The Final Battles
The evacuation of Fort Anderson left the Confederate defense across the river at Sugar Loaf in a difficult position. If the federal forces on the west bank pushed into Wilmington before they could retreat then they would become isolated. They had no choice but to withdraw into the final defenses in front of Wilmington. The Confederate retreat on both sides of the river set the stage for the last two major actions of the campaign.
On the west bank Hagood was instructed to hold a line at Town Creek. It was another impossible task for his 2280 troops. The line was too long and offered easy passage around either end. The easily forded stream barley slowed COL Casement’s Brigade as they moved around the Confederate left. Fortunately they were discovered by two foraging soldiers who reported their presence up the chain. Only a desperate holding action by three South Carolina regiments (25th, 27th, and 11th), commanded by COL Charles Simonton, prevented the retreating Fort Anderson garrison from being cut off from Wilmington and captured en masse. The spirited contest against long odds saved the bulk of the force but cost Simonton heavily. The number of captured alone equaled 375 men, including Simonton. Hagood led the survivors into Wilmington and burned the bridges behind them.
Hoke’s defenses on the east bank fared much better. With little room for maneuver Terry had no alternative but to go after him head on. Moving north on Federal Point Road around 1500 he put a brigade of USCT troops on each side of the road, COL John Ames on the west and COL Elias Wright on the east. They were met by BG Thomas Clingman’s brigade of North Carolinians (8th, 31st, 51st, and 61st). The Confederate line would not budge. After taking 53 casualties (2k and 51 w) Terry decided to use the remaining daylight to entrench his forces.
The following day (February 21st) saw a continuation of the fight. The sides swapped artillery and picket fire to no end. The situation at Wilmington was drastically changed in the afternoon, not by military stratagem but by the reappearance of Braxton Bragg. He examined the situation and as a Federal reconnaissance pushed closer under the guns of Porter’s gunboats he made a crucial decision. He waved away the expected reinforcements from Hardee’s Corps and decided to give up the city. Everything of military value was torched, the fires nearly getting out of control. The nearly complete ironclad Wilmington was destroyed and the gunboat Chickamauga taken up river and scuttled. By daylight of the 22nd the vast majority of the Confederate forces were gone. Wilmington was won.
Conclusion and Assessment
The last shots of the Wilmington Campaign were fired when Terry’s advance into the city struck the rear guard members of the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry and a pursuit began. An attempt to fire the bridges across Prince George Creek was only partially successful. The railroad trestle was destroyed but the nearby wagon span was saved. Men from Abbott’s brigade seized the bridge and doused the flames with water from the creek. The 3rd New Hampshire led the chase and spent the day skirmishing with Bragg’s rearguard. Exhausted they were replaced by the 7th New Hampshire and 6th Connecticut who drove to the rear of the main column that was backed up against a pontoon bridge over the Cape Fear River. The Confederates managed to cut away their end of the bridge at the last moment after “a spirited affair” between the advancing Federals and BG William Kirkland’s North Carolina brigade. With darkness falling Terry declined to continue the pursuit. Bragg moved off to the north and the Union army began the process of repairing the damage to the supply infrastructure of the city. He campaign was finished.
As with any late war campaign this one was poignant for the unnecessary losses. The Confederacy had about two months to live but their military hopes had been gone for some time. But fight on they did. The effort to save Wilmington was doomed from the start by one glaring deficiency; lack of command cooperation between Bragg and Whiting. Without a coordinated plan of action they had little chance of success. They had the opportunity for Bragg to act as the hammer against Whiting’s anvil but he did not. Left alone Whiting and Lamb suffered the predictable result against an more powerful opponent.Wilmington and Fort Fisher (Campaign Series)