At the time of the Civil War, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina and its primary sea port. The city and the surrounding Cape Fear Region had a large naval stores market and a strong ship building industry. Once the war started Wilmington rapidly became synonymous with blockade running.
The primary reason for Wilmington's appeal to blockade runners was its geography. Located 25 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the city was out of range of direct attack by Northern forces. Additionally, the river had two entrances, Old Inlet (the present day mouth of the river) and New Inlet (south of Fort Fisher), separated by Smith's Island, now called Bald Head Island. Off of Bald Head Island sits Frying Pan Shoals, which extend fifteen miles out into the Atlantic. The distance between Old and New Inlets on the map was only five miles, but with the shoals, the actual distance needed to be patrolled by Union ships was closer to fifty miles. This distance forced the blockaders to be divided between the two inlets and out of supporting range of one another. (See Fig. 3 in Appendix)
Wilmington was also relatively close to St. George, Bermuda and Nassau in the Bahamas. Located 570 miles and 674 miles respectively from Wilmington, these two ports, both British possessions, were favored transfer points for goods destined for the Confederacy. Large, traditional, merchant ships arrived at these ports and transferred their cargo to blockade runners. From these two ports, the ships started the final leg of their journey to the Confederacy, through the Federal blockade. (See Fig. 1) Once the cargos reached Wilmington they were of little use unless they could be shipped to where they were needed.
Having reached Wilmington, supplies were then sent inland via the Cape Fear River or strategically important railroads. The Cape Fear River is navigable for another one hundred miles above Wilmington, all the way to Fayetteville, which contained an arsenal, several foundries, and cotton factories. Several key rail lines ran though the city and connected it to the rest of the Confederacy. The most important was the Wilmington-Weldon line, which ran from Wilmington to Weldon, N. C. and from there to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy. This rail line made Wilmington the main supply line for General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Secondary lines connecting to Charlestown, S. C. and points westward like Charlotte, N. C. enabled supplies stored at Wilmington to be shipped across the eastern part of the Confederacy, making the port city the "life line of the Confederacy."
MAP: Wartime Wilmington — Inner and Outer Defenses, from a Confederate map, 1863 (PDF)
MAP: Wartime Wilmington — Inner defenses, points of interest, and Federal works — from a Union map made after the fall of Wilmington, February 1865 (PDF)