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:   IN MEMORY OF THOSE MEN / OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY / WHO FOR MORE THAN THREE YEARS / MANNED THE GUNS OF FORT FISHER / UNDER COMMAND OF / COLONEL WILLIAM LAMB / MAJOR GENERAL W.H.C. WHITING / AND MAJOR JAMES REILLY

Fort Fisher Monument
Front face, on bronze plaque at base of Monument:
IN MEMORY OF THOSE MEN / OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY / WHO FOR MORE THAN THREE YEARS / MANNED THE GUNS OF FORT FISHER / UNDER COMMAND OF / COLONEL WILLIAM LAMB / MAJOR GENERAL W.H.C. WHITING / AND MAJOR JAMES REILLY 

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