Decline of a Thriving Port City

Antebellum Wilmington - 1853

Antebellum Wilmington, North Carolina, Ca. July 1853
Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion

"After the Capital of the Confederacy there was not in the South a more important place than the little town of Wilmington, North Carolina." — John Johns, Confederate officer stationed in Civil War Wilmington

With a population of roughly 10,000 people, Wilmington weighed in as North Carolina's largest city on the eve of the American Civil War. It was still a small town by comparison, and Wilmington did not enjoy the success or reputation of larger port cities of the era, such as Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; or New Orleans, La. Nevertheless, antebellum Wilmington flourished as an active seaport, engaging in the export of tar, pitch, turpentine, and lumber.

During the first years of the war, the Federal government focused its attention on the larger and more active Southern seaports, and aside from a vigilant blockade enacted by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Wilmington thrived in virtual anonymity. Bolstering its maritime commerce were two commercial shipyards, a sword and button factory, an iron works, several banks, and perhaps most importantly, three major railroads. The most notable of the latter was the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, which ran directly north from Wilmington into Virginia — the very heart of the war's Eastern Theater. With its busy mercantile trade between New York, Philadelphia, and the Caribbean islands, Wilmington soon emerged as one of the most important cities in the Confederacy.

The town rapidly became a haven for various profit minded entrepreneurs who made a living by running the Federal blockade in order to supply the isolated South with needed military provisions, everyday necessities, and even luxury items. It was a rewarding trade. All through the war the Federal navy's thinly stretched blockading force struggled vainly to squelch the influx of foreign goods into the Confederacy. As blockade-running soared, Wilmington declined from a quaint and beautiful port city, "gay and social" in its dealings, to a bustling maritime center teeming with the dregs of society.

"Here resorted the speculators from all parts of the South, to attend the weekly auctions of imported cargoes," noted blockade-runner John Wilkinson, "and the town was infested with rogues and desperadoes, who made a livelihood by robbery and murder. It was unsafe to venture into the suburbs at night, and even in daylight there were frequent conflicts in the public streets, between the crews of the steamers in port and the [Confederate] soldiers stationed in the town, in which knives and pistols would be freely used; and not unfrequently [sic] a dead body would rise to the surface of the water in one of the docks with marks of violence upon it . . . . The civil authorities were powerless to prevent crime."

As the social climate deteriorated many of Wilmington's permanent citizens left their houses and fled to the countryside. Those who remained were more inclined toward seclusion, as the city streets "swarmed with foreigners, Jews and Gentiles." Beggars lined the docks as the newly-arrived steamers unloaded their wares, and Wilmington's garrison troops struggled to keep order in a town turned upside down.

Times were hard, and despite the decline of Wilmington's social order, precious goods arriving at the docks were welcome indeed. As the war progressed everyday necessities, and certainly luxury items, became increasingly hard to come by. Soon the arrival of a heavily laden blockade-runner was looked to with great anticipation, as a needy population "looked the other way," glad to have an opportunity for obtaining items not otherwise available.

In November 1862, Maj. Gen. W. H. C. Whiting — brusque in manner and known for his abrasiveness — was assigned to command of the District of the Cape Fear. Whiting was transferred to Wilmington when Robert E. Lee restructured the Army of Northern Virginia at the request of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Outspoken and candid, Whiting had criticized Davis' handling of military affairs in Virginia, and Lee also found Whiting's alarmist tendencies bothersome. The general was hurt by the transfer, but was well suited for his new post. He was a talented engineer, and the increasingly important city of Wilmington needed a strong defense system to repel any attempt by the Federal army or navy to close the port, and thereby deprive the Confederate cause of the sinews for waging war.

General Whiting enjoyed the confidence of the troops under his command, and "though there were constant rumors of expeditions against [Wilmington]," observed John Johns, "we scarcely believed they were coming . . . [but] it seemed singular to us that the United States should so long neglect to close the only port . . . of the Confederacy into which every 'dark of the moon' there ran half a dozen or so swift blockade runners, freighted with cannon, muskets, and every munition of war." As supplies of all sorts continued to pour into Wilmington, the military provisions were funneled straight up to Lee's army in Virginia via the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad — the "lifeline of the Confederacy."

The defenses of the City [of Wilmington] consisted of a chain or system of ponds, dams and earthworks extending in a crescent half around the north eastern side of the City, then from North East [Cape Fear] River to Smith's Creek and across a sand ridge . . . and a mile from the City all around. There were dams with water gauges at each of these ponds, and it is said to have been a very skillful piece of engineering. In the City were two batteries of Columbiad Cannons . . . . These batteries and chains of dams along with several Government sheds on the side of the river in front of the City, were the principal points to protect the 10th Battalion. These sheds at times were filled with immense quantities of goods and Government supplies landed there by the numerous fleets of blockade runners then coming into port; just as eager to get our cotton, as we were to get the necessary goods brought for exchange. — Charles S. Powell, 10th North Carolina Battalion

Text used with permission. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.


Return to top of page

Return to the Fort Fisher home page