Sugar Loaf Civil War Earthworks

by: Chris E. Fonvielle Jr.

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Historical Significance of Sugar Loaf Civil War Earthworks

The Sugar Loaf Earthworks Preservation Group is committed to preserving and interpreting a section of the Confederate defensive line at Carolina Beach. The long-range plan is to make the historic site, to be called the Joseph Ryder Lewis Jr. Civil War Park, accessible to the public for educational purposes and to increase heritage tourism on Pleasure Island.

The Sugar Loaf earthworks served as an auxiliary line of defenses to Fort Fisher, approximately four miles to the south. They helped guard Wilmington, North Carolina, the South’s main seaport for trade with the outside world during the Civil War. To impede the business, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a naval blockade of the South’s coastline and major ports in April 1861.

Confederate commerce vessels, called blockade-runners, attempted to run through the gauntlet of Union ships that appeared at the entryways to Southern seaports, including Wilmington. Many of the smuggling vessels were built, leased, or purchased in Great Britain, which soon became the Confederacy’s main trading partner.

More than 100 different steamships operated as blockade-runners at Wilmington alone, to say nothing of the undetermined number of sailing ships that were also employed as smuggling vessels. To protect the vital trade, Confederate engineers designed and built a vast network of forts and batteries on the beaches of New Hanover and Brunswick counties, and along the banks of the Cape Fear River.

With the exception of Charleston, South Carolina, Wilmington became the most heavily fortified city along the southern Atlantic seaboard. Wilmington became so important to supplying Confederate troops on the battlefront and civilians on the home front that it became known as the “Lifeline of the Confederacy,” In late 1864 General Robert E. Lee warned: “If Wilmington falls, I cannot maintain my army.”

Fort Fisher guarded New Inlet, the northern passageway into the Cape Fear River. By 1864, Fort Fisher was the Confederacy’s largest and strongest seacoast fortification and was referred to as the Gibraltar of the South. Engineers erected auxiliary batteries nearby, including Battery Anderson (then located on the north end of modern Kure Beach) and Battery Gatlin (located on the sea beach across from Forest By the Sea development on Carolina Beach).

As Union forces prepared to attack Wilmington by way of Fort Fisher in the autumn of 1864, Major General W.H.C. Whiting, commander of the District of the Cape Fear, expanded existing defenses to meet the threat. He selected in part a “strong position” stretching from the sound (modern Carolina Beach canal) to Sugar Loaf hill on the Cape Fear River, for an extensive line of earthworks. Sugar Loaf itself was a natural sand dune that stood 50 feet in height on the riverbank. Whiting planned to place a battery of artillery on the summit of the hill.

Acting on General Whiting’s orders, Colonel William Lamb, commandant at Fort Fisher, began constructing an “entrenched camp” at Sugar Loaf “so as to keep up communication after the arrival of the enemy, between the fort” and Sugar Loaf. The work probably commenced in early October 1864. On October 28, 1864, Whiting turned over the project to Captain Francis T. Hawks of Company A, 2nd Confederate States Engineers.2

By December 1864, the earthen fieldworks of the Sugar Loaf lines ran for more than one mile from the sound to the river. Confederate forces continually strengthened them in the winter of 1864-1865. During the first Union attack on Fort Fisher at Christmas 1864, approximately 3,400 Confederate troops defended Sugar Loaf, including 600 Senior Reserves commanded by Colonel John K. Connally.3

After Union forces failed to capture Fort Fisher in December, they returned for a second attempt less than three weeks later, mid-January 1865. The campaign turned out to be the largest amphibious operation in American military history until D-Day, World War II. More than 6,400 Confederate troops of Major General Robert F. Hoke’s Division now defended Sugar Loaf. General Lee had sent them from Virginia to help keep Wilmington in Confederate hands. Improperly used by General Braxton Bragg, the new commander of the Department of North Carolina, Hoke’s Division was unable to prevent the fall of Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865.

General Alfred H. Terry’s forces that captured Fort Fisher quickly turned upriver to strike Wilmington. They reconnoitered and probed the Sugar Loaf lines for a weak spot. On January 19, 1865, the Federals attacked with two brigades of troops, including Colonel John W. Ames’ regiments of U.S. Colored Troops. Unable to break through, they launched an even bigger assault on February 11. U.S. Colored Troops played a major role in what became known as the battle of Sugar Loaf, although the Confederate defenses again proved to be too strong to overrun.

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Unable to breach the Sugar Loaf defenses, the Federals transferred their operations to the west side of the Cape Fear River. They attacked and forced the abandonment of Fort Anderson, directly across the waterway from Sugar Loaf, on February 19, 1865. The Confederate evacuation of Fort Anderson enabled the Union navy to advance further upriver and threaten Sugar Loaf from the rear. Consequently, General Hoke abandoned the Sugar Loaf defenses on February 19 and withdrew toward Wilmington. Union forces temporarily occupied Sugar Loaf before beginning their pursuit of the rapidly retreating Confederates. They captured Wilmington on February 22, 1865.4

With Wilmington now closed to blockade running, General Lee was forced to abandon his position at Petersburg, Virginia. He attempted to escape westward but was caught by General U.S. Grant’s forces. On April 9, 1865, only forty-six days after Wilmington fell, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the four years long and bloody Civil War.

Much of the earthworks that comprised the Sugar Loaf defenses are in a remarkable state of preservation, despite the fact that they were made almost entirely of sand. However, they are also difficult to access because of their remote location inside Carolina Beach State Park or because they are on private property. The Joseph Ryder Lewis Jr. Civil War Park will both remedy public inaccessibility to a section of the Sugar Loaf defenses and promote heritage tourism on Pleasure Island.

Chris E. Fonvielle Jr.
Department of History
University of North Carolina Wilmington

More  …  Fonvielle: Map of Earthworks in Carolina Beach

 1 Whiting to Gilmer, September 16, 1864, U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies 128 volumes (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), series I, vol. 42, pt. 2, 1253 (hereafter cited as ORA).

2 William Lamb, Colonel Lamb’s Story of Fort Fisher (Carolina Beach, N.C.: Blockade Runner Museum, 1966), 11; Hill to Hawks, October 28, 1864, Francis T. Hawks Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

3 Headquarters, Sugar Loaf, December 26, 1864, ORA, vol. 42, pt. 3, 1314.

4 Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope (Campbell, California: Savas Publishing, 1997).

The Wilmington Campaign – excerpts