For our study today, I thought we would move about as far away from my mountain home (where it is currently snowing), as we can get: Brunswick County. I have been fortunate enough to visit Brunswick County four or five times in the past ten years. Each of those stays was for several days, including a week at Fort Caswell.
Brunswick County is located in the coastal area of North Carolina. The county was formed in 1764 and named for King George I, who was also the duke of Brunswick. The area had been settled by Europeans several decades earlier. Brunswick Town, founded in 1725, was the first permanent European settlement on the Lower Cape Fear River. Bolivia was once the county seat, but since 1975, Southport has gained that honor.
In 1860, the total population of the county was 8406, including 3,021 slaves. That same year, the presidential vote was also a tie. Breckinridge received 326 votes, while Bell received 386. Douglas got one. The elected convention representative was Thomas D. Meares.
Brunswick County men served in the following regiments: Company G, 20th North Carolina Troops; Company C, 30th North Carolina Troops; portions of Companies G and K, 36th North Carolina Troops (2nd North Carolina Artillery); and, Company G, 51st North Carolina Troops.
You might say that the Civil War in North Carolina began in Brunswick County. On January 9, 1861, a group of local militia seized Fort Caswell. Named for North Carolina’s first governor, Fort Caswell was a part of the third system fortifications along the coast of the United States. The fort was manned only by a caretaker. That same day, Fort Johnston, a little to the north of Fort Caswell, was also seized. Fort Johnston was much older, portions of it dating back to 1745. Both forts were returned to the Federal government by Governor Ellis, only to be retaken on April 16, 1861.
Fort Johnston was served as a early recruiting and training depot, and functioned as a supply depot for much of the war. The fort was modified, beginning in late 1861, with an earthen battery, which in 1863, was expanded. The battery contained four, 10-inch guns. The fort was also known as Fort Branch, and in late 1863, Fort Pender. The 20th North Carolina Troops was stationed at the Fort until June 1862. Portions of the 1st North Carolina Artillery were also stationed at the fort, along with portions of the 2nd North Carolina Artillery. Fort Johnston was abandoned after the fall of Fort Fisher. Later, the fort was garrisoned by the 149th New York, 27th and 37th United States Colored Troops. The Confederate earthworks were gone by 1870. Today, only the officers’ quarters are left.
Fort Caswell was likewise reworked, and massive sand batteries were constructed around the fort’s brick walls. These earthworks protected 29 heavy guns. These included 32-pounders, 8 and 10-inch Columbiads, and a 150-pounder Armstrong. Two of the guns on duty at Fort Caswell survive: they flank the Confederate monument on the capitol grounds in Raleigh. There were several plans laid in 1862 through 1864 to bombard or assault Caswell, but none of these plans was ever executed. Finally, with the fall of Fort Fisher across the Cape Fear River, Fort Caswell was abandoned. On January 16, 1865, the barracks were burned and the magazines destroyed. When the magazines blew up, they took a large portion of the fort with them. The explosion was felt as far away as Wilmington and Fayetteville.
Both the garrisons from Forts Johnston and Caswell retreated north to Fort Anderson. This earthen fort, which is incredibly preserved, was constructed at the site of the ruins of Brunswick Town mentioned above. The fort was first known as Fort St. Phillip, named in honor of the church ruins on site; later it was called Fort Henderson, and finally, Fort Anderson, in honor of the late Confederate general George Anderson. The massive earthen walls contained ten cannons. In February 1865, the fort withstood three days of bombardment before the garrison evacuated during the night.
Other earthen batteries were constructed in Brunswick County during the war. They included Batteries at Dutchman Creek, Deep Water Point, and Reaves Point. Also on Oak Island near Fort Caswell was Battery Campbell, containing at least fifteen guns, including a 100-pound Brooke Rifle. Between Campbell and Caswell was a battery with one 10-inch Columbiad. This might have been called Battery Shaw.
Across from Fort Caswell and Oak Island is Bald Head Island and the Bald Head Lighthouse. The southern tip of the Island contained at least five batteries, the most impressive of which was called Fort (or battery) Holmes. The current Bald Head Lighthouse was constructed in 1817. During the war, the lighthouse guided blockade runners into the Cape Fear River. The light was darkened with the Fall of Fort Fisher. While no longer in use, the Bald Head Lighthouse is the oldest such structure in North Carolina.
The Confederates from Forts Caswell and Anderson retreated north and made a stand behind Town Creek. The Confederates, under the command of Brig. Gen. Johnson Hagood, were flanked out of their position, losing some 400 men captured.
Brunswick County offers a visitor some good places to visit today. Fort Anderson/Old Brunswick Town is a state park and well worth a visit. The earthen fort at Old Brunswick is impressive. Fort Caswell still survives, and is owned by the North Carolina Baptist Assembly. Make sure you stop by the office to announce your presence to the folks there. You can also ferry over to Bald Island to see the lighthouse.
You can find a good photo tour of Fort Caswell here
. The state web site for Fort Anderson/Old Brunswick Town can be found here
Sources: Johnson, Touring the Carolinas’ Civil War Sites
; Angley, A History of Fort Johnston
; Herring and Williams Fort Caswell in War and Peace
; Powell, Encyclopedia of North Carolina