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Wilmington and the Cape Fear River, North Carolina

The Illustrated London News, vol. 46, no. 1302, p. 151.

February 18, 1865

North Carolina.

The Map of Wilmington and the Cape Fear River, which appears on the following page, will doubtless have a peculiar interest for our readers, as placing before them the scene of Admiral Porter's recent successes. The subjoined particulars have been furnished by a correspondent direct from "Dixie's Land," who was, during four days, an eye-witness of the bombardment of Fort Fisher, and to whom a three months' previous residence at Wilmington had given many facilities for procuring the latest and most reliable information. The port of Wilmington, North Carolina, is situated about twenty miles north of the New Inlet entrance to the Cape Fear River. It is about four miles long and three miles broad, numbering nearly 6000 inhabitants, of whom two thirds are negroes. The streets are built at right angles, and contain many handsome edifices, among which the City Hall, the Custom House, and the marble mansion of J. A. Taylor, a wealthy Northerner, are the most conspicuous. Wilmington, however, owes its notoriety to having been the principal port of rendezvous for blockade-runners since the closing of Charleston Harbour. In spite of the vigilance of the Federal cruisers--there were on an average eighteen blockading the different entrances--as many as 164 runners successfully passed in and out in the twelve months elapsing between Oct. 1, 1863, and Oct. 1, 1864. The value of imports, through the blockade, for the year ending June 30, 1864, was 3,276,000 dols.; and of exports, 65,185,000 dols.--figures not even attained in prosperous times before the war, when imports were almost nil, and exports consisted only of lumber, resin, turpentine, and farm produce. There are two approaches to the Cape Fear River, one at the New Inlet, navigable for vessels not drawing more than 9 ft., and one at the Western Bar, between Smith and Oak Island, where the depth varies from 9 ft. to 13 ft. To the extreme left of Oak Island (not visible in the map) is Fort Camel; and in a straight line with it, on Smith's Island, below Bald Head Light, is Fort Holmes. These two forts formerly commanded the channel, and kept the Federal cruisers at bay when chasing a blockade-runner too close to the bar. Caswell, a very strong, casemated earthwork, has been blown up by the Confederates, as also the batteries on Smith's Island, and Forts Johnson and Pender, one above, the other below Smithville. Fort Fisher, against which Admiral Porter's attack was directed, forms the key to the channel. The inner (direct) distance from Fort Fisher to Caswell is eight miles, but to go round by the Frying Pan Shoals, it is sixty-two miles. The fort itself is described as "an enormous mound of sand"; but it mounted seventy-five guns, Brooks's rifled, protected by traverses, with bombproof casemates below. The best instance of its extraordinary strength is that it sustained a continuous bombardment of twenty-one days, for the attack commenced on the 14th of December and terminated only on the 14th of January. The banks all along the river, as far as Wilmington, and some distance beyond, are protected by formidable masked batteries; and torpedoes and other obstructions--piles and wrecks--have been laid down in the channel by the Confederates, to impede navigation. Even before the arrival of the Northern armada, that portion of the river between Fort St. Philip and Fort French required the utmost skill and caution to pilot a vessel of any width through without running aground or against some hidden danger. Although secret information reached Wilmington as early as the 18th of December of the departure of the Federal fleet from Fortress Monroe, the military authorities in command so little expected an invasion that there were only 400 effective soldiers in the town, and a little over 200 in Fort Fisher when the shelling began. The Federal forces are now before Half Moon Battery, about fifteen miles below Wilmington; and, as possession of the town is of great importance to them--it commands the high roads to Charleston and Petersburg--they are sure to use strenuous exertions to effect its capture; and this we may expect to hear of by next mail, the Confederates not being prepared for hostile demonstrations in that quarter before spring, nor able to spare sufficient troops for a lengthened resistance.

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