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Construction of Fort Macon

by: Paul Branch, Ranger

With the founding of the United States in the latter part of the 18th century, the need for defense of the Atlantic seaboard against foreign aggression soon became a serious concern for the leaders of the new country. There was frequent turmoil among the Europe powers, whose large, formidable naval fleets posed a potential threat. Indeed, during 1798-1800, the United States became embroiled in an undeclared naval war against France, which was followed in 1807 by tensions with Great Britain. Consequently, the United States embarked upon two successive defense systems of coastal fortifications to secure its maritime frontier against possible attack from its European neighbors. The “First System” involved the construction of a handful of forts at sixteen seaports during the years 1794-1804. This was followed in 1807 by the more ambitious “Second System” of seacoast defense that lasted into the War of 1812 and involved the construction of forts at 36 seaports. Because Beaufort, N. C., had become a port of entry in 1803, it was included among the seaports of the Second System requiring defense. Accordingly, a small masonry fort known as Fort Hampton was built during 1808-09 to protect Beaufort Harbor. This fort secured the harbor against attack throughout the subsequent War of 1812 with Great Britain but was later washed away during a summer hurricane in 1825.
The War of 1812 against Great Britain demonstrated that most of the existing seacoast fortifications of the United States from the First and Second Systems were far too weak to give adequate defense against naval attack. Consequently, plans were begun in 1816 for yet another chain of seacoast fortifications, the “Third System.” Unlike most of the forts of the two previous defense systems, Third System forts were intended to comprise a system of large, permanent casemated fortifications at thirty seaports integrated with the country’s naval and ground forces for seacoast defense. Their design and construction would be controlled by a Board of Fortifications and the work by the army’s engineer department to create them would last for more than the next fifty years.
One of the forts of this new system was slated to be built to protect Beaufort Harbor and replace the inadequate Fort Hampton of the previous system. In 1820, Brigadier General Simon Bernard, the head of the Board of Fortifications, and his cartographer Captain William T. Poussin came to Beaufort Harbor to choose a site for the new fort. Bernard then designed plans the following year for a small but strong casemated fort that would occupy the eastern point of Bogue Banks behind Fort Hampton. The fort would be in the form of an irregular pentagon ensconced into a sort of hill with gently sloping sides called a glacis. There would be an outer defensive wall called the covertway enclosing a main inner work called the citadel. Separating the two would be a floodable ditch. In the citadel would be 34 vaulted casemates to shelter the garrison and serve as magazines and storerooms. Due to the narrow, marshy nature of Bogue Point, there was not enough land for the fort to have projecting bastions at its angles for flanking defense. Instead, four vaulted galleries called counterfire galleries under the covertway would be situated at the angles of the ditch from which defenders could shoot down enemy soldiers attempting to cross the ditch during an assault.
Once completed, these plans were filed away for the present and months then passed without any further effort by the army regarding the “fort on Bogue Point.” Construction was in progress, however, on other Third System forts at this time but these were the forts intended to protect major American ports such as Newport, New York, Hampton Roads, Mobile and New Orleans. Forts intended to protect secondary ports, of which the fort on Bogue Point was one, would not be started until those at the major ports were completed.
This fact did not sit well with North Carolina’s U. S. Senator, Nathaniel Macon. He complained to the War Department when by 1825 there had still been no movement to begin construction on either of North Carolina’s two Third System forts, the fort on Bogue Point and a second one on Oak Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The War Department, however, stuck to its policy to start no new forts protecting secondary ports until those being constructed at the major ports were finished. It was pointed out that Macon was free to introduce separate legislation into Congress to secure special funding to begin construction on North Carolina’s Third System forts if Congress so chose. Should he succeed, the War Department would be willing to begin the forts whenever an engineer became available to superintend their construction.
Accordingly, Senator Macon drafted the necessary legislative bill to be introduced as an amendment to the War Department’s normal annual fortifications budget request to Congress for 1825. Unfortunately, the bill ran into opposition by those in both houses who were opposed to appropriating more money for new forts before completing the ones already under construction. However, with eloquent arguments and persuasive determination, Macon in the Senate and North Carolina Representatives Romulus Saunders and W. P. Mangum in the House were able to get the amendment passed successfully.
Even with initial appropriations now in hand to begin construction on North Carolina’s two Third System forts, some months now passed before an engineer became available to get them started. The tiny Army Engineer Department at this time consisted of only 22 officers and all were assigned to existing forts or other duties. Finally, during the summer of 1825, engineer Lieutenant Stephen Tuttle became free for assignment to North Carolina. Tuttle first did some preliminary work for the Oak Island fort (which eventually was named Fort Caswell) and then went to Beaufort in September to purchase the necessary land for the fort on Bogue Point. Here he met a substantial obstacle when the land owners on Bogue Point where the new fort had to be built refused to sell their land for the price offered them. At an impasse, Tuttle returned to Oak Island, leaving the War Department to request North Carolina’s governor and General Assembly to condemn the land and cede it to the United States.
In the meantime, it became clear to the Engineer Department that two separate engineers would be required to superintend the construction of the Oak Island and Bogue Point forts. As a result, in November, 1825, Lieutenant William A. Eliason, 25, was pulled from duty at another fort and assigned as the superintending engineer of the fort at Bogue Point. By this time, the War Department had officially named this fort as Fort Macon in honor of Senator Nathaniel Macon.
One of the first problems facing Eliason was to choose a new site for Fort Macon. The site originally chosen for the fort by General Bernard in 1820 was about 100 feet southwest of old Fort Hampton. Unfortunately, that site was now under water. For years there had been considerable shore erosion at Bogue Point so that by June, 1825, Fort Hampton had been washed into the inlet. By February, 1826, the shoreline had retreated even 240 feet past the site of Fort Hampton, thus covering the intended site of Fort Macon. Consequently, Eliason was forced to select a new site for Fort Macon about 1000 feet west of Fort Hampton. This now drew him into the conflict between the War Department and the Bogue Point landowners. Like Tuttle, Eliason was unable to make any headway with the landowners, some of whom were seeking inflated prices for the land the War Department needed for the fort reservation. Fortunately, on January 4, 1826, the North Carolina General Assembly passed an act condemning 405.59 acres on Bogue Point and ceded it to the U. S. Government. The landowners now had to sell their land. It remained only to agree to a fair price. Still the landowners balked and the issue was not finally settled until September. At that time, a jury of freeholders from the county was convened to settle the claims and presented a judgement of $1,287 as the value of the land. Each landowner was distributed his proper share of the judgement and the matter was finally settled.
Meanwhile, Eliason started the necessary steps for construction. He began contracting for building materials, advertising for workers and drawing up detailed plans and specifications for construction. The work force probably averaged about 150 men and consisted of slaves hired out from their owners at forty cents per ten-hour day, common laborers earning one dollar per day and brick masons earning $2.50 per day. Other workers included carpenters, mechanics and stone cutters. The remainder of 1826 and early 1827 was spent building quarters, storehouses, cookhouses and workshops for the workers; building a wharf on the sound and a canal from the sound to the construction site; digging other canals to drain the site; clearing away trees and brush; and finally excavating the site itself.
The walls of the fort would enclose an area of about two and a half acres. In order to reach the proper level for foundations and ditches, thousands of cubic yards of earth had to be removed by shovel, pick and wheelbarrow. The excavated earth was heaped around the outside of the site to form an artificial hill, called the glacis, which would enclose the work, protect the masonry from enemy fire and camouflage it. Additional earth for the glacis came from the canals being dug and surrounding marshes.
As the excavations for the fort’s foundations proceeded, a major problem was encountered. The percolation of ground water was so extensive the foundation pits could not be dug to the depth required for the stone foundation that was intended to support the fort’s walls. As a result, it was decided to dispense with using stone for a foundation and substitute a timber cribwork of yellow pine planking instead, which did not require as much depth.
Soon the excavations were reaching a point where the masonry of the fort’s walls could be started and the fort’s cornerstone was officially laid on June 21, 1827. To ensure a continuous brick supply for the approximately nine million bricks that Lieutenant Eliason estimated would be needed for the fort, he persuaded a number of local county citizens to go into the brick-making business. Chief among these were Captain Otway Burns, a hero of the War of 1812; Doctor James Manney, prominent physician; and William Borden, prominent landowner. The brickyards set up by these men were soon delivering bricks at eight dollars per thousand. However, the work quality of the local brick masons employed to lay the masonry proved to be unsatisfactory, forcing Eliason to replace them with ten master masons from Philadelphia.
In July, 1827, Eliason was superseded by a higher ranking engineer, 39-year old Captain John Lind Smith. Smith’s tenure at Fort Macon was fraught with problems. First, a hurricane in August did severe damage to the fort site and caused a major setback. Next, a shortage of laborers slowed work down even further. Also, he angered the brick makers by abruptly changing the type of bricks specified and dropping the price to be paid for them to seven dollars per thousand. In the ensuing disagreement, Smith was almost led to a duel with one of the brick makers, Doctor Manney. He even brought charges against Lieutenant Eliason in a personal quarrel, but later dropped them.
In January, 1828, Captain Smith was transferred to Charleston, leaving Eliason to resume his superintendence of the construction of Fort Macon. During 1828 and 1829, work progressed so that Fort Macon was taking shape. During 1828, 5000 cubic yards of masonry was laid on the walls. In 1829, some 3000 cubic yards of masonry was laid. The reason this total was less than the previous year was because the brick masons were laying rifle loopholes, cannon embrasures and counterarching, which was more tedious and exact than laying plain masonry.
Despite the seeming progress being made, conflicts with the brick makers continued over the size and quality of the bricks being delivered. Large numbers of bricks fell short of the size specifications required, sometimes by as little as an eighth of an inch. Even so small a disparity meant more bricks were required to make each cubic yard of masonry, along with more cement, labor and cost. Eliason therefore felt he should not have to pay the full contracted price for these smaller bricks. Many other bricks were simply of poor quality. Some were so poor that Eliason was able to break them over his knee. Otway Burns and James Manney, who had the largest inventories of bricks on hand that would likely be rejected for these reasons, faced serious losses of revenue as a result. They loudly protested to the Secretary of War and Chief of Engineers over their differences with Eliason, who was instructed to purchase any bricks of suitable quality at the regular price. Thus the masonry work on the fort was able to continue on in 1830.
In August, 1830, Eliason suffered a personal tragedy when one of his children died and another child fell sick. He requested an immediate transfer to move his family elsewhere, and was relieved once again by Captain John Lind Smith. Unlike his first turbulent term at Fort Macon in 1827, Smith’s tenure was marked with efficiency and good progress on the fort for more than two and a half years. During this time the fort was brought to a state of near completion. However, the construction of the fort was not the only concern Smith faced.
Shore erosion began to be a serious concern for the site on which the fort was built. Bogue Point was constantly changing and receding. A hurricane in August, 1830, caused severe erosion of the shoreline and actually swept away part of the fort glacis. Remembering the fate of Fort Hampton, the Engineer Department became concerned that continued erosion would soon endanger the fort itself. Consequently, during 1831-32 Smith created breakwaters and barriers along the beach with fascines and brush held in place with pilings, logs and brick bats. For the time being, these were successful in stopping the further encroachment of the sea into the fort site.
Smith did not get to see the completion of Fort Macon. In April, 1833, he was transferred to the forts in New York Harbor and was replaced by 30-year old Lieutenant George Dutton. Dutton presided over the remaining finish work on the fort so that by the end of that year it was virtually complete. He reported the fort would be ready for inspection in December.
Meanwhile, Company G, 1st U. S. Artillery, was waiting over in Beaufort to come over and occupy the new fort as its first garrison as soon as it was declared to be completed. However, the company commander, Bvt. Major Reynold M. Kirby, was now surprised to discover that no provision had been made for quarters for his men. Other than a single house built for the fort’s commanding officer, no barracks buildings had been constructed outside the fort and the fort casemates, which were only supposed to shelter the garrison in time of attack, were only partially fitted out for occupancy. There were doors and windows but otherwise just damp bare brick walls inside each casemate, making them unsuited for regular habitation.
Here was an interesting dilemma in the hierarchy of the army. Construction of fortifications was the responsibility of the Engineer Department and it had certainly done its duty in building Fort Macon. Military buildings, including barracks, were the responsibility of the Quartermaster Department, and apparently no thought had been given there to constructing barracks for the fort garrison. Where was the garrison of the new fort supposed to live? Major Kirby argued for exterior barracks to be constructed for his men but the army decided against this. Instead, it was decided to delay the completion of the fort one more year in order for the Engineer Department to make the fort casemates habitable for the garrison.
Thus, Lieutenant Dutton continued working on the fort. Eighteen casemates were ribbed with furring, lathed and plastered to create a finish dry wall with baseboard and ceiling vents. Five casemates on the east front were fitted as officer quarters with ornate Greek Revival molding and trim work, and folding interior shutters for privacy. Once this work was done, Dutton reported the fort to be completed. On December 4, 1834, Kirby’s artillery company officially took occupancy of the new fort.
It had taken eight years of construction to complete Fort Macon. The cost was $349,384.94. It was the eighth fort of the Third System to be completed. But the story was not over yet. Although the fort was garrisoned, it was also unarmed. Other than three small field guns that Kirby’s company had brought along as its regular company armament, no guns or gun mounts had been included in the construction. In 1836 a few cannons were finally sent to the fort. A few other finishing touches and improvements were also needed. Also, the shore erosion problem quickly resumed when the brush breakwaters constructed by Captain Smith eventually broke down from decay and washed away. In 1840, Captain Robert E. Lee inspected the fort and drafted a report detailing some needed alterations and additions. Lee’s report touched off a second construction phase on the fort over the next few years that resulted in numerous structural changes and improvements, the installation of permanent gun emplacements and a permanent system of stone jetties to stop the shore erosion. The final cost of the fort with this additional work would total $463,790.