Since the days of Stede Bonnet and Edward Teach, a.k.a. “Blackbeard” Wilmington and the surrounding area has always been a great source of mystery, intrigue and lore. During the first half of Colonial America’s history the Cape Fear River and its myriad of tributaries and marshes offered a safe haven for pirates against governmental authorities. The history of the pirate in America played out up and down the Carolinas- Charleston, Wilmington, Cape Fear and Southport to name a few.
With this in mind it should be no surprise that Wilmington during the Civil War was a hotbed for Confederate blockade runners. In essence, the pirates of their day. As part of Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan” the United States Navy was charged with blockading the Confederacy from the Gulf to the Atlantic. Certainly no small task. As the war dragged on, the blockade became more and more effective; shutting down major Confederate ports like New Orleans and Mobile Bay. Charleston as well was made largely ineffective by the U.S. Navy, although she was never permanently occupied by the Union until the waning months of the war.
Wilmington, which was located roughly 30 miles upstream from the mouth of the Cape Fear River was guarded by a number of coastal installations with the most important one being the ever imposing Fort Fisher- a behemoth in scale, scope and earthworks. Unlike many coastal forts in the Confederacy, forts in North Carolina and South Carolina were often supported by massive earthworks of dirt and sand as well as Palmetto wood. Brick was not readily available and so architects had to make due with the local resources at their disposal. Dirt, sand and Palmetto wood could absorb the impact of incoming cannon and mortar rounds with startling effectiveness. Indeed, Palmetto wood literally bent, withstanding countless bombardments time and time again both day and night by Union gunships.
The end result of course was that cities like Wilmington remained in operation for nearly the duration of the war.