Many historiographies pertaining to the Confederate States of America – the entire Civil War, in fact – seem to ignore, to some degree, the naval aspects of the conflict: the naval battles, naval defenses and port cities, which all played important roles in the war’s perpetuation and climax. Consider that William Swinton’s Decisive Battles of the Civil War dedicates over 500 pages to discussing what he perceives to be the most important engagements of the entire conflict. Only one chapter is dedicated to a naval engagement: the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack; and it can be argued that Swinton might only have written about this even because of its novelty – it was the first engagement in naval history between two ironclads. (Swinton 1986) But novelty set aside, why has the sea generated so little interest (relatively speaking, of course) amongst Civil War historians? In all fairness, the Civil War did not produce as many great naval engagements as it did historic battlefield moments, but that isn’t to say that the naval aspects were not important. So then what about ports? More specifically, what about the port of Wilmington, North Carolina? Was it important to the Confederate Cause? Wilmington tends to get ignored as much as any aspect of the Confederacy’s naval history. But Wilmington, according Stephen R. Wise, was, in fact, quite important; central, even, to the Confederacy’s very existence. (Wise 1988, 213) In Lifeline of the Confederacy, Wise asserts thatWilmington’s importance grew as the war progressed, and other Confederate ports, naval outlets for economic intercourse with Europe, were shut down by siege, blockade or conquest by the Union. However, Wise’s argument is very quantitative. He focuses on what material goods came in through the port of Wilmington, and the how the Confederates could have made use of said imports. But Wise’s historiography lacks something. Perhaps Wilmington was indeed important because of everything that came into it; but what about perception? How did the Confederate High Command perceive of Wilmington? How did the Union High Command? These questions are quite important in completing a narrative that Wise has begun, yet few have thought to peruse to completion; for to really discern something’s importance, one must glean the perspective of the great and involved men who were contemporaries.
Obviously, owing to the Union Blockade, the Confederate States of America was never able to engage in “normal” or “regular” economic intercourse with the wider world. It attempted to do so, however, through the practice of “blockade-running,” whereby fast vessels would attempt to speed past Union blockaders and into heavily fortified Confederate ports. For the Confederacy, the trade in medicine, ordnance, commissary and food for cotton only grew in magnitude as the war progressed. Ironically, however, as this trade began to grow more vital as a variable in the formula for the success of the Confederate Cause, the Confederacy began to lose the very ports that it had depended upon to facilitate said trade. And those few ports that were left open, though dwindling in number, must have inevitably grown more important. By late 1864, only the ports of Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, were left open to the Confederacy upon the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. And in a period of six months, these two ports had together received “300,000 blankets, 3.5 million pounds of meat, 1.5 million pounds of lead, 2 million pounds of saltpeter, 50,000 rifles, 43 cannon [,…] uniform cloth, medicine, and other essential supplies [amongst more modest imports].” (Wise 1988, 7) Of the two aforementioned ports, this work shall focus upon the latter –Wilmington, North Carolina, which eventually became the last port of the Confederate States of America.
More specifically, however, this work shall attempt to glean what opinion the Confederate High Command held of Wilmington as circumstances changed from 1862 to the more tumultuous 1865. In doing so, an attempt shall be made to identify a clear trajectory ideally demonstrating Wilmington’s growing importance to the Confederate Government and its “Cause” as the port became one of the last – and eventually the only– outlet of the Confederates east of the Mississippi. In the latter part of this work, that which deals with the closing years of the war, 1864 to 1865, the Union High Command’s perspective of Wilmington shall also be taken into account to find out whether the two contending forces saw similar strengths that Wilmington might have been able to lend the Confederacy.
Of the years to be dealt with, 1862 will have a clear focus upon the efforts of Josiah Gorgas, the Confederacy’s Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, whose actions to make full use of the port speak loudest about the Pennsylvanian Confederate’s opinion of it. 1863 will see the introduction of the Confederate Secretary of War, James Seddon, Major-General W. H. C. Whiting (the man who was in charge of the defense of Wilmington and the Cape Fear until 1865), Governor Zebulon Vance of North Carolina, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and a host of others, whose perspectives pertaining to Wilmington shall be gleaned by their correspondences with each other. The closing years of 1864 and 65 shall see the evolution of the perspectives of the previous with the introduction of the Union’s eventual notice of Wilmington’s burgeoning importance.