Before the Baptists, Fort Caswell played role in 3 wars

Posted by Teresa Leonard on July 17, 2014 

National Guard troops trained at Fort Caswell during World War I.

N.C. COLLECTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES, WILSON LIBRARY, UNC

Before it was sold to the Baptist State Convention to serve as a retreat center, Fort Caswell in Brunswick County played a role in both World Wars and defended the Cape Fear River during the Civil War. Louis T. Moore explained some of that history to N&O readers in 1949.

The ancient fort which North Carolina Baptists are turning to peaceful pursuits once stood as a stormy bastion of the Confederacy during the War Between the States. The Confederacy would have owed to the guns of Fort Caswell, Fort Fisher and Fort Johnston its much-needed supplies of foodstuffs, materials, and medicines.

Constructed between 1826 and 1838, Fort Caswell has figured in every American war with the exceptions of the Revolution and the War of 1812.

The fort was named for Richard Caswell, first Governor of the State. Congress first approved funds for its construction on March 2, 1825. Major George Blaney of the U. S. Engineers Corps took charge but died in 1836. The work was completed under Captain Alexander J. Swift on October 20, 1838, at a cost of $473,402. During the next 20 years, its upkeep cost $69,422.09.

About 1896, liberal appropriations were made for the construction of modern quarters, guns, mortar batteries and other armament. A power plant, water system and other facilities were installed.

Fort Caswell claims a unique experience during Civil War days, in that it was captured by Southern forces fully three months before hostilities broke out officially with the much publicized bombardment of Fort Sumter at Charleston, S. C.

During the first week of the year 1861, the people of Wilmington became greatly disturbed at the threat of civil war. A great mass meeting was held, and a “Committee of Safety” was formed. A call was issued for the enrollment of volunteers for quick service under the name of “Cape Fear Minute Men.” Col. John J. Hedrick was designated as commander. Without delay, Hedrick and his men set sail in a schooner for Smithville (now Southport).

At Smithville, the band took possession of the U. S. barracks at Fort Johnston and proceeded two miles across the harbor to demand surrender of Fort Caswell. Colonel Hedrick’s men kept the U. S. garrison in custody and established a patrol of the beach front to prevent a surprise attack from the sea.

Two days later, however, Governor John W. Ellis as commander of the State’s militia ordered that Fort Caswell be restored to the possession of the original U. S. garrison. Under such orders, Colonel Hedrick’s troops withdrew. That was January 9, 1861.

On April 14 came word that Fort Sumter at Charleston had been fired upon. Governor Ellis then ordered that Forts Caswell and Johnston be re-taken without delay. Thus, three months and five days after the original capture, the forts were seized and held for the Confederacy. The N&O, July 31, 1949

During World War I, North Carolina National Guard companies as well as activated troops trained at Fort Caswell. After the war, the fort was closed and sold to private interests. It was reacquired by the U.S. Government in 1941 and used as a Navy depot throughout World War II. Finally, it was declared surplus property in 1946 and sold to the Baptist State Convention in 1949 to become the North Carolina Baptist Assembly.

Writer Phill Wright took readers through a tour of the facility as it was about to make that transition.

Meandering through the dungeon-like rooms of the old batteries, facing oceanward, one feels he is walking into the yesteryear. The old gun mounts … and other properties of maritime days are still to be found. Slit trenches leading from the gun mounts are to be found, indicating that the pre-Confederate soldier knew the art of self-preservation. …

Cannon balls, once mounted on the battery and at strategic points about the Fort, disappeared during metal shortages of World War II.

Under the Navy, the Fort had many additions and innovations. …

Luxuries to be found at this historic site include health springs, outdoor and indoor, fed by a natural hot salt water spring. These waters are automatically controlled and fed into three large swimming areas.

The Navy installed the very latest plumbing fixtures in the houses, and floors would compete with some of the better homes in America. …

M. A. Huggins, the secretary of the convention, said that the churchmen will make the Fort a “complete Baptist religious and recreation center.”

“It will be fashioned after other Baptist assembly sites in the State and others, and the program we conduct there will be not only for seashore Baptists but for Baptists of the entire State,” he said. The N&O, July 31, 1949

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.

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