"I determined at once to build a work of such magnitude that it could withstand the heaviest fire of any guns in the American navy." — Col. William Lamb, Commander of Fort Fisher
Construction of defensive works on Federal Point commenced in the spring of 1861. In April, Maj. Charles Pattison Bolles was the first to begin work on a series of batteries about a mile north of New Inlet. His plans were approved by Lt. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, organizer of the Southern Department of Coastal Defenses, and by W. H. C. Whiting. At this early date Whiting, Bolles' brother-in-law, held the rank of major and was the inspector general of the defenses of North Carolina. When Bolles was transferred to Oak Island, Capt. William Lord DeRosset took his place on May 7, 1861. DeRosset arrived with the Wilmington Light Infantry, which was the first company to see garrison duty at the fledgling post. His stay was brief, but Capt. DeRosset oversaw the strengthening of Battery Bolles, so named in honor of his predecessor, which became the first armed redoubt in what was to become Fort Fisher.
During the first 16 months of the war, a succession of commanders came and went on Federal Point. The best qualified officers were quickly assigned other duties, and both Holmes and Whiting were transferred to the fighting front in Virginia. In the meantime a training post known as Camp Wyatt was established a mile and one-half north of Battery Bolles in the summer of 1861, and by the end of August the area had a new commander.
Seawell L. Fremont, colonel of the 1st Corps of North Carolina Volunteer Artillery and Engineers, was put in charge of the state's coastal defense, and he focused attention on guarding the river inlets, especially New Inlet. Soon, with the aid of engineers John C. Winder and Richard K. Meade, several new batteries appeared on Federal Point. Battery Meade was established north of Battery Bolles and a short-lived two-gun installation was placed on Zeke's Island just south of the inlet. Two oceanfront batteries were also constructed several miles up the peninsula: Battery Anderson was north of Camp Wyatt and Battery Gatlin, the furthest north, was located on a narrow sand spit between Myrtle Sound and the Atlantic. In September Fremont christened the new post "Fort Fisher," in honor of Col. Charles F. Fisher of the 6th North Carolina Infantry, who had been killed at the Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) in Virginia the previous July.
That fall a new artillery company from Mississippi was brought down to Camp Wyatt for training. The desolate terrain of Federal Point seemed forbidding to the new arrivals, and Lt. Patrick C. Hoy described "a country which has a scrubby growth of timber but few settlements. It looked as if we [were] going to nowhere. . . .The few settlers here appeared to be very poor, a small garden or patch of open ground their only source of support." The newcomers gazed with curiosity at the long ladders which were occasionally seen stretching to the highest reaches of the tall pines. They were told by locals that the ladders were used by river pilots, who would scan the ocean with a "spy glass" for incoming blockade-runners. Having received the proper signal, the pilot would hurry down to his small boat and "hasten to the vessel and convey it to the mouth of the river and on up to Wilmington."
As work continued at Fort Fisher, Lt. Samuel A. Ashe oversaw the improvement of its armament via rifling machinery that was imported from Charleston. The new range afforded by rifled guns enabled the fort's garrison to work more freely and without the risk of being fired upon by Federal blockaders lying close off the bar. The Federal warships were forced to keep their distance. "There are two steamers in sight [off Fort Fisher] this morning," wrote G. H. Beatty, and he boasted to his mother that "there is no danger of a battle, I think." Garrison life on the point was for the most part monotonous and uncomfortable, and when his company was left behind when the 18th North Carolina departed for points more interesting, young Beatty and many of his comrades were disappointed.
Seawell Fremont was replaced by Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Anderson that September, who was soon the first officer placed by Confederate authorities as commander of the District of the Cape Fear, North Carolina's Third Military District. Fremont returned to his pre-war post as superintendent of the all-important Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, and Anderson appointed Col. John J. Hedrick in January 1862 to oversee the continuation of earthwork fortifications at Fort Fisher. Under Anderson, and his successor Brig. Gen. Samuel G. French, Hedrick labored to strengthen the growing installation. But by the summer of 1862, the fort was still a patchwork of disconnected batteries and bits of sand curtain.
Finally, in July, the fort received its final commander. Before dusk on the day that Col. William Lamb arrived he had "thoroughly inspected the works." The sharp young colonel was less than pleased with what he found, noting that there were only 17 guns "of respectable calibre" and that "as a defence [sic] of New Inlet against a Federal fleet, our works amounted to nothing." Soon the garrison, and perhaps as many as 500 slaves, were hard at work on conforming the works at Fort Fisher to Col. Lamb's own design. He incorporated the existing structures whenever possible and added many new ones. Before long a massive line of earthen batteries stretched from Shepherd's Battery on the Cape Fear River all the way to the ocean, forming the fort's Land Face. Eventually the Sea Face would stretch the distance of nearly a mile. The terminus of the Sea Face was the gigantic Battery Lamb, more commonly known as the Mound Battery. This 43-foot-high battery was constructed in the spring of 1863 using a steam engine on an inclined railway to haul sand to the top of a scaffold. Hundreds of men were employed in dumping the sand from the top of the scaffold to form the giant mound. This battery would become the fort's most notable landmark and was probably the most impressive engineering feat accomplished during its construction. Because of its high visibility Lamb installed signal lights on the Mound to communicate with incoming blockade-runners.
The improvement in the structure was something to behold. "Powerful batteries, traverses, palisades, covered ways and gun chambers were erected," remembered T. A. McNeill, "many of these latter mounting rifled guns of English pattern, and of great calibre." In November 1863, Confederate president Jefferson Davis paid a visit while on hand to inspect the defenses of Wilmington. Davis arrived by boat at the tip of Federal Point and rode on horseback to the Mound Battery. He was accompanied by W. H. C. Whiting, who had returned as district commander in November 1862. From the top of the towering battery, Davis took in the impressive view of the fort as it sprawled northward along the beach. "As soon as he reached the top," wrote Lamb, "the sea-face guns being manned for the purpose, gave him the Presidential salute of twenty-one guns. We doubt whether many of the forts in the South could claim the distinction of having fired such a salute."
Further guarding the inlet to the south was Battery Buchanan, a large four-gun structure completed in October 1864 and designed by engineer Reddin Pittman. Buchanan completed the defenses on Federal Point, which was aptly dubbed "Confederate Point" by its new inhabitants. "During 1864," remembered Lamb, "the ten companies of the Thirty-sixth North Carolina had been collected at Fort Fisher, and the works had assumed formidable proportions." (See Map of Fort Fisher).
Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.