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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Gwenyfar reflects on The Battle of Forks Road with Dr. Chris Fonvielle Jr.’s insightful book

Gwenyfar Rohlers looks at two brothers on two different sides of the Battle of Forks Road.

The Civil War famously is portrayed as the war that pitted “brother against brother.” In his monograph “Last Stand At Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road,” Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. details the story of two brothers from the Horne family who fought on opposite sides of the Civil War: Hosea Lewis Horne of the CSA and Jacob Horne, of the USA, both fought at the Battle of Forks Road.  Apparently, their family home was nearby at Sugar Loaf Hill and both stopped by to give their mom a hug as their respective regiments marched toward the battle. Can you even imagine how their mother must have felt? How helpless to watch her sons leave for war in the first place. Then to hold them once more and gaze upon their faces for a few brief moments before they march off again, knowing that one of their opponents that day will be their own brother? This isn’t a sibling fight in the yard to break up and send them both to time out to cool off and think about what they did. This is the real deal.

BROTHERS’ BATTLE: President USCT Living History Association Malcolm Beech with his friend as part of Cameron Art Museum’s video about The Battle of Forks Road. Image courtesy of CAM.

BROTHERS’ BATTLE: President USCT Living History Association Malcolm Beech with his friend as part of Cameron Art Museum’s video about The Battle of Forks Road. Image courtesy of CAM.

“Have you been out to the Cameron Art Museum? The Civil War Trail around the museum is for The Battle of Forks Road.”  It’s a question and statement I iterate weekly on the Literary Walking Tour when we get to the Battle of Forks Road and the victory of the US Colored Troops for the Union. Yet, I realized I really hadn’t spent any time out there myself.

Unlike many of the historic sites in the area I visited frequently as a child, the Battle of Forks Road Trail didn’t open until the early 2000s after St. John’s Museum of Art moved away from downtown. The trail and interpretation materials for it opened to the public in conjunction with the Cameron Art Museum. When Bruce Cameron endowed the museum with the land, he also agreed to open and interpret the Battle of Forks Road area. The land had been in the Cameron family since the mid 1870s, and the battle held a particular significance for Bruce Cameron: It was his great-great-grandmother who had received surprise visits from her two sons before the battle, and then stood on her porch and watched the smoke rising from the engagement. She must have wondered if she would see either of them again. And if one came back and the other didn’t…

Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. is a local treasure. Really, he is. His passion and advocacy for local history is infectious. His writing manages to blend academic demands with making his subjects actually interesting. (Anyone who has read academic writing understands what kind of rare accomplishment that can be.)  Armed with a copy of his monograph, “Last Stand at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road,” my trusty canine love light, Hilda, and I set out on a clear, crisp winter day down 17th Street to see what we could learn about this battleground that is less than a 5-minute drive from our home.

From the preface to Dr. Fonvielle’s book:

“Union and Confederate forces fought the Battle of Forks Road, February 20-21, 1865, for possession of Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was the Confederacy’s last major seaport and most important city by 1865. Union army and naval forces had severed the Confederacy’s lifeline of supplies from Europe when they captured Fort Fisher, the principal fortification at the mouth of the Cape Fear River that guarded Wilmington, in mid-January 1865. The Federals then turned their gun-sights on the city.”

Holy fuck! It reads like the opening to “Star Wars”!  Gun-sights? On the city? Put some John Williams music behind that, load a big gold font and we have a blockbuster on our hands.

Actually, part of what is so strange about visiting Forks Road’s site is it has become an eerily peaceful island of calm amid a sea of traffic and daily chaos.  What makes it famous, and therefore preservation worthy in the midst of development, is anything but calm and peaceful. It was the site of the last engagement to defend Wilmington from occupation and a significant victory of the US Colored Troops. To Hilda, it is a wooded park-like area with new sniffs and smells. She immediately picked up a scent and followed it while I wondered how we could have a shopping center with a movie theatre across a busy street on one side and a housing development on the other.

Yet, on the trail it felt like a step back in time. The basic pine forest scrub that typifies the area laid all around. Staring at the Earthworks, which looked like telephone poles stacked on top of each other, essentially to create something to hide behind, led me to two thoughts:

First, this is the precursor to the trenches we have seen so many pictures of from WWI.
Second, how terrifying this small pseudo wall was the only protection!

Hilda and I walked over, and I tried to imagine crouching behind it with a line of other people on my right, while the left hefted guns. The Earthworks came to mid-chest height on me; they didn’t give a great sense of cover or comfort. I tried to imagine shouldering a gun and aiming at an advancing army. It was not an image that fires my imagination or makes me feel powerful or excited; the sensation made me light-headed and faint. My hands went cold and I tried to imagine picking out a target through the gun smoke that must have filled the air, which would have made it hard to see or take a deep breath.

The bitter cold in February meant waking from sleeping on the frigid ground, to having nothing but war-time rations for breakfast, topped off with a soggy “freeze into your bones” kind of wind whipping around. These guys didn’t have a nice warm art museum to walk into for a warm up and a latte.

I tried to imagine the Horne brothers and if they looked for each other. Did they even allow themselves to think about the other one? Or did they try to block it out?

I am an only child. The closest I have to loving someone as a dependent (younger sibling or child) are my dogs. I can only imagine these emotions. Standing at the Earthworks with Hilda, the thought of aiming a gun at her with intent to kill crippled  me. Instead, I dropped to the ground to hug her. She licked my face before seeing a squirrel and yipping in excitement. I was so immersed in the moment, I found myself wondering if the men that day had any meat with their meals? Or would it have been a waste of ammunition?

Looking around, I remembered part of the significance of the Battle of Forks Road wasn’t just the Camerons and their connection. The reason we talk about it on the walking tour is because of the significance of the victory for the US Colored Troops. Again, from Dr. Fonvielle’s book:

“The principal combatants for the Union at the Battle of Forks Road were US Colored Troops. Often the target of prejudice, the African-American soldiers proved to be as good warriors as any of their white comrades. They not only bore the brunt of the fighting at the Battle of Forks Road, but also suffered more than 50 percent of all Union casualties in the Wilmington Campaign, after the fall of Fort Fisher. It was mostly their blood that stained the white sands of the battlefield at Forks Road.”

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