Wilmington during Civil War: blockade running bonanza, yellow fever, despair and profits

The Cape Fear Museum downtown Wilmington features an extensive Civil War exhibit. There are hundreds of original weapons, model blockade ships, artifacts recovered from the battlefield, photographs, news articles, letters and more. Admission is $7 adults, $6 seniors, military and students, and $3 for children 3-17.

Civil War photos Confederate Army Wilmington

North Carolina Confederate soldiers ready for duty


Wilmington played a key role during Civil War. It was a major arms, food and materials supply hub, and by 1865, the only lifeline to Confederate troops fighting on the Eastern front.

It was the largest producer of salt, a critical ingredient that helped the population deal with chronic food shortages.

Once Fort Fisher was captured, Wilmington surrendered and the supply line of the Confederacy was severed. The Civil War was soon over.

This post highlights what life was like in the city during the blockade. There are also some remarkable statements from several Confederate soldiers. Historic data and quotes are from the museum exhibit and The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner, by John Wilkinson.

The Gibraltar of the South
“After the Capital of the Confederacy , there was not in the South a more important place than the little town of Wilmington, North Carolina…

John Railey and Lionel Forrest model of Wilmington Harbor Civil War

Wilmington was the only remaining blockade runner port late into the Civil War

Through the port were brought all the stores and materials needed, cannon, muskets, and every munition of war, and with medicines, cloth, shoes, bacon, etc.” – John Johns, Confederate officer stationed in Wilmington, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine

The Union navy found Wilmington a difficult port to blockade. Two entrances to the Cape Fear River allowed blockade runners to enter the port.

The Union had to position its navy along a 50 mile arc to guard against ships trying to enter the river.

“From Smithville…both blockading fleets could be distinctly seen, and the outward bound blockade-runners could take their choice through which of them to run the gauntlet…the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blockade-running. It was, indeed, impossible to do so;” – John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner

Medicine cabinet home remedies Civil War fever

What people used to treat the yellow fever epidemic in1862


The yellow fever epidemic

In 1862, hundreds of Wilmington’s residents died of yellow fever.

The disease was brought in by the crew of the blockade runner Kate.

Lacking proper medicine people resorted to old home remedies like castor oil, foot baths in salt water, mustard plasters and wrapping the sick in warm blankets.

“Medecine does little for the yellow fever. Nursing does much.

Not fussing and disturbing a patient, but skilful care to do what is right, and to avoid what is wrong…”

Taking on salt
Once the Union blockade cut off the South’s supply, during the first year of the war

Residents fighting to keep preserve food during Civil War blockade

Using salt to preserve perishable food at the end of Civil War

the Wilmington Journal urged citizens to “make Salt…by evaporating sea water…To cure beef, pork and so forth.” People built salt works along the coast to provide “the necessary article”.

Men of every age and race were recruited to transport salt from the salt marsh to town.

In 1863 the Wilmington saltworks made 5,000 bushels of salt while the price for a two-bushel sack of salt increased from $12 to $100!

David G. Worth, the state salt commissioner complained that “the present workforce is hardly sufficient to carry on the whole of the works…are always more or less unavoidable absent – some on account of sickness – while others, especially married men…have families entirely dependent on them for support.”

As few get rich the life in the city deteriorates
By the war’s end Wilmington became the only major port on the East Coast still open to blockade runners. The town’s 3 railroads, especially the Wilmington & Weldon, carried supplies to troops in the field. Blockade runners made hundreds of successful trips into Wilmington, more than any other Southern port.

One Five Twenty Hundred Confederate dollar bills

Dollar bills issued by the Confederacy fom 1861 to 1864


With a busy trade between New York, Philadelphia, and the Caribbean islands, Wilmington emerged as one of the most important cities in the Confederacy.

The slow pace, quaint small city lifestyle changed for the worse…

“The staid old town of Wilmington was turned “topsy turvy” during the war. Here resorted the speculators from all parts of the South, to attend the weekly auctions of imported cargoes; and the town was infested with rogues and desperadoes, who made a livelihood by robbery and murder.

Civil War brought hunger despair poverty and social chaos in Carolina

People lining up for rations during a brutal Civil War blockade


It was unsafe to venture into the suburbs at night, and even in daylight, there were frequent conflicts in the public streets, between the crews of the steamers in port and the soldiers stationed in the town, in which knives and pistols would be freely used; and not unfrequently a dead body would rise to the surface of the water in one of the docks with marks of violence upon it. The civil authorities were powerless to prevent crime.”
– John Wilkinson, The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner

Letters from soldiers…Homesick, hungry and courageous

How Civil War soldiers passed time bible tobacco cards family photos

The few but cherished possessions of a soldier


“Your company is better than all the company there is in the world. We have preaching and fiddling and card playing but all that doesn’t satisfy me like being with you.”

“I have a good pair of English shoes minus a sole”

“I had nothing to eat for two days. Finally I got a piece of pickled beef, and I had small piece of tobacco in my pocket, which I traded for bread and mighty glad to get it.”

“I want them to give me some thing to eat if they are going to try to keep me here.”

“I shall stand to my post and go wherever duty calls me.”

Learn about Carolina’s history at Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington!

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