Battlefields to Battleship: Military History in Eastern North Carolina

From an early declaration of independence to modern-day Special Forces, eastern North Carolina is rich in military history, all easily accessible from Interstates 95 and 40.

Day 1: Historic Halifax & Bentonville Battlefield

About 15 miles south of the Virginia border on I-95 is the town of Halifax and the Historic Halifax State Historic Site. Halifax was a commercial river port that became a revolutionary hotbed in 1776 when a document called the “Halifax Resolves” became the first official action by an entire colony recommending independence from England. A free 60-minute guided tour includes several historic buildings, a cemetery, jail and the clerk of courts office.

Historic Halifax (photo: Halifax County CVB)

Continue about 90 miles down I-95 past Smithfield and take U.S. Highway 701 to the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site near the town of Four Oaks. The largest land engagement in North Carolina and one of the last conflicts of the Civil War was fought here March 19 through 21, 1865.

The hallmark of the visitors center is a large fiber-optic map exhibit, which provides instant spatial orientation for visitors to the battlefield. The c. 1855 Harper House is furnished as a Civil War field hospital. The site also includes a reconstructed kitchen. The grounds include battle trenches, a cemetery and history trails with exhibits. You can attend special events around the anniversary of the battle in March, plus summer seasonal living history programs in July and August.

Day 2: Dunn & Fayetteville

Take I-95 to the town of Dunn and the Averasboro Battlefield Museum. Historic markers outline the events of the tactical resistance leading up to the Battle of Bentonville. You’ll also see Lebanon, a plantation home used as a Confederate Hospital, and the Chicora Civil War Cemetery where the battle’s casualties are buried.

Maps and signs outside at Averasboro Battlefield Museum in middle of field
Averasboro Battlefield Museum

The General William C. Lee Airborne Museum is also in Dunn. This is the former house of General Lee, known as the “Father of the American Airborne.” Lee was assigned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to organize the development of Army airborne units.

A little farther down I-95 are Fayetteville, Fort Liberty, and the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. This 59,000-square-foot museum features life-size dioramas, rare aircraft, artifacts, and interactive displays commemorating this special sector of the armed forces from its inception in 1940. Highlights include a large screen movie theater and a 24-seat motion simulator that puts you in the midst of parachute jumps, helicopter gunship attacks and daring missions.

Fayetteville also is the home of the Museum of the Cape Fear, which traces the events that shaped the development of southern North Carolina. Highlights include pottery and exhibits about the early settlements of American Indians, the antebellum period, the Civil War and the textile industry. Arsenal Park reveals the history of a federal arsenal.

Day 3: Battleship North Carolina & Fort Fisher

Cut across North Carolina Route 24 and connect with I-40 East to Wilmington. Here, you can board Battleship North Carolina. Commissioned in 1941, North Carolina served in every major naval offensive in the Pacific in World War II, earning 15 battle stars. A two-hour self-guided tour includes an orientation exhibit and portions of nine decks, including the crew’s quarters, the bridge, gun turrets, and radio and engine rooms.

Aerial shot of Battleship North Carolina in river with city in background during daytime.
Battleship North Carolina

Not to be confused with the Museum of the Cape Fear, the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington has an extensive Civil War collection featuring the Wilmington waterfront as it was in 1863 and a diorama of the Second Battle of Fort Fisher.

Next, head south along the beach to see the real fort at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. Fort Fisher was one of the largest Confederate earthen seacoast fortifications. A key element of the most crucial naval bombardment and amphibious operation of the Civil War, the fort protected blockade runners carrying supplies to Wilmington before its fall in January 1865.

Day 4: Moores Creek National Battlefield

Complete your tour with a visit to the Moores Creek National Battlefield, 25 miles northwest of Wilmington near the town of Currie. This 87-acre site was the scene of a brief but decisive Revolutionary War battle Feb. 27, 1776. Victory by the colonists prevented the Loyalists from controlling North Carolina and helped block a British campaign to conquer the Southern Colonies.

Updated February 19, 2020
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