By Scott Graber
It is Sunday, early, and I’m in the coffee-scented, masked-mandated, frequently sanitized lobby of the Ballast Hotel in downtown Wilmington, NC. A few sleepy-eyed guests have staggered to the coffee and bagel bar, but otherwise the lobby is empty.
Soon the restless American public will be released from their lockdown, from their isolation, and America’s domestic hotels will fill up with those wanting to resume their Constitutionally protected pursuit of happiness.
Yesterday we were in Southport, N.C. — a collection of neat, two-storied, wood-framed houses situated at the confluence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. A modest, human-scaled place where young men and women once caught, headed or packed-out shrimp before a 24-hour ride to the Fulton Fish Market. And Southport, like Port Royal, S.C., had its own rendezvous with history. That role connected with re-supply of the beleaguered, foundering Confederacy.
In 1864, Wilmington (just 10 miles up river from Southport) was the last operational port held by the rebels. Savannah and Charleston were blockaded; Port Royal was captured; but the Whitworth Cannon at Fort Fisher (across the Cape Fear River from Southport) kept the blockade runners running and the Confederacy in the import-export business.
Abraham Lincoln was not happy about Fort Fisher.
One of the soldiers stationed at Fort Fisher was John Emsley Riddick — a boy of 17 years who had just joined the North Carolina Junior Reserves. These 15- to 17-year-old teenagers were necessary because in 1864, the South was running out of combat capable men. In fact, the Confederate Congress in Richmond was debating whether or not to call slaves into military service.
While this debate raged in Richmond, 500 teenagers manned the 60-foot high, man-made sand dunes at Fort Fisher. They were there because Lincoln had sent General Benjamin Butler, along with 68 warships and 8,000 troops, to Beaufort, N.C. with the objective of putting Fort Fisher out of business.
Now I knew going in that my great grandfather had been at Fort Fisher. And so I was disappointed when told, by a guide in the museum, that the Junior Reserves had mostly done guard duty just South of Wilmington.
“They weren’t actually at the Fort,” he said as we looked through the roster. He went on to say that the boys didn’t see much action.
As we left the museum and gift shop complex, I must admit I fell into an uncharacteristic funk.
“Let’s walk over to the ocean. Maybe walk the beach,” my wife said in an effort to lift my spirits.
“OK,” I replied, “But then let’s find an open-air bar and a Blue Moon, Belgian-styled beer with an orange slice. And, you know, a fish taco would also be nice.”
It was there, as I wandered among several old, now-diminished, beach-side parapets, that I found the marker. It was faded by the sun but said the Junior Reserves initially “huddled together like so many sheep.”
But then a Confederate midshipman, one Clarence Cary, gave the boys a pep talk which was followed by some oath-swearing by a Colonel Tansil. This combination got the Reserves onto the parapets where they “kept up a fusillade until the Federals retired.”
“Disease constituted a major problem for the Reserves, especially those from the western and central counties. Rations consisted of black sorghum soup, a pint of “husky meal” every other day and one-third pound of bacon.
“Colonel Charles Broadfoot disclosed that the youths lacked shoes, underclothing, knapsacks and cooking utensils,” (See “Grinding up the Seed Corn of the Confederacy” by Jordan Pearce, East Carolina University)
On March 19, 1865, the Junior Reserves found themselves at Bentonville, N.C. It was at Bentonville where the Reserves, now attached to Lt. General Hoke’s Division, participated in the last major battle of the war. And according to Hoke they stood their ground and “repulsed every charge that was made upon them with very meager and rapidly thrown up breastworks.”
My great-grandfather died — a natural death — many years before I was born and left no letters or journals describing his time at Fort Fisher. I really don’t know if he fought with Hoke at Bentonville.
But I did live with his daughter, Minnie Riddick Teachey, for a year when I was 17. She told me stories. I want to believe her resolve, curiosity and sense of humor were gifts from her father. I want to believe she gave me a glimpse of this man.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.