On The North Carolina Civil War Trail
North Carolina’s forgotten role in America’s War Between The States is revealed in a trip on the Civil War Trail that covers the length and breadth of the Old North State and links into the national trail.
From coastal forts, America’s first amphibious assault, the war’s last major battle, and its last major surrender, North Carolina holds some surprises on its portion of the Civil War Trail.
Heavily defended Wilmington remained open until early 1865, longer than any other Confederate port. It was a town of about 10,000 people and played a crucial role in re-supplying Confederate troops. On the ocean side of the Cape Fear River was Fort Fisher, whose cannons kept Union ships at a distance, allowing blockade runners to slip in and out with supplies. Workers loaded the goods onto trains owned by Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, known as “Lee’s Lifeline,” for the trip to Richmond.
On the Civil War Trail in Wilmington, visitors can see Fort Fisher, which has excellent exhibits and a visitors’ center, Fort Anderson, and the Cape Fear Museum, featuring a large model of Civil War Wilmington.
Up the coast at Atlantic Beach is Fort Macon, built to protect deep water port, Beaufort. It was taken by the North Carolina Militia in April 1861, and then fell once more to Union forces in April 1862. Today, the fort is in good condition and is the site of a state park.
Heading north again we come to Roanoke Island. This area was taken by Union forces early in the war, and the Freedman’s Colony was set up as an enclave for liberated slaves. Visit Fort Raleigh National Historic Site to learn about the Freedman’s Colony. Nearby Fort Hatteras was the site of America’s first amphibious assault. This story, as well as the story of the sinking of the USS Monitor, is told at the Graveyard of The Atlantic Museum in the Town of Hatteras.
Somerset Plantation, one of North Carolina’s largest and most prosperous plantations, is in Creswell. More than 300 slaves worked the 100,000-acre farm in its heyday. An impressive plantation house is open for visitation, offering information on both planter and slave culture.
Ironclad ships were the last hope to re-open the coast for the Confederacy. The CSS Neuse, built on and named for the Neuse River, floated off with an eye toward retaking New Bern in April 1864. She ran aground before reaching her destination and finally limped back home to her Kinston base. The crew burned the ship to avoid its capture in 1865. Its remains are displayed at a museum that features information about ironclads.
Opposing forces fought the last major battle of the war on North Carolina soil at Bentonville, now a State Historic Site. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched northward, cutting a fiery swath across the south. Confederate General Joseph Johnston gathered a large force in Sherman’s path with hopes of stopping him.
A battle raged for nearly three days in late March 1865 at Bentonville before Johnston retreated to Durham. Here at Bennett House, only days after Lee had surrendered and President Lincoln had been killed, Johnston made the largest surrender of Confederate troops of the war.
Early in the war, as Confederate units began capturing Union prisoners, an old cotton mill in Salisbury was designated as a prison. At first, Union prisoners were kept in an almost collegial setting. But as the war effort dragged on, more than 10,000 prisoners strained the prison’s capacity to feed, clothe and house them. A marker at Salisbury National Cemetery, although disputed, claims that as many as 11,000 Federal prisoners are buried there.
Want to know more? Check out the ultimate source for Cultural Resources in North Carolina, NCDCR.
added: December 18, 2008
updated: December 7, 2010