Shelter for Buffaloes
(published in the Spring ’97 Ramparts)
by Paul Branch
This rather curious title refers to an interesting series of events that involved Fort Macon in the Civil War. The events in question took place in eastern North Carolina during the first months of 1864 and ended with Fort Macon receiving a controversial new garrison of Union soldiers called “Buffaloes”.
During the Civil War, a sizeable segment of the population of North Carolina, chiefly in the mountains and along the coastal section, remained loyal to the Union and chose to have nothing to do with the Confederacy. The Unionists existed in the same manner that “Tories”, or persons loyal to Great Britain, existed in the Thirteen Colonies during the American Revolution. Just as the Tories took up arms against the Patriots in the Revolution, many North Carolina Unionists fought against their fellow North Carolinians serving in the Confederate Army during the Civil War (including a number of men who deserted from the Confederate Army and switched sides to join the Union Army). Two regiments of these Unionists were recruited and formed as part of the Union Army in North Carolina: the 1st N.C. Union Volunteers in June, 1862, followed in November, 1863, by the 2nd N.C. Union Volunteers. The two regiments were stationed in the various defenses of the Union enclaves of New Bern, Washington and Plymouth during 18 2-64, and also participated in a number of raids and engagements during this period.
As one can imagine, Confederate North Carolinians who encountered them had considerable contempt for these North Carolinians in blue and nicknamed them “Buffaloes”, a term whose exact origin is not entirely clear. It was no surprise that the potential for serious trouble existed whenever these two factions chanced to meet each other in battle. In early 1864, the trouble did in fact come to a boil. Early in February 1864, the forces of Confederate Major General George E. Pickett, of Gettysburg fame, made an unsuccessful attempt to recapture New Bern, N.C. However, his forces did captured almost 400 Union soldiers, some of whom belonged to the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers. Some of the captured Buffaloes were former Confederate soldiers who had deserted and gone over to join the Union Army. In accordance with the articles of war, 22 of these men were tried for desertion by court martial and hanged at Kinston. The executions caused strong protests from Union authorities and was to be the subject of a Congressional hearing after the war.
In the meantime, the executions had a demoralizing effect on the remainder of the two North Carolina Union regiments, whose men now feared a similar fate if captured by the Confederates. Many of these men were also deserters from the Confederate Army and feared that retribution would not only be carried out against them, but possibly their families as well. These fears became so overpowering that the reliability and effectiveness of the two regiments as front-line troops began to diminish rapidly to the point they become a liability for the Union Army. To make matters worse, Confederate forces launched other operations in eastern North Carolina in April and May, 1864, that increased the likelihood some of them would be captured. In a fierce four-day battle, Confederate Brig. General Robert F. Hoke’s forces succeeded in capturing the Union enclave of Plymouth, N.C., on April 20, 1864, along with about 2500 men of its garrison. Included in the garrison were two companies of the 2nd North Carolina Union Vol nteers, many of whose men deserted in fear and escaped down the river before the town was surrendered to avoid being captured.
The capture of Plymouth put the remainder of the two Buffalo regiments into a state of near panic. Union Brig. General Innis N. Palmer wrote his Department Commander from New Bern on April 23 that “Colonel (J.M.) McChesney writes from Little Washington that a portion of his (1st) North Carolina regiment is demoralized; that he…has no confidence in them…They recollect the fate of those recently hanged at Kinston, and the wives, sisters and children of those victims haunt us daily. It becomes matter for some thought as to the best disposition to be made of them. The immense number of women and children with these troops is what perplexes us, for these must be provided for.” On April 26, Washington was ordered to be evacuated and its garrison, including the Buffaloes, withdrawn to New Bern. Two days later, General Palmer wrote again from New Bern: “The 1st N.C. Regiment is here. They have with them some 300 women and children. I shall make the best use of them I can, but these Carolina regiments are great drag upon us at such a time as this.”
Meanwhile, Union Colonel Edward H. Ripley wrote to the District Commander on April 22 from Morehead City that since “the arrival of the news from Plymouth the remainder of the 2nd N.C. Volunteers are much excited. I cannot place the least dependence on them for the defense of Beaufort or any other place. They are utterly demoralized and will not fight. Indeed, they are already looking to the swamps for the protection they have so far failed of getting from our government…Can they not be sent to Fort Macon, out of harm’s way?”
The prospect of concentrating the Buffaloes in the area of Beaufort Harbor and Fort Macon, which constituted the Sub-District of Beaufort, appealed to General Palmer since this was the one area of his command which was least likely to become the scene of a front-line battle. Accordingly, on May 10, 1864, the 1st North Carolina Union Volunteers were transferred to the Sub-District of Beaufort, joining the remainder of the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers who were already there. As Palmer wrote on May 12: “The North Carolina regiments I shall establish at Beaufort and Morehead, a few companies at (Fort) Macon. The families can be established at Beaufort. The town is protected by a line of entrenchments, and as soon as they feel secure they will take heart and, I trust become effective.”
Thus, because of the unreliability of the Buffaloes as front-line troops, the Union Army had been forced to shove them out of the way to continue the business of war. In much the same way troubled or abused persons today find refuge in a shelter in to get their lives back on track, the Buffaloes were shunted off to a sector where they would feel safe and secure. Fort Macon was to serve as one of the keys to their rehabilitation as soldiers. Accordingly, for almost the remainder of the war, Fort Macon would be garrisoned by the Buffaloes. From May, 1864, to March, 1865, only a month before the war ended, four or five companies of the 1st North Carolina Union Volunteers were always stationed at the fort as its garrison, and the remaining companies of the two regiments in other nearby defenses. At the end of February, 1865, the two Buffalo regiments were consolidated into one. Safe behind the entrenchments at Newport, Morehead City and Beaufort, and behind the stout walls of Fort Macon, these controversial soldiers found essentially a shelter in which to finish out the last year of the war and where they would be one less headache for General Palmer and his superiors. In this way they unknowingly provided one of the more interesting, if little known, sidelights of Fort Macon’s history.
In my years as historian of Fort Macon, many people have sought my help in tracing ancestors who served in the Confederate garrison of Fort Macon during the siege and battle of April, 1862. For most Southerners, knowing their ancestors served in the Confederate Army is a source of great personal pride and satisfaction. Unfortunately for several people I have talked with, tracking their ancestor’s military service at Fort Macon ended in a manner for which they were completely unprepared. For instance, one woman said her ancestor was in the Confederate Army in the 1st North Carolina Regiment and supposedly served at Fort Macon in 1864. Yet she had looked through Confederate regimental histories and rosters for this regiment and could not find any mention of her ancestor’s name or any indication the regiment was ever at Fort Macon. Of course, I explained that most likely her ancestor had to be in the 1st North Carolina Union Volunteer regiment, which was in fact stationed at Fort Macon in 1864, and told he the story of the North Carolina “Buffaloes”. The discovery that her ancestor was in one of the Buffalo regiments, of course, came as a complete shock. The woman was completely and utterly devastated. “You mean he was a traitor to the South?” she gasped. The reaction of the other persons who made similar discoveries was essentially the same. Despite the passage of over 130 years, the North Carolina Buffaloes still elicit the strongest emotions of contempt and disdain for many North Carolinians.