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