February 22, 1865 (Wednesday)
It had been a strange past few weeks for Braxton Bragg. With General Robert E. Lee elevated to the General-in-Chief of all the Confederates armies, his position as Davis’ military advisor was made more or less redundant. Through the second week of February, he was in Richmond turning over the office to Lee. With that business taken care of, he returned to his old department in North Carolina, arriving in Wilmington on the 21st.
Much had changed since he left for Richmond – Fort Anderson’s fall being the deepest cut.
“I find all our troops on this side [of] Cape Fear,” he wrote to the capital upon his arrival. “The enemy in force on the west, and our communications south cut. We are greatly out-numbered.”
The greatest concern had in Richmond was not necessarily Wilmington, but it played a major role. It was wondered whether the troops under General Beauregard, retreating north from South Carolina, might still be able to pass through Wilmington.
While the War Department was left for a time in wonderment, General Lee saw things more clearly. “Destroy all cotton, tobacco, and naval stores that would otherwise fall into the hands of the enemy,” he replied to Bragg. Of Beauregard’s men, Lee wanted Bragg to use them if they were nearby, otherwise, they were to take another route avoiding Wilmington.
By the end of the 21st, Bragg detailed to Lee what was left. “Our small forces renders it impossible to make any serious stand,” came his plea. “We are greatly embarrassed by prisoners, the enemy refusing to receive them or entertain any proposition.” The Union commanders understood that the South could barely feed its own troops, let alone the scads of Federal prisoners they had shuffled from the south as the enemy forces worked their north.
Through the night till the morning of this date, Bragg prepared to retreat, the Federals near Wilmington creeping closer, ferrying themselves to an island opposite the town. “By the active and efficient operation of the Weldon and Wilmington Railroad,” Bragg wrote, “we succeeded in getting off all the prisoners able to travel and all important stores. Some naval stores and a small lot of cotton and tobacco were destroyed by fire. These could have been saved but for the occupation of the trains in carrying prisoners.
“Before daylight on the 22d, I withdrew the troops successfully to the north side of the Northeast River. The pursuit of the enemy was feeble, owing, no doubt, to his occupation at the time, as we since learn, in throwing a corps by way of Masonborough South in gain our rear, and thus cut off our only route of retreat.”
Before the dawn, Union General Jacob Cox could see that the Rebels had evacuated the city. “Bragg had carefully removed all boats from our side of the channel,” he recalled after the war, “but citizens anxious to prevent us from firing on the town came over in skiffs, and we learned that the Confederate forces had marched away toward Goldsborough, leaving the way open for [General Alfred] Terry’s march into the city, which took place in the early morning of the 22nd, which we were happy to recall was Washington’s Birthday.”
And so now not only Forts Fisher and Anderson had fallen, but Wilmington as well. The Confederacy was now completely shut off from the sea.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p1077-1078; Part 2, p1241-1242, 1249; Military Reminiscences by Jacob Cox; Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat by Judith Lee Hallock. [↩]