from Bermuda, one of the Confederacy’s chief sources of supply. The Wilmington & Weldon railroad, which ran from Wilmington north to Virginia, easily moved everything from rifles to medical supplies to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army and the Confederate capitol in Richmond.

Fort Fisher was as important to Wilmington as Wilmington was to the Confederacy. Its guns kept the Union naval blockade so far from shore that blockade runners managed to slip into Wilmington on an almost daily basis. Fort Fisher was so vital to the Confederate war effort, in fact, that Gideon Welles, US Secretary of the Navy, lobbied throughout the war for soldiers to help in attacking the fort, but failed to win the cooperation of Union General Ulysses S. Grant, who preferred to use his troops to keep the pressure on Lee.

Early in 1864, however, with his re-election in doubt and the war going badly, President Abraham Lincoln desperately needed a win. Convinced by Welles that closing Wilmington could provide the boost he needed, he asked Grant to reconsider. On the advice of William Tecumseh Sherman that cutting off the Confederacy’s last source of supply was well worth the risk, Grant agreed to support an attack on Fort Fisher.

War is a disorganized business, though. By the time the first assault finally launched on Christmas Eve 1864, Sherman had taken Atlanta, Lincoln had been reelected, and the political and strategic importance of felling Wilmington had diminished. Although they had sustained the South for three years, Wilmington and Fort Fisher became minor footnotes in the story of the war.

It’s a quirk of history that has haunted me since I first visited Fort Fisher thirty years ago, so it’s no surprise that Wilmington and the fort in the last year of the war became the backdrop for my manuscript Traitor to Love. Although their sacrifice is little remembered, the actions of those who fought and died at Fort Fisher helped to hasten the end of one of the saddest chapters in our nation’s history. Theirs is a tale well worth knowing, and I hope the story I've woven around it will help to attract more people to explore the history behind the fiction.

McKenna Darby writes historical novels with elements of suspense and romance. Visit her at http://mckennadarby.com

Seduced by History Blog is hosting a month-long contest in August.  One winner will receive a ‘basketful of goodies.’  All you have to do is check in on each blog during the month, look for a contest question to answer andSeptember 1-5, 2011 send in your answers toseducedbyhistoryblog@yahoo.com.

Prizes award to one lucky winner include:  Victoria Gray’s book "Angel in My Arms",  "Spirit of the Mountain" package from Paty Jager,  Cynthia Owens’s book  "Coming Home",  a Kansas basket from Renee Scott, Anna Kathryn Lanier’s ebook “Salvation Bride and gift basket, “Stringing Beads - Musings of a Romance Writer” by Debra K. Maher,  Eliza Knight’s ebooks “A Pirate’s Bounty” and “A Lady’s Charade”,  Anne Carrole’s book (that's my book:) “Return to Wayback,” a 4 gb jump drive, a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card, and more!
All entries must be received by midnight Monday, September 5, 2011 to be eligible for the drawing. A winner will be chosen from all those eligible on or about September 6, 2011 and contacted by email.  Odds of winning will depend on the number of total number of entries received.

Here's my question: I've given you the date for the start of the First Battle of Fort Fisher. When did the Second Battle start?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting, McKenna. I don't recall learning of this imprtant battle in either of my college classes. Thank you for sharing this. I can see how it could make for the backdrop of a tension filled story.

Oh, I admit. I looked up the answer. January 12, 1865 with a land attack on January 15th which lasted only 6 hours.


Angelyn said...

Great post! I had always grown up on family tales (no doubt heavily embroidered) of the Fort Sumter bombardment from Charleston.

I can see where Fort Fisher's story can get lost over the years.

Thanks for sharing...

Sandy L. Rowland said...

Love these posts! I learn every time. I didn't know anything about Fort Fisher. It sounds like a perfect backdrop for your story.

Thanks for sharing.

Caroline Clemmons said...

You're right, I'd never heard of this battle. Thanks for the lesson. You never know when a story like this will spark a story idea.

McKenna Darby said...

Thanks so much for stopping by Jenn, Angelyn, Sandy and Carolline! I'm thrilled you found the story interesting. With enough readers like you, maybe Ft. Fisher will finally get the attention it deserves.

And Jenn, make sure to email your answer to my question (and the other questions posted on the blog this month) to the address at the bottom of my post. Your answer is absolutely right, but posting it here doesn't count. I don't want you to miss out on a chance at that yummy goodie basket!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I had no idea all that history revolved around the forts. Thank for sharing. I found it all something worth knowing.

Julie Robinson said...

Thanks for a great post. Being a Louisiana 'Southern Belle' married to a Connecticut Yankee (in King Arthur's Court), I know that we probably couldn't have married a hundred years ago back in 1889, at least not as easily. And even now, there were/are culture clashes. LOL

I shall have to add this post to my repertoire of Civil War books.

Keena Kincaid said...

I've been to Fort Fisher! I think it would make the perfect backdrop for a Civil War story. Even now the grounds are rather moody and imposing.

Too bad it's such a little known piece of the Civil War. It's a story worth telling.

Debby Lee said...

Nice post, thanks for sharing.

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Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.