Coming to Terms with My Hometown’s Confederate Past: Wilmington, NC’s Prominent Role in the Civil War

Growing up, trips to Fort Fisher meant one of two things: a school field trip or a day at the beach with family. Both were exciting occasions for a kid who didn’t want to be confined to a desk all day. Lost in my youthful excitement, however, was the true significance of Wilmington, in particular Fort Fisher, as a confederate stronghold during the Civil War. Certainly, no one highlighted that in school, if it was taught at all. This lack of education, or even acknowledgment, is sadly consistent with other problematic aspects of Wilmington’s history: think, Wilmington Massacre of 1898. A silver lining, I suppose, is that I wasn’t taught directly that the Civil War, at its core, was about something other than slavery or that I somehow was required to honor fellow Wilmingtonians who had fought to preserve that peculiar institution. Fortunately, as an adult and after moving away, I have learned a lot about my hometown. Better late than never. Knowledge is power, no matter when it is obtained and especially when it comes to our nation’s history.

With the renewed national and regional focus on confederate monuments — I attended a protest last weekend in Chapel Hill related to the toppling of Silent Sam — my arrival in Wilmington on Sunday for vacation gave me a different perspective on my place of birth, a perspective that has been in flux over the past few years. Driving through downtown Wilmington en route to Carolina Beach, where I would be staying for the week, I noticed how chock full of confederate markers the town is. In the past, they sort of blended into the scenery, deeply embedded in the culture but undiscussed and unobtrusive and mostly unquestioned. I was not expecting, however, to be thinking about confederate monuments while on vacation at the beach.

On Tuesday, I visited Fort Fisher, mostly out of nostalgia. Fort Fisher is just a few miles from Carolina Beach, both part of metropolitan Wilmington. What was intended as a quick visit to a place I had not been to in many years quickly turned into an hour-and-a-half perusal of a memorial that struck me as having been greatly expanded since my childhood. While its name obviously connotes “war,” Fort Fisher’s true significance in the Civil War had been unknown to me. My visit was after hours, so I only saw the external memorial. Even so, it was quite clear that the memorial’s main focus is to honor fallen confederate soldiers and celebrate Fort Fisher as a final stronghold in the “Lost Cause”.

I noticed, unsurprisingly I suppose, that the term “Civil War” is infrequently used. The memorial’s largest structure conspicuously refers to that war as the “War Between the States,” the preferred term of those who refuse(d) to accept that the slave-holding confederate states were indeed part of the United States of America. The memorial rarely mentions slavery. The few references to slavery include slaves forced to help construct the fort and those who used the Cape Fear River, which served as a major route for bringing supplies to the confederacy, as a pathway to freedom. It rejects slavery as a primary reason for the war, in favor of states’ rights and autonomy and preservation of the “southern way of life.”

Wilmington was a major player in the Civil War. Second to Charleston, it was the most fortified city in the south. After the fall of Norfolk, VA, in 1862, it became the main confederate port along the Atlantic. With its waterways and railroad, Wilmington was an important hub in the confederate effort. So significant was it that, in 1864, General Robert E. Lee said, “If Wilmington falls, I cannot maintain my army.” Fort Fisher was the “last important southern port for ‘blockade running,’” a critical way to transport supplies to the confederacy. (Discovering the meaning of this term gives a whole new meaning to the Blockade Runner Restaurant and Resort at Wrightsville Beach.) When Fort Fisher did fall on January 15, 1865, it caused Wilmington to close for a while and, more importantly and true to Lee’s words, the confederacy was doomed.

I learned none of this history in the eighteen years I lived in Wilmington before moving away for college. When it comes to race in America, a lot remains unspoken and unresolved. That is certainly true of Wilmington. Too much of my knowledge of the town’s problematic history came only as an adult and upon my own initiative. I suppose one could say that it was my responsibility as a young person to learn this history while growing up or that I was too incurious as a kid. Typically, given my penchant for asking lots of questions, I have been called the opposite. I believe the main reason is that, as a culture, Americans don’t really engage in meaningful conversations about our country’s slaveholding past. We are often told to just move on, as if to acknowledge the legacy of slavery would somehow take something away from certain Americans - perhaps a desire to preserve a more pristine, if inaccurate, view of America’s history. Likewise, by ignoring this history, maybe it will somehow disappear. When efforts to spark conversation are undertaken, such as taking a knee during the national anthem at NFL games, they are dismissed as unpatriotic or misguided. For some, there is never a convenient time to talk about race in America.

Noted civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson posits that, as a nation, we must engage in truth and reconciliation in order to move beyond this painful history. Stevenson says one must precede the other — truth is a prerequisite to reconciliation. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (a.k.a. the “Lynching Memorial”) that he founded in Montgomery, AL, Stevenson has provided a way to get conversations started, by inviting municipalities to visit the memorial, claim, and take home markers containing the names of the documented lynchings that occurred in their towns. So much of Wilmington’s truth remains unaddressed. And while it is easier to “let sleeping dogs lie,” the problem is that real progress is only possible with a full reckoning of the past. At a minimum, I hope the city’s leaders will take Stevenson up on his generous offer.

Tarheel by birth and education, civil rights lawyer and activist by profession . . . all opinions herein are my own. Twitter: @reggieshuford