By the close of 1864, Wilmington, N.C., was the only port still controlled by the Rebels. Despite the Federal blockade, an estimated 80 percent of the sleek, low-lying blockade-runners made it through with valuable goods. To guard against Federal attacks via the mouth of the Cape Fear River, 30 miles south of Wilmington, the Confederates in 1861 had erected Fort Fisher, the “Gibraltar of the South,” along more than a mile of land on the peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. On January 12, 1865, the Federals launched the war’s final waterborne invasion, totaling more than 9,000 soldiers, 57 warships, and 627 cannons. Federal fire battered the fort for two days, and on January 15, the land assault began. After nearly five hours of combat, Colonel William Lamb ordered the Confederates to retreat. On February 22, the Confederates would lose another battle at Forks Road, and withdraw from Wilmington. While antebellum homes and the graves at the National and Oakdale cemeteries stand as reminders of the Civil War past, Wilmington’s largest war memorial is the USS North Carolina, which participated in every major battle of the Pacific Theater in World War II. The nine-story ship is now moored across from the historic waterfront. Another notable waterfront feature is a whimsical, oversized Venus Flytrap, emblematic of the region’s unique natural treasure—carnivorous plants that grow nowhere else in the world. –Sarah Richardson
Walk the Waterfront
Historic buildings, restaurants, shops, and bars line Wilmington’s Front Street. Among them is the old Cotton Exchange, now home to boutiques. A block west is Water Street, where visitors can enjoy the Riverwalk view of Cape Fear River. One stop, Orange Street Landing, honors the escape of 22 enslaved men to the Union lines. One man, William Gould, had been a worker on nearby Bellamy Mansion, where his signature was found on a brick.
Wealth and Privilege
Completed in 1860, the grand Georgian Revival Bellamy Mansion was home to Wilmington doctor and avid secessionist John Bellamy, his wife, their nine children, and nine slaves. A Yankee architect designed the 22-room home, and free black carpenters and their slaves did the work. A rare example of an urban slave quarters—a two-story brick structure with 10 indoor latrines—stands behind the home. During the 1862 yellow fever epidemic, the Bellamy family abandoned the home for Floral College, 100 miles away. In February 1865, the mansion served as headquarters for Union General Joseph Hawley, bellamymansion.org.
With an ax clenched firmly in his hands, Mexico-born Private Bruce Anderson of the 142nd New York advanced during the assault of Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865, with a party of men to chop away at the log palisade in front of the bastion’s earthworks. This is the Medal of Honor he finally received in 1914 for his bravery.
Battle of Forks Road
On February 22, 1865, about 8,500 Federal troops, including five regiments totaling 1,600 U.S. Colored Troops, attacked some 3,000 entrenched Confederates. The fighting occured along embankments preserved on the grounds of what is now the Cameron Art Museum. Eventually the Confederate troops withdrew, but the USCT carrying out the charge suffered horrendous losses.
Some Gave All
Established in 1867, the Wilmington National Cemetery is home to some 2,000 graves of Civil War dead, including 500 graves of U.S. Colored Troops who served in the assault on Fort Fisher. Some have names; most are unmarked.
Spy’s Last Hideout
Established in 1852, Oakdale Cemetery reflects the ideals of the Rural Cemetery movement, and everywhere you turn, something green is growing. In 1866, the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to Confederate soldiers. Confederate spy Rose Greenhow is also buried here. oakdalecemetery.org
Artifacts and Dioramas
The Cape Fear Museum is devoted to Wilmington’s man-made and natural history. Civil War aficionados will enjoy military artifacts and the sandy embankments crawling with soldiers in the meticulously rendered Battle of Fort Fisher diorama capefearmuseum.org
Wilmington Railroad Museum
The Wilmington Railroad, founded in 1835, transported goods from Wilmington to Weldon near the Virginia state border, a crucial supply line for the Confederate Army. Visitors will enjoy more than 20 model trains running over a total of 1,200 feet of track, and a display devoted to the railroad’s influential history. wrrm.org
North Carolina Dive Site Trail
A Union gunboat forced the blockade runner Condor to run aground 700 yards from Fort Fisher. Confederate spy Rose Greenhow was among the drowned passengers, dragged down by gold coins from sales of her biography in London that she had sewn into her clothing. The wreck is visible at low tide offshore of the North Carolina Aquarium and the first stop on North Carolina’s Dive Site Trail archaeology.ncdcr.gov
Built in 1862 upon the site of a colonial town, Fort Anderson features extensive earthen fortifications overlooking the Cape Fear River between Wilmington and Fort Fisher. This was one of the last points of Confederate resistance before Wilmington fell to Federal troops. Visitors can also enjoy a small museum, trails, and the grand ruins of a colonial-era church.
Visit www.nchistoricsites.org and select brunswick town.
Commissioned in 1941, USS North Carolina was one of the 10 fastest battleships in World War II. Nearly scrapped in 1960, locals raised money to bring the ship intact to Wilmington. In 1962 the vessel was dedicated as the state’s memorial to the 11,000 North Carolinians who died in the world war and as a memorial to all of the state’s WWII veterans. battleshipnc.com
Tucked away at the north end of the Wilmington River District is a sculpture of six oars standing on end. Erected in 2008, it acknowledges the coup that occurred in the election of 1898 when a coalition of black and whites won elected office but white supremacists violently overthrew them, killing at least 10 people.
Offering burgers, salads, and bar food, the convenient downtown eatery Front Street Brewery advertises itself as Wilmington’s first and oldest brewery. Check the website for the rotating selection. frontstreetbrewery.com