Charles M. Robinson III, "Hurricane of Fire" (1998)
For four years, Fort Fisher was the Achilles' heel of the Union blockade. As long as it stood, Wilmington would remain open. The odds were overwhelmingly in favor of the blockade-runners that came and went virtually on schedule, openly defying the Federal fleet. In short, because of Fort Fisher, the blockade of Wilmington simply did not work, and it was an easy matter to transport incoming material to the front in Virginia.
Although Federal naval authorities early in the war grasped the need to take Fort Fisher, their army counterparts did not. Their reasons, stated or otherwise, were numerous. One was an obsession with Charleston, South Carolina, a port of less strategic significance but far greater emotional interest. Because the war had started in Charleston, that city had become a fetish for the North, and in 1863 all resources for a coastal invasion were diverted in a wasteful and futile attempt to capture it. By the middle of 1864, however, Federal planners had come to realize that if the war were to end soon, Fisher would have to be taken.
When the North finally moved against Fort Fisher and Wilmington, the Confederacy was crumbling. Most of the country was either occupied or isolated, and the Federal armies had the approaches to Richmond under siege. Modern historians, given the vantage of more than 130 years of hindsight, question whether an expedition against Fort Fisher at that point was even significant to the outcome of the war. But to those at the time, the question was not so simple. As long as Wilmington remained open, food coming through the blockade would reach Lee's beleaguered army, and that army could continue the war. Confederate leaders hoped a prolonged war would exhaust the North and bring about an armistice that would allow the South to maintain its independence. While their Northern counterparts did not doubt the outcome of the war, they dreaded its continuation and meant to conclude it as rapidly as possible. To do so, they had to deny food to the Confederate armies. This meant capturing Fort Fisher, closing Wilmington, and disrupting the blockade traffic.
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