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.
Immediately 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.
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.
The latest effort  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  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
August, 1995 (pdf) – FPHPS Newsletter