SUBMITTED BY: Tom Fagart
On Christmas Eve, 24 December 1864, the Confederate fortress of Fort Fisher (aka The Gibraltar of The South) located near Wilmington, North Carolina at the mouth of the Cape Fear River came under attack by Union Naval and Army forces. Sixty Union ships took part in this assault. This is considered to be the First Battle of Fort Fisher. This taskforce was led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. On the second day of the assault, Butler started landing Union troops. The weather conditions were worsening, and when he received word that Confederate troops were reinforcing the fort and other defenses around Fort Fisher he abandoned the operation and declared Fort Fisher to be impregnable. He was relieved of duty within two weeks and Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Terry was appointed as his replacement.
On Friday, 13 January 1865, with a much larger force, the Second Battle of Fort Fisher began. On Sunday, 15 January 1865 after two days of very heavy naval gunfire and large ground assaults by both Union Naval and Army forces, Fort Fisher “The Gibraltar of The South” fell. Wilmington was the last remaining Confederate sea port for its “Blockade Runners” bringing in badly needed supplies from England.
When Fort Fisher fell, the exact number of Confederate forces captured at Fort Fisher in not certain but what is known is that of all the Confederate forces captured, the vast majority or 1,154 men were sent to the Elmira Prison in Elmira, New York. Other Union prison camps received prisoners from Fort Fisher. 639 were sent to Point Lookout Prison, Maryland, 97 sent to Fort Columbus Prison in New York Harbor, 61 sent to Fort Delaware Prison, Delaware, and 22 sent to Fort Morgan Prison, Virginia. The Union Navy ships used to transport the prisoners were: California, DeMolay, General Lyon, and North Point.
The journey of the Fort Fisher men to Elmira began with boarding them on steamers bound for New York Harbor at the port of Jersey City, New Jersey across the river from New York City. When Fort Fisher fell and the Confederate soldiers were captured, they were captured without their winter clothing and blankets due to the fact that they did not fight in their heavier winter clothing and also due to their barracks being burnt due to the naval bombardment. The further north the steamers went, the colder the weather became and the plight of the Fort Fisher men began at sea.
All seriously wounded Confederate prisoners were sent to Union Army hospitals at Point Lookout, Maryland, Fort Monroe Prison, Virginia, and Fort Delaware, Delaware. The combined Union Army and Navy casualties were: 266 dead, 1,018 wounded, and 57 missing.
After arriving in Jersey City, NJ, the Fort Fisher men were boarded on a Erie Rail Road prison trains for a 273 mile trip to Elmira, New York. There were two arrivals of Fort Fisher men in Elmira. The first arrival was on 30 January 1865 and consisted of 501 men and the second arrival was on 1 February 1865 and consisted of 653 men, for a total of 1,154. *Reference: National Archives, US Records of Prisoners of War, 1861 – 1865, NY, Elmira, Military Prison, Prison Register, 1862 – 1865, v. 218 – 220, images 343 – 355 of 399 shows 501 men and images 357 – 374 of 399 shows 653 men.
NEWSPAPER REPORT: Printed in the Lewiston Daily Evening Journal, Lewiston, Maine, Friday Evening, Jan 27, 1865 – “From New York – Arrival of 850 Rebel Prisoners from Fort Fisher”, “New York, 27th – Steamer De Molay from Fort Fisher with 850 rebel prisoners has arrived. Steam frigate Colorado from Fort Fisher has arrived.”
According to the book “Fort Fisher to Elmira, The Fatal Journey of 518 Confederate Soldiers” by Richard H. Triebe, there were 1,121 Confederate soldiers sent to Elmira from Fort Fisher. 761 or 68% of the men were “Tar Heel” – North Carolina soldiers. 357 men were from South Carolina and 4 were Confederate Marines. Out of the 1,121 Confederate soldiers sent to Elmira, 518 or 46% would die within five months. The major cause of death at Elmira was pneumonia, diarrhea, and small pox.
When the first shipment of Fort Fisher men arrived in Elmira on Monday, 30 January 1865, the weather was bitterly cold and the snow was deep. Pvt. Thaddeus C. Davis, from Morehead City, NC, 3rd Co G, 40th Regiment, 3rd NC Artillery, recalled after the war, “We arrived (at Elmira) about eight o’clock in the evening, in four feet of snow, and many prisoners had neither blankets nor coats. We were kept standing in ranks in the street for half an hour before starting for the prison.” Note: Pvt. Thaddeus C. Davis and Pvt. Thomas O. Hildreth of Ansonville, Anson County, NC were both in the same company and arrived in Elmira in the first shipment of prisoners.
Union Army inspecting officer Lt. James R. Reid wrote in February 1865, “The Fort Fisher prisoners arrived in cold weather very depressed, poorly clad, and great numbers were soon taken sick with pneumonia and diarrhea, rapidly assuming a typhoid character”.
In February 1865 there was an exchange of prisoners and the most sick in the Elmira Prison were sent to the James River in Virginia for exchange. Of the 1,121 Fort Fisher men sent to Elmira, 518 would die within five months of which 372 of these men are Tar Heels. Of the 372 Tar Heels to die, 319 would die in the Elmira Prison and be buried in the Confederate Section of the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira. 53 of the sick Tar Heel soldiers who were paroled would either die in transit or very soon die in various Confederate hospitals in Richmond, VA, Raleigh, Greensboro, Weldon, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
South Carolina had 482 men captured at Fort Fisher. 357 of these men were sent to Elmira and 134 of these men died in Elmira and are buried in the Woodlawn National Cemetery. A number of sick South Carolina Fort Fisher men were paroled and exchanged and would also die either during transit to the James River or very soon after arriving in Confederate hospitals.
Note: Reference book Fort Fisher to Elmira – I counted the names in the Roster of Fort Fisher Prisoners Sent to Elmira, there are 319 North Carolina Fort Fisher men and 134 South Carolina Fort Fisher men who died in the Elmira Prison and are buried in the Woodlawn National Cemetery in Elmira for a total of 453 Fort Fisher men.
There are 2,970 Confederate graves in the Woodlawn National Cemetery of men who died in the Elmira Prison. 1,228 are graves of Tar Heel soldiers. 319 Tar Heel Fort Fisher soldiers are buried in Woodlawn and represents 25.9% of all Tar Heel deaths in Elmira and 10.7% of all deaths in the Elmira Prison. 134 South Carolina Fort Fisher men are buried in Woodlawn and represents 28% of the 482 South Carolina deaths in Elmira and 4.5% of all deaths in the Elmira Prison. A total of 457 Fort Fisher men including 3 Confederate Marines died in Elmira and represents 15.4% of all Elmira deaths.
Three Confederate Marines were captured at Fort Fisher and sent to Elmira. They are Pvt. William Brown, died of diarrhea, buried in grave #2562 and Pvt. James Drew, died of pneumonia, buried in grave #2121, Pvt. Frank A. Dean, wounded, concussion of brain, died of diarrhea 18 July 1865, location of grave not known. He would have died in the Elmira Union Army Hospital and should have been buried in the Woodlawn National Cemetery. It is possible the Pvt. Dean is one of the Confederate Unknown Soldiers buried in Woodlawn? In depth research needs to be done to determine where these marines are from.
INTERESTING FACTS AND NOTES ON FORT FISHER MEN
The average age of the Fort Fisher man was nineteen years old.
The youngest Fort Fisher man to be sent to Elmira is 17 year old Pvt. William H. Faulk of Co E, 36th Regiment, 2nd NC Artillery. He was 15 years old when he enlisted at Columbus County, NC on 9 Feb 1863. He was exchanged on the James River in Virginia on 2 Mar 1865. Pvt. Faulk is most likely buried in the Tabor City / Whiteville, Columbus County, NC area.
The oldest Fort Fisher man was fifty-six year old Pvt. Samuel Hales of Co D, 36th Regiment, 2nd NC Artillery. He was born in 1808 and was fifty-four when he enlisted at Blockerville in Cumberland County, NC on 26 Feb 1862. He was transferred to Point Lookout and exchanged on the James River 2 Mar 1865. “Prison records spell his last name Hale.”
The deadliest month for Fort Fisher men was March 1865 when over 200 of them died in the Elmira Prison.
There are 4 Jewish Tar Heel Artillerymen from Fort Fisher and 9 other Jewish Tar Heels who died in the Elmira Prison and are buried in the Woodlawn National Cemetery along with 12 other Jewish Confederate soldiers.