Civil War History Weekend in Wilmington

Civil War History Weekend in Wilmington

At the Fort Fisher Historic Site, learn how Union troops were thwarted at first but returned with an amphibious assault

Wilmington, the state’s largest city in 1860, was a small town compared with other Confederate ports. But wartime destiny left a fascinating trail of battlefields, grand homes and plantations, and an opulent opera house for you to follow. It begins at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and continues 20 miles to Wilmington, where you can walk 230 blocks of National Register Historic Districts.

2-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Visit two forts and a performance space built by free and enslaved blacks.

Day 2: Experience antebellum life at a house and plantation turned museums.

Day 1: Fort Fisher, Fort Anderson and Thalian Hall

Fort Fisher was called “The Gibraltar of the South,” and it provided sea and land defense for the Confederates. Visit Fort Fisher Historic Site to learn how Union troops were thwarted at first but returned with an amphibious assault that went unmatched until D-Day. At the Visitor Center, a video unravels the complex attack. Study the 16-foot battlefield map, artifacts and other exhibits there. Follow the trail around the fort’s remains and explore the restored gun emplacement, monuments and markers.

You’ll find Fort Anderson upriver, at a state historic site midway between Southport and Wilmington. Confederates built defenses here, on top of Brunswick Town, a pre-Revolutionary War settlement. A trail takes you to ruins from both settlements, which are described in exhibits at the Visitor Center.

Head to Thalian Hall in Wilmington. Built in 1858, the Italianate and Classical Revival performance hall was a cultural center during the Civil War, and performances featured future Broadway trouper Ida Vernon. You can still see the work of the enslaved and free black tradesmen who built it, including the original hand-painted main curtain. Attend a show in the newly renovated space, and then schedule a tour.

Lodging and food options are varied in Wilmington. Blockade Runner Beach Resort has waterfront rooms and activities, and The Graystone Inn is in the home built by the daughter-in-law of Robert Rufus Bridgers, a railroad magnate and Confederate Congress representative. Another good option is The Verandas, a 151-year-old inn in the city’s historic district. For dinner, head to Chandler’s Wharf, which was owned by Col. F.W. Kerchner, a German immigrant who commanded the capture of John Brown after his Harper’s Ferry raid and reported to then Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. There you can choose the Pilot House, which serves regional cuisine, or Elijah’s, a casual American grill and oyster bar with sunset views.

Day 2: Bellamy Mansion and Poplar Grove Plantation

Free and enslaved black artisans built Bellamy Mansion on the eve of the Civil War. Today it’s a museum where you’ll experience antebellum life, from lavish first-floor rooms to slave quarters. Guides will tell you about William Benjamin Gould, an enslaved plasterer who worked on the Italianate and Classical Revival house before he escaped to the Union Navy; the 1862 yellow fever epidemic; and the home’s stint as a Union headquarters.

Chartered in 1852, Oakdale Cemetery is Wilmington’s first municipal burial ground. Download the self-guided tour to find the graves of hundreds of Civil War-era civilians and military figures, including 367 Confederate fighters and Gen. William H.C. Whiting, all killed at Fort Fisher. Be sure to visit the grave of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a spy who drowned while swimming to Fort Fisher, sunk by the weight of $2,000 worth of gold.

Poplar Grove Plantation is about 15 miles northeast of downtown Wilmington. This peanut plantation dates to 1795 and its Greek revival manor house to 1850. For 30 years it has been a historic site, where you can experience farm life across generations. Costumed tour guides take you to rotating and permanent exhibits, including “From Civil War to Civil Rights: The African-American Experience.” Arrange your guided or hands-on activities tour through Abbey Nature Preserve.

Pete Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer who says lakes, race tracks and barbecue joints are his favorite places to enjoy North Carolina.

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