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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Wilmington, North Carolina
In 1867, the U.S. government established the Wilmington National Cemetery, in Wilmington, North Carolina, consolidating the remains of fallen Union troops from cemeteries and battlefield graves in the surrounding area. Wilmington became one of the most important cities of the Confederacy as it was the last major Atlantic port still in Southern control. The port town eventually fell to overwhelming Union forces in January 1865.
Located 28 miles up the Cape River, Wilmington was well situated for use as a Confederate port. Its distance from the Atlantic Ocean kept it safe from the large guns of the Union naval forces, and the heavily armed Confederate Fort Fisher at the mouth of the river ensured the Union fleet would be held far off the coast. Union naval forces attempted to blockade the shipping traffic in and out of Wilmington, yet blockade-runners managed to slip in and out of the harbor, taking advantage of the geography of the mouth of the Cape River and extensive shoals along the coast. Outgoing vessels held bales of Southern cotton, destined for markets in Europe in exchange for hard currency. Inbound blockade runners brought goods eventually transported to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. By 1865, the supply line through Wilmington was the last remaining route open to Lee and his army.
The Union attempted an attack on Fort Fisher in December 1864, but the fort’s earthworks repelled the Union shelling. In a second attack in January 1865, a Union fleet of nearly 60 vessels commenced a heavy bombardment of the fort, with some estimates of 100 shells a minute. Union forces overwhelmed the smaller Confederate force defending the fort. Two days after the attack began, the Confederates surrendered the fort, effectively shutting down Lee’s supply line from the ocean.
With the fall of the fort, Union forces moved northward along both banks of the Cape River toward Wilmington. Two brigades of U.S. Colored Troops, 3,149 men in total, marched along the river’s east bank. The Union forces approached the city cautiously, engaging Confederate forces attempting to protect the South’s last remaining Atlantic port. Union forces suffered heavy causalities yet continued their march to the city, eventually securing Wilmington. The U.S. Colored Troops brigades also took heavy losses with 557 killed.
In February 1867, the U.S. government purchased five acres of land from a local resident for the construction of a national cemetery. Remains were removed from the Wilmington City Cemetery, Fort Fisher, and the surrounding area and reinterred in the new cemetery. The remains (55 known, 502 unknown) of the 557 U.S. Colored Troops who died on the advance to Wilmington are buried in the northwest corner of the cemetery. Their grave markers are identified with the inscription “U.S.C.T.” or “U.S. Col. Inf.”
The cemetery, located in the eastern portion of downtown Wilmington, contains approximately 6,000 burials and is now closed to interments. The cemetery is roughly rectangular in shape, laid out on a north-south axis. A drive extends from the cemetery’s southern entrance to the northern boundary, where it terminates in a turnaround. Near the center of the drive’s length, it splits around a grassy island where the cemetery’s flagpole is set.
Just inside the main gates stands the superintendent’s lodge. The two-story Dutch Colonial Revival building dates from 1934, and replaced an earlier brick lodge erected around 1870. The lodge’s first floor is clad with brick veneer, the second floor’s exterior is stucco, and the gambrel roof is slate. The cemetery’s utility building, located north of the lodge, was built in 1939. The building contains a garage, storage space, and public restrooms.
A brick wall, constructed in the late 1870s, stands along the west side of the cemetery, as well as portions of the north and east sides. The original wall along Market Street on the cemetery’s south side was demolished in the early 1930s and replaced with a brick wall capped with wrought-iron fencing.
East of the cemetery’s main drive is a rostrum (raised speaking platform). Dating from 1887, the brick octagonal platform is accessed by decorative iron stairs and surrounded by iron railing. It was originally topped by a metal-clad gazebo roof supported by elaborate iron fretwork.