A Short History of Fort Caswell
The North Carolina Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell is located on Oak Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River (from 1526 until 1662 the river was recorded on the maps as the River Jordan). It is bounded on the south by the Atlantic Ocean and on the north by the Elizabeth River.
The original fortification, much of which still stands, is the brick structure near the end of the island, overlooking the mouth of the Cape Fear River. This part of Fort Caswell was under construction from 1826 until 1836. The remainder of the fort, seven long cement batteries, along with barracks and officer’s quarters, a hospital/morgue, bakery, horse barn, firehouse & prison, were built around the turn of the century.
This area was an important settlement and attracted everyone from international travelers to pirates. Smith Island, now named Bald Head which forms the cape, was once one of the main pirates’ refuges, as was Smithville, now named Southport, and, of course, Oak Island. Notorious pirates, Steed Bonnett, Richard Worley, Mary Ann Blithe, and Blackbeard (Edward Teach) frequented these waters, hiding out in the bays.
Because of the lack of adequate defenses in this area, in 1825 Congress authorized the construction of a fort on Oak Island. The fort was an outstanding engineering accomplishment, one of the strongest in the world. It was a pentagonal structure with a two-story citadel and surrounded by a dry moat and a wet moat. It was named in 1833 for the first Governor of NC, elected by the General Assembly, and Revolutionary hero, Richard Caswell.
During the Civil War, 1861-1865, many soldiers died here from yellow fever, small pox, and other diseases. However, there was never a life lost to enemy fire at Ft. Caswell, even though the fort changed hands four times during the War.
Fort Caswell remained in ruins after the War Between the States. It was not until April 14, 1896, when the U.S. began to be more involved in world affairs, that money was appropriated to reconstruct the fort. By 1916 Fort Caswell was again one of the most important military posts on the East Coast. It was the Headquarters of the Cape Fear Coastal Defenses and was manned by three companies of Coast Artillery Corps under the command of Col. Charles A. Bennett. The armament consisted of mortars, direct and rapid-fire guns and a mine defense. The fort was used as an Army training camp in World War I.
After World War I, the world was thought to be at peace for good and in 1923 the Coast Artillery abandoned Fort Caswell. One reason for its abandonment was its isolation. Until 1928, there was no road to Oak Island. The only means of approach was by water.
During World War II, Fort Caswell served as an army base and submarine lookout post. Once more, the fort helped protect the North Carolina coast and the port of Wilmington during a military crisis.
Then, on January 31, 1946, Fort Caswell was designated as war surplus and assigned for disposal. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina purchased the 250 acre fort from the Government on Sept. 29, 1949 for $86,000. At that time, there were 77 buildings located on the property.
During the Persian Gulf War, again we played a vital part in the defense of our country. We housed 165 military personnel who worked at a nearby ocean terminal loading ships going to the Gulf. After the war, we housed military personnel while they unloaded ships. The same was true during the Haitian war.
Today, the N.C. Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell is a religious retreat and conference center and is opened year round, with the exception of Christmas through New Year's Day.
We are selling the reprinted version of our book, Fort Caswell in War and Peace. It is available now. Just email or call the Assembly for more information.