Conclusion: Looking Back
So what can be said about the Confederate High Command’s perception ofWilmington,North Carolinaowing to the actions, requests, and correspondences that have been thus dissected?
It is fair to suggest that the first ranking members of the Confederate High Command to take an interest inWilmingtonas a thing of great importance to the Confederate Cause were those who were charged with supplying the Confederacy – Josiah Gorgas being the most proactive and prominent of these men. Colonel Gorgas’ efforts were, as we’ve seen, later cited as a reason for the port’s growing importance in 1863 (item 781) During that same year, the Siege of Charleston had doubled the harbor’s importance in the eyes of its defenders, who then thrust that logic of “more important than Charleston” into the face of the Confederate war machine, looking for greater reinforcements and material assistance to help safeguard the gem that Gorgas had helped to craft.
But the Union strategy tells us a great deal, too, aboutWilmington’s importance to the Confederacy, although more in material terms. They confirm thatWilmingtonwas the Confederacy’s last – and thus, logically, most important – port.Shermaneven seemed to have confirmed Whiting, Lamb, and Vance’s “more important thanCharleston” argument by declaring his interest in capturingWilmingtonoverCharleston. But that the Union had been still wary as to whenWilmingtonmight fall as late as January of 1865 suggests something about how seriously the Confederacy tookWilmington’s defense. But that is not to give the War Department too much Credit. In Vance’s earlier mentioned correspondence with Robert E. Lee, he speaks of “the good opinion formed of that officer here [Whiting] by the apparent skill evident in the construction of the works aroundWilmington. AndSherman, in his 1864 correspondence with Major-General H. W. Halleck, declared “I know that gun-boats cannot take a fort.” He was, of course, speaking about the comprehensive system of fortifications that surroundedWilmington, snaking up theCape Fear River. And Vance gives the credit for those “works” to General W. H. C. Whiting.
Is it possible then that only the logistical branches of the Confederate High Command – such as Gorgas’ Ordnance Bureau – that came to depend on blockade-running, and thus Wilmington, and those who were most concerned with defending Wilmington were the ones who early on took notice of the port’s importance? It seems logical. And where does that leave those members of the high command who were more closely related to the Confederate War Department? Did they shirkWilmington, never realizing its importance to the Confederate Cause? That too, seems quite probable.
However, it is probably more so fair to say of Confederate High Command inRichmondthat, like some modern historians, they neglectedWilmington’s importance because they filed to see where it fit in with the big picture of what was going on during their moment of revolution and warfare. Perhaps blinded by the grandeur of the battles inVirginiaandTennessee, they overlookedNorth Carolina. And in their defense, it was not the most urgent theater of the war as land offenses are concerned. Thus, it only makes sense that the men who had to scour the Confederacy to feed the war machine would search for sustenance in someplace such asWilmington. They perceived of the harbor as useful because they understood that it could be vital to the overall Confederate effort, even if it was not the seat of action. Those defendingWilmington, such as Whiting and Lamb, would have certainly seen the effect of Gorgas’ supply-line first hand.Col.Lamb had certainly taken notice when the Blakeley guns arrived, and had not failed to take note of the great many “Confederate States vessels,” that had been putting into port. It makes then that these men would be able to perceive ofWilmingtonas vital; for they had seen. The rhetoric they utilized to bring the War Department officials to their way of thinking was good. It makes sense in hindsight. But the War Department did not set its sights onWilmington, perceiving of it as “desirable,” but not urgent. And did they have a reason to?Wilmingtonwas, after all, the last port to fall. Perhaps they rightly perceived of it as already adequately defended.
More historians than ever are now paying attention to the naval aspects of the Civil War. More historians are paying attention to commerce, shipping and ports. The roles that they played and the perception of the High Commands –Unionand Confederate – are daily being fleshed out. Let this be a small contribution to what is daily growing larger.