North Carolina Civil War Documentary

By W. Buck Yearns; John G. Barret | Go to book overview
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By late 1864, Wilmington was in many respects the most important city in the Confederacy. Only Richmond was as vital to the South as this Cape Fear River port. General Lee, confined to his fortifications at Petersburg, was greatly dependent upon supplies brought in through the blockade at Wilmington.1 Until it was cut in August 1864, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad provided Lee with a direct line to the North Carolina coast. After August, supplies from Wilmington were transported north along a more circuitous route.

From the outset of the war the Union navy had the monumental task of blockading the Confederate coast from the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and no port was more difficult to patrol effectively than Wilmington. It was ideally situated for blockade-running. Located twenty-eight miles up the Cape Fear the city was free from enemy fire as long as the forts downstream remained in Confederate hands. Moreover, there were two navigable entrances to the river. Separating the channels were Smith Island and Frying Pan Shoals, the latter jutting out into the Atlantic for approximately twenty-five miles. Protecting the lower Cape Fear were Forts Fisher, Caswell, Campbell, Holmes, Pender, and Anderson, as well as numerous batteries.

The strength of these fortifications, Fort Fisher in particular, along with the natural advantage Wilmington held for blockade-running, made the absolute closing of the port by the enemy extremely difficult. Blockade-runners slipped in and out of Wilmington with relative ease up to the last weeks of the war. It has been estimated that the sleek, shallow draft, gray-hulled steamers designed for speed made over 400 trips in and out of the port during the war. The Siren alone made sixty-four trips through the blockading fleet.

Very few Southerners, however, were engaged in this business. In fact it was almost completely monopolized by English and Scottish merchants who had the ships and capital to invest in a lucrative but hazardous venture. British firms would dispatch goods, luxury items as well as

For additional documents an blockade-running, see Chapters IX and XVII.


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North Carolina Civil War Documentary


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