You really have to use your imagination to envision Fort Fisher as it looked in 1865 when, during the final months of the Civil War, it fell into Union hands. For one thing, the ocean has reclaimed about 90 percent of the area that once was wooden barracks, mess halls, carpenter's shops and a dirt road. The only buildings in sight are the Civil War museum and, way off in the distance, the Fort Fisher Aquarium, which is roughly where Mount Battery once stood.
For another thing, the entire area has now been taken over by a small forest of live oaks, bent and twisted and leaning in an artistic, windblown sort of way that seems to suggest overgrown Bonsai trees. They would have impeded the hearty exchange of cannonballs and artillery fire if they'd been here 150 years ago.
Your tour guide will be a visual aid in conjuring an image of the hardships endured by the Confederate soldiers. Under a blazing summer sun he wears a heavy black hat, wool jacket and pants, and combat boots. He carries an authentic musket he promises to shoot before the tour is over, which keeps the kids from whining quite so much. ("Can we go now?" will be converted to "Can you shoot the gun now?" Also, the fiddler crabs digging around under the boardwalk are sufficiently diversionary for the little ones.)
The tour begins at the museum's back door and follows a quarter-mile loop around a series of grassy mounds that resemble a very large, green, multi-humped camel. About 22 seacoast guns were mounted up there, not on the tops of the humps but between them, to form a formidable arsenal trained on anything that moved out in the sea.
"This fort was constructed in the summer of 1862 by Colonel Lamb," said tour guide Wade Rogers. "He was not an engineer. He just read a lot of books and liked earthen forts."
What's not to like? Sand is an extremely cheap and available construction material and the vegetation that grows on it is great camouflage. "The most important reason is if you have a solid shot, sand actually absorbs the impact of the bullet. With a brick fort a solid shot would splinter the brick like shrapnel in all directions, which is pretty dangerous for the men inside."
Even if an adjacent battlement with its many pounds of gunpowder and explosives blows sky-high, the mound that separates it from neighbors on either side would entirely absorb the blast.
"There were about 3,000 people working on this thing with shovels and wheelbarrows, and being eaten alive by the mosquitoes," he said. "The entire garrison was about 2,000 men and about 1,000 employed people were loaned out from local plantations." At the base of the mounds the construction project included makeshift bomb shelters; underground bunkers where men could hide during heavy shelling, or could store supplies. These all caved in during the 1890s.
"In 1864 this was the very last port," Rogers said. "Before that the Navy blockaded the entire coast line, but by then it only had to blockade this area, and it became increasingly hard for blockade runners. But even in 1864 about two-thirds of blockade runners were successful in getting in. Before it used to be 90 percent."
Treacherous shoals at the mouth of the Cape Fear River created gaps in the enemy blockade, and Union ships had to avoid the shallows while at the same time being very careful not to come within range of Fort Fisher's cannons.