FORT MACON - April 2012 marks the sesquicentennial of the battle of Fort Macon in the War Between the States.
One-hundred-and-fifty years ago the deep rumble of cannon fire shook and rattled the houses in Beaufort and Morehead City as just across the harbor Union and Confederate soldiers fought for possession of the fort. The story of that long-ago time is one of the most dramatic episodes in Carteret County history and is one part of the most tragic period in America history.
Fort Macon was originally built by the U.S. Army Engineer Department during 1826-34 to guard Beaufort Harbor as part of a chain of fortifications designed to protect the coast of the U.S. against foreign attack. Following its completion, soldiers occupied the fort only intermittently until the outbreak of the War Between the States, in April 1861.
Once the war began, local militia forces for the State of North Carolina and the Confederacy seized the fort on April 14, 1861. Throughout the remainder of 1861, Confederate soldiers armed the fort and prepared it for battle. However, despite several false alarms, no attack by Union forces was immediately forthcoming. For the time being, Confederates had to content themselves with the boredom of coastal garrison duty. But they could not know that even as they watched and waited during the fall of 1861, their enemy was planning an attack that would eventually become directed at them.
During the fall of 1861, Union Brigadier Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was putting together a large military amphibious operation to be directed against the coast of Eastern North Carolina. The operation, termed the Burnside Expedition, involved the use of about 12,000 Union soldiers who would be moved about on the rivers and sounds of Eastern North Carolina to points of attack aboard a fleet of transports, supported by Army and Navy gunboats. The objectives of the Burnside Expedition were: Roanoke Island, a Confederate base and key to the northeast sound region; New Bern, second largest city in the state; and Fort Macon. Capture of the latter would place the fine harbor of Beaufort in Union hands for use by both the Union Army and Navy.
On Jan. 11, 1862, Gen. Burnside’s fleet of almost 80 vessels left Hampton Roads bound for Hatteras Inlet. After a series of delays in getting the vessels through the inlet into Pamlico Sound, Gen. Burnside then attacked and captured Roanoke Island during Feb. 7-8, 1862. Thus his first objective was taken.
The Confederates, meanwhile, tried to marshal all available forces to save New Bern and, with the exception of Fort Macon’s garrison, withdrew all Confederate units from the surrounding area to that point. Despite this, New Bern fell to Gen. Burnside’s overwhelming forces after a hard-fought battle on March 14, 1862. At this point, Gen. Burnside then turned his attention to the third objective, Fort Macon, and on March 19 dispatched a portion of his Third Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Gen. John G. Parke, to effect its capture.
At Fort Macon, meanwhile, the fort’s garrison of five companies of North Carolina heavy artillery commanded by Col. Moses J. White stoically awaited their fate. The attack so long expected during the fall of 1861 was now about to fall upon them. The fall of New Bern left Col. White and his men as the only large Confederate force remaining on the North Carolina coast north of Wilmington, and they were now cut off from the rest of the state.
However, they were not about to sit idly by as the Union soldiers moved against them. Anticipating the Union advance from New Bern, Col. White had the railroad bridge over the Newport River burned and part of the railroad torn up in Morehead City. All his troops were withdrawn into the fort itself and all extraneous buildings around the fort that would hinder the fort’s field of fire were destroyed. Ammunition was readied and the fort itself was prepared for a bombardment.
Gen. Parke, meanwhile, advanced down the railroad toward Beaufort Harbor with the Eight Connecticut and Fourth Rhode Island Regiments and the Fifth Rhode Island Battalion. They soon came to the destroyed railroad bridge over the Newport River. The loss of the bridge would prove a serious setback that hindered Gen. Parke in bringing up supplies for his men and artillery to use against the fort. Leaving the Fifth Rhode Island Battalion to rebuild it with all speed, he pressed on with his remaining two regiments, occupying a settlement known as Carolina City (three miles west of Morehead City) on March 22, where he established his headquarters.
Morehead City was quietly taken by Gen. Parke’s forces on March 23 and a demand for surrender was conveyed over to Fort Macon. Col. White refused and Gen. Parke was now forced to begin siege operations against the fort. Beaufort was captured on March 26, followed by the landing on Shackleford Banks of Union sailors from the Union Navy Blockading Squadron off the inlet on March 29. The first landing of Gen. Parke’s troops on Bogue Banks was made on the same day. These forces, along with four gunboats of the Blockading Squadron off the inlet, now had Fort Macon totally surrounded.
On March 29, the railroad bridge over the Newport River was finally rebuilt by Union troops, enabling Gen. Parke to bring up a regular flow of supplies and also a siege train of heavy cannons that would be used to bombard Fort Macon into submission. Over the next two weeks, Gen. Parke transported 19 companies of infantry, two artillery companies, and three batteries of siege guns across Bogue Sound to Bogue Banks at Hoop Pole Creek, about five miles from the fort.
During April 11 and 12, advancing Union troops skirmished with the fort’s picket forces and drove them back into the fort. The main Union siege positions were then established in the sand dunes about 1,200 yards from the fort, with advanced rifle pits placed 300 yards closer to the fort. Work began on emplacements for the three batteries of siege guns intended to batter Fort Macon into surrender. A battery of four 8-inch siege mortars was established 1,280 yards from the fort, along with a battery of three 30-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons 1,480 yards from the fort and yet another battery of four 10-inch mortars 1,680 yards from the fort. On April 23, Gen. Burnside himself arrived in his flagship, the Alice Price, in the sound off Harkers Island to be present for the final stage of the siege operation. With him were two floating batteries intended to add their fire on Fort Macon from the northeast.
In Fort Macon, Col. White was unable to halt the progress of Union siege operations. One-third of the 403-man garrison was on the sick list, and sorties from the fort lacked the strength to drive Union troops from their entrenched position. Efforts to sweep the sand dunes with artillery fire from the fort’s cannons were likewise unsuccessful in disrupting the operations of the well-hidden Union troops because the fort lacked mortars. Since it had not been possible to acquire mortars for the fort before the siege, there was no means with regular cannons of achieving the high-arc, lobbing fire of a mortar in reaching behind sand dune and into trenches where the Union troops were working. Desperate Confederates attempted to fire some of the fort’s regular cannons at high elevations as a substitute for mortars, but the efforts were largely ineffective. Yet, despite a virtually hopeless situation, Col. White and the garrison refused two more demands to surrender offered by Gen. Burnside on April 23 and 24.
At 5:40 a.m. April 25, 1862, Union artillery batteries opened fire on Fort Macon, beginning an 11-hour bombardment. The fort returned fire at 6 a.m. Two hours later, the four gunboats of Cmdr. Samuel Lockwood’s Union Navy Blockading Squadron (Daylight, Chippewa, Gemsbok and State of Georgia) joined in the battle from the ocean, adding their guns to the fray. Confederate gunners concentrated on the ships and hit two of them with cannon fire, forcing Cmdr. Lockwood to order the ships to retire after being in action only an hour and a half. The fort had thus won the first round.
The other threat from the water, the two floating batteries with Gen. Burnside’s flagship near Harkers Island, never became a serious issue. Only one floating battery was able to get into action because of heavy winds and soon had to withdraw after firing only a few shots at long range.
During most of the morning, the fort’s fire was heavy, silencing the Union 10-inch mortar battery for a time. Union gunners, on the other hand, were missing the fort because it was obscured by the smoke from its guns. However, the turning point of the battle came when Union signal officers established in the Atlantic Hotel on the Beaufort waterfront saw the Union cannon fire missing the fort. They began signaling range corrections to the three batteries, bringing their fire on target. By noon, almost every shot from the three Union batteries then hit in or exploded over the fort. Confederate gunners were frequently driven to cover, causing the fort’s fire to slacken. The protective smoke cloud disappeared and the Union gunners could clearly see where they were shooting.
During the afternoon, the Union Parrott Rifle battery caused great destruction to the fort. The battle of Fort Macon was only the second time in history rifled siege guns had been used against a fort in combat. Rifled cannons represented the latest technological advance in artillery at the time, giving astounding power and long-ranged accuracy that totally eclipsed anything regular smoothbore cannons could ever hope to achieve. This power and accuracy surprised Union and Confederate gunners alike and allowed the Union gunners to both knock out the fort’s guns and also to breach the tiny strip of the fort’s walls exposed above its surrounding earth glacis.
Knowing there was a gunpowder magazine in the walls behind the fort’s southwest angle (remember, the fort had been a U.S. Government fort years before the Civil War), the Union gunners concentrated their fire on the wall at this point to endanger the magazine, which contained 10,000 pounds of gunpowder. By 4 p.m., the walls adjacent to the magazine were cracking from so many hits by the Parrott guns, threatening the entire fort with total annihilation. After holding a council with his officers, Col. White knew there was no choice but to surrender.
At about 4:20 p.m., the guns fell silent when a flag of truce was displayed from the fort. A suspension of hostilities was granted throughout the night until early on the morning of April 26, when Col. White met with Gen. Burnside and Gen. Parke to sign the terms of surrender for Fort Macon. Later, Union troops marched up from their trenches and formally took possession of the fort, lowering the Confederate flag at 10:10 a.m. Afterward, the Confederates were paroled and allowed to go home until exchanged. Once again, Fort Macon was in possession of the United States. Its fall gave the Union Army and Navy the use of Beaufort Harbor.
Casualties during the battle had been light: seven Confederates and one Union soldier killed, 18 Confederates and three Union soldiers wounded. Fort Macon had been badly damaged. Of 1,150 shots fired by the three Union batteries, 560 hit the fort. Seventeen guns were knocked out. The Union Army’s rifled cannons had won the day and demonstrated that the centuries-old era of using fixed fortifications of brick and stone for military defense had come to an end. Stout masonry walls were no longer able to withstand the new array of powerful rifled artillery being produced through the advances of weapons technology.
Over the months that followed, Union soldiers repaired the damage done to the fort and continued to use it for the rest of the war.
Today, the peaceful silent walls of Fort Macon give only a few clues as to the battle that once raged here 150 years ago. It is difficult to imagine this quiet place being rocked with explosions, fire, smoke and death. Yet these events did happen and the visitor is reminded that Fort Macon, after all, is a battlefield.
In commemoration of the struggle that took place here, Fort Macon State Park will stage a sesquicentennial observance of the battle and surrender of the fort on April 21-22 in tribute to the men of both sides who fought and died here. The public is invited to attend this event, which will be one of the largest sesquicentennial events in North Carolina. For more information, please contact the park at 726-3775, or the following websites: email@example.com, or www.ncparks.gov.
Paul Branch is a park ranger with the N.C. Parks and Recreation Department and the historian of Fort Macon.