I know some of you are ready to be done with my writing about the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. I assure you that the Union and the Confederacy were more than ready for the war to be over by the end of 1864. General Grant and the Army of the Potomac were entrenched around Petersburg, Virginia, in the midst of what would end up as a nine-month siege. General Sherman had finished his “March to the Sea,” reaching Savannah, Georgia. The key ports of supply for the Confederate States had been cut off one by one by the Union. The only one left was up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, North Carolina, protected by Fort Fisher.
Fort Fisher was constructed at the start of the Civil War to protect the Cape Fear River and Wilmington, North Carolina from the Union Navy. The river provided access for blockade runners, which brought vital supplies to the Confederacy. Unlike many forts, Fort Fisher was never designed to be architecturally impressive. It was pragmatically built of dirt, to absorb artillery fire. Finally, in December, 1864, the Union Army- an expeditionary force from the Army of the James- and Navy- a squadron commanded by Admiral David Porter- attacked the fort. The first attack, with the Army commanded by General Benjamin Butler, failed, but in January, 1865, now commanded by General Alfred Terry, they tried again. 56 Union ships bombarded the fort, and 8000 troops, some from the 169th NY Infantry Regiment, were landed. The 169th NY Infantry Regiment was the final regiment recruited in Rensselaer County. The fort surrendered at night on January 15. About a dozen Union soldiers received the Medal of Honor for valor in the battle, including one man from Troy. The closure of the Cape Fear River sealed the fate of the Confederacy. It was now just a matter of time.
On January 16, the fort’s ammunition magazine exploded, killing 200 men on both sides. Controversy has swirled around the explosion ever since, with the Union saying that the Confederates booby-trapped the magazine and the Confederates saying the carousing Union victors were careless. A diligent researcher named Steve Wiezbicki feels it was deliberately exploded by the Confederates
Four members of a Pittstown family were in Company C of the 169th NY Infantry at Fort Fisher: Herman L. Martinett, age 28, his brother John S., age 34, his brother Charles F, age 40, and Charles’ son Frederick, age 18. Thanks to Mr Wiezbicki, I know that Frederick was killed in the explosion of the ammunition magazine. In addition a local blacksmith named John Bradley was in Company D of the 169th. He lived in Stillwater after the war, where he died in 1913.
I can claim Herman Martinett for Schaghticoke as he lived in the village at the end of his life and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery. There were actually four Martinett brothers, who moved to Pittstown from Pennsylvania about 1850. They were in the axe business. Herman and his oldest brother, Charles, enlisted in the 169th when it formed at the end of 1862. Herman recruited his other brother, John, and nephew, Frederick, on a trip home in January 1864. After the war, Herman came back home. He and his family moved from Valley Falls to the village of Schaghticoke in 1900. He was still working as an axe polisher at the time of his death in 1903. His second wife, Mary survived until 1938.
My husband and I happened upon Fort Fisher, trying a different route from home to Savannah, Georgia, knowing its importance in the war but not its connection to Rensselaer County. The little town on the peninsula just north of the fort is Kure Beach. We enjoyed touring the fort, a North Carolina Historic Site, and its wonderful museum. Much of Fort Fisher has been washed away by the tides over the years, but the museum has a great collection of items found through underwater archeology, from the fort and from sunken blockade runners. We were delighted to find a case in the museum featuring the photo of a Troy man, William Freeman, and the Medal of Honor he won in the battle. We recommend a trip to Kure Beach, North Carolina- a beautiful and quiet town, with both Fort Fisher and a North Carolina State Aquarium plus a gorgeous beach.
The sources of information for this column include the NYS and US census, NYS Civil War records, Civil War pension index, and records of Elmwood Cemetery, plus the newsletter about the 169th by Steve Wiezbicki, and online articles about Fort Fisher.