Robert E. Lee at the Fort-Part I
by:Paul Branch, Ranger/Historian at Fort Macon State Park.
(published in the Fall ’02 Ramparts)
One of the most persisting rumors about Fort Macon’s early years is that Robert E. Lee was responsible for building the fort. It is also rumored Lee had the system of stone jetties currently on the beach around the fort built to protect it from shore erosion. Well, one out of two is not bad! Lee did not build Fort Macon but he did have a role to play in the Fort’s early years, He was responsible for initiating the system of stone jetties which still protect the fort from the sea to this day.
So what exactly is Lee’s connection to Fort Macon? When was he at the Fort? What exactly did he do? The following is a summary of how the paths of Lee and Fort Macon did cross. He faced some difficult problems when he arrived at Fort Macon and the manner in which he solved them as an engineer is interesting.
When construction began on Fort Macon in 1826, Robert E. Lee was 19 years old and completing his freshman year as a cadet at West Point. After being graduated from West Point in 1829, Lee served as assistant engineer in the construction of Fort Pulaski, Georgia, during 1829-31, and the defenses of Hampton Roads during 1831-34. He next held a staff position in the Engineer Department in Washington, and in 1837 was assigned a project for the improvement of navigation at St. Louis and the Mississippi River. When work on this project was suspended in 1840, Lee returned to Washington for a new assignment.
While young Lee was being shifted back and forth between various Engineer Department projects, Fort Macon was completed by other engineers in 1834. It was then garrisoned until 1836, and afterward sat in the charge of an Ordinance Sergeant acting as caretaker. However, an inspection in June, 1839 by the engineer in charge of seacoast forts in the Carolinas, Captain A. J. Swift, disclosed Fort Macon to be in need of numerous repairs as well as protection from shore erosion. Swift was subsequently transferred elsewhere so that during most of 1840 no engineer officer was available to determine a detailed analysis of the repairs and costs needed at Fort Macon.
Finally in October, 1840, 32-year old Captain Robert E. Lee arrived in Washington, available for assignment following the suspension of the St. Louis projects. With no permanent engineer projects currently available for him until the following spring, the Engineer Department gave him the only assignment it had readily available – an inspection of Forts Macon and Caswell in North Carolina, and Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. In light of Captain Swift’s inspection of the previous year, Lee’s objectives at Fort Macon were to plan some means of securing the fort against the encroachment of the sea, and to formulate what repairs and costs were necessary for the fort itself.
Lee arrived in Beaufort in late November or early December, 1840. The weather was inclement but he began his inspection of the fort and its site as best he could. Doubtless he was assisted when necessary by the fort’s caretaker, Ordinance Sergeant Peter D. Stewart.
In studying the erosion along the eastern end of Bogue Banks, where Fort Macon was located, Lee found the problem to be quite serious. The sea had steadily eaten away at the beach and point until it was right at the tip of the fort’s glacis (the earthen mound which surrounds the fort). Further erosion would soon eat into the glacis and eventually threaten the fort itself. Since Fort Macon’s predecessor on Bogue Point, Fort Hampton, had been totally washed away by this same process only fifteen years earlier, it was imperative the erosion be arrested as soon as possible so that Fort Macon did not share a similar fate.
Lee spent time studying the dynamics of the wind, sea and currents as they acted upon Bogue Point. He also gained information from local people and sea pilots as to changes of Beaufort Inlet over the years. He found the erosion problems originated from several causes. First, Beaufort Inlet underwent a cycle of changes over periods of decades. The channel shifted constantly while Bogue Point and Shackleford Point, on the opposite side, changed in relation to each other. At different times the two points built out or receded from each other. At other times one built up while the other receded, and vice versa. Thus the very nature of the beach at Bogue Point was quite unpredictable.
Second, Lee found that waves striking Bogue Banks obliquely with the prevailing southwest winds dislodged beach sand and carried it away parallel to the beach to the east. Known today as the longshore current, or littoral drift, this constant scouring action was a source of continuous erosion of the beach.
A third factor involved was the effect of storms. Hurricanes, nor’easters, and heavy storm tides did great damage to the beach each year. Since the Fort had been built, hurricane storm surges had washed completely over Bogue Banks just west of the fort, leaving it temporarily isolated on a little island.
All these factors combined to show Lee that manmade stabilization efforts were necessary to preserve the site of Fort Macon and prevent it from washing into the sea as its predecessor, Fort Hampton, had done.
Lee was not the first engineer to face these powerful natural forces at Fort Macon. While the fort was being constructed, its superintending engineer had sought to control them. Breakwaters of pilings filled with brush and brick bats had been built on the beach during 1833-34. They produced a large degree of success in causing the accretion of sand on the beach and halting the erosion. By 1840, however, Lee found the pilings and brush had decayed away and the bricks were scattered by wave action. Clearly such temporary structures were not the answer to the problem. Substantial permanent structures were the only suitable means to combat the erosion problem.
As it turned out, the Engineer Department had recently constructed permanent stone jetties resting on a grillage of palmetto log timbers at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. They had been highly successful. Other breakwaters had also been built at Fort Caswell. As a result, Lee felt such structures held the key to preserving the site of Fort Macon.
His recommendation therefore was to use two similar stone jetties on the beach in front of the fort. Jetty 1 was to be placed near Bogue Point southeast of the fort. Jetty 2 would be placed 1160 feet west of Jetty 1. Each would consist of palmetto logs sunk in a line perpendicular to the beach. On these would be piled stones of heavy granite or limestone.
The idea behind the jetties was that being at right angles to the beach they would disrupt the flow of sand in the littoral drift from west to east. This would cause sand to build up on their western sides extending westward in front of the fort and beyond.
Lee felt these measures would stop the erosion and save the fort site. Now to address the repairs needed on the fort itself.
Editors note: Because of its length, this article about Robert E. Lee’s work at Fort Macon will be concluded in our next issue of the Ramparts. It should be noted that the curriculum at West Point was oriented toward engineering. Before the Civil War most top graduates of West Point were assigned to the Engineer Department of the Army. Lee graduated second in his class in 1829.