RALEIGH – The beginning of 1865 marked the end of the Civil War in North Carolina and the nation as the bloody conflict that took more American lives than any military operation before or since concluded. N.C. State Historic Sites (www.nchistoricsites.org) will commemorate the 145th anniversary of the end of the country’s deadliest war starting in January and continuing through the spring. In coming weeks, battle re-enactments, programs on daily life and tales of occupation involving the Confederate and Union Armies, including U.S. Colored Troops, will come alive.
This is the lead-up to observation of the 150th anniversary (www.nccivilwar150.com) of the conclusion of the Civil War by the 35 historic sites and museums within the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources (www.ncculture.com).
North Carolina’s final losses in the Civil War began on Jan. 13, 1865, with a ferocious attack by Union sailors and soldiers on Fort Fisher, near Wilmington.
It was the largest land and sea assault by the U.S. Army and Navy prior to World War II. It also was the first of several defeats in the state that climaxed with the Battle of Bentonville in March and the Confederate surrender at Bennett Place in Durham in April.
The location of Fort Fisher (www.historicsites.org/fisher/fisher.htm) facing the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Cape Fear River on the other allowed it to protect the coast for blockade runners and keep the port of Wilmington open for supplies to citizens and the Confederate Army. Its location also made the fort a prime target for attack.
However, the fort’s unique construction also made it a challenging target for its foes. It was known as the Gibraltar of the South. Rather than logs and mortar, the fort was constructed of sand. The walls, two stories high and 25 feet thick, literally absorbed Union shells that sank
ineffectively in the sand during the first attack on the fort on Christmas Eve 1864. Darkness and bad weather led Union forces to withdraw and return to the fight another day. That day came in January 1865, when Union Gen. Alfred H. Terry landed 8,000 men at Fort Fisher. After three days of bombardment and six hours of hand-to-hand combat, the Confederates surrendered.
The next defeat was at nearby Fort Anderson which, like Fort Fisher, was part of the defense system for Wilmington. In February, Union forces attacked Fort Anderson (www.historicsites.org/brunswic.brunswic.htm), by land and sea. The fort, constructed of sand earthworks, also fell to superior forces when on the night of Feb. 20, after three days of fighting, the Confederates evacuated the fort, leaving it in the hands of Union forces. There was a one-day fight at Town Creek north of Fort Anderson the following day, then victorious Union forces went on to occupy Wilmington on Feb. 22, 1865.
In Kinston, one of the most ambitious efforts of the Confederate Navy in North Carolina was the construction of the CSS Neuse (www.historicsites.org/neuse/neuse.htm). One of 22 ironclads commissioned by the Confederate Navy using new technology, the Neuse was scuttled by its crew on March 12 to prevent its capture by Union forces during the occupation of Kinston.
On March 19, Bentonville Battlefield (www.historicsites.org/bentonvi.bentonvi.htm) became the scene of the largest battle ever fought in North Carolina. This last pitched battle spread over 6,000 acres and involved 60,000 Union soldiers and 20,000 Confederates. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston commanded an army hastily assembled to confront Union Gen. William T. Sherman in North Carolina. Sherman was headed north through the Carolinas after the fall of Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., late in 1864. His aim was to go through the Carolinas to cut off the supply lines to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia and to join forces with Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, where Grant had Lee’s army pinned down.
After three days of fighting, the vastly outnumbered Confederate Gen. Johnston withdrew his troops to Smithfield and on to Raleigh. Formal surrender would soon follow.
Meanwhile, the war moved to the North Carolina State Capitol on April 13 when Sherman’s army, led by Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Calvary Division, marched into Raleigh and occupied the town and the Capitol. North Carolina’s Capitol was spared the total destruction that had befallen the old statehouse in South Carolina. A retreating Gov. Zebulon Vance sent a peace delegation to Sherman asking that the Capitol, with its library and museum, be saved. Consequently, the Capitol suffered little damage.
On April 14, Johnston asked Sherman for a truce, and peace talks began. Aware that Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, and that Sherman’s army of 90,000 was advancing toward Raleigh, Johnston knew that the cause was lost. Over the following days, Johnston and Sherman held several meetings at Bennett farmhouse near Durham. Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26 at Bennett Place, ending the war in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.
Other parts of North Carolina suffered the destruction of rail lines and property, even if spared the large-scale battles waged in the coastal area. One small, final skirmish near Waynesville in western North Carolina in early May was the last military action of the Civil War in the state.
When the war ended, several communities were occupied by Union soldiers who maintained law and order. A few towns, including Goldsboro, were occupied by Union troops that included African American soldiers.
North Carolina lost 20,000 men in battle during the Civil War, which was one-fourth of all Confederate deaths. Another 21,000 died of disease, and tens of thousands were maimed and injured. Nonetheless, North Carolina troops were proud of being “First at Bethel, farthest at Gettysburg, and last at Appomattox.”
For additional information call (919) 581-1041. The Division of State Historic Sites is within the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information is available 24/7 at www.ncculture.com.
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