Why Put a Fort on Bald Head?
Wilmington, North Carolina was the Confederacy's most important Seaport during the Civil War. By 1864, it was the last Atlantic Port open to trade with the outside world. General Robert E. Lee said: "If Wilmington falls, I cannot maintain my army."
The geography of the Cape Fear made it difficult for Union blockading ships to halt commerce vessels, called blockade-runners, from smuggling military supplies in and cotton out of Wilmington. Two ocean inlets—Old Inlet at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, and New Inlet five miles to the north—provided blockade runners with two access points to the harbor. Bald Head Island and Frying Pan Shoals separated the two entrances.
The key to controlling the inlets and Wilmington was Bald Head Island. An intricate system of Confederate defenses was designed and built under the direction of Major General W.H.C. Whiting. Fort Holmes on Bald Head Island and Fort Caswell on Oak Island guarded Old Inlet, while Fort Fisher safeguarded New Inlet. Fort Johnson at Smithville and Fort Anderson at Brunswick Point protected the river approaches to Wilmington.
At the height of its occupation in 1864 Fort Holmes, named for Lieutenant General Theophilus H. Holmes of North Carolina, was garrisoned by more than send 1,100 Confederate soldiers. They evacuated
Fort Holmes on January 16, 1865, the day after Union forces captured Fort Fisher. In the process, they destroyed barracks, storehouses, and cannons. The lighthouse was left untouched. Union forces occupied Bald Head Island three days later.
—Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr.
Nothing stays the same on a coastal Barrier Island. The forces of nature continuously shift the places where the water and land meet causing portions of Fort Holmes to be covered by sand debris and even water as early as 1870s. This map shows Fort in the 1860s against the island as we know it today.
See if you can find Old Baldy!
Blockading fleet of Wilmington, Old Inlet first Illustrated Weekly 1864
Courtesy of New Hanover County Public Library