by Paul Branch, Fort Historian
(published in the Summer ’04 Ramparts)
Prior to the War Between the States, the fort’s commanding officer had a two-story house known as the Eliason House provided as his quarters. Another nearby building left over from the fort’s construction was also used as an officer’s quarters. Other officers of the garrison were housed inside the fort.
During the 1862 siege of Fort Macon in the War Between the States, the two exterior officers’ houses were destroyed. Thereafter, all officers were forced to live in the casemates of the fort. Of the five casemates on the fort’s eastern wing that comprised the ‘officers’ row,’ one was used as the fort commandant’s quarters, another as an officers’ mess room, and three accommodated the remaining officers.
During the war, overcrowding of the fort by multiple companies of troops was to be expected. In the years following the end of the war, however, the overcrowding continued because a large contingent of military and civilian prisoners also had to be accommodated in the casemates.
During most of the post-war years, at least two companies of soldiers occupied the fort, sometimes more. Officers for each company consisted of a captain, and two or more lieutenants. In addition, there was usually a post surgeon (medical officer) present and sometimes a regimental officer in command of the post. Thus the overcrowding of officers into available officers’ casemates was keenly felt, especially when married officers also had their wives and families present with them.
On June 2, 1869, fort commandant Brevet Major G. W. Brayton, 8th U.S. Infantry, wrote the Department of the South headquarters to describe the condition of the officers’ quarters:
“A portion of the casemates occupied by officers are divided into two rooms by a partition running half way to the ceiling, and are infested by rats, mice, centipedes and bugs of all kinds . . . some of the officers are compelled to use their back room for a kitchen and the heat from the stove makes it almost impossible to remain in the casemate. One casemate has been used during the past month by two officers with families, one (partitioned) room to each officer.”
Brayton went on to state that exterior quarters for the officers could be erected outside the fort without much expense, which in turn would help relieve overcrowding for the enlisted men in the fort. He continued:
“If this plan is not deemed adviseable I would state that there are eight very nice cottages belonging to the government at Goldsboro, N.C. and only one company stationed there, and respectfully suggest that the (Quartermaster Department) be directed to have four of them taken down and shipped here. This can probably be done at less expense than to build new.”
Over the next few weeks, much consideration was given to Brayton’s request as it made its way through the Army bureaucracy. An estimate for three new-built officers’ quarters was about $5000. The estimate for removing four existing cottages at Goldsbory and transferring them to Fort Macon, in contrast, was $1250, but with an estimated 50% loss of material. However, in view of the difference of expense, even with a high loss of materials, the Army Quartermaster General agreed on July 23, 1869 to the transfer of four cottages from Goldsboro.
Unfortunately, dismantling the cottages and transporting them by railroad and boat to Fort Macon was the easy part. Reassembling the bewildering mass of materials into four useable cottages was quite another matter. On September 11, 1868, fort commandant Brevet Lieutenant Colonel John D. Wilkins, 8th U.S. Infantry wrote to the Department of the South headquarters: “I am sorry to inform the Commanding Genl. That although the cottages sent here from Goldsboro have duly arrived (a mass of lumber representing the same and at present in “Chaos”), I have been unable to make any progress in their erection.”
The foreman from Goldsboro acquainted with how to put them together was delayed, and Wilkins investigated the possibility of hiring local laborers cheaper than the $2000 estimated as necessary to do the work. Ultimately, to save expense Wilkins was directed to do the work through his own post quartermaster using artificers and soldiers of the two companies of the 8th U.S. Infantry garrisoning the fort. Work on two of the cottages progressed to the point that on October 1, Wilkins wrote his wife that the chimneys were built and he expected the roofs to be completeed that week. In expectation of moving into one of them soon, he enthusiastically sent his wife window measurements for curtains and instructed her to obtain estimates on shipping their furniture. “The rooms are not large,” he told her, “but will answer our purpose very well.” He also talked with a local black woman “represented as a good cook & . . . a hard-working woman, & willing” whom he was interested in hiring as a servant. Soon he was able to move into a cottage that was finished.
By November, 1869, an Army Inspector noted that two of the cottages were finished. Unfortunately, the other two had only been partially completed when the post quartermaster was forced to suspend work on them. This was due to the exhaustion of funds authorized to do the work. The Inspector reported that only about $300 were needed to finish them, and recommended that this amount be authorized. The Army Quartermaster General granted the sum for work to resume.
By February, 1870, a third cottage was completed. At that time the two companies of the 8th U.S. Infantry at the fort were transferred elsewhere. In their place came two companies of the 4th U.S. Artillery. The new fort commandant, Major Joseph Stewart, had the artificers of his command continue work on the last house. He wrote to the Department of Virginia headquarters on March 17, 1870: “It is contemplated to use lumber on hand (received from Goldsboro) to complete the fourth cottage mentioned. All the required lumber can be thus obtained, except that required for doors, casings, mantlepieces, etc.”
Unfortunately, the men Stewart had working on the house apparently were not as skilled as those of the 8th U.S. Infantry in the previous garrison. An Army Inspector noted during an April, 1870 inspection:
“The frame of a fourth set (of officer’s quarters) is up, with very poor prospects of completion, as the orders directing its erection state the work shall be done by the artificers of the command, which amounts to saying, two inexperienced carpenters shall complete the work, or, in other words it will be a very long time before the building will be completed.”
This prediction proved to be true because by September, 1870, the house was still unfinished, and additional work was becoming necessary on the other three. At this time, Stewart was reduced to having only one artificer working on the house. In a letter to Department of the East headquarters on September 20, 1870, he noted: “the carpenter detailed (for this work) is a very slow workman at best and his services will increasingly be required for some months, and I trust the Commanding General wil . . . authorize the continuous employment of the man detailed until the work mentioned shall have been finished.” Eventually, this last house was also finished.
The four cottages were set up in a line running about 135 feet from and parallel to the northeast front of Fort Macon. They faced away from the fort. The houses were wood framed structures with pine weatherboard siding and cypress shingles on the roof. They were 59 feet long by 40 feet wide. Each consisted of a main structure with a 6-1/2 foot wide veranda across the front and a ten-foot long breezeway at the rear, which linked two kitchens with the main structure. A central front door allowed access to a 7-1/2-foot wide hallway running the length of the main structure. On each side of the hallway were two rooms and one closet. A common fireplace was shared by each pair of rooms. From the back door of the main structure, the breezeway provided access to the attached kitchens. A short distance beyond the kitchens was a privy. Because cattle of local residents left to forage on Bogue Banks frequently wandered around the cottages, fences were later erected to enclose a small lot around each cottage.
Even with the four cottages ready for use, it was usually necessary for two officers to live in each cottage. When officers were married, it was not uncommon for two officers, their wives and children to share a single cottage. As in the case of Captain Elliott Coues, Assistant Surgeon of the post, who moved into one of the cottages, he, his wife and young daughter shared the cottage with an unmarried officer. Coues’ wife Jeannie included a hand-drawn floor plan of her “cottage by the sea” in a March 12, 1870 letter to her sister, showing their living arrangement. The front right room was occupied by the unmarried officer. The left front room was a common parlor. The rear room on the left was occupied by the Coues family. The right rear room was a common dining room. Only one of the kitchens was used. The other kitchen was used instead as quarters for servants (army regulations made allowance for each captain and lieutenant to hire a servant to cook, clean, wash, etc).
For the remainder of the fort’s occupation during the Reconstruction years, the cottages saw constant use by officers of the garrison. Unfortunately, hard use and constant exposure to the elements began to take a toll on the structures almost immediately. A November 18, 1872 report on the condition of the buildings of the post noted that: “The plastering, brickwork of the fireplaces, woodwork, painting and glazing are all dilapidated, and in bad condition. The boards of the kitchen floor are an inch apart and the kitchens so cold, and full of drafts in winter as to be untenable. The buildings need cleaning, whitewashing, painting and glazing and all the doors and windows need refitting and repairings.”
In his annual report of September 10th, 1874, fort commandant Captain John I. Rodgers wrote that the cottages “were not put up in a workmanlike manner; the window sashes and doors do not fit their frames; the lumber has been in use nine years, and the weather boarding, porches, and shingles are beginning to decay, so that the buildings leak. Extensive repairs will soon be necessary.” The following year, Rodgers’ annual report of September 13, 1875, noted:
“The officers quarters are getting very old and dilapidated. The sills are rotting and the weather-boarding is becoming shaken and sun-cracked from exposure. These houses are reconstructed buildings; they are not susceptible of repairs. They may be patched up and made to do for officers or laundresses for a year or two, but if the post is to be garrisoned for a long time, new quarters for the officers and barracks for the men should be begun soon.”
The War Department did not intend to maintain a garrison at Fort Macon permanently. At the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the fort garrison was withdrawn. Only an ordnance sergeant remained at the post as a caretaker. He took residence with his family in one of the officers’ cottages. The post of Fort Macon remained in caretaker status for most of the remainder of the 19th century. The abandoned buildings of the post suffered greatly from neglect and the effects of storms and the elements. In 1897, the Army did have a brick cistern built to replace a rusted iron cistern at the ordnance sergeant’s cottage, but otherwise no repairs were made to the buildings in this period. During 1898, when the post was occupied again during the Spanish-American War, the officers quarters were probably re-occupied again, although it is doubtful that any further repairs were made to them.
In January, 1902, the poor condition of the cottage occupied by the ordnance sergeant and his family caught the attention of Major J.A. Lundeen, the commander of the post of Fort Caswell, of which Fort Macon was a sub-post. Lundeen reported to Department of the East headquarters that the caretaken should either have quarters rented for him in Beaufort, or else new quarters built for him. Because of the need to retain the ordnance seergeant continuously at the post rather than commute across the harbor from Beaufort, the construction of new quarters for him seemed the only option. However, the Quartermaster Department eventually decided instead to gut the cottage in which he was living, keeping only the framing, and comletely refurnish it inside and out. The cistern was to be enlarged and various other repairs made. A total of $974 was authorized in January, 1903 for this work.
Thus one of the four cottages was completely repaired and placed in almost new condition. The effort and expense to accomplish this soon became pointless, however. The Army decided later that year to close the post of Fort Macon and withdraw the ordnance sergeant. On December 25, 1903, the ordnance sergeant was relieved of duty and the post transferred to the jurisdiction of the Engineer Department. In the weeks following, arrangements were made to sell off the dilapidated buildings remaining on the post, with the exception of the newly-renovated cottage used by the ordnance sergeant.
On March 9, 1904, a sale was held to dispose of the old buildings (which included not only three of the officers’ quarters, but also the post hospital, a storehouse and two small sets of non-commissioned officers’ quarters). In this sale, one of the officer cottages brought $25. The other two cottages brought only $7 each. These and the other old buildings included in the sale were removed.
All that remained now on the Fort Macon Military Reservation were the fort itself and the one repaired officer cottage. During 1904-06, the Engineer Department allowed a foreman working on one of its harbor improvements projects at Beaufort Harbor to live in the cottage, and act as a watchman for the fort. Thereafter the cottage remained abandoned until 1913, when it was finally decided to offer it at public sale. In November, 1913 an offer of $50 was made for the cottage, which the Army subsequently accepted. With the removal of this cottage, the last building on the Fort Macon Military Reservation other than the fort itself was gone.
Today, there are still two tangible reminders of the little row of officers’ quarters that once stood outside Fort Macon. In the woods on the northeast slope of the fort glacis are the remains of a brick fireplace foundation of the kitchen of one of the cottages. Not far away, stand the other reminder. The old brick cistern that once served the one renovated cottage still remains as the first thing visitors see when they walk up to the fort. It has survived long after the cottage it served, and the other three that once stood with it, have passed into history.
Special Source Notes: In addition to the copies of fort records and documents in the collection of Fort Macon State Park, the following sources were consulted for this article: John Darragh Wilkins Papers, W.R, Perkins Library, Duke University; Letters of Jeannie Coues, David Deans collectin, Rochester, N.Y.