February 22, 1865 – Major General John Schofield’s new Federal army captured a once-vital Confederate port city on the North Carolina coast.
Schofield’s Federals moved north up the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher in an effort to capture Wilmington. Schofield hoped to use the city as a military supply base now that the fall of Fort Fisher had rendered it useless for Confederate shipping. But Confederates on the east and west banks of the river blocked the Federals’ path.
To the east, Major General Alfred H. Terry’s X Corps moved north up the peninsula between the Atlantic and the Cape Fear River to face Major General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederates on the Sugar Loaf Line. To the west, Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps moved north along the west bank of the Cape Fear to face Brigadier General Johnson Hagood’s Confederates at Town Creek. Meanwhile, Rear Admiral David D. Porter’s Federal naval fleet worked to clear torpedoes and other obstructions from the river.
After Hagood abandoned Fort Anderson, Hoke fell back to a new defense line about three miles south of Wilmington. Terry pursued cautiously, reinforced by Brigadier General Adelbert Ames’s division previously on loan to Cox. Across the Cape Fear, Hagood’s Confederates burned the only bridge over Town Creek and built defenses on the north bank.
The Federals could not ford the creek, so Cox dispatched three brigades to outflank the Confederates while his fourth brigade kept them occupied. The flankers found a flat-bottom boat and used it to cross Town Creek, on the Confederate left. Hagood had anchored his left flank on a swamp, figuring that the Federals could not get around it.
Cox later wrote, “The ground was such that no horses could be used and all officers were dismounted. With some difficulty the command passed through the rice swamps, moving obliquely to the right till we reached dry land about a mile from the place of crossing.” After several grueling hours, the Federals got across.
Hagood discovered the Federal maneuver and ordered a retreat to Wilmington, leaving two regiments as a rear guard. The Federals routed these regiments, taking 375 prisoners and two guns. The rest of Hagood’s men escaped into Wilmington, but the Federals were close behind.
Meanwhile, Terry’s Federals were entrenched in front of Hoke’s defense line, with Porter’s gunboats bombarding the Confederates from the river. That night, the Confederates released about 200 torpedoes from their moorings and sent them floating downriver. Federal naval crews panicked, fearing that these floating mines would destroy their ships. However, Porter had detailed rowboats with netting to catch most of the torpedoes before they reached the main fleet. They ultimately caused no damage.
General Braxton Bragg, who had been unofficially ousted as President Jefferson Davis’s military advisor once Robert E. Lee became general-in-chief, arrived at Wilmington on the 21st to take overall command of the situation. By that time, Hagood’s small force had retreated into the city, and Hoke’s Confederates on the eastern peninsula would soon have to retreat before superior numbers as well.
Bragg reported, “The enemy in force on the west, and our communications south cut. We are greatly out-numbered.” Lee responded, “Destroy all cotton, tobacco, and naval stores that would otherwise fall into the hands of the enemy.” Bragg completed his assessment and wrote, “Our small force renders it impossible to make any serious stand. We are greatly embarrassed by prisoners, the enemy refusing to receive them or entertain any proposition.” Knowing that the Confederate retreat would be hindered by transporting hundreds of prisoners, the Federals refused to discuss exchanging them.
By the end of the 21st, Cox’s Federals had reached the southwestern outskirts of Wilmington, and Terry’s men were poised to launch a full-scale assault southeast of the city. Cox’s advance was delayed by destroyed bridges and Confederate cavalry. During that time, Bragg evacuated all troops, prisoners, and military necessities from Wilmington, and his Confederates destroyed anything of military value they could not take with them.
The general retreat began at 1 a.m. on the 22nd with the abandonment of Fort Strong and all other defensive points. Bragg reported, “By the active and efficient operation of the Weldon and Wilmington Railroad, we succeeded in getting off all the prisoners able to travel and all important stores. Some naval stores and a small lot of cotton and tobacco were destroyed by fire. These could have been saved but for the occupation of the trains in carrying prisoners.”
As the sun rose, Cox saw that the city had been abandoned. He later wrote:
“Bragg had carefully removed all boats from our side of the channel, but citizens anxious to prevent us from firing on the town came over in skiffs, and we learned that the Confederate forces had marched away toward Goldsborough, leaving the way open for Terry’s march into the city, which took place in the early morning of the 22nd, which we were happy to recall was Washington’s Birthday.”
Federal bands blared loud, patriotic music as Terry’s Federals entered Wilmington. Porter reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles: “I have the honor to inform you that Wilmington has been evacuated and is in possession of our troops… I had the pleasure of placing the flag on Fort Strong, and at 12 o’clock noon today shall fire a thirty-five guns salute this being the anniversary of Washington’s birthday.” Mayor John Dawson surrendered Wilmington to Terry the next day.
Federal officials planned to convert Wilmington into another supply base for operations against Lee’s Confederates under siege at Petersburg. The fall of Wilmington freed Schofield to join forces with Major General William T. Sherman’s armies. This combined force would then move northward across the Roanoke River, the last strong defensive line south of Virginia’s Appomattox River.
Schofield directed his men to repair all railroad tracks and equipment in the Wilmington area, but he soon learned that supplies for such repairs were scarce. He therefore ordered Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer to open a supply line from New Bern. The line would extend west to Goldsborough, where Sherman’s Federals were expected to arrive after their march through South Carolina. When Palmer did not move quickly enough, Schofield put Cox in charge of the operation.
Meanwhile, the Confederates scrambled to escape Federal capture. They took the C.S.S. Chickamauga up the Cape Fear River and scuttled her in such a way to block enemy vessels from advancing upriver. Commodore John R. Tucker, who had led 350 Confederate sailors out of Charleston, marched 125 miles to Fayetteville. They joined with another grounded naval force and continued marching north to join the Confederates at Richmond and Petersburg.
General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Western Theater, believed that Sherman would follow up the fall of Wilmington with an attack on Charlotte. He therefore issued a proclamation urging Charlotte residents to volunteer their slave labor to “destroy and obstruct” the roads to the city. However, Sherman only feinted toward Charlotte while actually moving east to join forces with Schofield at Goldsborough. As February ended, North Carolina seemed doomed.
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