Subsequent to the fall of Fort Fisher on January 15, 1865, Northern forces began a cautious advance on the city of Wilmington from both sides of the Cape Fear River. After the evacuation of Fort Anderson on the west side of the river on February 19 by his subordinate, Brigadier General Johnson Hagood and his South Carolinians, Major General Robert F. Hoke knew he had to abandon his defensive position on the eastern side of the river at Sugar Loaf. Without any strong fortifications to fall back on, Hoke knew that making a stand between the enemy and Wilmington would be difficult.
After reading a captured order from Northern General Schofield, Hoke knew that the ultimate goal of the enemy strategy was to reach Goldsboro, and linking up with Sherman’s forces that had been ravaging the Carolinas. Hoke hoped to thwart the enemy rendezvous, and was also aware that a Confederate force of 6,000 troops under Lt. General William J. Hardee were fast approaching Wilmington from South Carolina. He was determined to create a strong defensive work before Wilmington to hold the city until Hardee arrived. To deter a Northern naval advance up the Cape Fear River, Hoke used artillery batteries above Sugarloaf (Town Creek, Nine Mile, Eagle’s Island, Forts Meares, Campbell, Lee and Stokes), on both sides up to the city of Wilmington.
At both post-Fort Fisher defensive lines of Sugar Loaf and later Forks Road, Hoke’s entrenchments were formidable obstacles facing Northern commanders. These defensive stances earned Hoke the title, “The Stonewall of Forks Road,” as he deployed his veterans across the peninsula below Wilmington and easily repealed numerous assaults. Vastly outnumbered, Hoke decided to make a strategic withdrawal.
General Hoke’s division consisted of four brigades commanded by Brigadier General Alfred Colquitt (a future governor of Georgia), Brigadier General Thomas L. Clingman (who was convalescing, Col. William Devane in his place), Brigadier General W. W. Kirkland, and the aforementioned Hagood (future governor of South Carolina). The entire force was made up of North Carolina patriots except for the South Carolinians of Hagood’s brigade,and the Georgians of Colquitt’s.
With the assistance of a local, Jacob Horne, Northern forces were able to maneuver into an attack position. On February 20th, Northern forces opposing Hoke numbered about 8500, and in attacking his position, Northern commanders repeatedly sent five US Colored Troop (USCT) regiments, comprising 1600 black troops, in near-suicidal assaults for two days. The USCT troops came no closer to Hoke’s breastworks than 150 yards.
At Forks Road, the Northern gunboats were out of range and could not effectively support the attack of the USCT. Several Northern gunboats grounded in the shallows of the Cape Fear River below Wilmington, and lighter craft were severely damaged or driven off by the strong artillery batteries Lee, Campbell, Meares and Davis just south of the city and effectively anchoring Hoke’s western flank. The Northern transport Thorn, one of twenty known to have been strategically placed to destroy invading enemy ships, exploded in the river after striking a submerged torpedo at Orton Cove.
Despite Hagood’s defeat at Town Creek, making Hoke’s position at Forks Road increasingly untenable, Wilmington’s defenders defiantly floated mines downriver to surprise Northern gunboats; these mines killed several sailors and nearly sank the transport Osceola. Late in the evening of the 20th, Hoke telegraphed the approaching Hardee that with his two brigades, Wilmington might be saved.
On February 21, Hoke’s firmly entrenched lines at Forks Road stoutly resisted a series of additional assaults that sent the USCT fleeing back to safety of their trenches, and the shore batteries below Wilmington were still harassing any movements of enemy gunboats. Hoke was resolutely holding his impregnable position in hopes that Hardee’s brigades would soon arrive. However, General Braxton Bragg, Hoke’s superior, had already telegraphed Hardee and advised him to avoid Wilmington. Bragg was concerned that the Wilmington railroad line was soon to be severed, and sent Hardee from Florence on to Cheraw, South Carolina.
General Lee ordered Bragg to abandon the city and set fire to all tobacco, cotton and naval stores that could be used by the enemy. Also destroyed was the ironclad Wilmington, nearly completed at Beery’s Shipyard on Eagles Island across river from the city. Had it been completed before the assault on Fort Fisher, the new ironclad would have made Northern gunboat advances up the Cape Fear difficult if not impossible.
When Bragg learned of Northern forces approaching Wilmington and gaining a foothold on Eagles Island, he ordered Hoke to retreat and abandon Wilmington on February 22. Thus, “the Stonewall of Forks Road” led his veterans from their entrenchments and left the earthworks to the invader who had failed again and again to dislodge Hoke’s Confederates.
(Unabridged version originally posted at Cape Fear Historical Institute.)
Daniel Barefoot, General Robert F. Hoke: Lee’s Modest Warrior (Winston-Salem,1996); Chris E. Fonvielle Jr., The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope, (Mechanicsburg, PA, 1997); Dewey W. Grantham, Hoke Smith and the Politics of the New South, (Baton Rouge, 1958); Lewis P. Hall, Land of the Golden River (Wilmington, 1975) ; Michael C. Hardy, Remembering North Carolina’s Confederates (Charleston, 2006); Nathaniel C. Hughes, General William J. Hardee:Old Reliable, (Baton Rouge, 1965); Mark A. Moore, The Wilmington Campaign and the Battles for Fort Fisher (New York, 1999); William Sherrill, Annals of Lincoln County, (Regional Publishing, 1937); James L. Sprunt, The Story of Orton Plantation (Wilmington, 1958); Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Grey (Baton Rouge, 1959).