The Blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina


[Map]

The Cape Fear area, showing the two inlets separated by Smith's
Island. The usual stations of the ironclads
North Carolina and
Raleigh are shown; both were lost through accidents in 1864.

The blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina posed a special problem for the Union Navy. Two entrances to the Cape Fear River, Western Bar Inlet and New Inlet, are separated by Smith's Island, and extending several miles out from Smith's Island are the Frying Pan Shoals, too shallow for blockaders to cross. Blockade runners departing from Wilmington could descend the Cape Fear River to Smithville (present-day Southport), where signal stations communicated with lookouts at the various forts and posts near the inlets; in this way, the blockade runners could use either inlet, whichever one happened to be most lightly guarded at any particular time. By contrast, it took blockading vessels a few hours to travel from one inlet to the other around Frying Pan Shoals, effectively requiring two separate blockading fleets.

This accident of geography, coupled with the powerful Confederate works at Fort Fisher and the less powerful but still potent Fort Caswell, was in large part responsible for Wilmington's prominence as the single most important blockade running port in the Confederacy. Rail lines leading directly to Petersburg and Richmond allowed military stores and other vital goods to be transported directly to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia until the beginning of 1865. Hence, the blockade running at Wilmington is commonly known as "the lifeline of the Confederacy."

Two Richmond-type ironclads guarded the approaches to Wilmington. The North Carolina spent most of her time stationed at Smithville guarding the blockade runner anchorage there and keeping watch over the Western Bar Inlet. Her engines were weak and she did not move about much, though on at least one occasion she is known to have ascended the Cape Fear River to Wilmington during a dispute about the ownership of the cargo aboard the blockade runner Hansa. She would have done better to have gone upriver into fresh water more often; her bottom was not coppered, and she sustained slow damage from teredos, salt-water marine worms. She sprang a leak and sank on 27 September 1864 without ever having seen action.

The Raleigh, on the other hand, attacked the blockading fleet off New Inlet in a rare evening sortie on 6 May 1864 to allow six blockade runners to escape. After an ineffective and confusing all-night action, she returned, only to run aground on a sand bar in the Cape Fear River and break her back. Her fate was not known to the Federal blockaders for some time afterward, however. Despite the poor construction and the ignominious fates of the Wilmington ironclads, they served their purpose: Federal blockaders remained nervous and on their toes, lest the Southern rams appear to wreak havoc.

The powerful Fort Fisher (named for Charles F. Fisher, a Salisbury, North Carolina native who had fallen at First Manassas) began as a minor battery to guard the channel leading to New Inlet. By late 1864, largely through the efforts of Colonel William Lamb, it was perhaps the strongest earthwork in the Confederacy. Lamb and his superior, General William Whiting, consciously modeled it after the famed Malakoff works at Sevastopol, which had sustained tremendous punishment in the Crimean War. (Typically, Fort Fisher was sometimes referred to as "the Gibraltar of the West," though this name was applied rather indiscriminately to several other fortifications throughout the Confederacy as well.) The fort successfully repulsed a poorly-coordinated amphibious attack on 25 December 1864, only to fall to a better-planned attack on 15 January 1865. This sounded the death knell for blockade running at Wilmington.

The blockading fleets did their best. During the war, 130 vessels were wrecked, captured, or destroyed while trying to run the blockade at Wilmington, resulting in an estimated loss of one million cubic feet of cargo. However, blockade running remained highly profitable despite this risk; a clerk in the Confederate War Office once commented, "About one in every four steamers is captured by the enemy. We can afford that." During the period from 1 January 1863 to 31 October 1864, the estimated export trade of Wilmington was estimated to be well over sixty-five million dollars. Imports lagged behind this somewhat, since the return journey to Wilmington was somewhat more hazardous than the outward trip, as the vessels attempted to avoid both the blockading ships and the coastline itself, usually at night, generally without lights.

Under Acting Rear Admiral S.P. Lee (a distant cousin of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee), the blockade became more sophisticated and effective. There were three tiers of ships in the blockade; small, light draft vessels lay close in to the inlets to signal the impending escape of a runner. Upon sighting one, a rocket was sent up (some wily blockade runner captains carried their own rockets to send up to confuse the blockaders), but the small ship did not pursue the runner. This was left to a middle-range force that would react to the signal and attempt to capture or sink the runner. Outside of this force was an outer patrol force that would both watch for incoming blockade runners and also function as a safety net to attempt to capture any runners that slipped by the middle force. But the blockade was never by any stretch of the imagination air-tight, and the port was never sealed off until Union ships were stationed in the Cape Fear River itself after the fall of Fort Fisher.

The Chase
Freed from the lingering chase, in devious ways
Upon the swelling tides
Swiftly the Lilian glides
Through hostile shells and eager foemen past;
The lynx-eyed pilot gazing through the haze,
And engines straining, "far hope dawns at last."

Now falls in billows deep the welcome night
Upon white sands below;
While signal lamps aglow
Seek out Fort Fisher's distant answering gleams,
The blockade runner's keen, supreme delight,
Dear Dixie Land, the haven of our dreams!
James Sprunt
Tales of the Cape Fear Blockade

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