Chris E. Fonvielle
TO FORGE A THUNDERBOLT: THE WILMINGTON CAMPAIGN, FEBRUARY, 1865.
(Under the direction of Professor William N. Still, Jr.) Department of History, November 1987.
Combined Army and Navy operations played an important role in the Union's victory in the American Civil War. The Federal government employed its naval superiority in an attempt to blockade the Confederacy's ports and paralyze its maritime commerce. The blockade was not altogether effective, however, and the South enjoyed a steady influx of supplies vital to its military effort. Consequently, the Federals launched and were increasingly successful with joint expeditions to close Southern harbors.
The last important Union amphibious operation of the Civil War was against Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was the most popular port-of-call for blockade runners, and by the summer of 1864, the last Atlantic seaport effectually open to waterborne trade with Europe. Moreover, the railroad from Wilmington to Petersburg, Virginia was the lifeline for General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army. The Federals severed that artery by capturing Fort Fisher, the key to Wilmington's defenses.
The Union Army and Navy then cooperated in a move against the town of Wilmington itself. They needed the port as a base of supply and for reinforcements for General William T. Sherman's army as it marched through the Carolinas. By capturing Wilmington, the occupying Federals assured the success of Sherman's Carolinas campaign and helped bring an end to the four-year-long war.
This study examines the Federal drive on and the Confederate defense of Wilmington, February 11-22, 1865. It looks at the movements of the opposing armies, the ensuing battles, and the men on both sides who commanded and fought in them. The early occupation of Wilmington by Union forces is also discussed.
The Wilmington Campaign was a model Union combined operation. Its success was the culmination of four years of experience and cooperation between the Army and Navy. While the Wilmington Campaign was the last important joint expedition of the war, it also marked the first successful movement by a large Union force against a strategic target inside the Confederacy from a captured seacoast base.