Wilmington, North Carolina in the American Civil War
Wilmington, North Carolina, was a major Atlantic Ocean port city for the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. A vital lifeline for the fledgling Confederacy to trading partners in Europe, Wilmington was the last port to fall to the Union Army, which completed its blockade of the coast.
Wilmington, located 30 miles upstream from the mouth of the Cape Fear River (which flows into the Atlantic Ocean), was among the Confederacy’s more important cities. It ranked 13th in size in the CSA (although only 100th in the pre-war United States) with a population of 9,553 according to the 1860 census, making it nearly the same size as Atlanta, Georgia, at the time.
Wilmington was one of the most important points of entry for supplies for the entire Confederate States. Its port traded cotton and tobacco in exchange for foreign goods, such as munitions, clothing and foodstuffs. These cargoes were transferred to railroad cars and sent from the city throughout the Confederacy. This nourished both the southern states in general and specifically General Robert E. Lee's forces in Virginia. The trade was based on steamer ships of British smugglers. These vessels were called blockade runners because they had to avoid the Union's imposed maritime barricade.
The blockade runners operated indirectly from British colonies–such as Bermuda, the Bahamas, or Nova Scotia. Along with vital supplies, the blockade runners brought foreign crews, who poured money into the local economy through bars, taverns, hotels, shops, and merchants. The town soon took on an international flavor not seen before the war.
In the summer of 1862, sailors arrived who were infected with yellow fever, which was endemic in the Caribbean. An epidemic soon paralyzed the once-thriving waterfront, as well as much of the city. Nearly 1,000 people contracted the disease, and more than 300 died before the illness had run its course and activity resumed.
After the fall of Norfolk, Virginia in May 1862, Wilmington’s importance increased. It became the main Confederate port on the Atlantic Ocean. Along the Atlantic seashore, Wilmington's defenses were so sturdy that they were only surpassed by Charleston's fortifications in South Carolina. Wilmington resisted Federal occupation for a long time, mainly due to Fort Fisher.
Blockade running became an organized industry. The Crenshaw Company organized shipments of cotton from the interior of the Confederacy to Wilmington for smuggling through the blockade to England.
Wilmington was not captured by Union forces until February 22, 1865, approximately one month after the fall of Fort Fisher. The Battle of Wilmington consisted of a series of three small engagements near the Cape Fear River that led to the abandonment of the city by the Confederate forces under General Braxton Bragg. Before leaving, Bragg ordered the large quantities of bales of cotton and tobacco burned to prevent their falling into Union hands. Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Cox led the first Federal troops into Wilmington, and his forces occupied the city for the rest of the war.
As almost all the military action was at some distance from the city, a number of antebellum homes and other buildings have survived in downtown Wilmington.
- Yearns, W. Buck and Barret, John G., eds., North Carolina Civil War Documentary, 1980.
- Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign, Campbell, Cal.: Savas, 1997.
- Mark A. Moore, The Wilmington Campaign and the Battles for Fort Fisher, Da Capo Press, 1999.