North Carolina Forts (Part 4 and Conclusion):
Ft. Johnston in Transition
Article by Dr. Michael D. Hogan, Photography by Terry Beers

From the onset of the Civil War until its conclusion in 1865 Fort Johnston played a significant role in the military struggle between North and South. Shortly after North Carolina seceded from the Union, the Fort became an important center for Confederate recruitment and training. A local account of that time notes that:

“Smithville was now full of soldiers, and the town presented the appearance of a military camp. Patrols were ordered to patrol the streets, and sentinels [stationed] at the corners of the streets, and the work of drilling commenced. The sound ‘hep, hep,’ was continual and was the only music except for that of the drums.

Steamboats such as were then on the Cape Fear river—most of them hardly fit for service—were passing to and from Smithville and Wilmington bringing recruits, Commissary and Quartermaster stores, [and] the wives and children of soldiers in the camp who came to see their husbands and sweethearts before final parting.”

In addition, it served as a major supply depot for the entire Cape Fear system of fortifications, “storing and distributing vast quantities of war materials throughout the region as needed.”

Perhaps the most significant role that Ft. Johnston and the surrounding town of Smithville played during this era, however, was to participate in Confederate blockade-running endeavors. As the war progressed, the Confederacy would become increasingly dependent upon blockade-runners to sustain both the war effort and the civilian population. The Port of Wilmington was particularly well-suited for this activity, with two separate entrances (the Old and New Inlets) on the Cape Fear, an extensive system of dangerous shoals within the river, and numerous fortifications like Fts. Johnston and Caswell to provide protective cover for rebel shipping.

The first Confederate steamer to run the Union blockade was the Theodora, an unarmed but speedy vessel, which entered the lower Cape Fear at Ft. Johnston (mid-December, 1861) and defiantly blew its whistle in response to each shot fired at it by a Union blockader in futile pursuit. During the following year the Theodora was joined by other successful runners such as the North Carolina, the Thomas L. Wragg , the Kate (captained by the Smithvillian Thomas Lockwood, who was known as the “father of the trade”), and the Cornubia. The number of blockade-runnings in the Wilmington area increased exponentially in the subsequent twelve-month period, in large part because the Union fleet succeeded in sealing off the port of Charleston during the summer, thereby effectively making Wilmington the only open Southern port. Between December of 1862 and the following December, 115 blockade-runners departed the Port of Wilmington and 127 entered. These totals were further enhanced in 1864, reaching 181 and 168, respectively.

At the outbreak of hostilities between the North and South, Confederate war planners recognized that the fortifications intended to protect the militarily essential lower Cape Fear region were not sufficient for the task at hand. Therefore, an incremental, three-year defense construction program was initiated to massively renovate existing fortifications (e.g., Ft. Johnston, Ft. Caswell) as well as to build new fortifications (e.g., Ft. Fisher) where needed. The many laborers required to undertake this huge defense construction project included 500 slaves and 300 forcibly-recruited Indians.

Some idea of the massive nature of these projects and the procedures employed to accomplish them can be formed from a letter of C.S. Powell, a Confederate soldier serving in the lower Cape Fear region. He wrote that:

”These forts made of sand were constructed by these slaves with wheelbarrows pushed and pulled on gangways. The turf was transported from the marshes in the same way. It was very interesting to see two or three hundred wheelbarrows rolling in unison from the points of loading to those of dumping returning in a circle and passing the loaders who shovel in hand threw sand in the barrows as they passed without stopping.”

During this period of construction and reconstruction, Ft. Johnston underwent a number of name changes. In the latter part of 1862 the fort was officially known as Ft. Branch, probably as a tribute to the North Carolinian Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’B. Branch, who died at Antietam in September of that year. By fall of 1863 the name was again changed to Ft. Pender, undoubtedly to honor the famous North Carolina general William Dorsey Pender, who was seriously wounded at the battle of Gettysburg and died two weeks later. At the War’s conclusion, however, it had reverted back to Ft. Johnston.

In the latter part of 1864 Lincoln and his military advisors concluded that it was time to deal the South a “mortal blow” by shutting down the lower Cape Fear river, bringing the area’s critical blockade-running activities to an end. The linchpin of the Confederate system of fortifications was Ft. Fisher, and on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1864 a large fleet of Union warships began an intense bombardment of the fort’s massive sand walls. The naval bombardment was continued the next day in support of a significant land-based invasion launched by Federal troops. However, Ft. Fisher’s undermanned and relatively inexperienced garrison was able to withstand the Union’s two-pronged attack, forcing the invaders to withdraw. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, the attack was renewed on the night of January 12,1865 with thousands of Union troops and a virtual armada of Federal ships. For three full days the grossly outnumbered and severely battered Confederates resisted the Union onslaught, finally surrendering around 10p.m. on January 15. The calamitous effects of Ft. Fisher’s fall were recorded by a local resident of Smithville:

”All was now quiet in Smithville [following Fort Fisher’s fall] and it remained so until the next night when it was seen that Fort Caswell and all the forts in the vicinity were on fire. As the flames spread from fort to fort the most terrible explosions occurred, shaking the very earth, and announcing the fact that all the forts below Fort Fisher and at the mouth of the river had been abandoned and the troops withdrawn. The troops manning the forts marched down the beach to a crossing about four or five miles below and crossed by the mainland, continuing their march in the direction of Wilmington. The few soldiers who were left in Smithville followed this army, and left Smithville a silent and deserted place, whose inhabitants wondered what was to happen next.”

The first contingent of Federal troops (a small group of sailors led by Lieut. William B. Cushing) reached Smithville on January 18. They took prisoner the 44 sick and wounded occupants of the Confederate hospital, met with a citizens committee on the garrison wharf and demanded the surrender of all private arms remaining in the town, and marched to the Fort and replaced the white flag flying there with the stars and stripes. Following the occupation of Smithville, the town soon became a staging and operations base for Union troops as well as a repair base for vessels of the Union navy. Shortly after the fall of Wilmington (February 22), Gen. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House (April 9). Seventeen days later, Gen. Joseph E. Johnson surrendered the last Confederate army to Gen. Sherman (Durham, N.C.), and the Civil War effectively came to an end.

Following the end of the Civil War there was a general movement to significantly reduce the number of Federal coastal fortifications and to remove the troops stationed at them. Yet, Ft. Johnston, which had been left undamaged by its retreating Confederate garrison after the fall of Ft. Fisher, continued to prosper on a relative basis. Nevertheless, time eventually caught up with Ft. Johnston, and in December, 1880, Major Graves and his Smithville garrison were transferred to Washington, D.C. Thus ended the 130-year role of Ft. Johnston as an important part of the nation’s coastal defense. ......................end