Battle of Fort Macon

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Battle of Fort Macon

Other Names: None

Location: Carteret County

Campaign: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (February-June 1862)

Date(s): March 23-April 26, 1862

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. John G. Parke [US]; Lt. Col. Moses J. White [CS]

Forces Engaged: Parke’s Division of Department of North Carolina, 3rd Division [US]; Fort Macon Garrison [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 490 total (US 10; CS 480)

Fort Macon, NC
Fort Macon Photo.jpg
Civil War Battle of Fort Macon

Result(s): Union victory

Description: In late March, Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s army advanced on Fort Macon, a third system casemated masonry fort that commanded the channel to Beaufort, 35 miles southeast of New Berne. The Union force invested the fort with siege works and, on April 26, opened an accurate fire on the fort, which soon breached the masonry walls. Within a few hours the fort’s scarp began to collapse, and the Confederates hoisted a white flag. This action demonstrated the inadequacy of masonry forts against large-bore, rifled artillery.

Previously, the Union forces had successfully demonstrated its Anaconda Plan by blockading the North Carolina coast, securing the barrier islands and outer banks, and capturing the vital and strategic locations of Hatteras Inlet Batteries, Roanoke Island, and New Bern. The fall of Fort Macon, consequently, was a continuation of the Federal demonstration to strengthen its blockade and secure the North Carolina coast.

Battle of Fort Macon: A History

Battle of Fort Macon Civil War Map
North Carolina Fort Macon Civil War Map.gif
Map of North Carolina Civil War Battlefields

Recommended Reading:  Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.

Satellite View of Fort Macon from One Mile
Fort Macon.jpg
Courtesy Google Earth

Fort Macon Interior
Battle of Fort Macon Civil War.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

The "Battle of Fort Macon," or the "Siege of Fort Macon," took place from 23 March to 26 April 1862, on the Outer Banks of Carteret County, North Carolina. It was part of Union Army General Ambrose E. Burnside's North Carolina expedition during the American Civil War. (See Burnside's North Carolina Expedition.)

 

In late March, Major General Burnside’s army advanced on Fort Macon, a casemated masonry fort that commanded the channel to Beaufort, 35 miles southeast of New Bern. The Union force invested the fort with siege works and, on April 26, opened an accurate fire on the fort, soon breaching the masonry walls. Within a few hours the fort's scarp began to collapse, and in late afternoon the Confederate commander, Colonel Moses J. White, ordered the raising of a white flag. Burnside's terms of surrender were accepted, and the Federal troops took possession of the fort the next morning.

Fort Macon

Fort Macon was one of a system of coastal forts that were built around the borders of the still-young United States following the War of 1812. It was built on the eastern end of Bogue Bank, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and was intended to defend the entrance to the ports of Beaufort and Morehead City. Begun in 1826, it was completed and received its first garrison in 1834. As it was intended for defense against attacking enemy naval forces, it was built of masonry. Gunfire from a rolling ship's deck was not accurate enough at that time to be able to break down brick and stone walls. Although the advent of rifled artillery would soon make its walls vulnerable, no alterations were made in the fort. It was a generation out of date when the Civil War came.

Model of Fort Macon
Model of Fort Macon.jpg
(North Carolina)

Fort Macon, North Carolina
Battle of Fort Macon Civil War History.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

After the first spate of enthusiasm, the fort was allowed to deteriorate. The woodwork rotted, the ironwork rusted, and gun carriages were allowed to decay. The garrison was steadily reduced in size, until by the time of the beginning of the Civil War the care of the fort was entrusted to a single sergeant. When the fort was taken over by North Carolina troops under Captain Joseph Pender on 14 April (before the state had seceded from the Union), only four guns were mounted. The local military authorities immediately set about improving the armament. A total of 56 pieces (5 8-inch and 2 10-inch columbiads, 19 24-pounders, 32 32-pounders, and 6 field guns) were mounted, but they had ammunition for only three days of action.

 

At the time of the siege, the garrison of the fort numbered about 430 officers and men, commanded by Colonel Moses J. White. Sickness reduced this number by about a third. Despite the poor diet and other living conditions that they suffered, only one man died. Morale among the men was generally not good, as they were cut off from their families, and White was unpopular, both with his men and with the people of Beaufort. A few men deserted during the siege.

 

When battle came, the fort was outdated, inadequately armed, poorly supplied, and intended for a different form of combat than that it faced. These deficiencies are adequate to explain why the fort succumbed so readily at the first blow.

Satellite Photograph of Fort Macon, North Carolina
Fort Macon.jpg
(Location of Fort Macon, NC)

Civil War Fort Macon
Civil War Fort Macon.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Shortly after the Union forces had taken possession of Hatteras Island, during the Blockade of the Carolina Coast, on the Outer Banks, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside developed a plan to expand Federal control of eastern North Carolina by a combined Army-Navy expedition. His plan was approved by General-in-Chief George B. McClellan and the War Department. He was given authority to recruit and organize a division, to be known as the Coast Division, which would work with the Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to take control of the North Carolina Sounds and their adjacent cities. The expedition that came to be known by his name got under way in January 1862, and in early February had made its first conquest, Roanoke Island. Following that, the combined forces went on to other victories at Elizabeth City and New Bern (often spelled New Berne at the time). Most of the Confederate Army was forced away from the coast as far inland as Kinston by these battles. The major exception was the garrison of Fort Macon.

So long as Fort Macon remained in Confederate possession, Burnside (recently promoted to rank of major general) could not use the ports at Beaufort and Morehead City, so immediately following the capture of New Bern on 14 March, he ordered Brigadier General John G. Parke, commander of his Third Brigade, to reduce the fort. Parke began by seizing the towns along the inner shore: Carolina City on 21 March, Morehead City on 22 March, Newport on 23 March, and finally Beaufort on 25 March. Communications between the garrison and other Confederate forces were thereby severed. Parke also had to repair a railroad bridge at Newport, burned by the retreating Confederates following the loss of New Bern; the railroad was needed for the transport of his siege artillery.

Model of Fort Macon
Model of Fort Macon NC.jpg
(North Carolina)

Fort Macon, NC
Fort Macon, NC.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Siege of Fort Macon

On 23 March, General Parke sent a message from his headquarters at Carolina City to Colonel White, demanding the surrender of the fort. He offered to release the men on parole if the fort was turned over intact. White replied tersely, "I have the honor to decline evacuating Fort Macon." The siege can be regarded as starting with this exchange.

 

The investment of the fort was not yet complete, but that was accomplished on 29 March, when a company from Parke's brigade crossed the sound and landed unopposed on Bogue Bank. The Confederate infantry that would have defended against the landing, the 26th North Carolina, had been included in the retreat following the Battle of New Bern. Siege artillery followed, and Parke set up four batteries that would bear on the fort: four 8-inch (20.3 cm) mortars at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters); four 10-inch (25.4 cm) mortars at a range of 1600 yards (1460 meters); three 30-pounder (13.6 kg) rifled Parrotts at a range of 1300 yards (1190 meters); and a 12-pounder (5.4 kg) boat howitzer at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters). The batteries were moved up at night and remained hidden behind sand dunes until they were ready to open fire. The defenders were aware of these activities, but could not waste ammunition by firing at unseen targets. Patrols sent out from the fort to harass the Union soldiers were driven back, usually without loss. On 17 April, General Burnside could state in his report to the War Department, "I hope to reduce the fort within ten days." His prediction proved to be remarkably accurate.

Aerial Photograph of Fort Macon, North Carolina
Fort Macon Civil War Photo.jpg
(Civil War on the N.C. Coast)

Inside Fort Macon
Inside Fort Macon.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Preparations were completed by 23 April, and on that day General Burnside communicated directly with Colonel White and repeated his demand for surrender, again offering to release the prisoners on parole. Colonel White once more refused, so Burnside on 24 March ordered General Parke to begin the bombardment as soon as possible. One of his batteries was not ready to open fire, and as it was late in the day, Parke decided to delay the start until the next morning.

 

The bombardment began at dawn on 25 April. At first, the gunners in the fort manned their pieces and replied vigorously, but they were unable to inflict damage on the Federal guns hiding behind sand dunes.

 

The defenders were also distracted by the appearance of four vessels from the Blockading Squadron: the steamers USS Daylight, State of Georgia, and Chippewa, and the bark Gemsbok. Until this time, the Navy had not been involved with the siege, but Commander Samuel Lockwood responded to the sound of gunfire and brought his section of the fleet into action. The weather was not good for a naval bombardment, however; a strong wind created waves that caused the vessels to rock badly enough to disrupt their aim, and after about an hour, the fleet withdrew. The Navy also supplied a pair of floating batteries to the attack, but again the waves interfered, and only one of them got into action. It is not certain whether the fort sustained any hits from the ships. Their return fire was accurate enough to hit two vessels, doing little damage and slightly wounding only one man.

Satellite View of Fort Macon from 1000 Feet
Battle of Fort Macon.jpg
Courtesy Google Earth

The initial fire from the mortars on shore was inaccurate, but a Signal Corps officer in Beaufort, Lieutenant William J. Andrews, acting on his own responsibility, was able to deliver messages to the battery commanders telling them how to adjust their range. After noon, virtually all shots were on target. Nineteen guns were dismounted. The walls of the fort began to crumble under the continued pounding, and in mid-afternoon Colonel White began to fear that the magazine would be breached. At 1630, he decided that the fort could no longer hold out, so he ordered that a white flag be raised. Firing on both sides then ceased.

 

Troops Engaged

Union: 4th and 5th R.I. Inf.; 9th N.J. Inf.; 8th Conn. Inf.; 1st U.S. Art. (1 co.); 3rd N.Y. Art. (1 co.). General John G. Parke commanding.

Confederate: 10th N.C. Regt. (Art. 4 cos.); 20th N.C. Regt. (Art. 1 co.). Colonel Moses J. White commanding.

Fort Macon, North Carolina, Map
Fort Macon Map.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Surrender

Colonel White met with General Parke to discuss terms, and Parke at first demanded unconditional surrender. White asked him for more favorable conditions, and referred to the terms that General Burnside had offered on 23 March. Parke did not concede, but agreed not to renew the bombardment until he could consult with Burnside. Burnside reasoned that White could hold out at least one more day, and further action would only cause more casualties and greater damage to the fort. He therefore agreed to adhere to his first terms. The men in the fort were allowed to give their paroles, meaning that they would not take up arms against the United States until properly exchanged. They then were permitted to return to their homes, taking with them their personal property. Shortly after dawn on 26 April, the Confederate flag was lowered, the defenders marched out, and Union soldiers of the 5th Rhode Island marched in.

Fort Macon, North Carolina
Fort Macon North Carolina Civil War.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

The battle had been relatively bloodless, at least by standards that soon would be common in the Civil War. On the Union side, only one man was killed, and two soldiers and one seaman were wounded. On the Confederate side, seven were killed outright, two died of wounds, and sixteen were wounded.

 

Aftermath

Although the Burnside Expedition had gained notable success at little cost in North Carolina, little was done to exploit it. Wilmington, for example, would seem to have been vulnerable, but it was not attacked until the final days of the war. Burnside was recalled shortly after the victory at Fort Macon, to assist General George B. McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. No further major offensive actions took place, and North Carolina became a backwater for most of the rest of the war.

(References listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Seacoast Fortifications of the United States: An Introductory History. Reader’s Review: In the thirty years since this book was published, one always hoped another would equal or surpass it. None has, or perhaps ever will. It is a marvelous history of the Forts along the American Seacoast, both Atlantic and Pacific, and even the Philippines. …Any Fort enthusiast must read this book. The author captures so much information, so many views, so much perspective in so few pages, the book is breathtaking. It is easily the finest book on its chosen subject, which is why it never goes out of print. “If forts interest you, read it, period.” Continued below...

The photographs from the author's collection, the army's files, the National Archives, etc., make it an invaluable edition. But the text, the clear delineation of the periods of fort building since 1794 in the US, and the differentiation of the periods, are so worth while. Ray manages to be both terse, and pithy. It is a great tribute to any author to say that. “This is a MUST read for anyone interested in the subject, even one only interested in their own local Fort, and how it relates to the defense plans of the United States when it was built.” “[T]here is NO better book to read on the subject.”

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Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.

 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War on the Outer Banks: A History of the Late Rebellion Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck With Comments on Prewar Conditions and an Account of (251 pages). Description: The ports at Beaufort, Wilmington, New Bern and Ocracoke, part of the Outer Banks (a chain of barrier islands that sweeps down the North Carolina coast from the Virginia Capes to Oregon Inlet), were strategically vital for the import of war materiel and the export of cash producing crops. Continued below...

From official records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal journals of the soldiers, and many unpublished manuscripts and memoirs, this is a full accounting of the Civil War along the North Carolina coast.
 

Recommended Reading: American Civil War Fortifications (1): Coastal brick and stone forts (Fortress). Description: The 50 years before the American Civil War saw a boom in the construction of coastal forts in the United States of America. These stone and brick forts stretched from New England to the Florida Keys, and as far as the Mississippi River. At the start of the war some were located in the secessionist states, and many fell into Confederate hands. Continued below...

Although a handful of key sites remained in Union hands throughout the war, the remainder had to be won back through bombardment or assault. This book examines the design, construction and operational history of those fortifications, such as Fort Sumter, Fort Morgan and Fort Pulaski, which played a crucial part in the course of the Civil War.
 

Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Continued below...

Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.

References: Browning, Robert M. Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Univ. of Alabama, 1993; Campbell, R. Thomas, Storm over Carolina: the Confederate Navy's struggle for eastern North Carolina. Cumberland House, 2005; Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buel, Battles and leaders of the Civil War. Century, 1887, 1888; reprint ed., Castle, n.d; Burnside, Ambrose E., "The Burnside Expedition," pp. 660–669; Hawkins, Rush C., "Early coast operations in North Carolina," pp. 652–654; Trotter, William R., Ironclads and columbiads: the coast. Joseph F. Blair, 1989; Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I: 27 volumes. Series II: 3 volumes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922; A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series I: 53 volumes. Series II: 8 volumes. Series III: 5 volumes. Series IV: 4 volumes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1886-1901; Microsoft Virtual Earth (3D) Map; Google Earth Maps; National Park Service; Autobiography of General Winfield Scott, New York. 1864.

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