History of Fort Hampton
by: Paul Branch
For many thousands of people, old Fort Macon is a well-known landmark and historic attraction. Its imposing walls have been a source of wonder and curiosity. But many people are not aware of Fort Macon’s predecessor, an obscure little fort known as Fort Hampton that predated the present structure by more than twenty years. The story of this earlier fort is interesting and provides a lead-in to the later establishment of Fort Macon.
The need for coastal defense was not a new concept to the town of Beaufort, the third oldest town in North Carolina. Twice in its history the town was captured and plundered enemy naval forces, first by the Spanish in 1747 and then by the British in 1782. And twice also attempts were made to build fortifications to defend Beaufort Harbor against such incursions before the construction of Fort Macon.
The first attempt was made in 1756 at the beginning of the French and Indian War, when the colonial government tried constructing a battery named Fort Dobbs on the eastern point of Bogue Banks to guard the entrance to Old Topsail Inlet (later renamed Beaufort Inlet) and the adjacent harbor. Unfortunately, some of the funds appropriated for its construction appear to have disappeared under questionable circumstances before the fort was ever finished. The colonial legislature refused to appropriate any further funds toward its completion and thus Fort Dobbs never came into being. The second attempt more than fifty years later resulted in the construction of Fort Hampton, the predecessor of Fort Macon.
In the 1790s, concerns were raised that the newly established United States had no suitable defenses for its Atlantic seaboard against naval attack or invasion by foreign powers. Great Britain, France and Spain possessed powerful navies that might at some point pose a potential threat to American security. Fortifications were needed to safeguard American seaports and harbors in the event the country somehow became embroiled into a conflict with its European neighbors. Accordingly, in 1794 Congress made the first appropriations to provide for defenses at some of the country’s seaports. Between 1794 and 1804, sixteen seaports received fortifications under this “First System” of seacoast defense, although many of the early fortifications erected under this system were little more than earthwork batteries capable of only limited defense. During 1798-1800 the United States fought an undeclared naval war with France, which served to illustrate the urgency for stronger defenses. Consequently, some of the First System forts constructed after 1798 were built with masonry. The best known example of these latter forts is Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, of Star Spangled Banner fame.
When in 1807 it appeared the United States was about to fight a second war with Great Britain, another look was taken at the country’s seacoast fortifications. Only a few of the First System forts offered much of a prospect for defense and many more seaports and harbors were still without defenses of any kind. Consequently, in November of that year Congress appropriated funding for a new series of forts. Planned for 36 seaports and harbors, this new defense system, which became known as the “Second System,” began in 1808 and lasted into the subsequent War of 1812. Its forts would be more substantial structures of masonry, unlike most of the forts of the previous system.
Meanwhile, the town of Beaufort had become a U. S. port of entry in 1803 and was entitled to receive fortifications for its defense. In November, 1807, the state General Assembly took a proactive stance to ensure Beaufort received protection by ceding five acres of land on the eastern point of Bogue Banks to the United States whereupon a fort was to be built within three years. North Carolina’s U. S. Congressmen in Washington now pressed for Beaufort to be included in the new Second System of defense. These actions were successful and in early 1808 a small masonry fort for Beaufort Harbor’s defense was authorized as part of the Second System.
Engineer Major Alexander Macomb (later army chief engineer and Commander in Chief of the U. S. Army) came to Beaufort in August, 1808, to survey a site for the new fort on the land ceded to the to the government by the state. He then designed the fort as a semi-circular battery facing Beaufort Inlet that was enclosed at the rear by a brick barracks building capable of housing 50 to 65 men. The fort was officially named Fort Hampton, in honor of Colonel Andrew Hampton, a North Carolina Revolutionary War leader from Rutherford County whose troops participated in a number of engagements, including the battle of King’s Mountain. Macomb ordered materials for the fort’s construction in Beaufort in August and construction apparently began in October. The superintending engineer was Captain Charles Gratiot (later army chief engineer), with labor and materials supplied from the local area. The principal local contractor was Jechonias Pigott.
The walls and ramparts of the battery were made from oyster shell cement known as “tabby,” or “tapia.” An excellent account of how tapia forts, including Fort Hampton, were constructed in this period is illustrated by an account written by engineer Major Joseph G. Swift in his memoirs. Swift was at this time building Fort Johnston, at Southport, North Carolina, and wrote:
“Soon after this the slaves of General Smith commenced the burning of lime in pens, called kilns, formed of sapling pines formed in squares containing from one thousand to one thousand two hundred bushels of oyster shells (alive) collected in scows from the shoals in the harbor—there abundant. These pens were filled with alternate layers of shells and “light wood” from pitch pine, and thus were burned in about one day—very much to the annoyance of the neighborhood by the smoke and vapor of burning shellfish, when the wind was strong enough to spread the fumes of the kilns. In the succeeding month of November, I commenced the battery by constructing boxes of the dimensions of the parapet, six feet high by seven in thickness, into which boxes was poured the tapia composition, consisting of equal parts of lime, raw shells and sand, and water sufficient to form a species of paste, or batter . . .”
Fort Hampton’s walls and parapet would have been constructed in the same manner. The fort was completed in the summer of 1809 at a cost of $8,863.89.
Fort Hampton was made in the shape of a large horseshoe, where the semi-circular arc formed the parapet wall. The parapet was seven feet high and twelve to fourteen feet thick at the bottom tapering inward to eight feet thick at the top. A brick barracks building was built across the two prongs of the horseshoe to enclose the fort from the rear. The two prongs of the horseshoe walls curled around at the rear to intersect the barracks wall, and were loopholed for defense. The barracks building was a two-story structure about 82-feet long by about 20-feet wide with a long veranda across its interior front. Each story contained five rooms. The sally port entrance to the fort was through the barracks building. In the right-hand prong in the horseshoe was a 15- by 15-foot brick gunpowder magazine building. From the rear barracks wall to the front footing of the parapet wall, the fort was 95 feet long, and 125 feet wide from flank to flank. The total perimeter was about 420 feet. Behind the parapet was a semi-circular terreplein, or gun deck, 23 feet wide. The intended armament of the fort was eight 18-pounder cannons, although at first only five 18-pounders were provided (later increased to six).
Following completion, Fort Hampton’s reservation was expanded in 1810 by the purchase of over six additional acres on Bogue Point, which were added to the original five acres ceded to the government in 1808. Between 1810 and 1812 the fort was known to have been garrisoned first by a detachment of the U. S. Rifle Regiment and later by a company of the 3rd U. S. Infantry. Such was the situation when on June 18, 1812, increasing tensions caused the United States to formally declare war on Great Britain. Thus began the War of 1812.
The army’s leaders were keenly aware of the vulnerability of the coastline to raids and attacks from British warships and privateers that were soon prowling offshore. The coastal forts and defenses needed to quickly be placed in a condition to resist a potential attack. Shortly after the declaration of war, engineer Major Joseph G. Swift arrived at Fort Hampton during an inspection tour of forts under his charge. He found Hampton garrisoned by Captain John Nicks’ company of the 3rd U. S. infantry. However, the 18-pounder cannons with which the fort was armed were mounted on very low carriages that made it difficult for them to fire over the parapet. The firing platforms needed to be raised to solve this problem and Nicks was requested to complete this work. Apparently this was done.
In July, 1812, Nicks’ company was ordered from Fort Hampton to rejoin its regiment. With no other regular troops on hand to defend the Beaufort area, North Carolina Governor William Hawkins called up four militia companies from Lenoir, Craven, Onslow and Beaufort Counties under the command of Major Nathan Tisdale to march to Beaufort in early August. Firearms had to be found for them first since they were unarmed. Tisdale then stationed his men at Fort Hampton and Beaufort and for the next few weeks this part of the coast seemed secure. By September, no immediate British threat seemed imminent and Major General Thomas Pickney, commanding the Sixth Military District, had two of these militia companies dismissed from service. His intention was to eventually replace all the militia at the forts with detachments of regular troops from the newly formed 10th U. S. Infantry. This came to pass in November, 1812, when Major Tisdale’s remaining two militia companies were dismissed and replaced at Fort Hampton with Captain Joseph Bryant’s company of the 10th U.S. Infantry.
As the war went on, Beaufort began to enjoy a lucrative trade boom. The British fleet instituted a naval blockade of the Chesapeake Bay and Charleston, thereby causing much naval trade to be diverted to the North Carolina ports of Wilmington, Beaufort and Ocracoke, which were still clear. Cargoes and supplies were then ferried through North Carolina’s inland sounds and canals to Norfolk and Charleston. In addition, American privateers also operated from North Carolina ports and brought in prize vessels they had captured. Of course, this trade boom also drew British attention and during 1813 British warships and privateers began to operate increasingly in North Carolina waters in an effort to disrupt this trade. Fortunately, the cannons frowning from the ramparts of Fort Hampton caused the British to keep their distance rather than trying to force their way into Beaufort Harbor as they had been able to do 31 years earlier in the Revolutionary War. Consequently, they looked for less heavily defended places to operate against and soon found what they were looking for at Ocracoke.
On the night of July 11, 1813, a sizeable British naval squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn appeared off Ocracoke and forced its way into Ocracoke Inlet early the next morning. American ships in the harbor were captured and the British proceeded to establish large camps of soldiers, sailors and marines on Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands. Over the next several days they sent out foraging expeditions on the islands to seize supplies, livestock, water and ships’ stores.
The arrival of the British sent shock waves throughout North Carolina. The large size of the British force positioned as it was at Ocracoke, along with a considerable number of barges and shallow draft vessels at its disposal, suggested the potential for the British to launch raids across the sounds to the northeast, up the rivers to the west to attack inland towns such as New Bern on the Neuse River, or through the sounds to the southwest to attack Beaufort. Many coastal inhabitants now began to flee inland. Governor William Hawkins called out the available state “detached militia” forces and rushed them toward the coast to help stop the threatened invasion. Hawkins personally accompanied them to survey the situation first-hand.
At Fort Hampton, meanwhile, Captain Joseph Bryant and his company of the 10th U.S. Infantry apparently felt somewhat alone and vulnerable. The local county militia forces were gathering at Beaufort and constructing fortifications to defend the town but no one at first was sent to reinforce his small garrison on Bogue Point. Bryant was only too well aware of the limitations of Fort Hampton, especially should a British force land on Bogue Banks and approach the fort from the rear. In anticipation the fort would be easily overwhelmed, he went ahead and had steels made up to spike the fort’s six 18-pounders in the event of disaster. Finally, some of his fears were eased when forty local militiamen eventually came over from Beaufort to reinforce him.
Much to everyone’s relief, news came that on July 16 the British recalled their men back to the fleet and then set sail from Ocracoke. The threat of invasion was thus ended, although it was not certain where the fleet was headed next. There was still the possibility the British could head down the coast and make a similar attempt against Beaufort. It was in the midst of this uncertainty that Captain Bryant received orders for his company to rejoin its regiment. Accordingly, Bryant marched out of Fort Hampton on July 26 before being relieved. A force of local county militia was sent over to hold the fort during the next several days. Fortunately, the British fleet made no further appearance and the alarm subsided.
As the detached militia companies ordered to the coast by Governor Hawkins began to arrive in the wake of the British departure, one of them, an artillery company commanded by Captain Abner Pasteur, was now stationed at Fort Hampton, relieving the local county militia. An infantry company of the 2nd Regiment of detached militia commanded by Captain Reading Shipp was stationed in Beaufort. Major Nathan Tisdale was placed in overall command of the two Beaufort and Fort Hampton companies.
Although the British threat was over, Governor Hawkins took the opportunity to personally inspect the state’s coastal defenses. At Fort Hampton he found a situation far from his liking. He reported:
“This Fort, however, is nothing more than a parapet composed of shells and lime badly cemented, each end of which is connected with the barracks, in the rear by a wall about two feet thick. There are only six long eighteens (18-pounders) mounted on a platform at the parapet to fire en barbette. Those guns were mounted on very low carriages, and in order that they might fire over the parapet, the platform had been raised within two feet of its top: consequently the men when managing them were exposed from about their knees up. Their situation would have been much more dangerous in an action than if they had been in an open plain, as much destruction might have been produced by the shells which the enemy’s fire might scale from the top of the parapet. Conceiving that no time should be lost in making necessary alterations, I instructed Captain Pasteur to have the carriages of the guns raised and the platform lowered, in such a manner as that but few of the men in an engagement should be exposed. This place with an inconsiderable sum compared with that already expended upon it, might be made a strong fortification. In its present situation, it might be easily reduced. A number of men not much larger than that stationed in the fort, by landing below out of the reach of the guns of the parapet, might march round, attack and carry it in the rear without much difficulty.”
Presumably, Hawkins’ instructions regarding the cannons were carried out, and fortunately there were no further British incursions in the area for the remainder of the year. During the latter part of the year, Fort Hampton’s armament was changed to five 18-pounders, two 6-pounders and one 4-pounder, all on iron mounts. These did not impress engineer Lieutenant Colonel W. K. Armistead, who inspected the fort in January, 1814, and reported the 18-pounder gun carriages “would not withstand the shock of many rounds.” He recommended other gun carriages be used, and suggested the fort should be enlarged and given a strong stockade in the rear to make it more defensible. He estimated a cost of $4000-5000 would be necessary for this work, but the federal government did not see fit to carry out this recommendation.
Meanwhile, the enlistment term of Captain Pasteur’s artillery company at Fort Hampton expired in January, 1814. Local militia held the fort until a regular company of the 43rd U.S. Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant John S. Smallwood, and a company of sea fencibles relieved them as the fort’s garrison. During the summer, Captain George Dabney’s company of the 43rd U.S. Infantry was also sent to Fort Hampton.
In July, 1814, there was some excitement when a minor British raid took place in the Beaufort/Cape Lookout area. On July 6 the British sloop of war Peacock appeared first at Cape Lookout and then off Beaufort Inlet, posing as a friendly ship. When pilots came out at both places to guide the ship in they were captured. The ship’s captain, Richard Coote, questioned them about the strength of Fort Hampton and Beaufort, but was told the fort was quite formidable. The next day, Coote retuned to Cape Lookout and sent a landing party ashore. This party took off all the livestock and provisions it could find and attempted to destroy the Cape Lookout lighthouse before returning to the Peacock.
Upon learning of the British depredations, the county militia was sent over to Cape Lookout that night, along with 75 sea fencibles from Fort Hampton. These men took up stations along the banks to attack the British if they returned the next day. Sure enough, on the morning of the 8th, two boatloads of men from the Peacock returned to shore to continue their mischief. The militia hoped to ambush them but apparently were spotted by the Peacock’s lookouts. The raiders were recalled to the ship and escaped without loss after exchanging musketry with the pursuing militia. The Peacock then sailed away. The captured pilots were later released and given a stern promise from Captain Coote that he would return soon with a larger force and destroy Fort Hampton. It is not known if this was merely bravado or whether Coote seriously intended to return and attack. Two weeks later the Peacock was lost at sea with all hands and the threat was thus never carried out.
The remainder of the year 1814 was spent with British vessels patrolling offshore and trying to suppress the operations of American trading vessels and privateers at the North Carolina ports. There were no further serious incursions, however. At the end of the War of 1812, President James Madison officially proclaimed peace in February, 1815. Beginning the following month, orders were issued reducing the size of the U. S. military to a small peacetime establishment. In accordance with these reductions, one company of the Corps of Artillery was designated in May to provide the garrisons of both Fort Johnston, at Southport, and Fort Hampton. In the face of further congressional economizing on the military, this force was reduced during 1818-19 to a mere ten-man detachment of the Second Battalion, Corps of Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Nathaniel G. Wilkinson, to look after both forts. At some unknown point, Fort Hampton’s armament was removed. After 1819, Fort Hampton was entirely abandoned.
Among the lessons learned in the War of 1812 was the fact most of the country’s existing seacoast defenses were entirely inadequate to provide protection against the formidable navies of the European powers. As a result, the United States was forced to embark upon an attempt to secure the its maritime frontier with yet another system of fortifications, the “Third System,” which commenced in 1816. Forts of this system were intended to be large, permanent casemated fortifications of brick and stone capable of resisting the warships of the day. Ultimately, one of these new forts was slated for the defense of Beaufort Inlet to replace Fort Hampton. This new fort would ultimately be named Fort Macon.
In 1820, Brigadier General Simon Bernard, the head of the Board of Fortifications, and his cartographer, Captain William T. Poussin, inspected the North Carolina coast to determine potential sites for new Third System forts at Cape Fear and Beaufort Inlet, and to survey the condition of Forts Johnston and Hampton. Fort Hampton, they discovered, was now facing an enemy even more formidable than British warships—Beaufort Inlet. Over the years, severe shore erosion had been occurring as Beaufort Inlet gradually widened. The fort now sat precariously on a narrow neck of land projecting out into the inlet. A map of the fort by Captain Poussin shows the high water mark at that time had advanced so far it lay right at the base of the fort’s rounded parapet. The low water mark was only 33 to 39 feet from the fort. General Bernard noted in his report that “the Barracks and one of the flanks [of the fort] have been much injured by a violent gale which was accompanied by an exceptionally high tide.” They went on to choose a site for Fort Macon about 100 feet southwest of Fort Hampton, which they apparently thought was sufficiently out of the reach of the inlet.
However, the end for Fort Hampton was not long in coming, although the exact time of its demise is not recorded. It is known that the fort was still intact in 1824. However, in November, 1825, engineer Lieutenant William A. Eliason arrived to begin construction of Fort Macon, only to find that both Fort Hampton and the proposed site for the new fort were now in Beaufort Inlet. Shore erosion had claimed both. Local tradition has held that Fort Hampton disappeared virtually overnight, apparently in a storm. Very probably, an early season hurricane that struck the area on June 3-4, 1825, was responsible for eroding the fort and the point of land on which it stood into the inlet. Lieutenant Eliason was thus forced to choose a new site on which to build Fort Macon about 1000 feet further westward from where Fort Hampton had stood to be beyond the reach of the inlet. Later, when Captain Robert E. Lee inspected Fort Macon in late 1840, he noted that the ruins of Fort Hampton lay seven feet under the water at low tide. Lee’s map of Bogue Point shows the site of Fort Hampton poised at the edge of the 13-foot depth line in the inlet. In order to save Fort Macon from the same fate as Fort Hampton as the inlet continued to widen, Lee designed two permanent jetties to help protect Fort Macon from shore erosion. Additional jetties have been added over the years even as late as 1970 to prevent Fort Macon from being swallowed up by the greedy inlet.
Thus Fort Hampton met its end and there is no verifiable evidence of its existence remaining today. A couple of iron artifacts found on the beach near Fort Macon are typical of the hardware used in a fort of that period and do not match anything in Fort Macon, but this is only circumstantial at best. Occasionally, an old-style brick well rounded from abrasion in rolling along the sea bed will wash up but it is not possible to determine whether it might have come from one of Fort Hampton’s buildings or from something else. The ocean jealously guards its possessions, but occasionally some objects do make their way back into the realm of Man. Hopefully, someday something will wash on shore that can be positively identified as having come from Fort Hampton, the ill-fated predecessor of Fort Macon.