'Glory at Wilmington' Tells How Black Troops Led a Union Victory

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It was nowhere near as big as Gettysburg or Shiloh, and fewer soldiers were involved than at the Battle of Bentonville or the fall of Fort Fisher.

Yet the Battle of Forks Road (sometimes identified as "Jumpin' Run," apparently after the nearby Jumping Run Creek) is a significant moment in the North Carolina's Civil War history.

First, it marked the Confederacy's last stand before Wilmington. When Gen. Robert F. Hoke's Confederates pulled out of their earthworks before dawn on Feb. 22, 1865, it was all over. Later in the day, on George Washington's birthday, Gen. Alfred Terry would ride triumphantly into the Port City at the head of a Union column.

Bringing up the rear in that parade were two brigades of "U.S. Colored Troops" -- some 3,300 African-American volunteers. Many had been slaves, two years or less before enlisting, and many were from Wilmington and the surrounding area.

As historian Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. argues in "Glory at Wilmington," the Battle of Forks Road was their victory, since those two brigades had borne the brunt of the assault on the Confederate trenches, and they had suffered the most casualties. Their valor was beyond question; at least two Medal of Honor winners marched in the ranks.

Fonvielle told this story at length in his massive 1997 book, "The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope." "Glory at Wilmington" is a shorter, popular digest aimed for general readers who may not be hardcore Civil War students. Issued by N.C. Starburst Press, an imprint of Daniel Ray Norris' SlapDash Publishing, the little volume is handsomely put together, with plenty of maps and lively period illustrations. (The browning of the margins to provide a fake patina of age was a bit much.)

Fonvielle, a Wilmington native who taught at UNCW for 22 years and who once headed the Blockade Runner Museum, knows how to address the ordinary reader.

He provides the human touch along with the strategic and geopolitical significance.

If, for example, you ever doubted the Great Unpleasantness was a war of brother against brother, Fonvielle offers the case of Jacob and Lewis Horne, who grew up not far from modern-day Monkey Junction. As Lewis, with the Wilmington Horse Artillery, was withdrawing north, he rushed to tell his mother goodbye. The next day, Jacob, a Union scout with Gen. Terry's forces, detoured to visit his mother as well.

Fonvielle also briefly covers efforts to preserve the memory of Forks Road, which led to the engagement's inclusion on North Carolina's "Civil War Trails" and the preservation of many of the surviving earthworks on the grounds of what is now the Cameron Art Museum.

He spreads credit to others, including Robert E. "Doc" Treadwell, Paul Laird, Larry K. Neal and Michael Mullins. The book is dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Fred Johnson, a Korean War veteran and Civil War re-enactor who participated in many Forks Road anniversary programs and who was instrumental in obtaining the state historical marker honoring black Forks Road veterans buried in the Wilmington National Cemetery.

The title, of course, evokes the memory of "Glory," the 1989 historical film about the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteers in the Civil War. It's an apt comparison, with one exception: In the great battle at Fort Wagner, the 54th was thrown back with heavy losses.

At Forks Road, the "Colored Troops" won.

This article is written by Ben Steelman from Star-News, Wilmington, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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