A Morning Visit to Fort Fisher, NC

by J. M. Pressley
First published: July 30, 2008

On a recent trip to Wilmington, I finally made the time to take a sightseeing detour to Fort Fisher State Historic Site. What's left of the "Gibraltar of the South" is well worth the visit.

Even the most avid history buff can occasionally miss an attraction right in their back yard. Despite growing up in North Carolina practically surrounded by history—and numerous chances while on trips to visit the Wilmington clan of our family—I had always managed to miss a sightseeing detour to the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. So on my latest trip south, I made a point of putting Fort Fisher on the itinerary.

A light breeze off the ocean and crystal-clear sky made for a nearly perfect morning in Kure Beach when I pulled into the parking lot at 10:00. The building housing the museum and visitor center is small but has its charm. There are some remarkably well-preserved items on site. A large-scale diorama model dominates the main museum room; the model is necessary to convey an accurate sense of the fort, which the existing site simply can't.

A Brief History

The fort was named for Confederate Colonel Charles Fisher, killed at the first Battle of Manassas. It came to be known, however, as the Gibraltar of the South for its indomitable defense. Fort Fisher kept Wilmington open as a lifeline of the Confederacy until early 1865. Its resilience was due to a novel concept—unlike brick-and-mortar constructions like nearby Fort Macon, Fort Fisher was a mammoth, L-shaped series of sand dune earthworks and palisade walls. This simple construction effectively thwarted any attempt to shell the fort into submission. As a result, the two Federal assaults on Fort Fisher required a coordinated amphibious effort between naval and army forces.

The first attack began on Christmas Eve of 1864. After two days of fighting to a standstill, Federal commanders withdrew. However, on January 12, 1865, the Union forces returned. Shelling commenced on January 13, and on January 15, Federal troops launched a landward assault. A grueling battle of hand-to-hand combat ensued, lasting well into the night before the fort finally fell. As a testament to the ferocity of the fighting, 70 Congressional Medals of Honor were issued following the victory. It took nearly 10,000 Federal troops to defeat a garrison of 2,300 Confederates.

The area would serve the military again during World War II as the primary firing range for Wilmington's Camp David. It was the first National Historic Landmark listed in North Carolina, entering the registry on November 5, 1961. Fort Fisher State Park was established by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation in 1986.

Back to the Present

I left the museum to take a quick tour of the grounds. Of course, it's hard to take a long tour of the grounds, because prevailing winds and the Atlantic Ocean over the last century and a half have reclaimed around 90 percent of the 1865 defenses. What's left is a reconstructed partial palisade and a handful of the remaining gun battery earthworks from the landward face. This includes Shepherd's Battery, which has been recreated from Civil War-era photographs. I walked the tour trail, circling the site, and then crossed the highway to visit the monument at Battle Acre commemorating the soldiers who fought and died there.

The leisurely pace had me back at my car by half past eleven. Although it didn't take that long to tour the museum and the outdoor reconstructions, it was well worth the trip. I even took the ferry across to Southport and headed up the west bank of the Cape Fear River on the way back to Wilmington. Incidentally, if you're ever taking that route through Southport, try to make stops at Brunswick/Fort Anderson and Orton Plantation as well.

Visitor Info

Located south of Wilmington on US 421, Fort Fisher State Historic Site is open to the public year-round (except major holidays). Guided tours are available. Admission is free, although donations are encouraged at special events on the site. The visitor center gift shop features an array of Fort Fisher and Civil War souvenirs. More details about the museum and special events are available online at the Fort Fisher website.

The state's Underwater Archaeology Branch maintains its headquarters on the grounds as well as a pavilion exhibit titled "Hidden Beneath the Waves" that focuses on local maritime history and shipwrecks. Also nearby are the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

Sources

National Park Service, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, North Carolina Historic Sites