Federal Point History through Artifacts from the Cape Fear Museum

by Nancy Gadzuk

Jan Davidson, Historian at the Cape Fear Museum, was the featured speaker at the May 21, 2018 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society.

Jan talked about the history of Federal Point and Fort Fisher as depicted by some of the artifacts housed at the Cape Fear Museum.

Pictures of these early artifacts included a number of different styles of Civil War Confederate flags as well as General Whiting’s uniform and sword: Whiting switched sides and joined the Confederacy, taking the time to re-carve and alter the “U.S.” on his sword handle to read “C.S.” for the Confederate States.

She talked about the evolution of the four phases of Fort Fisher: as a battle site, a memorial site, a World War II site, and a state historic site.

As a state historic site, the 150th anniversary and re-enactment of the Battle for Fort Fisher in 2015 acknowledged sacrifices on both sides while focusing on the notion that there was “glory enough for all” in this attack. By focusing on glory, the real issues could be glossed over: that slavery was a real cause of the war and that slaves did not have happy lives.

Many of the artifacts Jan shared from more recent times overlapped or duplicated the excellent collection of beach memorabilia that Elaine Henson has shared with the History Center. The Museum even houses a urinal from Carolina Beach’s Ocean Plaza. (Leslie Bright would be able to speak to the origin of that donation.)

To me, the most interesting part of Jan’s presentation was her account of the transformation of the Cape Fear Museum over time. The Cape Fear Museum is the oldest history museum in North Carolina. It was founded in 1898 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to venerate and honor the Confederacy, and operated out of one room in the Light Infantry’s building.

Until the 1930’s, the museum moved all around Wilmington and even found its collection stored in Raleigh for a while when it couldn’t find a home in Wilmington. When the museum re-opened in the 1930’s, it took a much broader historical focus than it had in 1898. In the 1970’s, the focus broadened again to incorporate the region’s history, science, arts, and cultures to tell more balanced and inclusive stories about the area. This broader focus is reflected in its current name, the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science.

The majority of its collections are in storage as there is not room to display everything. This led to a discussion of Project Grace, a potential collaborative effort between New Hanover County, the public library, Cape Fear Museum, and private investors.

Through this project, the Museum would evolve yet again and become part of a cultural-commercial hub in downtown Wilmington, where the main library is located now. How Project Grace shakes out and shapes up is still to be determined and it will be interesting to follow its progress as it moves forward.

Sharing our histories and stories involves not only looking backward, but looking forward—and being willing and able to change with the times. There was much to learn from Jan’s presentation on how an institution can do that well.