Another “Truman Seymour plan”: Close Cape Fear soon!

Brigadier-General Truman Seymour strikes me as an “idea man.”

In an earlier blog post, we saw his proposal to disable the Confederate rail system by advancing behind Charleston.  A few weeks later, Seymour and Captain C.B. Reese, an engineer, conducted a reconnaissance of the Wilmington, North Carolina area.  Of course Wilmington was a bit outside of Major-General Quincy Gillmore’s Department of the South.  But only a bit.

So reaching just outside his “sandbox” Gillmore sent Seymour to investigate the approaches to the Cape Fear River on November 13-14, 1863.  Seymour not only provided the required assessment, but also a detailed, color map:

CapeFearMap

Seymour started the assessment with a description of Confederate defenses.  Starting with the Old Inlet, or what he called “the southern entrance,” Seymour noted Fort Caswell, an unnamed fort he simply called “A,” and another set of works on Bald Head of Smith’s Island.

CapeFearMapSouthEntrance

Fort Caswell was an old masonry fort of the Third System.  Seymour noted improvements included a “glacis of sand” to protect the brick walls.  “Work A” as indicated on the map, stood a mile west of Fort Caswell, and compared favorably to Fort Wagner.  (“Work A” may have been Fort Campbell, an 18-gun enclosed fort built in that area.)

On Smith’s Island, Seymour described “Work B” and “Work C,” the latter was close to the channel’s lighthouse. These were open batteries, with no defenses to the rear, but covered the channel.   “Work B” was unfinished, but “Work C” was described as a mound battery 60 feet high with three guns.  (These works later evolved into Fort Holmes.) However, uncovered was a “fine beach, smooth and open” about three miles from those works.  Seymour elaborated:

Good anchorage is found by the Cape Fear Shoals, which extend south several miles, giving shelter from northerly and easterly storms, but open to southeast and south.  This is the only good anchorage, and the beach of Cape Fear the only sure ground for disembarking troops.  As yet both are unoccupied by the enemy.

Turning to the northern entrance, better known as New Inlet, Seymour found a two- or three-gun battery on Zeek’s Island (center of this close up of the map).

CapeFearMapNewInlet

He described Fort Fisher on Federal point as “very strong” with five timber and sand casemates.  Between the fort and the end of the point, a two gun battery labeled “Work D” and a large mound battery were being built at the time of Seymour’s survey.  In addition to these works, Seymour noted that field guns were brought out from the Confederate garrison to cover blockade runners.

Overall, Seymour lamented a lost opportunity here. “Smith’s Island was entirely unoccupied until within two or three months [ago]; a few regiments thrown upon it by us would have led to the perfect closing of the blockade.”

CapeFearSurvey

But he suggested a bold operation might still gain the prize:

The fact that Cape Fear is undefended as yet, and that the only shelter for vessels is to be found directly under it, seems to point out the only method, without the employment of a large force, by which any decided effect can be produced upon blockade-running. A few thousand men, landed upon Cape Fear at night, would certainly surprise the fort at Bald Point, particularly if they could be landed before the completion of that work. Should Bald Bluff not be fortified meanwhile, its possession alone would involve the fall of the fort, and if it be fortified a line of investment could be drawn around both, from the light-house to the sea beach. A few heavy rifles at the light-house would close the river. A gun or two on a point or spit farther north would forbid vessels lying at or near Smithville, and the Light-House Battery would prevent access to the fort on Bald Point, which should consequently be easy of conquest. The possession of this island would greatly facilitate any operations on Oak Island against Fort Caswell, but it is believed that the moral effect of the possession of Smith’s Island and a few guns opposite Caswell would effectually prevent blockade-running by this entrance.

With Smith’s Island occupied and the Old Inlet blocked by guns, the Federals would need to occupy Zeek’s Island, connected to Smith’s by a breakwater.  However, Seymour believed a few rifled guns could cover the New Inlet from the northern end of Smith’s Island, should Zeek’s not fall.  Seymour estimated “five or eight thousand men can easily accomplish this operation…” and once complete, “3,000 men should be able to hold it with perfect ease.”

Seymour added:

Whatever is done near Cape Fear toward the closing of the blockade must be done soon,  or the advantages now offered of a quiet anchorage at and occupation of the cape itself must soon pass away, and all operations by any moderate force will be virtually impracticable.

Gillmore sent this report to Major-General Henry Halleck in Washington with very favorable endorsement.   But Halleck was too busy with other pressing needs offer support for another operation.  So put this down in the “what if” missed opportunity category.  As with the railroad offensive proposed earlier, the Federals could not mass and allocate the troops for what Seymour proposed.  Events that fall left the Federals off balance, strategically speaking.  So the Confederates had more time to perfect the defenses of the Cape Fear River.  Not coincidentally, around this time Wilmington took on added importance for blockade-running activities.  Federal activity on Morris Island had all but shut the door on Charleston.

(Seymour’s report is from OR, Series I, Volume 28, Part II, Serial 47, pages 118-120.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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