The Civil War Era

Story and photos by Lois Carol Wheatley

Wilmington is 435 miles from Gettysburg, 350 miles from Manassas, and 270 miles from Appomatox. The War Between the States was like a huge weather front that formed to the northwest and swept southward and inland, with a fury that completely sideswiped the Cape Fear Region for most of its duration. When at last it arrived in town it was spent, weary, with scarcely the energy to strike a single match.

"By the time the Union forces got to Wilmington they were ready to get on trains to go home," said Candace McGreevy, executive director of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. "Or they came here to be put in hospitals to heal. They weren't mad any more."

Before the winds of war began to blow down from the north, Wilmington obliviously had itself a bit of a building boom. The railroad came to town in 1834 and in five years laid enough track to be considered the longest railroad in the world—Wilmington to Weldon, a distance of 161.5 miles. This was a joyous occasion that called for large warehouses at the north end of town, new lavish residences clustered around the docks, and a handful of distinguished public buildings where thriving merchants and businessmen could meet and mingle, wearing their fine Italian suits and consuming the very best Jamaican rum.

The Civil War was an additional shot in the arm for the local economy. Nowhere else on the coast was blockade running nearly so successful, and goods poured into the port that were promptly forwarded by train to wherever the troops happened to be. No other region so consistently outfoxed, outmaneuvered and outran the Union blockades.

And when it was all over the Yankees scarcely needed to torch the joint. Wilmington burned countless times during the 19th century either from kitchen fires or flying sparks from visiting steamers at the dock. Today you'll see a lot of metal roofs throughout that part of town.

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The Civil War Era

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