The History of the Lower Cape Fear region
begins with the Indians who were hunters and gatherers rather than village dwellers. They called the river by the name of Sapona, and one of their great chiefs was named Watcoosa. They hunted deer, rabbits, bear and various wild birds, and picked wild berries and roots for their daily food. They used a wild plant called "yaupon'" as their sacred "black drink. " Once a year they would have a ceremony known as the "green' corn' ceremony," and they would fill themselves with the black drink which in turn "chased the devils out of their stomachs. "
The Indians met with the first English explorer, William Hilton, in 1663, and they had a great feast and traded land for some tools and ornaments, thereby opening the Cape Fear area to white settlers. The Spanish called the river Rio Jordan, and the English named it the Charles River. In 1715 the Indians became angry with the white settlers and a battle took place on a hill called "Sugar Loaf. " The surviving Indians disappeared shortly thereafter.
Two early settlements by New Englanders and Barbadians died out because they could not get support or supplies. The first permanent settlement was called the town of Brunswick, and it became the capital of the colony. Three royal governors lived there. It was a chief port, and it supplied the British empire with naval stores, which were used mainly in ship-building and other types of construction. The products of the abundant pine trees included tar, turpentine, resin and, of course, lumber, a most important export at that time.
For many years, pirates sailed their ships in and out of the rivers and inlets along the coast. Blackbeard and Captain Kidd visited the area, and the "Gentleman Pirate" Stede Bonnet, was captured in the Cape Fear River and hanged.
The small port town of Brunswick failed to attract residents because of the new, rapidly-growing town called Wilmington, named for an Englishman, Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington. It soon became the largest port in North Carolina and ships from many countries docked on its waterfront. Exports included naval stores, lumber, rice, cotton, and tobacco. Industry also prospered in the form of ship-building, commercial fishing, fertilizer plants, and eventually, railroad shops.
Wilmington was captured by the British in 1781 and many American patriots were killed, and plantations in the Cape Fear area were ransacked. General Cornwallis established his headquarters in the historic Burgwin-Wright house at Third and Market Streets in Wilmington. He later surrendered his command at Yorktown, Virginia, bringing to an end the Revolutionary War.
During the Civil War, Wilmington was a main supply center for the Confederacy. Ships known as "blockade runners" defied the attempts of the Union naval forces to prevent goods from reaching Confederate destinations. They made their way from the sea through New Inlet and up the Cape Fear River under the protection of the guns from Fort Fisher and Fort Caswell, carrying much-needed supplies from European nations. The largest land and sea battle ever waged in the United States occurred at Fort Fisher in January of 1865. After being defeated in one attempt to capture Fort Fisher, Union Naval forces returned two weeks later and accomplished whet they had aimed for - the fall of the "Confederate Goliath," Fort Fisher. Wilmington was captured by Federal troops from the North in February 1965. Wilmington became a city in 1866 with a population that reached 13,500in 1870. Itquicklybecame a transportation center with railroad and steamboat lines.
World Wars I and II saw Wilmington become a boom town with the advent of huge shipyards employing hundreds of workers engaged in building ships for the war effort. When peace was restored, new industries appeared in Wilmington. Factories that manufacture paper, textiles, boilers, electronics, quickly arose. The "Port City" as Wilmington is often called, has proceeded to grow rapidly.
A renewed interest in the rich history of the Cape Fear area has resulted in major restoration and preservation projects in the old section of the city. Each season of the year has special traditional events to nourish our nostalgia for the "Old South."
Last Major Stronghold of the Confederacy
This Civil War battlesite near the mouth of the Cape Fear River was the largest and one of the most important earthwork fortifications in the South. Two major battles were fought there; today, only a few of the mounds are visible since much of the fort has been eroded by the ocean.
When Colonel William Lamb arrived in July of 1862, Fort Fisher was a small temporary fortress. Under his direchon and design, the fortress was expanded until, by January 1865, Fort Fisher controlled one mile of sea defense and 1/3 mile of land defense. More than 500 Negroes, both slave and "free" worked with Confederate soldiers on the expansion and construction project.
Fort Fisher was made mostly of earth and sand, both ideal materials for absorbing the shock of heavy explosives. The side facing the sea was equipped with 22 guns, and consisted of a series of 12-foot high batteries bounded on the south side by two larger batteries 45 and 60 feet high. One small mound served as a telegraph office and another as a bomb proof hospital. The land face was equipped with 25 guns distributed among 15 mounds, each mound 32 feet high with interior rooms connected by an underground passage.
Colonel Lamb realized how important Fort Fisher was to the Confederates; the defense of the Cape Fear River was a prime factor in the security of Wilmington. Due to the effecave position and solidity of Fort Fisher, Wilmington was the last major port open to the Confederacy, serving as the desdnabon of steamers called blockade runners which smuggled provisions into the southern states and supplied General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.
Though several attacks were planned on Fort Fisher by the Union Army, no attempt was made until December 24, 1864. The fighting lasted two days, when Union commanders decided to withdraw. They returned for a second attempt on January 12,1865, when Federal ships on sea and 3,300 Union infantry on land attacked the fort. On January 15 the Fort was captured by the Union.
After the fall of Fort Fisher, captured Confederate soldiers were taken to Union prisons in New York. The Confederate Army evacuated remaining forts in the Cape Fear area, and within weeks Union forces overran Wilmington.
Today Fort Fisher consists of the remains of mounds with a restored palisade fence. A modern visitor center/ museum contains exhibits of items recovered from sunken blockade running ships, and an audio-visual presentation relates the story of Fort Fisher.