north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

           By late 1864, Wilmington was the last major Confederate coastal port open to blockade runners. The city was protected by a series of fortifications, the largest and most important of which was Fort Fisher. In December, the United States dispatched a large expeditionary force under Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and Rear Admiral David D. Porter to capture Fort Fisher, with the object of closing Wilmington to blockade runners. The expedition failed.

      Shortly before the attack on Fort Fisher, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman completed his “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. With the capture of Savannah, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant wished to transfer Sherman’s army by sea to Virginia. Sherman proposed an overland march through the Carolinas to Virginia instead, an idea which Grant accepted. The decision renewed interest in Wilmington, as Sherman needed open seaports to resupply his troops. A new expedition against Fort Fisher was mounted in January 1865 under Porter and Brig. Gen. Alfred H. Terry, this time successfully.

      Although Wilmington was no longer open to blockader runners, it could not be used to supply Sherman when he reached North Carolina as long the town was in Confederate possession. In addition, it would take time to evacuate the Confederate supplies stockpiled in the city. Thus Gen. Braxton Bragg, commander of the Confederate forces, determined to defend Wilmington as long as he could. In the meantime, the Federals at Fort Fisher were reinforced, and Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield was sent to take command of the land forces.

      In mid-February, two drives were launched on either side of the Cape Fear against the Confederate defenses. The evacuation on February 19 of Fort Anderson, the key Confederate position on the west bank, left the division of Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke on the eastern side of the river vulnerable. He thus pulled back towards Wilmington. Hoke established a defensive line at Forks Road, a crossroads three miles south of Wilmington while Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood and the Fort Anderson garrison established a position on the western side of the river at Town Creek.

      Early on the afternoon of February 20, Terry’s command approached Hoke’s position. Numbering about 8,000 men, the force included a two-brigade division of United States Colored Troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles J. Paine. The brigade of Col. John W. Ames consisted of the 4th Regiment USCT, the 6th Regiment USCT, the 30th Regiment USCT, and the 39th Regiment USCT Col. Elias Wright’s brigade was made up of the 1st Regiment USCT, the 5th Regiment USCT, the 10th Regiment USCT, the 27th Regiment USCT, and the 37th Regiment USCT (formerly the 3rd Regiment North Carolina Colored Infantry).

      The 5th USCT led the advance up Federal Point Road, spread out as skirmishers. They pushed back their Confederate counterparts, who withdrew into Hoke’s earthworks at Forks Road. The route was constricted due to swampy ground on either side of the road, and only opened up well within range of the Confederates. Hoke’s men were supported by several artillery pieces. Around mid-afternoon, the 5th USCT came within sight of the earthworks.

      The Confederates opened fire at about 100 yards, blasting the 5th with rifle and cannon fire. Terry ordered Paine to send out a reconnaissance-in-force to determine the strength of Hoke’s force and, if possible, break through. Paine selected Wright’s brigade, numbering some 1,600 men, to make the probe. The USCT regiments advanced bravely, but the terrain in front of Hoke’s position made a successful attack virtually impossible and they eventually withdrew. According to Paine, they suffered at least fifty-three casualties, including one officer killed and three wounded (one of them Wright himself), and one man killed and forty-eight wounded. Skirmishing continued through the next day.

      Hagood abandoned the Town Creek line on February 20 and withdrew to Wilmington, rendering the capture of the city inevitable. Bragg ordered an evacuation on February 22, and Hoke abandoned his position to join the retreat. When the USCT units of Paine’s division marched in to Wilmington, they received a warm welcome from the black population of the city.

      The fighting at Forks Road and Town Creek represented the last Confederate efforts prior to the fall of Wilmington. They successfully bought time for Bragg to remove the government stores from the city; however, it was all in vain, as the days of the Confederacy were numbered.

Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope (1997)
Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., Last Stand at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road (2007)
Noah Andre Trudeau, Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (1998)
Joseph T. Glatthaar, Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers (1990)
Battle of Forks Road website:
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north carolina highway historical marker program

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