HISTORY OF FORT MACON
by: Paul Branch,Ranger
Among the most prominent of the many historic attractions of coastal North Carolina is Fort Macon State Park, situated on the eastern point of Bogue Banks in Carteret County. The park preserves within its boundaries not only a small stretch of one of North Carolina’s barrier islands, but also historic Fort Macon. Fort Macon is a 19th century masonry fortification that guards the entrance to Beaufort Harbor, one of North Carolina’s two principal seaports. It is one of the best preserved forts in the country today. Although now quiet and peaceful, its creation resulted from times of war, unrest and the demonstrated need of a young nation to protect its maritime boundary against foreign aggression.
A succession of wars between the New World colonies and the European powers of Spain, France, and Great Britain during the Colonial Period provided a constant threat of coastal raids by enemy warships. Indeed, the nearby town of Beaufort, N.C., third oldest town in the state, was captured and plundered by the Spanish in 1747, and again by the British in 1782.
Early North Carolina leaders sought to construct forts for coastal defenses to prevent such attacks. To protect Beaufort Harbor, the eastern point of Bogue Banks was determined to be the best location from which a fort might guard the harbor entrance. In 1756 a small fascine fort known as Fort Dobbs was begun there, but was never finished. The inlet remained undefended during the American Revolution. Because of this, British warships were able to raid the harbor in 1778 and 1782.
Following the Revolution, relations with both France and Great Britain continued to be strained during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Fearing the threats posed by these mighty European powers, the fledgling United States sought to build two successive national defense systems of coastal forts to protect itself. As a part of these defenses, a small masonry fort named Fort Hampton was built during 1808-09 to guard Beaufort Harbor. This fort protected the harbor during the subsequent War of 1812, but was abandoned shortly afterward. Shore erosion and a hurricane were responsible for sweeping Fort Hampton into Beaufort Inlet by 1826.
The War of 1812 exposed the weakness of existing United States coastal defenses. As a result, the U.S. government now began construction on a third improved system of coastal fortifications for national defense. This “Third System” ultimately called for the construction of a national defense chain of 38 new, permanent forts along the U.S. coast between 1817 and 1865. The present Fort Macon was a part of this defense system.
Fort Macon was designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Its namesake was North Carolina’s eminent statesman of the period, Nathaniel Macon (1758-1837). The fort was constructed during 1826-1834. The work required over nine million bricks. Following its completion in December, 1834, the fort was then improved and modified during 1841-46. Total cost of the fort was $463,790.
As a result of Congressional economizing, the fort was used only intermittently over the years that followed. It was actively garrisoned only during the years of 1834-36, 1842-44, and 1848-49. At other times, an ordnance sergeant acting as a caretaker was usually the only person stationed at the fort by the Army.
The War Between the States began on April 12, 1861, with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Two days later, local North Carolina militia from Beaufort and Morehead City seized the fort from its Army caretaker for the State of North Carolina and the Confederacy. North Carolina Confederate forces then spent a year arming the fort with 54 heavy cannons and preparing it for battle. The fort’s garrison ultimately consisted of five heavy artillery companies totaling over 400 men, commanded by Colonel Moses J. White.
Early in 1862, Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside led a powerful amphibious expedition of Union forces into the eastern coastal region of North Carolina. After defeating Confederate forces at Roanoke Island and New Bern in February and March, 1862, Burnside turned his attention to recapturing Fort Macon. The capture of the fort would allow both the Union Army and Navy to use Beaufort Harbor.
After New Bern was taken on March 14, 1862, part of Burnside’s command under Brigadier General John G. Parke was sent to capture Fort Macon and secure the use of the harbor. Advancing from New Bern, Parke’s forces captured Morehead City and Beaufort without resistance. An initial demand for the fort’s surrender was offered on March 23, 1862. Colonel Moses J. White and 403 North Carolina Confederates in the fort refused to surrender even though the fort was soon hopelessly outnumbered and surrounded.
Beginning at the end of March Parke ferried his men, supplies and siege artillery over to Bogue Banks. After driving Confederate outpost forces back toward the fort, Parke was able to establish three battery emplacements about 3/4 mile from the fort for siege guns with which to bombard the fort into submission. Union infantry entrenched in the sand dunes nearby. Offshore, four Union Navy gunboats blockaded the entrance to Beaufort Harbor and cooperated with Parke’s land forces. Two other Union gunboats, one of them with General Burnside aboard, and two floating batteries took position in the sound northeast of the fort. The Confederates were completely surrounded, yet they refused two final demands from General Burnside to surrender.
Just after dawn on April 25, 1862, Parke’s forces opened fire on the fort with their heavy siege guns. They were aided for a time by the fire of the four Union Navy gunboats in the ocean offshore and by one of the floating batteries in the sound to the northeast. The fort’s guns easily repulsed the Union gunboat attack after only an hour and a half. However, the Confederates were unable to defend successfully against Parke’s land batteries. Among Parke’s siege guns was a battery of new rifled cannons, which were tremendously powerful and accurate at long range. These guns knocked out a number of the fort’s cannons and were able to penetrate the fort’s walls adjacent to the main gunpowder magazine. In all, the fort was hit 560 times by the three Union artillery batteries.
Faced with extensive damage to the fort’s walls and armament, and with one of the fort’s magazines in danger of being exploded by the Union artillery fire, Colonel White had no choice to raise the white flag over the fort at about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon. The bombardment ceased and on the following morning, April 26, White formally surrendered the fort. The Confederate garrison was paroled as prisoners of war. Despite the intensity of the bombardment, the fort’s stout walls protected the garrison from suffering heavy losses. Seven Confederates were killed and eighteen wounded. The Union loss was one killed and three wounded.
The bombardment of Fort Macon was the second time in history that new, modern rifled cannons were used against a fort in combat. These powerful cannons demonstrated the growing obsolescence of masonry fortifications as a way of defense.
The Union Army held Fort Macon for the remainder of the war. For part of the war it was utilized not only for defense of the harbor but also as a military prison. Beaufort Harbor served as an important coaling and repair station for the Union Navy during the war and as a staging area for other Union Army coastal operations.
During the Reconstruction Era, Fort Macon was continuously occupied as a U.S. Army garrison post until 1877. Because there were no state or federal penitentiaries in the military district of North and South Carolina, Fort Macon was also used for about eleven years as a civil and military prison. The fort was deactivated in 1877 at the end of Reconstruction and returned to caretaker status. However, during the summer of 1898 the fort was garrisoned once again for the Spanish-American War.
By the beginning of the 20th century the U.S. Army realized that Fort Macon and the other masonry coastal forts of its era were completely obsolete for defense. Accordingly, in 1903 the fort was completely abandoned. In 1923 it was placed on a list of surplus military property to be sold.
North Carolina leaders recognized the historic importance of the old fort to the state and took steps to acquire it. By Congressional Act of June 4, 1924, the fort and its surrounding reservation were given to the state of North Carolina to be used as a public park. Fort Macon became the second area to be acquired by the state for the purpose of establishing a state parks system. During 1934-35, the fort was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Public recreational facilities were also established. Fort Macon State Park officially opened on May 1, 1936, as North Carolina’s first functioning state park.
With the entry of the United States into World War II in December, 1941, the U.S. Army recognized the need to occupy the fort again to protect a number of important nearby facilities. The old fort was actively manned once again with Coast Artillery troops. Soldiers lived in the fort and in barracks erected just outside. Harbor defense headquarters were also established in the fort. Shore batteries were established on the beach just outside the fort to guard against coastal raids by German submarines. Although these defenses were never called upon to fight the enemy, their presence served as a deterrent that forced the German U-boats to keep their distance.
The Army occupied the fort and park from December, 1941, to November, 1944, under a special lease arrangement with the state of North Carolina. At the end of the war, the troops and weaponry were withdrawn. On October 1, 1946, the Army returned Fort Macon State Park to the state.
Fort Macon State Park today is one of the most visited state park in North Carolina. It has an annual visitation of over a million visitors each year. There are two major areas that comprise the park. The fort area showcases historic Fort Macon with museum exhibits and restored soldier quarters. The bathhouse area offers public recreational facilities in the summer season. In between these two areas are pristine beaches, sand dunes, maritime forest and salt marshes that preserve at least a part of the barrier island ecology on Bogue Banks. The park is truly one of the wonders of coastal North Carolina.