In the century after the war, the area grew up in trees and brush and later became a preferred place for young boys in the area to play war. Although it was known to be the site of Fort Branch, there was little interest in any official recognition.
In the 1930s, John Hines, a local game warden with information from relatives and others who served in the war, excavated part of the fort. Following directions from the relatives he located a well and uncovered a large quantity of ammunition and artifacts including a small brass cannon. Although he kept most of the artifacts, some were placed on display at the office of the Enterprise Publishing Company, publishers of a local newspaper.
Interest in the fort grew during the celebration of the Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965. The advent of inexpensive metal detectors and a good market for war artifacts converged to cause problems at the fort. In August, 1971, a group of U.S. Marines (on an unofficial mission) equipped with rapelling rope, underwater lights, shovels, and a metal detector uncovered numerous shells and other artifacts. Photos of their exploits accompanied a feature article in the camp newspaper.
New attention to the site's treasures was bound to bring problems. The following summer a relative of one of the marines, along with four men from Alabama (including a professional diver), conducted an underwater search for guns at the same site. They located three cannons and some other artifacts, which they raised onto a rented salvage barge. On a July morning in 1972, a Hamilton resident informed the Winslows that some men were pulling cannons from the river. The Winslows and others knew that they did not want Martin County's history taken but, was a law being broken? They quickly consulted Superior Court Judge Elbert S. Peel, Jr. He determined that North Carolina's antiquities law was being violated and District Attorney William Griffin drew the necessary papers to stop the action. By the time the salvagers secured the guns on a truck at the landing in Hamilton, Sheriff Raymond Rawls was there to serve the freshly drawn papers. The case became a test for North Carolina's antiquities law and took two years to resolve. Officially, the guns belong to the State of North Carolina with the Department of Archives and History being the custodian. Many of the guns and artifacts are now on permanent loan to the Fort Branch Historical Society and displayed at the site.
Several factors converged to make a successful start at restoring the fort: the excitement of almost losing what so few were even aware that we had, the celebration of the Civil War Centennial, and the commitment of dedicated county residents to begin the fortâ€™s restoration. The Fort Branch Historical Society was chartered with Dr. James H. McCallum serving as its first chairman. A $1,000 grant from the N.C. Confederate Centennial Commission matched by local donations helped the group begin putting the site in order.
The Fort Branch site is privately owned by the Winslow family. Site maintenance, continuing projects and living history programs are carried out by the non-profit Fort Branch Historical Society. and the 1st NC Volunteers/11th Regiment NC Troops. The site is recognized by the state of North Carolina as a regional historic site and is currently the only Martin County point of interest noted on the official DOT map of the state.
Volunteers continue work to restore the site to its original appearance. Seven of the twelve original cannons as well as many other artifacts are on display at the site. Fort Branch is believed to be the only earthwork fortification in the South to have its original artillery in place.
The winter headquarters of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers is located just outside the Fort proper and is open to the public. Battle re-enactments and living history programs are held each year in November and attract thousands of spectators. A special Civil War Christmas program is held each year, as well.
Donations of time and money are vital to the goal of restoration. You can help by sending contributions (Donations are tax deductible.) to:
Fort Branch Historical Society,
PO Box 355
Hamilton, NC 27840.
To volunteer your time, write to the same address or email a note to:
Fort Branch Civil War Site
NC Hwy 125/903 at 2883 Fort Branch Road - PO Box 355, Hamilton, North Carolina 27840
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