Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fort Fisher 150th this weekend: Battle scenarios, tours, a meeting of descendants

(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
Between 10,000 and 15,000 spectators are expected to witness two battle scenarios this weekend and take in music, tours and more at the site of Fort Fisher, on the peninsula between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, south of Wilmington, N.C. Famed Civil War historian Ed Bearss and various authors and experts will be on hand for Saturday’s and Sunday’s programs. The Jan. 15, 1865, fall of the “Gibraltar of the South” to a land and amphibious assault cut off blockade runners and the last supply line through Wilmington to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. U.S. Colored Troops were among those taking part in the attack. The Picket spoke with John Moseley, assistant site manager at Fort Fisher State Historic Site, and Paul Laird, executive director of the Friends of Fort Fisher, about the battle and this weekend’s activities.
Disaster helped create battle’s turning point
The program for the 150th anniversary of the battle, which was the second effort to grasp control of the fort, will include the present-day U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company. Interpreters will explain to visitors the Jan. 15 Marine Corps and Navy assault on Fort Fisher’s northeast bastion. (The Army attacked from the western, river side. Heavy naval bombardment of the fort took place on Jan. 14, 1865.)
“There was confusion when the actual attack would take place,” said Moseley. “When the whistle was given (mid-afternoon), the Navy immediately jumped off. Some 2,000 to 2,200 Navy and Marine personnel ran down the beach. The Army was still getting its stuff together.”
U.S. Marine Corps Historical Company
Confederate reinforcements rushed to that bastion, inflicting about 300 casualties with rifle fire, grapeshot and canister. “They got on top of the ramparts and were shooting down on the Marines.” But the valor of the Union attackers was notable, with six Marines receiving the Medal of Honor for helping press the assault.
“That was the key. By the time they were retreating, the Army had a foothold on Shepherd’s Battery,” said Moseley. The Army with about 3,000 men was facing only about 350 Confederates, because most had rushed to the northeast bastion. They were able to pile through.
“The one disaster takes the attention away from the main attack, unexpectedly.”
(Library of Congress)
Finally, well into the evening, the Union assault carried the day, bringing about the post’s surrender. It came with a price – about 2,000 estimated casualties for both sides. The Confederates were dogged in their defense.
Comparing real soldiers and 2015 re-enactors
Normally, about 300 to 400 re-enactors attend significant anniversary events at Fort Fisher, officials, said. This year, the number of invitation-only registrations is about double that. Units expected to be on hand include the Fort Fisher garrison, Adams artillery, another artillery unit and the 11th and 18th North Carolina.
“We have never had this kind of response,” said Moseley.
He and Laird said Fort Fisher and a few remaining sesquicentennial events in Virginia and North Carolina and elsewhere in 2015 will be the last hurrah for some re-enactors.
“A lot of people have been doing this for 20 to 25 years. They are just as tired as the actual soldiers would have been in 1865,” said Moseley. “They are starting to look very authentic, with the dirt and debris over all their uniforms.”
Some may get out of the hobby or take a year’s break. “They want to get reintroduced to their families.”
(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
A bit of history near beautiful beaches
Fort Fisher gets about 600,000 visitors a year, the most of North Carolina’s historic sites, largely because of its location near several of the state’s beaches. The big crush comes during the summer months, with visitors from all over the country and Europe. They come for the surf and serenity, or to bird watch.
Laird and Moseley said they expect many people attending this weekend will be pretty well-versed on the battle’s significance. And a good weather forecast is a bonus.
“The folks are going to be your dyed in the wool history enthusiasts who are not going to be the casual day tripper,” said Laird.
The Wilmington campaign plays a major role in the first 45 minutes of the 2012 film “Lincoln.”
“We’ve even had a couple actors come down because they did not know what the whole thing was about. What the heck is Fort Fisher?” said Moseley.
Views of the fort after it fell (Library of Congress)
Why is Fort Fisher so important?
Said Moseley: “Once the fort fell, there was nowhere for the Confederacy to go. It was a done deal. There was no way to get any supplies from overseas to help the army or civilians.”
Galveston, Texas, was just too far away for a resupply of eastern armies. He asks: Could the war ended sooner if Fisher had been taken earlier?
Laird said he hopes for a bigger takeaway.
“Ultimately, we want them to understand (that with) the sacrifices that were made 150 years ago, we would have a reunited country once again.”
North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial
What’s on tap for this weekend?
Activities begin at about 9 a.m. Saturday and end at about 4 p.m. Sunday. Because of limited parking, a free trolley service will run from the Fort Fisher Air Force Recreation Base to the fort.
The Friends of Fort Fisher have raised about $72,000 to help with the event.
Admission is free, though there is a $10 lantern tour Saturday night and $10 “Above the Scenes” tours of the earthen fortifications both days. In the former, visitors will “encounter historical personages who will relay the battle and their role in the battle,” said Laird.
Bearss and Gov. Pat McCrory will attend the 11 a.m. opening ceremony Saturday. Battle scenarios are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.
Speakers include authors Rod Gragg, “Confederate Goliath,” and Chris Fonvielle, “Faces of Fort Fisher.” Children’s activities, artillery and musket demonstrations and music also are in the lineup.
(Fort Fisher State Historic Site)
Something special for descendants
The Friends of Fort Fisher on Thursday and Friday is hosting on Carolina Beach a private reunion for about 200 people who have Union of Confederate ancestors who took part in the Fort Fisher campaigns.
“They know their own ancestors’ role and affiliation and we will give them a chance to write down their stories,” said Laird, adding historians will be on hand. The descendants will receive a behind-the-scenes tour of the fortifications on Friday.
“It’s interesting how important the veterans themselves were after the war in bringing about reconciliation. This reunion is a continuation of what they started.”