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Battle at the Beach

Visiting Fort Fisher brings the Civil War to life

By Kelly Twedell

Going to the beach usually means sun, sand and dining with family and friends. This summer why not make a point to stop somewhere new during your trip to the beach? Duck into some unfamiliar spot and you just might learn something, I sure did.

Walking History at Fort Fisher’s Battle Grounds

The American Civil War’s Confederate Fort Fisher came to life for me through Ray Flowers’ story telling and walking tour of the historic site, which is often overlooked by pleasure seekers on weekend trips. Flowers, a tour guide, is a native of Wilmington and, from the enthusiasm he has for sharing the site’s history, it’s clear that Fort Fisher is more than just a job for him.

Fort Fisher protected the vital trading routes of the port at Wilmington from 1861 until its capture by Union forces in 1865. With 682 yards from river to sea, 21 heavy guns across the land face the six tall mounds of dirt and grass still intact today. The land and structures at Fort Fisher stand as a testament to the bloody battle that was lost there.

Take in the wind-battered live oaks, then close your eyes and breathe in the salty air, and you can imagine the 23 heavy guns that once lined the waterfront from the fort to where the aquarium stands today, according to reports left by Colonel William Lamb. Although not trained as an engineer, Lamb spent most of the next two years working successfully to build the fort into the Confederacy’s largest bastion.

On Independence Day in 1862 Colonel Lamb took command at Fort Fisher, and just in the nick of time, too. The week before Lamb’s ship, the Blockade Runner, arrived loaded down with rifles, cannons, gunpowder and anything the troops might need for battle, the entire garrison had gone on an old-fashioned booze bender. Lamb’s first task was to restore order.

By early 1865 the war had escalated and Fort Fisher was under heavy attack. At approximately 3:20 p.m. on Sunday, January 15, 1865 the Union Army signaled the Union Navy to ceasefire. The barrage of fire halted for five minutes before the Union Navy continued and 2,200 strong charged down the beach in a column striking the northeast corner of the fort, while the Federal Infantry stepped up their game, as well.

The assaulting forces were initially three waves strong in each brigade, behind the waves of 900, 1,100 and 1,700 soldiers that came in with targets predetermined, trying to strike the endmost gun in placement on the Fort, all while under gunfire crossing the marsh. The Federal forces were bolstered by 2,200 sailors and Marines, and 3,700 troops in the initial brigade, but would require another 1,700 Yankees.

Across the river where the white loading cranes at Sunny Point now stand, Colonel Lamb’s wife lived with their two small children. She watched much of the second battle through her binoculars. Though Mrs. Lamb was a northerner from Providence, Rhode Island, her sympathies were decidedly southern, as you might imagine. Their love story is corroborated today in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk where Colonel Lamb had a stained glass window crafted by Tiffany’s for $3,500. That’s a lot of money today, and it was a small fortune back then.

Taking the Fort in front, flank and rear, the flotilla of ships was the largest ever assembled in history, 600 canon afloat, and Colonel Lamb said he lost 10 percent of his force before the Infantry was even turned loose.

A ten-inch Columbiad cannon was damaged at Shepherd’s Battery, one of the oldest batteries in the Fort. The smooth bore cannon fired 130 pound round ball three miles. Shepherd’s bombproof rooms were covered and provided protection for defenders. The basic structure of the Fort survived into the 1920s. Fort Fisher was an active military post again in World War II when an airstrip was built across the original land where the visitor’s center now stands. Despite beach erosion, most of the earth forms were intact around 1937.

As the cool winds whip around visitors touring the battle grounds, blowing those gnarled live oaks even deeper into their bent positions, it’s somehow easy to imagine the chaos, noise and blood spilled on the sands, a stunning juxtaposition to the popular beach nearby.