Battle of Fort Macon, North Carolina

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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)

Result(s): Union victory

Fort Macon (Present-day)
Fort Macon North Carolina.jpg
Fort Macon, North Carolina

Description: Early in 1862, Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside swept through eastern North Carolina, and part of Burnside's command under Brig. Gen. John G. Parke was sent to capture Fort Macon. Parke's men captured Morehead City and Beaufort without resistance, then landed on Bogue Banks during March and April to fight to gain Fort Macon. Col. Moses J. White and 402 North Carolina Confederates in the fort refused to surrender even though the fort was hopelessly surrounded. On April 25, 1862, Parke's Union forces bombarded the fort with heavy siege guns for 11 hours, aided by the fire of four Union gunboats in the ocean offshore and floating batteries in the sound to the east.

While the fort easily repulsed the Union gunboat attack, the Union land batteries, utilizing new rifled cannons, hit the fort 560 times. There was such extensive damage that Col. White was forced to surrender the following morning, April 26, with the fort's Confederate garrison being paroled as prisoners of war. Union casualties were one in killed and the Confederates suffered eight in killed and mortally wounded. This battle was the second time in history new rifled cannons were used against a fort, the fist being the successful Union assault on Fort Pulaski, and the siege at Fort Macon demonstrated the obsolescence of such fortifications as a way of defense. The Union held Fort Macon for the remainder of the war, while Beaufort Harbor served as an important coaling and repair station for its navy.

Civil War and Fort Macon, North Carolina
Fort Macon.jpg
Fort Macon, North Carolina, present-day

(About) Photograph of the 'brick and stone' Fort Macon. Unlike most Civil War era forts which were constructed of earth and sand, Fort Macon was constructed primarily of brick and stone.
 
Background: Fort Macon was one of the thirty mason forts of the Third System class. In response to lessons learned in the War of 1812, a new coastal defense system was designed. This new defense system was an attempt to protect critical United States shorelines. After the War of 1812 close to 200 forts were envisioned to guard the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, but only 30 were built between 1816-1867, and some structures were never completed because of the fighting during the Civil War.
 
Five-sided Fort Macon was constructed of brick and stone and had twenty-six vaulted rooms (called casemates) that were enclosed by outer walls that averaged 4 1/2 feet thick. In modern times, the danger of naval attack along the North Carolina coast seems remote, but during the 18th and 19th centuries, the region around Beaufort was highly vulnerable to attack.
 
History: The fort was seized April 14, 1861, by a company of local North Carolina troops acting without state orders. Only one man, ordnance sergeant William Alexander, was in the fort at the time. The state quickly garrisoned the fort with more companies, making in all about 900 men. There were 40 men living in each room. Finally, the garrison was reduced and the living conditions improved.
The Confederates worked feverishly to prepare the fort for battle over the next few months. A total of 54 guns were mounted for its defense (consisting of 10- and 8-inch Columbiads, also rifled and smoothbore 32- and 24-pounders). These were the most guns the fort ever had.
 
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 was a continuation of the Federal demonstration to strengthen its blockade and secure the North Carolina coast. See also Burnside's North Carolina Expedition.

Map showing the strategic location of Fort Macon
Fort Macon.jpg
Fort Macon

(About) Coastal North Carolina in the vicinity of Fort Macon, showing how it dominated the seaward approaches to Morehead City and Beaufort.
 
Just before the Federal attack (March, 1862), the garrison was reduced to five artillery companies, all of which were from North Carolina, and two of which were from Carteret County. The fort commandant was Col. Moses J. White, of Mississippi. He was 27 years old, ranked number two in the West Point Class of 1858, and suffered from severe epilepsy. Major General Ambrose Burnside led Federal forces through the northeastern sound region of the state in February, 1862, and finally entered the Neuse River to capture New Bern on March 14. A portion of one of his brigades, commanded by Brig. General John G. Parke, was then sent down from New Bern to capture Fort Macon. Burnside wanted to have Beaufort Harbor in his possession for the use of his own supply ships, as well as the ships of the Federal Navy.

Parke easily captured Morehead City and Beaufort on March 23 and 26, respectively, and then transferred his troops, supplies, and artillery over to Bogue Banks. Three demands to surrender were refused by the fort. After several skirmishes with Confederate soldiers, Parke’s men succeeded in entrenching as close as 1400 yards from the fort, while three batteries of siege guns (two batteries of mortars and one of 30-pounder Parrott Rifle guns) were established 1280 to 1680 yards from the fort.

On April 25, 1862, the Federal batteries opened fire on the fort. The Confederates responded with at least 21 of their 54 guns which could bear on the Federal positions. Four vessels of the Federal blockading fleet joined in from the ocean, but the fort’s guns quickly drove them off. Two ships suffered damage. Federal fire was missing the fort for most of the morning due to obscuring battle smoke. The turning point of the battle came when a Federal signal officer in Beaufort noticed this fact and signaled range correction to the batteries. After noon, every shot fired at the fort struck it or exploded over it. The fort had no mortars of its own and was unable to do much damage to the Federals in return. By 4:30 p.m., two of the fort’s powder magazines were in danger of being hit and exploded by Federal shells. Rather than be blown up by their own gunpowder, the garrison had little choice but to surrender. Federal forces took possession of the fort on the following day.

The fort had been hit 560 times by artillery fire. Seventeen guns were knocked out or damaged. Eight Confederates were killed, eighteen wounded, while the Federals suffered one killed and three wounded. Burnside allowed the garrison members to return home on parole until exchanged.

Greater Fort Macon area. Library of Congress.
Fort Macon Map.jpg
Vital Fort Macon (Center) and City of Beaufort Map

(Right) Map of the entrance to Beaufort harbor, N.C., showing the position of Fort Macon and vicinity. See Fort Macon State Park History.

Analysis: 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 Bern (spelled New Berne at the time). 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. See also Battle of Fort Macon: A Civil War History.
 
The battle had been relatively bloodless, at least by standards that soon would be common in the Civil War. The Union forces suffered one killed, two soldiers and one seaman were wounded, while Confederate losses were eight killed and mortally wounded, and sixteen were wounded. 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 secondary theater until late in the war.
 
Fort Macon's 4 1/2 feet thick masonry walls proved to be vulnerable to rifled cannon and large-caliber smoothbore cannon, so they were discontinued in 1867, and in 1870 the next generation of well-dispersed masonry-revetted earthen fortifications commenced.

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

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.

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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. Continued below...

 At the start of the war some were located in the secessionist states, and many fell into Confederate hands. 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.
 

Recommended Reading: The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (175 pages) (North Carolina Division of Archives and History). Description: From the drama of blockade-running to graphic descriptions of battles on the state's islands and sounds, this book portrays the explosive events that took place in North Carolina's coastal region during the Civil War. Topics discussed include the strategic importance of coastal North Carolina, Federal occupation of coastal areas, blockade-running, and the impact of war on civilians along the Tar Heel coast.

 

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. 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.

 
 

Sources: National Park Service; Autobiography of General Winfield Scott, New York. 1864; Library of Congress; National Archives; Browning, Robert M. Jr., From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Univ. of Alabama, 1993. ISBN 0-8173-5019-5; Campbell, R. Thomas, Storm over Carolina: the Confederate Navy's struggle for eastern North Carolina. Cumberland House, 2005. ISBN 1-58182-486-6; 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. ISBN 0-89587-088-6; Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion

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