We have this local historian, Chris Fonvielle, who is completely & entertainingly engaged in his subject of our history. He grew up in the area and turned his interest in lower Cape Fear history into a life’s calling. He spent years running the former Blockade Runner museum and is now a professor at UNCW. But his enthusiasm for the area’s history comes through in everything he does. And every year the Historic Wilmington Foundation, Cape Fear Museum and Bellamy Mansion team up to have him talk about some aspect of our history. This year the theme was “Defending the Cape Fear.”
Fort Johnston on Smith Island, now known as Bald Head Island, was one of the first defense placements for the Cape Fear. Defense at that time meant defense from pirates, foreign powers and natives. This British Fort was built out of wood in the 1740s until being burned by Patriots July 18 to19, 1775. It was rebuilt out of ‘tabby’ around 1807-08. Tabby was a mix of oyster shells, lime and sand placed in wood and then burned. Remains of tabby construction can still be found in downtown Wilmington. Interesting historical note, the tabby construction was overseen by the first graduate of West Point.
Another early fort is Fort Caswell in Brunswick County. Remains of its later iterations can still be found on Oak Island (100 Caswell Beach Rd.). Originally a British fort, it was rebuilt and reused as late as WWII.
The Civil War
Wilmington played a critical role for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The South was supplied by a group of smugglers known as ‘blockade runners.’ Rhett Butler of “Gone With The Wind” fame was a blockade runner. These entrepreneurs picked up the materials the South needed and snuck them past the Union blockade to southern ports. Wilmington was one of the most popular ports for this purpose. It had an excellent rail network with three rail systems running inland. It had two access points to the Cape Fear River, the river channel we know today as well as a second inlet just north of Smith Island. The second inlet is now closed. That gave the daring blockade runners two routes to use to outrun the Union blockade. And it had an inland port so that the loading and unloading of the ships could be carried out in peace.
A military-political decision in Washington increased Wilmington’s importance. Union forces in a coordinated Army Navy effort were working their way down the coast retaking the area for the Union. They came within about 50 miles of Wilmington and it appeared the Port City would be the next city to be reunited with the Union. Washington decided that it would be better to go to the less militarily important but politically symbolic city of Charleston. That led to a series of military actions retaking most other southern ports so that Wilmington was the last port for the confederacy. It’s importance soared.
The Confederate States of America recognized this importance and turned Wilmington into the second most fortified city after Charleston. Fort Anderson and Fort Fisher were built into major defensive outposts. Fort Fisher has mostly washed away over time but Fort Anderson can still be seen. Fisher was the biggest fort at the time. Its earthen walls were a mile long and piled high. The Confederacy bought two large guns from a British company and installed one at each fort.
Foretelling its shipbuilding role in the Second World War, Wilmington built two of the Confederacy’s 22 ironside ships. One was built at Beery shipyards on Eagles Island and the second at the foot of Castle Street.
The Union’s first attempt to take Wilmington took place December 24 & 25, 1864. The Navy bombarded Fort Fisher but withdrew without success. In the meantime General Sherman redirected his march through Georgia north to North Carolina. As General Cornwallis did in the Revolutionary War, Sherman sought to reach and control Wilmington as a base for supporting his campaign. The Union engaged in its second bombardment of Fort Fisher January 13 & 15, 1865. This was successful and Wilmington was retaken by the Union shortly thereafter. Southern General Robert E. Lee had famously stated that the South could not survive without Wilmington. His prophecy was true and the south conceded defeat 46 days later. That was the end of the war that took more American lives than all others combined.
World War II
The second World War brought massive changes to Wilmington. Military personnel were trained here. Ships were built here. And defenses were built here. It was the defense capital of the State.
126 EC2s (victory ships) and 117 C2 cargo ships were built here by the 21,000 employed in the shipyard. Rosie the Riveter was here, too. 1,200 women helped build the ships in what had traditionally been ‘men’s work.’ The shipyard is now the State Port. After the war 400 of the WWII ships were brought back here and moored on the Brunswick River. There they sat until the Vietnam War. Some were used and the rest turned to scrap by about 1973.
Camp Davis was built in nearby Holly Ridge. It was an anti-aircraft training facility. It was dismantled after the War. Women were active participants here too. Female pilots flew many of the planes that towed the dummy planes used for anti-aircraft practice. How would you like to be towing a target for new gunners?
Camp LeJeune was built in Jacksonville with Montford Point, the training ground for African-American Marines built next door. Advanced Anti-Aircraft training was carried out at Fort Fisher. To this day there is a divide in the old confederate groundworks at Fort Fisher. The gap was created for a runway.
Fort Caswell which is one of the area’s oldest forts was rebuilt for modern warfare. Fortunately it did not have to be used.
Bluenthental Field was built as an Army-Air Base. Today we know it as ILM, our airport.
German POW’s were housed here. One encampment was near Carolina Beach Road and Shipyard Boulevard (look for the historical marker.) A second was near downtown. If you were a German POW you definitely would have preferred to be here rather than in a Russian POW camp. These guys had a fair amount of freedom and got to work on their tans.
Topsail Island got into the act. It was used to test missiles and some of the towers built to observe their firing can still be seen. A few are used as residences.
And then there are the ‘urban legends.’ There are stories of German U-Boat mariners coming ashore to spy or buy provisions. There is one persistent and detailed story claiming one fellow came ashore to buy Merita Bread. None of these are true. There’s another story that the former Dow-Ethyl plant on Pleasure Island was shelled by U-Boats. There’s no proof of this and there is evidence that there were no U-Boats in the area on the night in question. But the stories persist. We like our stories.
Find our history events at http://history.enjoywilmington.com