Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Sunday, May 23, 2010

touched by history

Battery Buchanan guarded New Inlet, the main access to the Cape Fear River

When I worked for the Star-News in the early 1980s, we did a number of special publications, thick tabloids that got slipped into the regular newspaper five or six times a year, usually on Sundays. Publishers loved these tabloids because they brought in a lot of incremental advertising revenue. Reporters, for the most part, loathed them, because the work was piled on top of our regular assignments, and we never got an extra dime for it.

So it was with the largest and most onerous of all the annual tabloids, the Cape Fear Coast tourism insert. I still remember the grumbling when the assignments were handed out, and I probably did more than my share of the grousing. But the assignments I dreaded the most are, almost without exception, the ones that had the most profound effect on me as a person, and so it was with the tourism insert.

To this day, I can't tell you how the editors decided who would do which stories. Perhaps because I had just moved to Carolina Beach, the northernmost town on Pleasure Island, I drew several assignments to write about its various attractions.

In fact, Pleasure Island isn't an island at all. It's the southern tip of New Hanover County, which grows increasingly narrow as the Cape Fear River flows southeast to the Atlantic Ocean. At its terminus, a spit of land just wide enough to walk on, river, sea and sky merge into a vastness I've never experienced anywhere else. And it was here, on this narrow strip of land, that perhaps the greatest Civil War battle you've never heard of was fought, irrevocably sealing the Confederacy's fate.

I knew nothing about Ft. Fisher and what happened there as I drove south in search of the state historic site. My plan was to grab a few pamphlets from the visitor's center and tick the assignment off my list as quickly as possible. Although I never much cared for history, probably because of the dreary way in which it usually is taught, my father loves it. And so I spent more of my childhood than I care to remember being dragged from one Civil War battlefield to another. Since he'd never dragged me to this one, I figured it couldn't have been very important. I figured wrong.

Much of the eastern face of Ft. Fisher has fallen into the Atlantic since the Civil War, a victim of erosion. But in its day, the fort's massive earthen walls were so imposing the Union considered it unassailable. It was known as the "Confederate Goliath," and the shot from its cannons could hit any ship of the Union blockading squadron foolish enough to stray within five miles of its batteries. Under cover of its protection, hundreds of blockade runners slipped in and out of Wilmington, bringing the supplies that sustained the war effort and the Confederate populace.

By 1864, thanks to Ft. Fisher, Wilmington was one of the last Confederate ports standing and the most important, due to its proximity to the main battle lines in southern Virginia. The goods that flowed into Wilmington on the blockade runners kept the Confederate Army supplied and provided a last ray of hope for a people worn down by years of rampant shortages. That alone is reason enough to remember Ft. Fisher. But here's an even better one: The battle that eventually felled the fort was the largest combined land/sea military assault in the history of warfare -- until D-Day in World War II.

That one fact boggled my mind. How could it be that a battle of that magnitude, a battle that closed the last source of supply to General Robert E. Lee's army, was little more than a footnote in Civil War history? Where was the justice that allowed General William Tecumseh Sherman's march to the sea to obscure so compelling a tale? As I stood on the remains of the earthenworks, gazing out to sea as the soldiers of Ft. Fisher had done 115 years before me, I felt a compulsion to help tell what happened there, both to honor the lives lost and to capture the drama of this remarkable place and its remarkable -- if largely unknown -- place in history.

A seed had been planted. It was a seed that would lie dormant for nearly 30 years and then sprout in a most unexpected form ... as an historical romance novel.
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  1. The StarNews Progress edition...hell-in-print. (Jamie)

  2. Deb Norton said the same. That one was so painful, I had completely blocked it from my mind. Aack!