Looking for a summer day trip that will exercise the brain and body, result in a fun afternoon and maybe even convert your family into history buffs?
Then head north to Fort Fisher, just outside Wilmington, N.C. The fort allowed Wilmington to remain home to some of the south’s most active blockade runners up until its capture in January 1865 and was the last of the East Coast Confederate coastal defenses to fall to the Union. The attack that finally stopped the stream of blockade runners from slipping supplies, gold and other goodies past federal ships to the Confederate lines was the largest U.S. naval offensive mounted until the days of World War II.
Less than 10 percent of the actual earthen fortification remains, but rebuilt batteries and the walkway around the fort (all paved and handicap-accessible) give visitors a good idea of what the fort looked like when it suffered two days of almost nonstop bombardment by ships offshore. The fort’s website says about “180 yards of the land face exist on the river side of U.S. 421, and 75 yards of the land face exist on the ocean side. The partial remains of Battery Buchanan are at the southern end of Federal Point (just south of the ferry landing).”
Start your visit with a look at the website to place the story of the fort in context. When you get to the Visitor Center, watch the 10-minute film that tells the story of the fort and its Crimean War connection (no spoilers here!).
Don’t miss the small attached museum. Visit before the trail walk, since most of the exhibits come from artifacts from the area. Seeing the items before the walk makes it easier to imagine what the soldiers looked like, how they suffered, what they carried and wore, and what local civilians thought about the battles. One of the stars of the indoor museum is the fiber-optic map that cycles through the two days of battles, using lights to show the movement of the Union and Confederate forces and the Union armada offshore.
The tour trail is approximately one-quarter of a mile long and encircles the remains of the fort on the river side of the highway. Trail-side exhibit panels containing photos and text enliven the experience. A restored gun emplacement is on top of one of the batteries.
Don’t miss Battle Acre, a monument to Confederate dead, located on the ocean side of U.S. 421.
Underwater archeology — a lot of what was land then is under water now — gets its due in an exhibit on the grounds. The tour trail is accessible with assistance, but the restored gun emplacement is not.
I spent about two hours roaming the grounds, perusing the bookstore in the gift shop, looking at the exhibits and watching the film. Volunteers cheerfully answered my questions about the battle and the combatants. Although parts of the trail are shaded, I would advise going in the morning, arriving around 10 a.m. before it gets too warm.
I found that when I walked into the fort enclosure, I had a much better sense of the battle and the way the troops must have felt with the shells coming from the sea. Although I was sheltered by the huge earthen walls, the noise and the smell of gunpowder alone must have been terrible to endure. When the last troops came in on land for the attack, the fighting was hand-to-hand combat, bloody and awful. Visiting battlefields like this is a chance to inform ourselves about the heroes of our heritage and warn us of the nature of war, raise our respect level for those on the front lines today in our defense around the globe and, hopefully, strengthen our resolve for peace.
If you don’t need to get home right away, you can probably pack at least one more site into your visit with either the USS North Carolina, a World War II ship, or the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Each of these attractions take at least two hours to see. The aquarium, only a mile north of the fort on U.S. 421, has a snack bar (Shark Bites) serving burgers, soft pretzels, ice cream and other festive foods. The Battleship North Carolina site is just before the bridge, off U.S. 421 as you head south to Route 17 and home, and does not have a snack bar, only vending machines.