Fort Fisher, January 2017
This weekend the Fort Fisher historic site near Kure Beach, North Carolina observes the 152nd anniversary of the second Northern attack that succeeded in capturing the fort after a massive bombardment of 50,000 shells which killed or wounded 500 or so mostly-North Carolinians who fought valiantly from traverse to traverse before capitulating. Those taken prisoner by the enemy were shipped northward to frigid prisons in New Jersey and New York – the latter infamously referred to as a death camp.
Many people visiting Fort Fisher note that it can be an eerie experience – like walking the fields of Appomattox and sensing the death-knell of liberty and independence it is known for.
The State employees of the historic site will hold events of blue-clad troops splashing ashore to free North Carolinians from the yoke of independence and self-government, as well as waving the US flag from the top of captured cannon traverses. The red, white and blue flags of the North Carolinians will be minimized if shown at all. Rather than note that most of the defenders were North Carolina farmers from surrounding counties, the fort and media will refer to them as merely “Confederates.”
Often noted during these observances is the enemy soldier who fell out of ranks to visit his mother’s home — as his brother was fighting to defend his country in a grey uniform. And few seem to comprehend that this wayward North Carolinian in blue is the very definition of treason, of aiding, abetting and going over to the enemy.
Also, what is usually not discussed at events like this are the sectional differences of that era and multitude of reasons why the South was invaded, and the important aftermath of that battle for the fort. What really happened in mid-January 152 years ago was the ending of an American struggle for freedom and independence, the consent of the governed to rule themselves, and the equivalent of Washington surrendering to British forces at Yorktown.
What happened after the fort fell is very important to remember, especially as one looks at the blue-clad reenactors splashing ashore waving their flag on what was then foreign soil to them. What was their true purpose?
After the fort was overwhelmed and silenced, the 10,000-man enemy army marched toward Wilmington in two columns and after some spirited skirmishes, captured the city, imposed martial law, seized private property, and forced citizens to swear allegiance to a foreign government in order to conduct their businesses.
When the enemy departed Wilmington, they moved to join other enemy forces coming into North Carolina from South Carolina and from occupied New Bern. At Bentonville the combined enemy outnumbered Southern forces 4 to 1 — who fought them to a standstill – they then moved on to capture Raleigh, arrest and imprison the governor, and impose military rule on North Carolina. Think of the French capitulation to Germany in 1940.
After the surrender of Southern forces in May, 1865 at Bennett Place, the “reconstruction” of the South lasted until 1877 – some say it never ended — though without armies and without as much gunfire. North Carolina endured rule by a new State constitution imported by a military consul appointed from Washington, and corrupt local men who sought employment with the late enemy. The new imported constitution settled the secession issue for good by stating that North Carolina will never again seek independence or political freedom from the United States Government.
Understandably, July 4, 1865 in occupied Wilmington was a muted affair, celebrated only by locals collaborating with the enemy and newly-freed blacks who were unaware that they had only changed masters. Blue-clad sentries still patrolled the streets to ensure the rebellion did not re-ignite; then came the vultures known as “carpetbaggers.”
Former Governor Zebulon Vance described the aftermath of war in North Carolina in 1890:
“The carnival of corruption and fraud, the trampling down of decency, the rioting in the overthrow of the traditions of a proud people, the chaos of hell on earth which took place beggars the descriptive powers of plain history . . . I believe a committee of Congress, who took some testimony on this subject, estimated in 1871 the amount of plunder which was extracted from the Southern people in about 5 short years — some $300 millions of dollars in the shape of increased debt alone, to say nothing of the indirect damage inflicted by the many ways of corruption and misrule which cannot be estimated in money.”
The fall of Fort Fisher and ultimate surrender at Bennett Place led to the carnival of corruption that Vance illuminated. We should remember what occurred at Fort Fisher in mid-January 1865 for what it was and what it led to — the ending of an American struggle for freedom and independence, the consent of the governed to rule themselves. This is the sad fact that we should observe, and be cognizant of when gazing at the great earthen fortress.