A historic marker was unveiled Friday at the intersection of 17th Street and Independence Boulevard to honor two brigades of African American soldiers who fought during the Civil War Battle of Forks Road.
Hosted by the City of Wilmington’s Commission on African American History, members of City Council, along with Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and New Hanover County Commissioners Chairman Jonathan Barfield Jr. were in attendance to help unveil the historic marker.
“I want thank the African American Commission for doing this,” Saffo said. “[The Battle of Forks Road] was an important part of the history of Wilmington and New Hanover County and of this region. It’s important to recognize all aspects of our history because that’s one of the great things about Wilmington–its rich history.”
The Battle of Forks Road began as a last effort by Confederate Maj. Gen. Robert Frederick Hoke to hold Wilmington, the Confederacy’s last major port city, from falling into Union control.
According to the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, Wilmington thrived during the war in virtual anonymity.
“Bolstering its maritime commerce were two commercial shipyards, a sword and button factory, an iron works, several banks, and perhaps most importantly, three major railroads. The most notable of the latter was the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, which ran directly north from Wilmington into Virginia — the very heart of the war’s Eastern Theater,” according to the Department of Cultural Resources.
In August 1864, Union forces took control over Mobile, Alabama, which left the Confederacy dependent on Wilmington to connect them for trade with the outside world.
The impact of Union control over Wilmington did not fall short on Gideon Welles, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, who in a personal journal entry, noted: “The importance of closing Wilmington and cutting off Rebel communication is paramount to all other questions–more important, practically, then the capture of Richmond [Virginia].”
In a decisive victory, Fort Fisher fell to Union Forces on January 15, 1865, with the remainder of General Hoke’s troops stationed just 3 miles south on the Federal Point Road as the only line of defense for the city of Wilmington. On February 20, 1865, Hoke entrenched 900 troops–consisting almost entirely of men from North Carolina–across Forks Road to stop the advance of Union forces, according to the Department of Cultural Resources.
Fighting broke out at 3 p.m. with about 1,600 soldiers of United States Colored Troops (USCT) holding the Union’s front line, and despite consistent advances throughout the day, Confederate troops were able to hold their position. The battle continued for the another day with the Union’s 1, 5, and 27 divisions suffering heavy casualties until the morning of February 22, 1865, when General Hoke finally relinquished his position and retreated toward Richmond, according to the Department of Cultural Resources.
For their service during the Battle of Forks Road, three members of the USCT were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award a United States soldier can receive.
USCT re-enactors were in attendance at Friday’s ceremony.
“It’s important to note that every war that this country has engaged – including the fight to become a country – African Americans have not only been there, but have been the epitome of gallantry and have been more than distinguished in the service, even when fighting for rights and freedoms that they themselves did not enjoy,” Todd McFadden, a member of the commission and professor of African American Studies at UNCW, said.
To learn more about the Battle of Forks Road, take a tour of the exhibit at the Cameron Art Museum or visit the battle’s official website.