Wilmington Poised to Fall

February 20, 1865 (Monday)

The day previous, Jacob Cox had lead two divisions against Fort Anderson, just south of Wilmington, North Carolina, causing the fort to be abandoned by the Confederates. Through that evening, he, with one division, gave chase. The Rebels made it across an unfordable creek, burning the bridge that spanned it. Then, from behind their embattlements, lobbed artillery shells into Cox’s lines with no effect but unsettlement.

Jacob Cox
Jacob Cox

Someone had discovered a flatboat a mile below the old crossing, and Cox determined to use it come dawn. It was now dawn.

He ordered General John Casement, commanding one of his three brigades, to ferry his and another brigade over in the scow, while the two remaining brigades held the original position, with one in reserve, at the old crossing and keep the enemy occupied.

The lay of the land on the Confederate side of the creek dealt fortune to Cox. The Rebels had anchored their left upon a swamp, placing no pickets on its other side, figuring well that no attack could materialize from that direction. And it was in just that direction where the troops would cross. Without notice, Casement’s flatboat shuttled both brigades unseen to the other side.

All the while, one of the remaining brigades advanced with a heavy skirmishline to almost within range of the Rebels’ muskets. The artillery reached farther and disabled at least one enemy piece.

Though the crossing was a success, it took hours, and wasn’t until noon that both were planted on the far side. With this, Cox ordered the reserve brigade to cross as well, joining them in the journey.

What Cox found was the reason the Rebels left this plot unguarded. “The ground was such that no horses could be used and all officers were dismounted,” wrote Cox in his report. “With some difficulty the command passed through the rice swamps, moving obliquely to the right till we reached dry land about a mile from the place of crossing.”


They found a plantation lane which led to the Wilmington road, the path which led from their original position, across the burned out bridge to the city of Wilmington. Cox now had three brigades between the Rebels and their base. After some scouting, he found himself to be two miles in the Confederate rear. They reached this road by 4pm, but not without detection, as skirmishers fell back. His victory was nearly certain, but for an old road he knew nothing about.

“I learned from some negroes that another road leading from Town Creek bridge to Wilmington, known as the old public road, was about a mile farther west, the two roads forking about one-half mile from the creek,” Cox wrote. If he fell upon the Rebel left, they could simple slide to the right and retreat on the old road without capture.

And so he sent the reserve brigade a mile west so that they might intercept the certain retreat, while the other two brigades were formed and advanced. The Confederates, now aware of the threat “had formed in a line of breast-works, partially completed, facing to the rear, and opened with spherical case and canister from their two brass pieces as we advanced.”

Cox ordered his men to charge, “which they did with admirable spirit, breaking the enemy’s lines, capturing both the pieces of artillery and 375 prisoners, amongst whom were Colonel Simonton, commanding the brigade, adn nearly all the officers.” Until dark, Cox’s men pursued the Rebels, whose retreat was not cut by the reserve brigade. The mile they had to tramp between the new and old roads was a thick morass, barring their way.

The next day, Cox would be ordered to advance his entire division toward Wilmington and secure the railroad bridge spanning the Cape Fear River into the city itself. They would find it smouldering. After an evening of confusion and crossed messages between Cox and General Terry across the river, it was decided to advance upon Wilmington the day following (the 22nd). By that time, the Confederates would have already made up their minds.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p961-962, 968. []


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3 thoughts on “Wilmington Poised to Fall

  1. I think we’ve reached the stage where it was starting to become a rout. Forts and cities falling daily. Is there any insight as to how long Confederate leaders still thought they could hold out?

    1. I think they have been five to six months late as it is. With lee bottled up like a canary in Richmond and no realistic answer to Sherman. It was only a matter of time and more blood shed before it would hit them in the face like a wet mop. The Johnnies, fighting and dying knew it long before the generals and politicians would admit it. RL McBride

      1. Much blame must be placed on Davis. His massive, self-serving ego seems to run through all his decisions without any empathy for the thousands of men dying because of those decisions. He made it clear that he expected to fight to the last man & to the total physical destruction of every town. When Lee made the decision to surrender,Davis actually sent Lee an angry communication telling Lee that he, Davis, had not given Lee permission to surrender. One sees Davis’ ego throughout all of Eric’s amazing documentation herein.

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