WILMINGTON — Many daily routines have stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic only to start again in an altered state or at half capacity. Such is the case for visiting historic sites in North Carolina, like Fort Fisher in Kure Beach and the U.S.S. Battleship North Carolina moored across the river from Wilmington.
Fort Fisher, located at 1610 Ft. Fisher Blvd. South in Kure Beach, is free to visit. The gift shop has limited access and the indoor museum area, which has an audiovisual program of the fort’s history, is currently closed.
Outside, visitors can socially distance while conducting a self-guided tour along grounds of the fort, where soldiers from both sides of the Civil War set foot, as well as those who served in World War II. Along the outside trails, visitors can view multiple cannons, including a reconstruction of a massive 32-pounder seacoast gun at Shepherd’s Battery. As one winds their way around the grove of oak trees and the few earthwork mounds that remain due to erosion, they are rewarded with a scenic view of the Cape Fear River.
Fort Fisher was key to keeping the port of Wilmington open to Confederate blockade runners bringing supplies to the army inland. Two major battles were fought at Fort Fisher, one of which would help bring an end to the Civil War.
Early in the war, the Confederacy took control of the region near the mouth of the Cape Fear River and built the largest and most important earthwork fort in the South. Near the end of the war, the Wilmington supply line was the last open route for General Robert E. Lee’s troops that were fighting in northern Virginia. On Jan. 15, 1865, those supplies would be cut off after Union troops launched a large amphibious assault on Fort Fisher. Less than three and a half months later, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union armies, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
Fort Fisher was also used during WWII for anti-aircraft training operations associated with Camp Davis’s Anti-Aircraft Artillery Training Center up until 1944.
Like Fort Fisher, the U.S.S. Battleship North Carolina’s museum portion is closed, but the gift shop is open to visitors based on state reopening guidelines. Social distancing and face-covering notices are posted throughout the areas. The battleship has kept consistent hours, opening from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
Access to the lower decks is closed due to COVID-19, but the main and upper decks are open for self-guided tours. The gift shop takes only credit card payments. Hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations are found throughout the site and there is increased cleaning of high-touch public areas and restrooms.
Over 728 feet long, N.C. carried a crew compliment of 2,339. The battleship is outfitted with nine 16-inch 45 caliber guns, 20 5-inch caliber guns and 60 40mm guns. In addition, she once had a variety of .50 caliber and 1.10 guns, which were removed in 1942.
The name North Carolina has been used by five warships dating back over 200 years. The first, in 1820, was a 74-gun battleship that sailed for 50 years. The current U.S.S. North Carolina is a Virginia Class Submarine, SSN77, commissioned on May 8, 2008. The name has also been given to a 174-foot ironclad built by the Confederate Navy at the height of the Civil War.
In 1908, the North Carolina was a U.S. Navy armored cruiser with rigging that allowed a plane to take off from the deck — a first in naval aviation. By 1941, the United States had been drawn into WWII, and the U.S.S. North Carolina BB55 was authorized June 3, 1936 and finally commissioned on April 9, 1941. Radio commentator Walter Winchell called the BB55 “The Showboat” after the Broadway show.
The U.S.S. North Carolina was decommissioned on June 27, 1947; however, it was not until October of 1967 that she would finally come to rest in Wilmington.
While only being partially open, all state historic sites are currently displaying a banner on their websites placed there following Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd.
The banner’s link goes to “An Open Letter for These Times: Black Lives and Historic Sites,” written by Michelle Lanier, director of N.C. Division of State Historic Sites and Properties at the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Four “lessons” are included throughout the four-page letter, such as, “One of the greatest acts of racial violence is the erasure of a people through silence,” and “Progress is false comfort without the lifelong, daily vigilance against oppression in any and every form.”
“As the first African American director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, and a public humanities professional committed to dismantling racism, it is my daily call to seek more ways to achieve ‘True Inclusion.’ We are far from where we need to be,” Lanier writes.