2303 East Fort Macon Rd, Atlantic Beach, NC 28512
(252) 726-3775

Spanish-American War-Part I

(published in the Spring ’97 RampartsPart I – Preparing the Fort For War

(published in the Fall ’98 Ramparts)

by Paul Branch, Fort Historian

One hundred years ago this year, the United States and Spain engaged in a brief war which has come to be known as the Spanish-American War. It is frequently overlooked by all but the most serious of historians and yet is it of great importance because, as a result of it, the United States entered the global scene for the first time as a world power. While a few people have probably heard of the once-famous battlecry “Remember the Maine,” or the charge of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders up San Juan Hill, the war still largely remains draped in obscurity. What follows here is the interesting story of Fort Macon and the Spanish-American War, which was to be the second of the three wars in which the fort actively participated.

The roots of Fort Macon’s part in the Spanish-American War of 1898 actually had their beginning more than a decade earlier when President Grover Cleveland convened a special board of fortifications in 1885 under Secretary of War William C. Endicott to revitalize the country’s seacoast defenses based on the new generation of modern weaponry being developed throughout the world at this time. This new weaponry for seacoast defense (modern rapid-fire breech-loading cannons utilizing newly-developed smokeless powder ammunition) had the capability of defeating the new generation of modern steam powered armored warships which were appearing in the last decades of the 19th Century. Augmenting this arsenal would be other developments in harbor defense spawned directly from the American Civil War, including minefields, torpedo boats, search lights and floating batteries.

Because of the scope and cost of such an ambitious defensive program, only the larger and more prominent harbors on the U.S. coast, 26 in number, were scheduled by the Endicott Board to receive these new defenses. In North Carolina, Wilmington’s Fort Caswell was included as one of the 26 sites under this new program. However, Beaufort Harbor’s Fort Macon was not. Beaufort had simply not developed as a commercial trade center of any significant importance in the post-war era to warrant inclusion in the new defensive system. Instead, it was the Endicott Board’s decision that the existing defenses of secondary ports such as Beaufort would be left as they were until the advent of some war emergency, at which time they could be provided with temporary defenses to last only for the duration of the war emergency. Such was the climate of military thinking when war clouds began to gather in early 1898.

At the beginning of 1898, the U.S. and Spain were at odds over the question of independence for Spain’s colony of Cuba. While U.S. sympathies lay strongly with the Cuban revolutionaries seeking to overthrow Spanish rule of their country, President William McKinley stopped short of direct U.S. intervention against Spain. Then, on February 15, 1898, the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor by an explosion attributed at the time to Spanish sabotage set the U.S. and Spain on a collision course for war. Over the next several weeks, though, came the realization the U.S. had a long distance to go to be prepared for a war with one of the European powers. The country’s Regular Army, numbering only 28,000 men, had to be increased ten-fold by the mobilization of state national guards and volunteers. The most immediate concern, however, was the potential threat of the Spanish Navy. For the first time since the War of 1812, the U.S. would be fighting a foreign enemy with a naval capacity of attacking the U.S. coast. If properly fitted out for battle, the Spanish fleet of modern armored steam warships had the potential of being a formidable opponent. Thus the danger to U.S. seaports, especially those on the Gulf and southeastern Atlantic coasts, was quite real. Unfortunately, the U.S. coast defenses were likewise unprepared for this threat. The Endicott Board’s seacoast defense program of the 1880’s had never come close to being finished in 1898 for the 26 primary U.S. seaports, nor had any consideration for temporary defenses for secondary seaports like Beaufort been given.

Despite these drawbacks, the U.S. rose to the occasion. On March 9, 1898, a massive National Defense appropriation was passed by Congress to beef up the military. At the beginning of April, as the prospect of war became more certain, Army engineers were given orders to examine, prepare or push to completion the necessary seacoast defenses for the country’s security. The Regular Army was mobilized and increased in strength. On April 19, Congress authorized U.S. intervention on behalf of Cuba. In effect, this constituted a declaration of war. On April 23, President McKinley issued the first call to the states for 125,000 volunteers. The next day Spain declared war on the U.S., which formally reciprocated on April 25.

Long before this rush of events, the citizens of Beaufort and Morehead City had grown concerned for their safety in the event of war. On February 15, 1898 (only hours before the Maine would be destroyed at Havana), the editors of the Beaufort Herald-Dispatch wrote Senator Marion C. Butler expressing concern over Fort Macon, “which at present, is in a dilapidated condition with a lone sentry in charge of it.” Butler pressed the Secretary of War on the matter but was told on March 9 that Beaufort Harbor was not included in the Endicott Board’s defenses and that no other appropriations were currently available for Fort Macon’s repair. However, the clamor of the citizens of Beaufort and Morehead grew louder over the next several weeks so that at the beginning of April, 1898, Congressmen Harry Skinner and W. F. Stroud both forwarded communications on the subject to the War Department, including a petition from local citizens. The Raleigh Morning Post commented that “a harbor which the government experts decide and report to be worth of the expenditure of three millions of dollars to improve, is surely worthy of protection.”

Whether as a result of the clamoring is not clear, but on April 3, Captain William E. Craighill, Wilmington District Engineer, was ordered to examine Fort Macon and place its armament in order. He arrived at Beaufort with an assistant on April 6. Once at Fort Macon, Craighill found the old fort to be in a dilapidated condition and in charge of only a single caretaker, Ordnance Sergeant Isaac B. Henry. The post had not been garrisoned since April, 1877, at the end of Reconstruction. The only major armament remaining in the fort at this time was of Civil War vintage, consisting of two 100-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons dating from 1863, and two 10-inch mortars dating from 1862. There were also two Civil War 12-pounder “Napoleon” field guns without gun carriages lying on the ground outside the fort.

Craighill put a force of 40 men to work in the fort to prepare it for defense. The casemates were cleaned out and made ready for occupation. One of the 100-pounder Parrott Rifles was moved to the southeast front of the citadel bearing on the bar while the other remained at the northeast angle bearing on the channel and sounds. They were provided with splinter-proof traverses (earthen mounds to shield against enfilade fire) for protection. The two 10-inch siege mortars were grouped into a separate battery adjacent to the south angle of the covertway where they were provided with firing platforms and an “L” shaped traverse for protection. The counterfire gallery under the south angle was turned into a shell magazine for them, with its gunports bricked up. To control drainage of the fort’s Ditch, especially with a new magazine in one of the low-lying counterfire galleries, workers raised the level of the ditch all around by at least one foot and left a drainage channel through its center. Craighill also requested of the Ordnance Department that six rifled field guns be sent to Fort Macon as secondary armament, but was told that none were available.

While these repairs were going on, the local people watched first with great interest and then disdain. They at first thought they would be getting a first class defense with a “mosquito fleet” to protect Beaufort Harbor and two large rapid-fire guns. Rumors stated up to 200 men were working to get Fort Macon in shape for defense. These hopes were soon dashed when it was learned only 40 men were working at the fort to remount its old, rusty Civil War guns. Once again it was felt Beaufort Harbor had been snubbed by the War Department. The engineer work force was dubbed the “Tin Bucket Brigade” and their work declared to be a “perfect farce.” The State’s newspapers took up the issue for a time but there were no plans forthcoming from the War Department to add any further defenses to Beaufort Harbor.

Unmindful of the local resentment, Engineer Captain Craighill concluded the work he had been ordered to do and reported on April 25 that the fort was ready for troops and ammunition. The work force was ordered to Fort Caswell, at Southport, and Craighill was granted an allotment of $2000 from the National Defense appropriation bill to pay for the work done. As for troops to man and guard the armament, Battery C, 6th U.S. Artillery, was ordered up from Washington Barracks to be split up for garrison duty between Fort Macon and Fort Caswell at Southport. Following the battery’s arrival at Fort Caswell on May 12, 2nd Lieutenant Harry G. Bishop and 20 men from the battery were sent to Fort Macon on May 16, which would serve as a sub-post of Fort Caswell.

There were still some loose ends to clear up for Fort Macon’s defense, however. Captain Craighill inspected the fort during May and found other repairs which had to be made. Among other things, the exposed position of the mortar battery as set up on the fort covertway, and the small size of the garrison (only 21 men) made it necessary to move the mortars inside the citadel, where they were set up on new firing platforms in the parade ground. The lack of small secondary armament for the fort was solved by dragging out two old casemate carriages, still lying abandoned in one of the counterfire galleries since the 1870’s, and jury-rigging them to mount the two 12-pounder Napoleon field guns still at the fort. These improvised pieces were mounted on the citadel to help cover the channel and land approaches. Craighill was granted another allotment of $1000 to cover these new expenses. Of the total of $3000 allotted to the defense of Fort Macon, all but $216.65 was spent by July 1.

Thus by May, 1898, Fort Macon had at least some means, however limited, of defending Beaufort Harbor with a small armament and garrison. Obviously, Lieutenant Bishop and his 20 artillerymen were insufficient to offer much defense and additional troops were needed for their support. In our next issue we will describe the controversies regarding the troops sent to Fort Macon.)