(published in the Summer ’02 Ramparts)
Before the days of rifled artillery, most cannon had a range of little more than one mile. Artillery pieces were always emplaced within sight of the enemy target. Gunners were expected to aim at the target and make appropriate adjustments if their shots missed the target. It was fairly easy to see if you were hitting right or left of the target. But much more difficult to tell if your rounds were passing over the target, especially when your vision was obscured by the smoke produced by the black powder charges in your own and adjacent guns.
In more recent times, when artillery ranges had been extended to 8 to 10 miles or more, targets were almost always out of sight of the gunners. It then became necessary to have forward observers on the ground or in aircraft who could see where the rounds were landing, and communicate needed adjustments by radio or land lines to the Fire Direction Center at the guns.
Before the Union attack on Fort Macon began on April 25, 1862, the Federals established several signal stations in order to facilitate communications and coordination between General Parke’s attacking forces and General Burnside’s command aboard the Alice Price in the sound. One of these semaphore signal stations was located on the top porch of the Atlantic Hotel in Beaufort. Although it hadn’t been planned, the Beaufort signal station was in a position to see that most of the artillery rounds fired by the smoke blinded Union gunners were passing over the Fort and splashing harmlessly in the water of the sound.
The following report filed by the signal officer in Beaufort after the battle describes what happened on April 25, 1862.
Report of Lieut. William S. Andrews, Ninth New York Infantry,
Acting Signal Officer
Beaufort, N.C., May 1,1862
Major: Fort Macon fell on the 25th of April. I believe that never in the history of warfare have signals been used with more complete success or to greater advantage than during the siege of that place. When operations were commenced against Fort Macon, between four and five weeks ago, I was ordered to open a station at this place to communicate with General Parke’s headquarters via Morehead City and with the blockading squadron. From that time until the 25th instant all orders were sent and received by signals. At times no other communication was had with headquarters, it being unsafe for boats to cross the harbor except under cover of the night. From my station (less than 2 miles distant from the fort) I could with the aid of glasses observe distinctly the movements of the enemy, as, for instance, should a force go out to attack our troops at work on the siege batteries or any alteration be made in to be immediately known at headquarters, and of which our men could have no knowledge from their position. On my representing this fact to General Parke he ordered a station to be open on Bogue Banks, near our batteries, to receive official messages only, having reference to observations made from my station (this station was at different times worked by Lieutenants Marsh, Lyon, and Palmer, and was several times fired upon the enemy). By this arrangement the enemy were held under a complete surveillance during daylight. I was the only officer on the Beaufort station until the 21st instant, when Lieut. Marvin Wait reported for duty.
On the night preceding the bombardment a number of important official messages were sent and received in communication between General Burnside’s headquarters on board the steamer Alice Price lying in Core Sound back of Beaufort and General Parke.
The bombardment commenced on the 25th instant at 6 a. m. I had expected to receive special instructions to watch and report the accuracy of fire; but not receiving them, I determined to act upon my own responsibility. My station was at very nearly a right angle with the line of fire, so that I was enabled to judge with accuracy the distance over or short that the shot fell. The 10 inch shell were falling almost without exception more than 300 yards beyond the fort. Lieutenant Wait and myself continued to signal to the officer in charge until the correct range was obtained. The 8 inch shell were falling short; we signaled to the officer in charge of that battery with the same effect. The same was the case with the Parrott guns, which were much elevated. From the position of our batteries it was impossible for the officers in charge of them to see how their shot fell; but owing to the observations made by Lieutenant Wait and myself and signaled to them from time to time, an accurate range was obtained by all the batteries, and was not lost during the day. After 12 m. every shot fired from our batteries fell in or on the fort. The accuracy of fire astonished ourselves equally with the enemy. From that time until 4 p. m., when a white flag appeared upon the fort and the firing ceased, a greater amount of execution was done than could have occurred in twenty-four hours further bombardment without the aid of signals.
The proposition to surrender and the reply, with terms of capitulation, were sent to and from General Burnside through this station by Lieutenant Wait and myself. I saw General Parke immediately after the occupation of Fort Macon by our forces. He spoke in the highest terms of praise of the system of signals used, and extended his thanks to the signal officers for the services they had rendered.
Constant signaling during a period of over four weeks across a sheet of glaring water has injured my eyes somewhat.
W. S. ANDREWS
Second Lieutenant, Ninth N. Y. Vols.,
Acting Signal Officer
Maj. Albert J. Meyer
Signal Officer, U. S. Army.
Note: Beaufort’s Atlantic Hotel served as a signal station during the battle of Fort Macon. It was also used as a military hospital for Union soldiers during the war. In 1879 it was destroyed by a hurricane.