A History of Fort Fisher “Fort Fisher After the Battles” (Part 3 of 3)

By Sandy Jackson

[Text was originally published in the August, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]

When finally in the hands of Federal forces following their successful attack on the earthworks, Fort Fisher was still not spared from further destruction.

On the morning of January 16, 1865, a group of drunken United States sailors in search of loot and souvenirs carried a torch into the fort’s main powder magazine. This, the largest of the reserve magazines, contained 13,000 pounds of powder captured along with the fort. The explosion that followed killed or injured another 300 Union men and destroyed a section of the fortification.

After Federal forces occupied Fort Fisher, they began a series of alterations to the earthworks. Apparently the federal government adopted the policy in order to prevent the Confederates from attempting to retake the fort. One individual with the Union navy wrote in February 1865 the only known account of the fort’s alteration. “The Engineer Corps are at work now on Fort Fisher reducing its size and increasing its strength at the same time. Since the capture hundreds of men have been constantly employed dragging, pulling down, erecting and intrenching, and the appearance of the work is entirely changed”.

Erosional forces of wind and rain and the number of relic hunters that searched the weathered ruins after the war likewise caused changes in the historic earthworks. In late 1896 Fort Fisher was once again considered as a defensive installation when the threat of attack from the Spanish Caribbean seemed possible. In preparation for what would later be the Spanish-American War in 1898, the fort was to be “resurrected and armed in the earliest possible time.” Assigned by the United States government to evaluate the effort were John M. Fisher and two other men from Philadelphia. Little if any changes are known to have been made at the fort during that time.

In 1906 Fort Fisher was considered as a potential national park. Although such a plan never materialized, the underlying public interest in preserving the fort had been established. Until World War II, little modification was undertaken at the fort.

Fort Fisher was reactivated as a military base during World War II as part of the Atlantic coastal defensive network. The fort served as part of Camp Davis, a training center located at Holly Ridge. The Fort Fisher installation served mainly for the protection of Federal Point and Smith Island by detecting enemy submarine activity along the coast. A military battery and radar installation were built at Fort Fisher in the summer and fall of 1941.

The Fort Fisher installation “called for 45 frame buildings and over three hundred tent floors for approximately 2,500 troops from Camp Davis”.

The army used the site to practice with 3-inch guns, 37-millimeter pieces, and 155-millimeter seacoast guns. United States highway 421 divided the practice center into two sections-to the east was the firing point proper and to the west were “the utilities and living quarters”. Subsequently added to Fort Fisher was an airstrip that cut across and destroyed part of the land face.

Over half of Battery Buchanan was carried off during World War II for the construction of the bomb-proofs that protected the ammunition bunkers. Additional batteries were constructed along the ocean front as far north as Carolina Beach.

Kure_Beach_Bud_JoeImmediately following the end of the war, many of the facilities were removed or destroyed. The federal government disposed of numerous buildings, including a 350-bed hospital, under the directions of the US. District Engineer and the Real Estate Division of the War Department. Neither the state of North Carolina nor New Hanover County could find a practical use for the structures inasmuch as many were hastily constructed and were not fireproof. [Many of the barracks structures were moved into Kure Beach].

Other remaining structures were required to be removed in the 1950s when the United States military purchased a large expanse of land on the west side of the river at Sunny Point for the location of an ammunition loading terminal, known as the Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU). Nearly all of the lower Federal Point area, including Fort Fisher, fell within the military installation safety buffer zone.

In 1932 New Hanover County purchased one acre of the site from the government and donated it to the state.

Fort Fisher Confederate Memorial at Battle Acre

Fort Fisher Confederate Memorial at Battle Acre

That same year the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at Battle Acre to commemorate the Civil War fort. In the late 1950s, local and state forces joined together to revive the idea of restoring Fort Fisher. A twenty-year-old movement by local citizens to develop Fort Fisher as a park or state historic site was again considered.

With approval and backing for a state historic site, work commenced during the summer of 1960 on a 180-acre tract held by the state of North Carolina under lease from the US. government. A pavilion was constructed at the state site in the fall of 1961. Underbrush was cleared the six mounds and seven gun emplacements within the leased property.

Four years later a museum was built for interpretation of the Civil War fort. In 1962 Fort Fisher became the first property in North Carolina recognized by the Federal Government as a National Historic Landmark — its highest designation for historic properties. The fort is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

During the century since the earthen fort was constructed, sea erosion has obliterated the corner bastion and much of the sea face. Today only about one-half of the land face and Battery Buchanan remain.

Serious erosion problems occurred at Federal Point after the state removed coquina rock the shore just north of the earthworks during the 1920s for use as road construction fill in the building of Highway 421. This loss forced the state in the early 1950s to realign the very same highway that had been built with the use of the coquina rock and to place a small revetment in front of Battle Acre.

By 1968 approximately 200 yards of sea front has been lost to wave action. As a means of preventing any further erosion of what remained of Fort Fisher, the North Carolina Highway Department added a second stone revetment during 1969 and 1970, along the beachfront.

3,200-foot seawall completedat Fort Fisher Museum and Earthworks.

3,200-foot seawall completed
at Fort Fisher Museum and Earthworks.

The latest effort [1995] in the fight to protect Fort Fisher from being claimed by the ocean is the current project to construct a 3,040 foot seawall. Construction of the seawall by Misener Marine Construction, Inc. began in June [1995] and is expected to be completed in one year.

The project, a result of a partnership between the Corps of Engineers and the State of North Carolina, will include multi-layered rubble revetment with tie-ins to natural ground on both ends of the site. Along Battle Acre the revetment will overlay most of the existing rubble. Sand will be placed behind the revetment to form a gentle slope the crest of the revetment to the existing ground. The seawall is expected to halt ocean side erosion of Federal Point for the next fifty years.



Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
1974 ‘Fort Fisher State Historic Site Master Development Plan‘. North Carolina Department of Natural and Economic Resources and North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

1995 “Fort Fisher Revetment Project“. Informational brochure prepared by Fort Fisher State Historic Site, Misener Marine Construction, Inc. and US. Army Corps of Engineers, Wilmington District.

Honeycutt, Ava L. Jr.
1967 “Fort Fisher During World War II“. Unpublished manuscript on file, Fort Fisher State Historic Site, Kure Beach, North Carolina

Lamb, William Colonel.
1896 “Defense of Fort Fisher, North Carolina.” In ‘Operation on The Atlantic Coast 1861-1865, Virginia 1862-1864,
Vicksburg: Papers of The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts’, Vol. IX, 1912 Boston: The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts.

Massengill, Stephen E.
1977 “The Construction of Fort Fisher“. Unpublished manuscript prepared for the Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Wilmington, North Carolina

Rogers, Henry M.
1928 “Memories of Ninety, Years One Mam and Many Friends“. Boston and New York: Houghton Co.

Trotter, William R
1989 “Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, The Coast“. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair Publisher.

Wilmington Dispatch (Wilmington, NC.) 1896, 1906

Wilmington Evening Post (Wilmington, NC.) 1945

Wilmington Star-News (Wilmington, N.C.) 1941

[Additional resources]

1932 Fort Fisher Confederate Monument

Fort Fisher Army Air Field

August, 1995  (pdf) – FPHPS Newsletter

Revolver Found in Ruins Of Fort Fisher Discharges Its Original Cartridges

[The following article appeared in the Wilmington Star on March 6, 1929, and comes the William M Reaves Collection.]

“A Colt revolver, probably detached from one of the soldiers during the battle of Fort Fisher back in 1864, and found recently by S.P. Deil, 701 South Eighteenth street, this city, with a full charge of five cartridges in its chamber, has fired again and with the same charge with which it was originally loaded.

Recently, while scratching about the sand at the ruins of Fort Fisher, once a Confederate stronghold, Mr. Deil ran across the revolver. He plucked the relic out of the hill and proceeded to clean it and also oil the weapon.

This having been accomplished, he pulled the trigger, and much to his amazement, the revolver discharged. Fact that the weapon fired after it and its cartridges had been buried in the sand at the fort and exposed to the elements for more than three score years is considered remarkable.

Colt Model 1849 Revolver - 5 shooter

Colt Model 1849 Revolver – 5 shooter

The revolver is an old “five shooter” and has eight notches on the barrel, which in the language of the gunman means that its owner killed eight men with the weapon.

The battle of Fort Fisher was fought during the winter of 1864-1865.  A fleet of more than 200 federal warships attacked the stronghold December 22, 1864, and shelling it for days withdrew from the attack. Confederates believing they had abandoned their efforts to capture the fort, withdrew several detachments of the army to another sector.

Colt Army Revolver -1860

Colt Army Revolver -1860

Shortly after the fort’s strength had been reduced the Federals returned, landing an army on the mainland below the stronghold, and at the same time stationing a fleet in front of the mound. They attacked from both sides, and unable to withstand the terrific fire, the Confederates evacuated to Wilmington, and the Federals captured the fort, which had protected the entrance to the port of Wilmington.

Mr. Deil believes his relic was lost by one of the Confederate or northern soldiers during this mighty battle, but frankly admits he will probably never learn who owned the menacing weapon. When found the revolver was red with rust and seemingly in a state beyond repair. But since it has been cleaned and oiled it shoots, and probably with accuracy.”

[Text was originally published in the September, 1996 – FPHPS Newsletter]

September 1996 Newsletter (pdf) – Federal Point Historic Preservation Society

Colt Army Model 1860 – The most widely used revolver of the Civil War – Wikipedia

Colt Model 1862 – 5 shooter – Wikipedia


Last Christmas at Fort Fisher – December, 1864

[by Bill Reaves – columnist for the Wilmington Star-News, 12-27-1973]

Fort Fisher Palisades,/i>

Fort Fisher Palisades

It was certainly a cheerless Christmas Eve, 133 years ago inside the high earthen walls of Fort Fisher. The weather was frightful and the Confederacy was on its knees. Each soldier attempted to get some kind of dinner in honor of the holiday, and some were fortunate to receive some meager food boxes from Wilmington and surrounding areas. Some were very fortunate indeed whose homes were great distances away and they had nothing whatever delectable which would impart some memory of Christmas in times past.

Great genius was necessary to create a holiday dinner out of a pound of fat pork, six crackers, and a quarter pound of dried apples. It was not impossible to see a bit of culinary art with apple dumplings, with which some sorghum molasses were not to be despised.

All drills, inspections and even guard mountings were suspended during the cold and icy weather, especially when the wind blew from the direction of the ocean. A man hardly dared poke his nose out of the bunkers or tents, except to go for wood and water and to draw his rations.

Every style of camp architecture was to be found within the fort, including hut, hovel, shack and shed, plus the underground bunkers inside the high earthworks around the fort itself.

Some of the men tried to bring some bit of hilarity and cheerfulness into the camp, and then again some did not. There were mixed emotions all the morning with thoughts of family and home and the downfall of the war effort throughout the South.

On the afternoon of December 24th, 1864, the United States fleet opened fire upon Fort Fisher, the heavy cannonading continuing during the following two days. The booming could be distinctly heard in Wilmington.

Bombardment of Fort Fisher 2Despite the terrific bombardment Colonel Lamb noted that the greatest penetration into his sand defenses was a not more than five feet perpendicularly.

The fleet were all floating in a stately line of battle, three abreast, with iron-clads in the van, and the frigates and gunboats, all trimmed for action, ranging behind.

Very late in the day on the 26th, the firing ceased, and the fleet moved further out to sea.

No serious damage was done to the works, and the men gained high spirits over the retreat of the enemy. In the evening they sang “Lorena” and other Southern songs, and their stringed instruments played lively airs.

There was great anxiety in Wilmington as to the fate of the fort especially on Christmas Day when worshipers in church listened to the rumble of the artillery which accompanied the hymns and words of worship and prayer.

When the word was received that the fort had not fallen to the Union forces, more than one hundred Wilmington ladies, loaded with baskets, visited the fort and offered the choicest foods that they were able to prepare, with the many shortages of stores in Wilmington that the civilian population was suffering.

When the feast was over, Colonel Lamb expressed the appreciation of himself and his men to them for their kindness, and assured them that his men would freely give their lives to defend their homes from the invader. His words were punctuated by three rousing cheers from the garrison.

This was the last Christmas dinner inside the great fortress known as Fort Fisher, on the narrow strip of peninsula, then called Confederate Point.

[Text was originally published in the December 1997 Newsletter of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society.  Images and links added in 2015]

Dec 24, 1864: Bombardment of Fort Fisher begins

The Christmas Battle

Yankee Veteran Tells of Fall of Fort Fisher

[Editor: In last month ‘s issue (Oct., 1996) of the Newsletter we presented a Confederate veteran’s account of the fall of Fort Fisher.

This month, in fairness, we present a Yankee’s account of the Fort Fisher battles and aftermath. The following article by Lewis H. Noe, of Sayville, Long Island, New York, was printed on November 17, 1924, in the Wilmington News-Dispatch, and comes from the William M Reaves Collection.]

“The writer was 14 years old when the Civil war broke out, and was one of the northern Yankee boys, who were anxious to join the Union forces and help to put the ‘Rebels’ out of commission in 30 days. The ‘Rebels’ were described as a ‘bunch of southern outlaws with horns.’

My crying about the New York city recruiting offices, with my plea for accepting my enlistment, for a boy of 14 years, was unavailing, as it was figured out the north had sufficient number of big, grown-up fellows to silence the trouble down south without the aid of boys.

So I went home to my parents at Sayville, L.I., where I was born and reared, and where I hoed corn for another year. At the expiration of that time, Uncle Sam decided he could use 15-year-old boys, thinking this might strike terror among  the ‘Rebels,’ the showing up of numbers, at least.

Soon I was one of 29 boys who joined the crew of 500 – all told – of the wooden steam frigate USS Minnesota, and I became special messenger for Commodore Joseph Lanman. In the winter of 1864 our ship was one of the fleet of 53 vessels assigned to the task of bombarding Fort Fisher, under command of Admiral Porter.

Ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron bombarding Fort Fisher- January 15, 1865

Ships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron bombarding Fort Fisher- January 15, 1865

Our fleet formed a crescent shaped position an half mile out from the fort, an earthworks covering several acres at the mouth of Cape Fear river. Our ship was the most easterly one, the new ironsides and two ‘cheese-box’ monitors lay just inside our ship, over which we shot the most of our shells.

Our ship’s battery consisted of 30 nine-inch Dahlgren (smooth-bore) guns, with [a] 200-pound smooth-bore gun on stem. My position during the three days  bombardment was on the bridge with the commodore, and I was able to see the shells as they left our guns and watch their course and note their hits in and about the fort. During the time of rapid firing it was estimated we threw a thousand shells a minute into the fort.

It was noticeable from shipboard that the fort’s guns were dismantled by our fire, but were often replaced in position by the daring ‘Rebels,’ and the same occurred when the fort’s flagstaff was time and again shot down – it was seen to be replaced with the southern flag still intact.

Our fire set in blazes all of the wooden barracks of the fort, and it appeared to be a warm place for the fort’s garrison, any place outside of their bomb-proof retreats. A 32-pound rifle shell from the fort dropped in one of our ships’ launches on the spar deck, and broke through the boat’s bottom and fell in a coil of rope.

Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher

Naval Bombardment of Fort Fisher – Click

The spar-deck gunners nearest that spot sprang to one side, expecting the shell to explode, when, in my ignorance of danger, I ran and secured the shell and brought it to the commodore on the bridge. The commodore motioned me to throw the shell from the bridge. Having noticed that the shell had its fuse blown out, or probably had been fired as solid shot, I was confident there was no danger explosion. The commodore took courage (possibly from my own coolness), and then made love to the ‘Rebel’ shell, which he kept as a relic of the fight, and the shell has since been engraved on its side, the date of the Fort Fisher battle and fall and that it came from the ‘Rebel’ works as a ‘Christmas Gift.’

On the second day of the battle General Butler landed 6,000 troops under fire of the fleet, but after reconnoitering the ‘Rebel’ works, the federal troops re-embarked. General Butler reported to Admiral Porter that ‘Fort Fisher is impregnable.’

On the third day General Terry, with about 10,000 troops, made the landing and assault on Fort Fisher and this engagement included a hand-to-hand fight from early in the evening until 9 o’clock that night, when the land signals to the fleet announced the surrender of the garrison.

Next morning at sunrise the magazine of the fort blew up, burying alive many of the garrison and Yankee troops, alike, who were at that time enjoying their morning together in the ‘spirit of brotherly reunion.’ At the moment General Terry’s troops made a dash upon the fort, which was faced by a heavy stockade of pine logs, with an inner trench, which had to be passed by means of portable bridges; the crews of the northern fleet manned the rigging and watched the land assault.

Admiral George Dewey, ‘the hero of Manila bay,’ was a lieutenant on board one of the ships in the Yankee fleet. Henry M. Stanley was at the time ship’s clerk on our own ship, the Minnesota. Stanley afterwards became the African explorer, and the writer was a traveling companion of his in foreign lands in 1868 and 1869.

The fall of Wilmington was deeply felt throughout the Confederacy, and by no portion more than by Lee‘s army, which for some weeks had to rely upon the pork brought in through Wilmington to ration his rapidly diminishing troops.

The writer would be pleased to hear direct or otherwise from any of the Confederate garrison of Fort Fisher.”

(signed) Lewis H. Noe.    Aged 76 years in February, 1924.

Union Navy Assault on Fort Fisher

Union Navy Assault on Fort Fisher


Mr. Noe later telegraphed the following to The News-Dispatch:

“Add to my report of the ‘Battle of Fort Fisher:’ One-half of the crews of the Yankee fleet was assigned to making a pretense at storming the face of Fort Fisher, to draw the ‘Rebel’ fire, while General Terry’s troops made the assault from the rear of the fort.

The attacking sailors could do no more than lie flat on their stomachs in front of the palisade.”


[Text was originally published in the November 1996 FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)]

Goliath Falls: Attacks Waged Against Fort Fisher – by Philip Gerard – Our State Magazine


Confederate Veteran’s Account of The Fall of Fort Fisher

[Editor: The following account by Confederate veteran Henry Clay McQueen, then 81 years of age, appeared in the ‘Wilmington Star’, on May 22, 1927.

The article text was compiled by Mrs. Mary B; Heyer, historian of the Cape Fear Chapter of the U.D.C.]

Fort Fisher Mound Battery

Fort Fisher Mound Battery

“My grandfather, James McQueen, came from the Isle of Skye to North Carolina. He married Anna MacRae, my grandmother. Their son, Dr. Edmund McQueen, married Susan Moore, who were my parents. I was born in Lumberton, Robeson county, July 16, 1846.

I enlisted in the service of the Confederacy in 1863 – Company D, First North Carolina battalion heavy artillery, Capt. McCormick.  Major Alex MacRae, father of Capt. Walter G. MacRae, at that time commanding the battalion. I first saw active service at Fort Caswell. I had not been in service long when I was detailed as clerk of the ordinance and next appointed corporal of Company D.

Many of the older men were disgruntled at this but did not show any grudge against me. We were sent to Fort Fisher for the first bombardment. The enemy’s fleet began to assemble December 20, 1864. On Christmas eve a rain of shot and shell was poured on us for five hours. I afterwards learned over 10,000 were fired by the fleet while we were obliged to use ours sparingly and only returned about 670 shots.

Nearly all the soldiers’ quarters were destroyed, many of our guns disabled or dismounted but our loss was insignificant considering the rain of fire we were under. The fleet retired at sun down.

Next day the fleet returned in larger force and a terrific charge of 130 shot and shell a minute was poured on the fort. I have been told that this old town, 20 miles distant, was badly jarred and shaken up. Just before night the firing from the fleet slackened and a body of soldiers having landed under their guns, under General Ben Butler assaulted the fort but was easily repulsed.

Fort Fisher Battle 2Next morning the enemy disappeared. My command returned to Fort Caswell, but we were ordered back. When the fleet returned January 12th in larger force of warships and transports full of veteran soldiers. The ocean seemed covered with gunboats and transports. For three days and nights a furious bombardment continued without cessation from the enfilading ships which formed a semi-circle around our two fronts, tearing the fort to pieces.

Our guns were practically all disabled. About 3 pm. the transports having landed the soldiers up the beach during the bombardment and under our very eyes came at us 10,000 strong. We had about 1,400 or 1,500 men to meet them and they ran over us though the fighting continued within the fort until 9 pm.

I am not guessing at the number of the enemy, I got it from General Curtis who led the assault on our front. Twelve or fourteen of my company were killed outright in the first onslaught, and 25 or 30 wounded.

A few of us were forced back and we fought across the traverses of the fort gradually being forced back by the enemy who had gotten on our flank. One man on my was struck in his head by a fragment of shell and his brains splashed in my face, my hat was shot off and I was shot in the leg.

I got back into a bombproof which had been made a temporary hospital. Here at last after the fighting ceased, came a number of the enemy soldiers and praised us for putting up a good fight, and knowing we had had no grub or rest for three days, emptied their haversacks for us.

I think we lay in this bombproof on the ground for 15 days. Surgeons from the fleet came ashore and dressed our wounds till finally we were put aboard a hospital ship and laid on low cots almost touching one another. During one night the wounded soldiers lying on each side of me died. In the morning the ship’s steward brought the breakfasts around as usual. I ate mine and that of one of the dead men lying along side of my bed.

We were taken to Point Lookout. I was put to bed in a ward of the large hospital. The ward master, a Pennsylvania Dutchman, was kind to me and was amused at the cavalry boots I had on. My clothes and boots were carried off and stored. I never expected to see the boots again. I had bought them in Wilmington a short time before the battles and paid $150. for them.

When my wound healed, I was given crutches and my clothes and boots came back. These boots had high patent leather legs and made me rather conspicuous.  A Yank soldier offered me his shoes and two dollars in greenbacks for them and we traded.

Two real dollars looked mighty big to me at the time. During the last fighting around Petersburg, so many Federal wounded came to the hospital we prisoners had to get out and go in the prison hospital, a mile up the Point. I first got into a ward with several smallpox patients, but as I had been vaccinated when a child, I did not have any concern about that. As I was able to go about, I got along famously being a young fellow, everybody was pleasant to me and I made the best of the situation. Had enough to eat to keep hungry all the time and enjoyed good health.

The “Bullpen” adjoined the hospital enclosure and there were 20,000 men in the “Bullpen.” On the high wooden wall around the prison was a platform. On the platform the guard walked. They were mostly negro soldiers. The men in the pen and those in the hospital were allowed to go swimming in the bay.

One morning I was going through the gate to the water. I was accosted by a negro guard above me who said, “Ain’t you Henry McQueen?” I said “Yes, who are you?” He said he was Glasgow – I recognized him then. He was one of my sister’s servants who had run away and joined the Yankee army. This incident did not interfere with my pleasure, and I was soon plunging in the rolling waves of the Chesapeake Bay.

I had some time before throwing away my crutches, but I still walked with a cane that I had made of a crutch. As I did not want to be ordered out of the hospital into the “Bullpen,” I had made with the hospital people and wanted to stay. I should have mentioned before leaving the general hospital on the Point, news came that President Lincoln had been assassinated in Washington. I was standing reading the bulletin board and a Yankee official came up and said to me, “You had better get inside,” Which I did in a hurry.

I and others were released June 7, 1865 and given transportation by boat to City Point and rail to Petersburg, Danville, Greensboro and on to Raleigh and Wilmington.

Doubtless my experience in the war in comparison with thousands of others in the Confederate army was tame and hardly worth the telling. I have told it this first time at the urgent request of the Daughters of the Confederacy—not that I have any apology for having fought for the right of secession and “pro aris et focis.” Many years ago a French merchant in Paris with whom I was talking about the war said to me, “Your side lost, but not without glory.””

[Text originally published in the October 1996 Newsletter]

Fort Fisher to Elmira – by Richard H. Triebe  – Available at the History Center Bookstore
The South’s Gibraltar  – by Philip Gerard – Our State Magazine


Major James Reilly – Fort Fisher Hero

[Text was originally published in the June 1997 – FPHPS Newsletter]

By Bill Reaves


Fort Fisher Monument
Front face, on bronze plaque at base of Monument:

The Lower Cape Fear has had its share of heroes but none so outstanding as Major James Reilly of Fort Fisher fame.

He was captured when the fort fell during the final battle on January 15, 1865, he and his men made a valiant attempt to save the earthwork bastion against overwhelming odds. Much has been written about his experiences at Fort Fisher but very little has been chronicled about his life before and alter the War Between the States.

James Reilly was born in Athlone, County Rosecommon, Ireland. He came to this country as a young man and soon became a regular in the United States Army during the war with Mexico. He was in General Worth’s column in the assault and capture of Mexico City.

When the “Civil War” began, he was then in charge of the two Federal forts — Caswell and Johnston — at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, when they were taken possession of by North Carolina State Troops.

Soon afterwards, his term of service in the United States Army expired and he entered the service of the Confederate States. He rose to the rank of Major of Artillery. His first wife died about 1877, and on September 28, 1878, he married Miss Martha E. Henry, daughter of William R. Henry, of Columbus County. The Henry family had lived earlier in the Moore’s Creek area of Pender County.

Major James Reilly

Major James Reilly

Reilly, with his new bride, soon constructed a fine frame house in the Maco area of Brunswick County, then called Farmer’s Turnout, or simply Farmers. In addition to building his residence, he donated a piece of property in the same neighborhood for the construction of a Catholic Mission chapel.

The Mission was begun shortly after the “Civil War” in the living room of William R. Henry, Reilly’s future father-in-law. The first congregation consisted of Mr. Henry, his wife, and three daughters, with Father Gross, of St. Thomas Catholic Church of Wilmington, officiating.

At the time, it was the only Catholic chapel in that part of the State, the nearest being the one in Wilmington and one in Fayetteville. It was the only Catholic place of worship between Wilmington and Florence, South Carolina.

Reilly soon became a very active member of the new Mission and he soon saw to it that a Catholic school was started. Miss Kate Sweeney was the first teacher. Later, several ladies of Wilmington taught at the school.

At first, the school was conducted in the church, which was named St. Paul’s, but the enrollment soon grew too large and a separate building was built, called St. Paul’s School. Not only Catholics, but many non Catholics received an excellent education there. The church and school thrived for many years, then eventually the families began to move away. Mrs. Charlotte Williams was the last member of the Congregation and she died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1928.

Major Reilly died at his Brunswick County home on November 5, 1894, and was buried at Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery. A very large procession, consisting of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, the Cape Fear Camp of Confederate Veterans, and a cortege of sorrowing relatives and fiends marched to the cemetery for the burial.

The Catholic Mission which he was so instrumental in starting, soon fell to ruin,  with pigeons making their home in the and the nearby cemetery lost in a forest of weeds. [End]

[2015: Additional resources]

Do any descendants of Maj. James Reilly still live in the area?
Ben Steelman – StarNews

Dr. Lawrence Lee speaks of Major James Reilly – as told to Susan Taylor Block, 1996


A Letter Written from Fort Fisher

Captain Nathan J. Johnson

Captain Nathan J. Johnson

[Editor: The following letter was written by Col. Nathan J. Johnson, 115th New York Regiment, to Col. John S. Crocker in White Creek, New York on January 30, 1865, just two weeks after Union forces captured Fort Fisher.  Colonel Crocker had earlier commanded the 93rd New York Regiment. I am indeed grateful to Alice Begley and the New York State Library, Albany, Documents and Manuscripts, for allowing us to reproduce this letter in our newsletter.]

“My Dear Colonel: The thought has just struck me that you might possibly while away a lonesome moment in your snowbound home in that lonesome town of yours by perusing a letter one of your old Captains who wandered away the old 93rd to seek his fortunes among other scenes other men. I have seized a pen and here goes.

As you see by the heading, I am at Ft. Fisher which the 2nd Division took a notion to take one day and they took it. That is, a portion of the 2nd Div. for we one regiment which has a large amount of that discretion which enables one “to fight another day” together with all those who were new recruits and those who are usually effected by shell fever and brought down only the reliables which amounted to about 2,500. There were about 4 to 5,000 other troops brought down for the purpose of protecting our rear and acting as a reserve in case they were needed, but to the 2nd Div. was allotted the work of attacking Ft. Fisher.

Well we landed on the 13th, in the surf on the beach above the fort and that night built a line of entrenchments across the peninsula or neck of land facing towards Wilmington in order to be protected in our rear. This was finished and the other troops placed in there on the 14th. The Navy meanwhile bombarding the fort “right smart,” although when we took a look at it through our glasses at sunset we could not discover that any portion of it had been knocked down but that it still loomed up against the evening sky with all its formidable proportions of gigantic strength.

Fort Fisher Battle 2On the morning of the 15th we began to prepare for work and get ready to move and about 12 o’clock we got orders to advance which we did, the Navy away as if the dogs of War did “delight to bark & bite” in the meantime. We moved up to within 3/4 of a mile of the fort and then laid us down to sit and wait the cessation of the bombardment.

This finally ceased and we were about to charge when we saw the Marines advancing on the fort with pistols and cutlasses from the east. (we were advancing from a northerly direction) Great Caesar’s ghost! Didn’t we look with some amazement at such a performance. Pistols and cutlasses to storm the strongest work in America with!

Well we looked and onward, onward, onward ran along the lines we started for Ft. Fisher, and before we got half the distance the Marines were running back terribly cut up and defeated, but the 2nd Div. moved in, shot and shell musketry raining down from those devilish parapets like hail but it was no stranger to those troops and not for a singe instant did it retard the advance.

On to the stockade which is cut down in places and up the slopes along the traverses and on the terra plain swarmed the 2nd Div. and inch by inch traverse to traverse from bomb proof to bomb proof did we drive the stubbornly resisting rebels who held their ground with a courage and obstinacy that only brave men can possess.

Battle of Fort FisherThen we fought for seven long, bloody terrible hours until at 10 o’clock pm. the rebs caved in Ft. Fisher passed into Union hands. It was the toughest struggle for length and ever known.

But when we had got into the fort at the north end we found that our job was only begun and at it we met with a determination and coolness rarely if ever evinced. To show you the difficulties of the undertaking, I will briefly describe the shape of the fort and the position of the guns. The fort is semicircular in form with a battery (Buchanan) half or even 3/4 mile in rear of southern end like this [hand sketch included of fort]. The bomb proofs of course opened in the interior.

Now when we had got in at the north end where I have marked an entrance [shown on sketch] a portion of the troops went up the slope out side and a portion went along the terra-plain, as soon as we had gained possession of a few traverses (in each of which was a gun mounted and full of men with muskets) the guns of the battery in the rear began on that portion of the works in our possession.

They could tell by our flags which we planted on each mound as fast as we got a traverse. There were also in the plain back some distance from the works, large numbers of rebs in rifle pits who could enfilade us both on the traverses and on the terra-plain. You will then see that we had our hands full and we got no help from the navy as they dare not fire. But we held on fought on, they were nearly as many as we and better protected but we were going to take that fort and “fight it on that line” if it took all winter and we kept on struggling bleeding dying we kept on until victory rewarded our labors.

We lost heavily especially in officers. Col. Bill Armory in my brigade was killed. Col. [Galusha] Pennypacker of the 2nd was mortally wounded and Brig. Gen. [N. Martin] Curtis commanding 1st, slightly. I lost my adjutant or rather acting adjt. he was standing near me while I was giving him orders about the disposition of a portion of the regiment which I desired to move to another point.

I got out of this engagement all right mainly knocked down by the explosion of a shell but not seriously hurt. 300 officers and 1,000 men killed and wounded.

I had just got back to the regiment and was really unfit for duty for I could not raise my right arm high enough to draw my sword and carried it all day in the scabbard in my left arm.

When we had obtained possession of the fort we were surprised at what we had done. It is the strongest and largest work in America if not in the world. Col. [William] Lamb told me that it was the strongest work in the continent.

The mounds are from 30 to 40 feet above the level plain and the guns are at least 20 feet above the plain. The mound battery is 50 ft high and the guns are placed on the top and all of them are on carriages so you can form some estimate of the size of the type of a mound which is large enough for two guns and carriages when I tell you that those guns are ____ and throw thirty two lb shot.

These works built up as they are upon a level beach to that height and size make one think as he looks at them of the work of the Titans. The next morning we had a magazine explode which maimed in its fallen debris about one hundred men. We got out some alive, but about sixty were killed, some were actually blown to atoms. We found a leg here and an arm there and entrails in another place. It was an awful sight.

Col John S Crocker

Col John S Crocker

There were three officers killed and seven badly hurt among the latter probably mortally, was Col. [Alonzo] Alden of the 169th N.Y.V. The loss of Col. Bill and wounding of Col. Alden put me in command of the brigade and a short time after I came in command I received an order from Gen. [Adelbert] Ames who commands our division that the 3rd Brig. would garrison at Ft. Fisher.

Hence a man of old Washington County was the first Union Commander of Fort Fisher NC. and he took his first lesson in the art of War in the gallant old 93rd under Col. John S. Crocker.

But I must close this long written epistle. I have one request nay, command to enjoin upon you that is not to show this about. Between old friends such egotism may be pardoned but not by the public.

Yours fraternally, Nathan J. Johnson.

[Text was originally published in the January 1997 – FPHPS Newsletter]

Colonel Nathan J. Johnson – 115th New York Infantry

Col. John S. Crocker and Lt. Col. Benjamin C. Butler,  93d New York Volunteers

Col John S Crocker- Lt Col Benjamin C Butler

Col John S Crocker with Lt Col Benjamin C Butler


War Memories of Fort Fisher and Other Forts of the Lower Cape Fear

[Written by “X” only eight years after the War, 1873]
– – Copied By Bill Reaves

Early in September, 1861, being convalescent from a protracted illness, I called by request on Col. S. L. Fremont, at Wilmington, who informed me that on the 20th of August, the commissions of officers not attached to companies had been revoked by the State, and therefore, I “was out of commission”, as they say of old naval hulks; that he, himself, was a mere civilian in command; that Capt. Winder had remained at his work although in a similar plight; that Capt. Childs, who had rendered invaluable service had been ordered South; and that he desired me to go on duty as speedily as possible.

Thus, it happened that soon thereafter, I found myself at the mouth of the Cape Fear. Capt. Winder, for convenience and for other considerations, had located himself at Smithville, where I likewise sought quarters removed from the garrison. At that time, through his energetic action, Fort Caswell had come to wear a very different aspect from its former appearance in the “piping times of peace”.

The fort, it was said, had been rendered bombproof; the magazines were greatly strengthened; heavy traverses, etc., had been erected; the moat put in thorough repair and the extensive basin in front of the Fort was ready to be flooded with from four to six feet of water at the first making of the tide.

Battery Campbell, then intended as a mere outpost, was well underway. Zeke’s Island had been delivered over in prime condition to a garrison and was under command of the indefatigable Hendrick.

At Confederate Point, early in May, Capt. Bolles had thrown up a small fortification known as Battery Bolles; and Capt. DeRosset had assumed command of it. To arm it, the Wilmington Light Infantry rolled their heavy ordnance a considerable distance through the deep sand on the Point and performed other labors that a seemed equally incapable of accomplishment in the absence of ordinary facilities. Their great zeal led them into arduous undertakings, but their perseverance and industry crowned their endeavors with merited success.

Another fortification was now in progress further to the north and near the site of an old work, perhaps of 1812; this I think was under the command of Lt. Col. Meares. It was called after the lamented Fisher and its history and fate well perpetuated the name of that noble spirit.

Capt. Winder’s plan of defenses, if I recollect aright, embraced, besides a fortification on the main land opposite Zeke’s Island, another higher up, afterwards known as Fort Anderson, and on Confederate Point a line of earthworks terminating in a strong redoubt at the head of the Sound. As a groundwork for the future execution of this plan, he erected Battery Gatlin near the head of the Sound, and Battery Anderson nearer Fort Fisher.

These were to be enlarged, strengthened, and perfected as occasion permitted; and then connected with Fisher by a series of breast works, behind which a protected military road was to pass to the rear of redoubt. At Fisher, he was about to construct casemates with palmetto logs brought from Smith’s Island by a Mr. Prioleau.OK

Such was the condition of the defenses on the first day of September. As for the troops, the various commands were orderly and well-drilled.

Lt. Col. Brown had established “regular army” discipline at Fort Caswell; Col. Iverson’s soldiers at Fort Johnston were models of precision in their various exercises; and the others vied with these in regularity of conduct, subordination and obedience to authority.

About this time, a Mr. Eason, of Charleston, brought us a machine for cannon by hand. Rifled ordnance was then a novelty with us; we apprehended that by the operation the old guns might become so weakened as to burst on slight provocation – and were fearful least the experiment would cost us both men and guns.

But the almost incredible reports of the effectiveness of rifled cannon in the Italian campaign decided us to try one gun. In about twelve hours an old smooth bore 32-pounder was converted into a brand new rifled cannon throwing a 64 pound projectile. The garrison turned out to a man to witness the trial, and as the smoke cleared away, after each successive discharge of powder, they “made the welkin ring” with their shouts of applause.

Being satisfied with the result, we went to work with a will, and kept the machine going, night as well as day, until a proper portion of the guns were rifled. By this means we soon increased the weight of our metal, and felt relatively more capable of coping with the enemy’s vessels.

Not confined to any particular point, I led a kind of nomadic life; sleeping habitually at Smithville – but off early to such posts as required attention – the restraints of supervisory authority and not often thrown in contact with either officers or soldiers.

Capt. Winder had as a boatman an old colored worthy, called “Clem”, whose little craft carried us safely across the harbor in storm or sunshine with equal safety. These trips were not always unattended with danger; but when the weather was pleasant, they were extremely delightful. Indeed, the harbor is unsurpassed for sailing, while the historic associations of the locality invested with a peculiar interest, each point on which the eye can rest.

Looking to the northward, there could be discerned the solitary “Sugar Loaf“ where tradition hath it, that “Old King Roger Moore” led his faithful servants to the last battle with the Indians of the Cape Fear, and by his victory won the future peace of the infant settlement.

That he so thoroughly settled that unpleasantness, is not subject of amazement, as we have the sworn testimony of Sir William Cole, that his grandfather, “Roger Moore with Sir Phelim O‘Neale, destroyed 104,700 of their enemies in Ulster, during the quarter ending December 31, 1641.”

But to return: Capt. Winder was, about a month afterwards, relieved by Capt. R. K. Meade, of Virginia, an officer of great merit in his department, as well as of most excellent sentiments. He had found himself at the crisis of affairs, in April, in company with General Anderson at Fort Sumter.

In November, Col. Fremont gave place to General Anderson, of Richmond. The General was amiable, pleasant and patriotic; a man of culture as well as of brains; but Col; Fremont’s energy, practical views, and military knowledge were matters more to the purpose. It seemed that the service felt the change. Having at once represented to Gen. Anderson my anomalous position, he promised to have me relieved; but weeks passed without bringing the Virginia officer, and circumstances occurring which justified my departure, I sought another field of labor.

[Originally published in the magazine Our Living and Our Dead, No. 12; later it appeared in the Wilmington Weekly Star, 9-26-1873].

[This article was later published in the September, 1997– FPHPS Newsletter]

A History of Fort Fisher “Construction of the Fort” (Part 1 of 3)

By Sandy Jackson

[Originally published in the June, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter]

Of the Confederate fortifications constructed along the entrances to the Cape Fear River, the largest was known as Fort Fisher. Located on the tip of Confederate Point (now Federal Point), the fort was bounded on the west by the Cape Fear River, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by New Inlet. The strategic placement of the fort at the southern end of the peninsula enabled it to guard both New Inlet and the river approach to Wilmington.

Construction began on Fort Fisher in April 1861 under the direction of Capt. Charles P. Bolles. Captain Bolles was able to begin construction of only two sand batteries during his two-week assignment before he was transferred and replaced by Capt. William DeRosset.

After additional construction, Captain DeRosset in May declared the earthworks complete, and mounted two 24-pounder cannons. The most southern of the earthworks at that time was then named Battery Bolles. Within three weeks Captain DeRosset was promoted for his accomplishment and also transferred to a new assignment.

Construction and enlargement of the fort continued during 1862 under the command of Maj. John J. Hedrick. In addition to more sand batteries, a casemate battery of railroad iron and palmetto logs was constructed. It was located near the riverbank a short distance above Battery Bolles.

The fortification had by the summer of 1862 established its basic shape of an L and consisted of a quadrilateral fieldwork known as Fort Fisher, a land battery defense near the river, and four sea defense batteries. The fort mounted seventeen guns at that time.

Upon completion, the fortification was named for Col. Charles F. Fisher of Salisbury, who had been killed at the Battle of First Manassas while commanding the Sixth North Carolina Regiment.

Sea Face -Fort Fisher

Sea Face -Fort Fisher

On July 4, 1862, Fort Fisher received a new commander: Col. William Lamb of Norfolk, Virginia. Lamb determined that the fort was under-equipped in strength and size to the vital defensive role required for the protection of blockade-runners entering New Inlet and protecting the port of Wilmington.

He immediately set out to enlarge the fort and build “a work of such magnitude that it could withstand the heaviest fire of any guns in the American Navy. ” During the next 2 1/2 years, Lamb redesigned and constructed the “new” Fort Fisher, using 500 Negro laborers and his garrison.

The expanded fort was modeled on the “Malakoff Tower,” a Russian redoubt at Sebastopol that withstood a combined land and naval attack by the superior British and French forces during the Crimean War. Fort Fisher was termed the “Malakoff Tower of the South”.

The northern land face of the fort commenced approximately 100 feet from the east bank of the Cape Fear river at a half bastion, originally Shepperd’s Battery, and then ran eastward across the peninsula for a distance of 682 yards. At that point the curtain joined a bastion and turned at a right angle to continue southward along the sea beach toward New Inlet for 1,898 yards.

The outer slope was sodded with marsh grass, 20 feet high from the berm to the top of the parapet, at an angle of 45 degrees. The parapet was not less than 25 feet thick. The revetment was 5 feet 9 inches high from the floor of the raised gun chambers and 12 feet or more from the interior plane. The guns were all mounted en barbette on Columbiad carriages, there being no casemated guns in the fort.

Along the northern face were seventeen heavy gun emplacements, each protected by a mound of earth 12 feet or greater in height and known as a traverse. In each traverse was an alternate magazine or bombproof, the latter vented by an air chamber. Also on the northern face, and as an added protection against the assault of a land force, a palisade of sharpened stakes 9 feet high extended from the river edge east to the sea.

Also extending across the peninsula at a distance of 500 to 600 feet outside the palisade was a line of torpedoes. Where the land face joined the sea face there was a large emplacement known as “The Pulpit,” which projected beyond the parapets. On the sea face were twenty-seven additional mounted guns. Within the fort to the rear of the land face were three mortars, bringing the total mounted armament ‘of Fort Fisher to forty-seven guns.

From the Pulpit and northeast bastion the sea face extended for 100 yards, and was constructed similar to the massive nature of the land face. At the end, a crescent battery intended for four guns was built of palmetto logs and tarred sandbags and sand revetted with sod. After the logs had decayed, the battery was converted into a hospital bombproof.

Extending along the sea face and connected by a heavy earthen infantry curtain was a series of batteries that extended for three-quarters of a mile along the sea. These batteries had heavy traverses but were not more than 10 to 12 feet high to the top of the parapets. Farther along, where the channel ran close to the beach, a mound battery was erected.

Forming the southern point of the sea face, and used as a defense for New Inlet, was a large gun emplacement known as Lamb’s Mound Battery. Built 60 feet high, the battery was armed with two long-range guns. Mound Battery was connected to the battery north of it by a light infantry curtain. The distinct conical shape and height of the battery made for “an excellent landmark” used by blockade-runners to identify it for safe passage into New Inlet.

“In clear weather, it showed plain and distinct against the sky at night. ” On foggy or cloudy nights a light was placed upon the mound that marked the entrance to the inlet, but it could be lit for only a brief amount of time.

Battery Buchanan formed the final bastion on the end of Confederate Point. The totally separate battery was a two-tiered elliptical earthwork, approximately 43 feet in height. Four mounted guns commanded both New Inlet and the approach by land. Just after it was completed, it was garrisoned by a detachment from the Confederate States Navy. Nearby, a wharf for large steamers was constructed, although the main docking facility for Fort Fisher was located at Craig’s Landing just north of the fort. In the event that the main fort should be overrun, Battery Buchanan could be used as a last holdout until evacuation could be conducted from the wharf.

Fort Fisher State Historic Site.
1974  Fort Fisher State Historic Site Master Development Plan. North Carolina Department of Natural and Economic Resources and Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

Hall, Lewis P. Y
1975 Land of the Golden River. Volume 1. Wilmington, NC: Wilmington Printing Company.

Lamb, William Colonel.
1896 “Defense of Fort Fisher, North Carolina.” In Operation on The Atlantic Coast 1861-1865, Virginia 1862-1864, Vicksburg: Papers of The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts, Vol. DC, 1912 Boston: The Military Historical Society of Massachusetts.

Powell, William S.
1968 The North Carolina Gazetteer. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Sprunt, James
1992 Chronicles of The Cape Fear River 1660-1916. Second edition. Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Co.  Originally published, Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton Printing Co., 1916.

Wilmington Morning Star (Wilmington, North Carolina) 1881.

[Additional Federal Point History Center resources]

Fort Fisher 150th Anniversary – Jan 17 & 18, 2015
Battle for Fort Fisher – 150th Re-enactment

June, 1995 – FPHPS Newsletter

W.L. DeRosset, of Wilmington, Explains Early Defenses of Confederate Point, 1861

[Source: The Wilmington Weekly Star, Wilmington, N. C., July 22, 1881, provided by Bill Reaves]

Wlliam Lord DeRosset Image courtesy of Cape Fear Historical Institute

Wlliam Lord DeRosset
Image courtesy of Cape Fear Historical Institute

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: “Mr. Editor – In your editorial on Fort Fisher, in this morning’s issue, the “facts” have gotten a little “mixed,” and as I had official connection with the defense of Confederate Point in its earliest stages, I have concluded to state what I know of my own knowledge and what I heard actors on the scene.

Capt. C.P. Bolles, under orders from headquarters, erected a battery on the Point in April and May, 1861, a short distance nearer the river than the point at which the famous Blakely gun was mounted in 1864. This battery was intended for two 24-pound Barbette guns, and about May 13th I was ordered with my company (the Wilmington Light Infantry) to proceed from Fort Caswell and occupy and complete the defenses then proposed.

I found the battery entirely devoid of everything necessary for its defense and for preparing therefore, and was told that the guns were lying near low water mark in the river, about one mile from the battery.

The boys went for them with a will, and without implements of any kind, save about 100 feet of seine rope and four pieces of 4×4 scantling, the evening of the second day found the two guns in position and ready for the enemy, as soon as we were supplied with ammunition.

The battery was known as “Battery Bolles,” I think by orders from headquarters. My men constructed breast works for fifty yards on each side of the battery, and thus, the works stood when I was promoted to Major of Third NC Troops and was ordered to Garysburg to take command of the camp of instruction.

At some time during the summer, Col. S.L. Fremont was placed in charge of the construction of other works on the Point, and the result was the casemate battery you refer to and a covered way connecting with Battery Bolles, and the name of the whole works was then changed to Fort Fisher.

My recollection is (having visited the Fort) that there were no rifled guns, but the casemates were supplied with three or four either Dahlgren or 8-inch Columbiad guns.

Fort Fisher, as it finally stood, with the exception of the a mound battery, was planned by General Whiting, I have no doubt. The mound was suggested and built by Colonel Lamb, and is still a monument to his skill and perseverance.

Two 10-inch Columbiads were first mounted there, and no doubt prevented any attempt on the part of the enemy’s ships to enter. The battery at Zeke’s Island was built in part by the engineer forces, and improved and completed by Col. I.J. Hedrick, and commanded by him until he was transferred to Bald Head to build Fort Holmes.

The bricks and stones referred to I understood to have come from the foundation of the old Light House. You will see from the above recollections, which are verified by several of my old command, that accounts of doing on Confederate Point have got a little mixed, and that this statement will serve to give credit to each one interested at any time where credit is due.”

signed: Wm. L. DeRosset.

[Feb. 2015: The above text was originally published in the April 1997 – FPHPS Newsletter (pdf)]

Colonel William Lord DeRosset – Cape Fear Historical Institute

William Lord De Rosset – NCpedia – a Wilmington native