The Civil War is one of the most studied subjects in the American school system, and it seems to be an offense to the country as a whole if one of its citizens is unfamiliar with the history. The story hardly changes from grade to grade: the secession of South Carolina, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad are major players that continue to be the topic of endless presentations, projects, and research papers. However, lost in the arching themes and national narratives are the personal stories of small towns, smaller people, and not so small events that history should not forget. One such story is that of Wilmington, North Carolina. This port town, now considered the Hollywood of the East, once used to be swarming with merchants sailing up the Cape Fear River, elite, rich family men with their daughters dressing up in beautiful gowns, and grungy pirates getting drunk at the downtown bars (Johns 1). This bustling scene, however, was interrupted by a blockade of the city during the end of the Civil War. It is a small story of one town’s terrible struggle, rarely told and seldom taught in schools, but nonetheless unique and deserving of its place in the broad and immense history of the Civil War, North Carolina, and indeed the country.
Every third grade teacher across the country preaches to their students year after year about the truths about the Civil War: it was not just one event that initiated the war, but it was a combination of multiple events that culminated into a destructive power. Passions and stances on both sides of the Mason-Dixie line caused the war to be as ferocious and angry as it was. As any third grade student can tell you, the industrial North wanted the agrarian South to stop the practice of slavery, and the South saw slavery as the only option to keep up the production of cotton for both the United States and the world at that time (Bailey 387). The South was the king of cotton, and it did not feel that it had to change its ways for people hundreds of miles up the north coast (Bailey 379).
As the world around Wilmington was erupting in chaos and fury, the town grew exponentially. With storage houses full of merchants’ loads ready to sell, trade blooming from the ports, and railroads making interstate trading possible, Wilmington profited like nothing before. Considered the largest city in North Carolina at the time of the Civil War (Running 2), the city did not let the chaos and confusion of the period before the Civil War interfere with its business (Bailey 422).
The railroad companies of the east coast invested heavily in Wilmington, and reaped many benefits. Fort Fisher, the strongest fort on the east coast, is located on the Cape Fear River in between two waterways that lead into the city (Tetterton 5). Fort Fisher was a formidable defense against the Union blockaders later in the end stages of the war (Running 2). As maritime traffic allowed for an increase in imported foreign goods, and as those goods were stored them in warehouses in Wilmington, the railroads shipped these goods up and down the coast for all to see and potentially buy. Wilmington was also gained large sums of money from the naval stores industry that produced tar, pitch, lumber, turpentine, and rosin, all of which were exported for profit via the railroads. Other exports included rice, peanuts, cotton, and flax, and the city grew from the grand amounts they were making from these respective exports to ports and towns around the country. Since there was such an industry for naval stores, the navy was attracted to the area and grew to be a prominent military power in Wilmington (Tetterton 5).
As war was ignited, the Union realized what an asset the port of Wilmington was to the Confederacy, and decided that the “lifeline of the Confederacy” (Tetterton 6) must be shut down. This task was easier said than done, and the Union resorted to constructing a blockade around the marine pathways of the city, attempting to shut it down by stopping trade. They were not very successful in the beginning and many runners made it through the blockade to deliver forbidden goods to the people of Wilmington. If runners could make it past the first line of blockade ships, they had a good shot at making it safely to port. They had to sail at night and hug the coastline near Fort Fisher, which was known for its dangerous water (Johns 25). As time with the blockade went on, the once lively docks became barren, and exotic and tasteful foods began to disappear, along with the beautiful patterns and cloth that many women in the Wilmington area had been proud to wear (Running 2). According to witnesses, the very spirit of the people of Wilmington seemed to leave as more Union ships arrived off the coast (Johns 5). The blockade set up three levels of ships so that a runner, making a break through the first line, would have a more likely chance of getting caught by the other two lines. A signal would go up from the first line and would put the second two lines on alert for the runner (Running 4). An example of a runner that got caught by the second line was the ship Annie (Blockade 1), which was carrying turpentine to the people of Wilmington. Two Union ships in the first line chased it down without alerting the back two rows, which was a direct violation against naval protocol. The Annie was finally captured by the pursuers and as the crew from the Annie moved to the other Union ships (Running 5), Fort Fisher started shooting their cannons at the two ships. This caused significant damage to one of the ships but they did not release the Annie (Blockade 1). The capture of the ship Annie shows the danger of blockade running and the risk compared to the reward.
As the Union began to gain more control over the city and was more regimented in stopping and surveying ships that were to pass through to Wilmington, the effect was felt by the residents. A soldier at Fort Fisher described that the gaiety of Wilmington was represented in the prosperous families that had made a name for themselves in the trading business, the beauty of the clothing of the women in Wilmington, and the lively social atmosphere the town had in the days before the blockade. With the coming of the Union ships, the happy atmosphere of the ports virtually disappeared; this was yet another reason that the people of Wilmington came to despise the Yankees (Johns 5). The Union, during the later part of the war, began to regulate more strictly the Cape Fear and Wilmington area in particular because of the massive amounts of materials the Confederate armies were getting from the railroad that ran through Wilmington to pick up supplies from the merchant ships (Blockade 4). Admiral David Dixon Porter of the United States Navy, Commanding North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, summed up the Union’s goals in his quote, “I am satisfied that no vessel should escape out of Wilmington after the blockade is perfected if the orders I have instituted are strictly carried out” (Blockade 4). As the blockade continued, the town became unrecognizable. When a runner made it, woman and children would swarm the ship, begging and stealing the scarce goods while they were there. Not only did the women and children feel the tension of the blockade; soldiers stationed at Fort Fisher, a mere twenty miles from the heart of Wilmington and one of the most fortified forts on the east coast at the time, heard from their families about the trouble more inland. As the South was beginning to lose the war, desperate messages from home, from wives and children and parents, only dragged down the men in the fort. This lack of motivation and spirit only helped the Union ships in their attack on Fort Fisher in December of 1864. The fort was not expecting an attack and though there were not many casualties, the frightening sounds and lights of the attack shocked and scared the soldiers in the fort, many of whom had never seen action (Johns 31). This battle signified the loss that the Confederates were feeling and was the beginning of the end for the defensive forces at the fort.
The untold story of strong, stubborn Wilmington in the blockade during the Civil War is fraught with danger, adventure, heroes, and sadness, all of which would make any present day local very proud of the deep history of their city. By knowing and sharing this unique and thrilling story, this rich history can be appreciated by those of us who are still around to listen and care about it. And by caring about it, the forgotten people in the story can come alive.
“The Blockade Off Wilmington.” Harpers Weekly 3 December 1864: 773.
Johns, John. “A Late Confederate Soldier.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1866): 497-503.
Bailey, Thomas. The American Pageant. Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1971.
“Running the Blockade.” Fort Fisher. North Carolina Historic Sites. n. d. Web. 27 Feb. 2011.
Tetterton, Beverly. “History of Wilmington.” nhcgov.com. New Hanover County. n. d. Web. 13 March 2011.
About the Author
Cecilia Peters is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She plans on majoring in Business.