At the Battle of Fort Fisher

I am still re-playing scenes in my mind from Roger W. Woodbury’s account of the last days of the Civil War on the North Carolina coast. I found his journal yesterday a long way from home—at Norlin Library’s Archives and Special Collections Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Roger W. Woodbury, age 20. Courtesy, Norlin Library Archives & Special Collections Dept., University of Colorado at Boulder

My wife and I are visiting friends here in Boulder, and I couldn’t resist taking a little time to see what I might discover among the old manuscripts in the university’s beautiful sandstone library.

Woodbury’s journal immediately caught my eye. At the end of the third volume, I found the story of his Civil War service on the North Carolina coast. It starts with the Battle of Fort Fisher in Dec. 1864 and ends with him in Raleigh at the fall of the Confederacy 6 months later.

A printer by trade, Woodbury had enrolled in the Union army in his home state of New Hampshire in August 1861. He was 20 years old at the time. By 1864, he was an ordnance officer in the Third Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers.

Soon after the war, he traveled west to pan for gold in Summit County, Colorado. That was the first step toward his journal ending up at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

THE FIRST BATTLE OF FORT FISHER

Woodbury relates one unforgettable scene after another. Many are heart wrenching, but he describes them with little emotion. It is as if such incidents had grown so familiar to him that he accepted them as just being what war was and what his life had become.

The first scene that stood out to me occurred in December 1864. Woodbury was aboard the Union steamship Baltic off the North Carolina coast. The ship was part of a Union naval fleet traveling south to attack Fort Fisher, the large and imposing Confederate fortification that guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear River and protected Wilmington, N.C., 28 miles upriver.

The seas were rough. Below deck, the storm tossed the officers’ horses about badly. One by one, the horses were killed in the storm or got hurt so badly that they had to be put down. The ship’s sailors hauled them out of the hold and pushed them into the Atlantic.

Robert Knox Sweden, "Union attack on Fort Fisher, 15 January 1865," from a survey conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To the Confederacy, Fort Fisher was critical in that last part of 1864. Wilmington was the last major seaport still in Confederate hands and played a key role in supplying Robert E. Lee's troops in Virginia.

Robert Knox Sweden, “Union attack on Fort Fisher, 15 January 1865,” from a survey conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To the Confederacy, Fort Fisher was critical in that last part of 1864. Wilmington was the last major seaport still in Confederate hands and played a key role in supplying Robert E. Lee’s troops in Virginia.

Another incident from the Baltic’s expedition south has also stayed with me.

During the assault on Fort Fisher, a Union landing party captured a company of Junior Reserves. Woodbury called them“Juvenile Reserves.”

In his journal he remembered them as mere boys, nowhere close to 18 years old. He wrote that the prisoners also included “a sprinkling of decrepit old men,” probably their officers.

To many observers, that’s what the war had come down to, children and old men.

A UNION ARMY FIELD HOSPITAL

The Baltic withdrew to Chesapeake Bay after Fort Fisher’s defenders stood fast before the Union bombardment. Union commanders soon made a second attempt, however. In that Second Battle of Fort Fisher, Woodbury was aboard the McClellan.

After a massive, combined assault by land and sea, the fort fell on January 15th. In the two battles for Fort Fisher, more than 3,000 men fell, dead or wounded.

To learn more about the Battle of Fort Fisher and the Wilmington Campaign, I highly recommend Chris Fonvielle, Jr.'s works, including The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, Faces of Fort Fisher, 1861-1864, To Forge a Thunderbolt: Fort Anderson and the Battle for Wilmington, and Fort Fisher 1865: The Photographs of T. H. O'Sullivan.

To learn more about Fort Fisher and the Wilmington Campaign, I highly recommend Chris Fonvielle, Jr.’s works, including The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, Faces of Fort Fisher, 1861-1864, To Forge a Thunderbolt: Fort Anderson and the Battle for Wilmington, and Fort Fisher 1865: The Photographs of T. H. O’Sullivan. A legendary teacher and scholar at UNC-Wilmington, Fonvielle is a native of Wilmington and has remained devoted to his hometown in a way that I have long admired.

In his journal, Capt. Woodbury didn’t mention those casualties, but almost a month later he passed a field hospital somewhere between Fort Fisher and Wilmington. He paused to watch the surgeons.

It was like an assembly line: attendants laid a new casualty on a roughhewn table. Another placed a sponge full of ether over the soldier’s nostrils. Another watched his pulse. The surgeons got to work. As soon as they were done, the attendants carried the man away on a stretcher and laid him on the ground under a tree. They then carried a new patient into the field tent.

Woodbury wrote: “They wasted no time, shed no tears, perhaps had no pity—certainly no leisure to express any. Other wounded were waiting, and still others were being brought in from the field.”

Another moment from his journal: on the 22nd of February 1865, Union forces entered Wilmington.

Woodbury wrote: “Gen. Terry and his staff rode slowly into town, and soon met an old man with a white handkerchief tied to a cane, who represented that the Mayor desired to surrender the city.”

After all the fighting, that’s what it came down to: an old man with a handkerchief tied to a cane.

A LITTLE CHURCH IN THE WILDERNESS

Another tiny little scene, but one that I find especially memorable partly because I have spent so much time in the swamplands and little villages in that part of Pender and Duplin counties:

On the 16th of March, Capt. Woodbury and his comrades in the ordinance department left a camp in the Northeast community. They crossed the Lower Cape Fear River and traveled 15 miles to Burgaw Creek. It was a long, wet traipse through very swampy territory.

He wrote: “The night was cold, raw and wet, and as there was a little church in the wilderness near the camp, its pews were occupied as beds.”

I thought about the bedraggled soldiers sleeping in the little country church. It was a nice little moment, a brief respite of quiet and peace in a long, hard war.

I was also reminded of Psalms: “Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.”

A FEW GRAVES BY THE ROADSIDE

I found another episode in Woodbury’s journal ridiculous, funny and incredibly sad, all at once.

On April 11th, Woodbury and his fellows reached Bentonville, N.C. Three weeks earlier, in the last major battle of the war, 433 men had lost their lives there. Some 2,800 others had been wounded.

After all that fighting and dying, Woodbury found only a small number of graves, a pockmarked forest and a lost looking sounder of swine.

Woodbury described the scene: “A few graves were scattered by the roadside, and the trees were cut by bullets and balls, one large tree showing five perforations from twelve pounder shot. A lot of pigs were running loose…, and a quarter of an hour was devoted to seeing how close [we] could come to them with pistol bullets fired from on horseback.”

That’s the thing about all these Confederate statues that are so controversial right now back home in the South. Many people want them torn down, as happened where I live in Durham, N.C., a couple months ago. They believe that the statues represented an affirmation of white supremacy and a nostalgia for the slave South when they were erected in the early years of the 20th century.

I know that there’s a great deal of truth to that. Maybe that’s even most of the story.

But there’s also this: to my mind, historical markers and statues like that weren’t meant only to honor the Confederate dead or their cause. The truth is, most war memorials– in all places, at all times– are more often about forgetting history. They are meant to cover up the senseless waste of human life and the sins of the political leaders and generals that sent so many young people to their deaths.

The builders of Civil War memorials didn’t want to remember the blood or the scenes of pathos and horror in accounts like Roger Woodbury’s journal. Their statues and historical markers made it all all seem noble and good.

What the builders of those war memorials wanted, above all, a cynic might say, was that young people would not learn about history at all.

There would be, after all, other wars to fight.

Main entrance, Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder. The inscription over the door reads, "Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always a Child," a paraphrase of a line from Seneca's Orator.

Main entrance, Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder. The inscription over the door reads, “Who Knows Only His Own Generation Remains Always a Child,” a paraphrase of a line from Seneca’s Orator. Photo by David Cecelski

 

Capt. Roger Woodbury was north of Bentonville, N.C., on April 12th, 1865, when he heard about Lee’s surrender. Five days later, he was at the Exchange Hotel in Raleigh, when news of Lincoln’s assassination reached the city. He was still in Raleigh on April 26th, when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his army at Bennett Place near Durham, N.C., ending the Civil War. He traveled by rail to Morehead City and sailed for New York City on the steamer Zodiac on June 24th.

 

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