The Battle of Forks Road in Wilmington, North Carolina, in February 1865, was one of the closing armed engagements bringing the Civil War to an end.
By late 1864 almost all the Confederate supply lines from the Atlantic Ocean had been cut by Union forces. Wilmington was the South’s last major open port. Blockade runners could still make it into the Cape Fear River. Once supplies were off-loaded in Wilmington, there were three railroad lines from where they could be sent to wherever the Confederate Army needed them.
In the summer of 1864, General Lee had said: “If Wilmington falls, I cannot maintain my army.”
But there are two little-known aspects to what happened around Wilmington in early 1865.
The first concerns the U.S. Colored Troops who played a dominant role in this final stage of the battle. Three received the Medal of Honor. Yet as a group, they have never been recognized for their contributions.
The second is that few knew about the Battle of Forks Road. It was an important part of the mop-up as the Union moved up the peninsula to take control of Wilmington. But the story remained untold.
The Battle of Forks Road was first uncovered in the 1980s. Two friends who lived locally walked the land together, and it became clear that something big had happened in the area. (More about the discovery later.)
Backing Up: Here’s What Happened
By late 1864, Union General William T. Sherman’s 285-mile March to the Sea reached Savannah, Georgia. The Federal troops saw they might be getting closer to victory. But there was still work to be done. As long as Robert E. Lee received supplies regularly through Wilmington, he could keep on fighting.
The Cape Fear River traveled up to Wilmington and was a fully navigable river. Once blockade runners got through supplies could be sent anywhere.
In December, Union forces began advancing on Wilmington, hoping to shut it down. The upper inlet to the Cape Fear River was protected by a well-built fortification known as Fort Fisher.
Fort Fisher featured formidable earthworks all around it. The walls were built with dirt and sand and were so thick that the Confederates intended them to be impenetrable. But if the war was to be won by the Union, Fort Fisher needed to be sacked.
In December 1864, the Union Navy bombarded the thick earthwork walls. Union troops waited on land for word that they should attack. That word never came. After hours of bombardment and little success, the Union Navy gave up. The infantry backed away.
As the new year dawned, the Confederacy was grateful that it still had its supply line through Wilmington. They hoped they might offer enough resistance to hold on.
But the Union was not going away. By mid-January, naval leader David D. Porter and expeditionary forces commander General Alfred H. Terry, joined forces and worked well together. They carried out a joint attack involving the army, navy, and the marines.
The Second Battle of Fort Fisher—as it became known–began on January 15. This time Porter’s Navy arrived with 60 gunboats and was able to silence most of the fort’s cannons and guns.
With that accomplished, Terry’s men moved in to attack from the land. The grueling battle lasted for hours. As dark descended, it seemed clear the Union would prevail.
As the Union soldiers entered the fort, many Confederates slipped away to take positions across the river at Fort Anderson and in the entrenchments they had built along the Federal Point Road that led to Wilmington.
Fighting for Wilmington
In addition to Fort Fisher, there were several other Confederate-held forts along the river. The Army also made well-built entrenchments that offered soldiers cover if the Union were to venture up the peninsula toward Wilmington. Once the Confederates were in place, it would be difficult for the Union to dislodge them.
Both sides knew that the stakes were high. If the Confederates could hold Wilmington, they might continue to get supplies to Lee. If the Union won the battle, then Federal troops could re-supply Sherman’s men. This would tip the balance of the war.
But before a Union victory, there was the Battle of Forks Road.
The Strong Presence of Colored Troops
After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, 1863, former slaves and free men from Confederate states could enlist in the Union Army. For those who slipped out of slavery, the opportunity to fight for their own freedom was enticing. By war’s end, the Union had 179,000 Black soldiers in the infantry. Another 19,000 joined the Navy.
In the Wilmington area, many of the men who were part of the U.S. Colored Troops brigades were from the region. They knew the terrain, and many knew each other as well. Ultimately, the U.S. Colored Troops had two brigades of 9 regiments fighting in and around Wilmington.
Moving Toward Wilmington
As the Union fought its way up the peninsula, other forts were abandoned by the Confederates, but there was still fierce fighting from the entrenchments along Federal Point Road at what is now known as Forks Road.
General Terry who was in command of the Union troops in the area, consulted with Brigadier General Charles Paine. Paine was a white general who led a division of colored troops. The decision was made to push forward on February 20 to try to overrun the Confederates. Ultimately, there were 1600 musket bearers representing the 1st, 5th, 10th, 27th, and 37th regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops.
This was the beginning of the Battle of Forks Road.
Battle of Forks Road
Terry’s plan sent the U.S. Colored Troops, led by the 5th regiment, straight up into the Confederate defenses. Swamps flanked both sides of the road, so the men had no choice but to try to fight their way through. The troops fought hard but the Confederates were well protected and had plenty of ammunition. Union losses on that first day were high.
On February 21, the Union probed for a weak spot. Skirmishes continued. But something in the atmosphere changed. Word got out that the Confederates had abandoned Charleston.
Terry’s men saw black smoke coming from Wilmington. This was a normal maneuver before troops retreated. The Union men suspected that the Confederates were burning supplies and moving back.
But through February 21, the Confederates fought on at Forks Road.
On February 22, the USCT remained in place, ready for a third day of battle. But when dawn came, the Confederate Army was gone.
Losses for the Union men were serious, but those who could, marched victoriously to Wilmington. Since many of the soldiers were local, both Black and white residents of Wilmington were overjoyed. There was great pride that the US Colored Troops played an instrumental role in the Battle of Wilmington.
Forgotten No More
How could a battle that paved the way for victory be forgotten?
Perhaps it was that it was “almost the end.” Men on both sides were totally worn out. Once Fort Fisher fell it was becoming very clear that the Confederacy could not last without its supply line.
By this stage, the record-keeping may have been neglected as the Union fought their way north to Wilmington.
The late Robert E. Treadwell, a U.S. veteran, a veterinarian, and a local history buff, explored the area on his own. He was impressed by some of the relics he found, and invited his friend, historian Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., to come investigate. It was the spring of 1980.
Though a housing development had been built in 1955 and bordered one side of the area, much of the sandy ridge was untouched. Parts of what was known as Federal Point Road, which connected Wilmington with the southern portions of the peninsula were still there. There were also still Union breastworks.
Reports Were Scant
In preparation for another visit, Chris Fonvielle, a Civil War historian, professor emeritus (Department of History), University of North Carolina in Wilmington. and author of several books (including his latest, Glory at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road, was intrigued and thought he should research what happened before they returned.
He began with record books and regimental histories but found little information about what might have happened.
When he turned to archaeological surveys, however, he began to see a story. The archaeological documentation revealed hundreds of fired and dropped Minié balls (hollow bullets that expand on impact), cannonball fragments, lead canisters, and iron case balls.
Treadwell and Fonvielle investigated the land, and Dr. Fonvielle dug into records and maps and manuscripts to piece together what happened. Dr. Fonvielle soon saw that what they were looking at were the remains of a hotly fought battle that no one ever talked about.
Given the battle’s location, he took to referring to it by the name of its road: the Battle Forks Road. As he studied what must have happened, he saw that the Confederates were so well-entrenched that they wanted to hold on. But the Union—embodied by about 1600 U.S. Colored Troops—matched the Confederate grit and stubbornly fought to win.
In 1981, a builder came in with plans for putting up more houses around Forks Road. The Forks Road Preservation Movement quickly came into being with Fonvielle and others in the community fighting to preserve the land. If the land was not preserved, the story could all too easily be lost again.
The community group won their fight, but they knew it was only a matter of time before they faced another possible threat.
Enter a Hero: Bruce Cameron
Businessman Bruce Barclay Cameron (1918-2013) and his wife Louise Wells Cameron owned the land where the battle had taken place, and they loved living in Wilmington area. When Bruce’s wife, Louise, passed away, Cameron wanted to do something in her honor.
Wilmington had a small art museum in town but the collection was outgrowing the space. Cameron saw that an art center in memory of his wife would be meaningful to the community. In 1997, he donated the land where Forks Road lay, and he gave a substantial sum for an art museum to be built and named for his wife, Louise Wells Cameron.
But he had a stipulation: The fieldworks that remained on the land should be preserved and the history of the battle interpreted.
Louise Wells Cameron Art Center Born
The museum was completed in 2001. It features local and regional artwork as well as pieces by world-renowned artist like Joan Miró, Mary Cassatt, Robert Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, and Marc Chagall. Before the pandemic, school children frequently toured the site, seeing the art and hearing the story of the battle.
“I believe we are the only art museum that also stewards a battlefield,” says deputy director Heather Wilson. “We take that role very seriously.”
Reenactors Help Tell the Story
Telling a story of something that happened 150 years ago is always challenging, but it is less so if you have reenactors. A group led by Malcolm Beech Sr., president of the African American Museum and Cultural Center and past president of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association, made it part of their regular schedule to be in Wilmington to tell the story of what happened on the land. As Beech said: “The North was fighting to save the Union. The South was fighting for state’s rights. We were fighting for our freedom.”
Many descendants of those who fought in the battle settled in the area. This makes it even more meaningful.
How Else to Tell About the Battle?
“But we began to think about what else we could do,” explains Heather Wilson in a telephone interview. “In North Carolina, there are 140 monuments to the Confederacy on public ground. There is only one memorial in the state commemorating the U.S. Colored Troops. We felt we could do more.”
Meetings were held. Arts center leaders, community members, historians, descendants, educators, and U.S. Colored Troop reenactors met to discuss what would be appropriate. The U.S. Colored Troops had never received the recognition due them for their part in one of the final battles in the War.
The group thought a full-scale monument in front of the museum seemed like the right thing. Wilson noted that they knew the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation offered grants for “inclusive art projects.” They thought they might have a shot at that.
Sculptor Stephen Hayes Begins Project
Early in the process, they selected Stephen Hayes, an up-and-coming Black sculptor who teaches at Duke University, to work with them. Soon plans were formulated for a bronze monument featuring nine members of the U.S. Colored Troops marching into battle. Hayes’s work has been featured in many prominent museums and universities, and he recently was awarded the prestigious 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art.
Ultimately, the Museum received a $50,000 grant to begin the project, though donations are still needed.
Hayes has been at work, inviting local people to be a part of the project by letting their faces be used to create the mold. (To see how this is done, see this clip from UNCTV.)
Faces with No Names?
The final part of the project is underway: gathering the names so there can be a plaque that honors those who fought. This effort is led by public historian Devin Kelly at the request of the Art Center.
Since the record-keeping was poor in 1865, it has not been an easy task. Heather Wilson from the museum and Devin Kelly have put together a group of local volunteers to go through hundreds of online records to identify the men who fought at Forks Road. Where possible, they are also keeping track of personal details to help fill in the story. The plaque may be an ongoing project, but it will be part of the dedication.
The dedication of the monument was delayed by the pandemic, but it is now anticipated to be unveiled in November 2021. Given the community involvement in the project, this will be a wonderful celebration. For more information, see the Cameron Art Center website.
The Cameron Art Center has produced a 24-minute documentary about the battlefield. Click here to view The Battle of Forks Road Documentary.
The three men who received the Medal of Honor for their participation at the Battle of Forks Road are Powhaten Beaty, Milton M. Holland, and Robert Pinn.
For more information on the Civil War, visit the American Battlefield Trust: battlefields.org.