News Stories

Historic Fort Fisher won the war over Mother Nature with help from Wilmington District

Published Feb. 7, 2019

   Every year during the second week of January, Civil War reenactors gather near the southern end of Pleasure Island to commemorate the anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Fisher. Authenticity is a must, and reenactors travel from as far away as upstate New York to attend either as Confederate or Union soldiers.

   The state of North Carolina prides itself in preserving its history.  The museum at Fort Fisher is filled with numerous artifacts from the battles, and explains in detail the day-to-day life before the battles and during them.  The Fort Fisher site, located just offshore of Kure Beach, almost lost a battle with Mother Nature.  It was losing ground to erosion more than two decades ago and could have eroded away. A grassroots effort between the state of North Carolina and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Wilmington District recognized the historic and cultural value of the fort which sparked efforts to reduce further erosion. According to Wilmington District civil engineer Ed Dunlop, the solution was a rock revetment that was strategically built near the main part of the fort.

   "The year the fort was completed we had hurricanes Fran and Bertha back to back," said Dunlop. "We were fortunate to have completed the project because it would have meant a significant loss of the fort, especially from Fran which made a direct hit in the area."

   Fort Fisher was the largest earthen fortification in the world when the Civil War ended in 1865.  It was built in the spring of 1861 by Confederate soldiers to defend the New Inlet that flowed into the Cape Fear River. Work continued under Col. William Lamb for several years. By 1865 Fort Fisher extended across Federal Point, facing north, then turned south 1,900 yards along the Atlantic Ocean.  Both faces of the fort consisted of sod-covered mounds of sand, inside each of which was a bombproof shelter. Between these were platforms with 44 guns, most of which were smoothbore Columbiads. Three mortars and three Napoleon smoothbores augmented the larger pieces. A sally port midway in the landface allowed access to a palisade of sharpened logs nine feet in height. Two dozen mines outside this could be detonated from inside the fort.

   Colonel Lamb tried without success until his death in 1909 to have the fort made into a national military park. The New Hanover County Historical Commission placed a marker there in 1921. Ten years later, the Fort Fisher Preservation Society was formed to try to prevent further beach erosion and to foster public interest but had little to show for its efforts. In World War II, a new military post was constructed over part of the old fort and erosion continued at the sea face.

   The approach of the centennial of the Civil War aroused interest in Fort Fisher, and in 1958 the state leased 189 acres of federal land. Two years later the North Carolina Department of Archives and History began to develop Fort Fisher as a North Carolina State Historic Site. Work progressed with the assistance of local organizations and individual citizens, and in 1962 the remains of the fort became a National Historic Landmark. The General Assembly appropriated funds for a visitor’s center, and a local restoration committee raised funds for the purchase of additional land. Before the end of the decade, further land and buildings were added to the site, and steps were taken, insofar as possible, to control erosion. Archaeological research and an underwater archaeology laboratory contributed to the understanding of the site, while exhibits at the visitor’s center and conducted tours brought more visitors.