2303 East Fort Macon Rd, Atlantic Beach, NC 28512
(252) 726-3775

Armament of the Fort

(published in the Spring ’96 Ramparts)
By Paul Branch, Fort Macon Ranger/Historian

With the completion of the rifled 32-pounder cannon for Fort Macon by B & W Fiberglass of Sea Level (one of the Friends’ long-standing projects for many years) it is hoped an interest will be stirred to know more about the old Fort’s armament and what it was like. The 32-pounder was actually only one of several types of cannons used at the fort, and perhaps the reader may wish to know something about these other types as well. What follows, then, is a description of the types and number of cannons used at Fort Macon at different periods. The reader should keep in mind that Nineteenth Century Artillery is classified by two different methods with either a “-pounder” designation referring to the weight of the projectile it fired (i.e., a 32-pounder fired a 32-pound cannonball), or an “-inch” designation referring to the actual diameter of the cannonball (i.e., an 8-inch Columbiad fired an 8-inch diameter cannonball).

Prior to the Civil War, Fort Macon possessed an armament of seventeen 24-pounders and three 6- pounders which had been there for 25 years. With the outbreak of the war more guns of heavier caliber were needed for defense of the state’s coast, prompting Governor John W. Ellis to send agents to Charleston and Richmond to purchase them. At Charleston, a battery of two 24- pounders and two 32-pounders which had helped bombard Fort Sumter were acquired and sent to Fort Macon in April, 1861. The following month larger guns–two 10-inch and four 8-inch Columbiads–arrived from Richmond, of which Fort Macon ended up keeping all but one of each caliber.

During the summer of 186l, a large number of medium caliber Navy guns, mainly 32-pounders, were supplied to Fort Macon from the Norfolk Navy Yard. However, in the Battle of Hatteras Inlet (August 28-29, 1861) two Confederate forts had to surrender after their medium guns could not even reach an attacking fleet of Union ships. The battle demonstrated the need for more long- ranged heavy guns to compete with the Union fleet. Accordingly, between September, 1861, and January, 1862, Fort Macon received one 10-inch Columbiad, two 8-inch Columbiads and a 5.82- inch rifled Columbiad. In addition, four of its smoothbore 32-pounders were rifled in place by the portable rifling machine of the Charleston firm, J.M. Eason and Brother. The rifled 32-pounder replica which the Friends of Fort Macon had built depicts one of these converted 32-pounders.

By the time of the bombardment of Fort Macon on April 25, 1862, Fort Macon probably had as many as 54 cannons, although the exact number is still not accurately known at this time. The breakdown of guns is believed to be as follows:

  • 2 10-inch Columbiads
  • 5 8-inch Columbiads
  • 1 5.82-inch rifled Columbiad
  • 4 rifled 32-pounders
  • 18 32-pounders
  • 18 24-pounders
  • 6 32-pounder carronades

After Fort Macon was captured, Union forces retained most of the Fort’s Confederate armament but added three 100-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons, two 10-inch siege mortars, and six 24- pounder howitzers. On December 31, 1863, Fort Macon’s armament was:

  • 2 10-inch Columbiads
  • 5 8-inch Columbiads
  • 3 100-pounder Parrott Rifles
  • 4 Rifled 32-pounders
  • 18 32-pounders
  • 10 24-pounders
  • 2 10-inch siege mortars
  • 6 24-pounder howitzers
  • 6 32-pounder carronades

Further changes in the armament took place so that by the time Fort Macon’s garrison was withdrawn in 1877 at the end of Reconstruction, only six guns remained: two 100-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons, two 10-inch siege mortars, and two 12-pounder “Napoleon” field guns. Of these, the two mortars, now in the Fort parade ground, are the only two which are known to survive today.
Movies tend to make Civil War cannons appear quite primitive, but it might be surprising to know what they were actually capable of. The Columbiads were the largest class of smoothbore cannons in size used in land service by either side and were the largest guns Fort Macon had. Of these the 10-inch was the largest of the two calibers used at Fort Macon. The 10-inch Columbiad was about 10 feet long and 2 1/2 feet in diameter. One of them is noted as weighing 15,998 pounds. It could fire a 10-inch 128-pound cannonball over three miles with a high elevation and an 18-20 pound gunpowder charge. Rifled cannons utilized a spinning elongated projectile rather than a ball, which was more accurate. They were capable of ranges of four to five miles with accuracy. The 5.82-inch rifled Columbiad in the Fort was fired at a Union gunboat in the mouth of North River near Harker’s Island (range about 4 miles) and hit within six feet of the ship on the second shot.

The rifled 32-pounder replica which the Friends of Fort Macon had made for the Fort depicts one of the four Navy smoothbore 32-pounders which Confederates converted into rifles by having rifling grooves cut down the length of the inner bore. Once converted, the weapons no longer used round 32-pounder cannonballs, but instead elongated rifled projectiles weighing 50-64 pounds. Such conversions of smoothbore cannons into rifled cannons were commonplace in the war, especially in the South.

However, the bulk of Fort Macon’s armament consisted of smoothbore 32- and 24-pounders, which fired cannonballs of their respective size over a mile with normal elevation. All of Fort Macon’s 32-pounders were Navy guns, which were usually lighter than their Army counterparts due to weight limitations aboard ships. Most of Fort Macon’s Navy 32-pounders were Model 1841, being nine feet long and weighing over 4700 pounds. Curiously, they were a foot shorter and 1000 pounds lighter than the Army 24-pounders the fort had, but fired a larger cannonball.

The 32-pounder carronades used at the Fort during the battle were yet another interesting type. Carronades were stubby, obsolete Navy broadside guns which were formerly used to crush ship hulls at close range. In Fort Macon they were first acquired with the intention to be used in the rooms under the Fort’s outer wall to blast any attackers who got into the ditch with fragmentation ammunition. During the siege, however, they were mounted by Confederates on angled gun carriages as improvised mortars in an unsuccessful attempt to lob explosive shells into Union positions behind the dunes.

Howitzers and mortars were stubby weapons designed to fire explosive shells at high arcing angles. The two 10-inch mortars currently in Fort Macon could lob an 88-pound 10-inch explosive shell over a mile with accuracy.

Thus Fort Macon possessed an interesting variety of cannons during its history. It is unfortunate that the two 10-inch mortars are the only ones of the original armament left in existence today. The completion of the replica rifled 32-pounder and its gun carriage by B & W Fiberglass Company of Sea Level has been a major milestone for interpreting the history of Fort Macon. While two other 32-pounders are planned for the near future, it is sincerely hoped enough interest will be generated in seeing these great implements of war back on the Fort’s walls to also make a replica of one or two of the other types of cannons which also would have shared the wall with our 32-pounders.