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Spanish-American War-Part II

(published in the Spring ’99 Ramparts)

by Paul Branch, Fort Historian

This is the second part of an article describing the role played by Fort Macon during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The first part of the article, which dealt with the rearming of the Fort in preparation for the assignment of a new garrison, was published in the last issue of Ramparts. The first troops assigned were a small detachment of twenty men of the 6th U. S. Artillery. Obviously, these few men would not be sufficient to offer much defense for the Fort and the strategic harbor which the Fort Guarded. Additional troops were needed.

When President McKinley’s first call for volunteers was made to the states, North Carolina Governor Daniel L. Russell was asked to provide two regiments of infantry and a battery of artillery as the state’s quota. Two regiments of North Carolina National Guard were quickly earmarked for this duty but Russell requested the artillery battery be changed to a battalion of black infantry. It turned out that across the nation, black citizens saw the war as a chance to show their patriotism, and to earn equality and respect as first class citizens in the eyes of the white community. The eagerness with which thousands of black men volunteered for service could not be ignored. In North Carolina, Governor Russell was particularly sympathetic to their cause since his election in 1896 had in large measure been made possible by the political “fusion” of black Republicans and Populists. The enthusiastic martial spirit of the black community and his political indebtedness caused Russell to push for authorization for mustering a black infantry battalion for federal service in addition to the two white National Guard regiments already called up. The War Department consented and a battalion of three infantry companies, dubbed “Russell’s Black Battalion,” was immediately formed. Russell also took a further step which, though politically motivated, was progressive for its time. He appointed a complete slate of black commissioned officers to lead the battalion. Up until now, prevailing War Department policy had been that black troops must fight under white officers. This was an ongoing point of contention with the black community across the nation which demanded the right of having black officers leading black troops. “No officers, no fight!” was a rallying cry by the black community in the early weeks of the war. Ultimately, only three states (Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina) would listen by mustering in large units of black troops with black officers. Russell’s Black Battalion appears to have been the first large black volunteer unit to enter U.S. service with all black officers. Command of the battalion was given to Major James H. Young, of Raleigh. A graduate of Shaw University, Young was a prominent educator, black Republican legislator, editor of the Raleigh Gazette, and an important ally of Governor Russell.

Despite the progressive overtones, the black battalion was largely viewed by the white community with a mixture of curiosity, suspicion and disdain. These were times of great racial unrest in North Carolina where the fires of resentment on the part of whites still smoldered in the wake of Reconstruction. To many, the carpetbaggers, “scalawags,” blacks and Republicans of the Reconstruction Era were all lumped together as being responsible for the turbulence of those years. Now the current era of “Fusion Politics” in the state as characterized by the Russell administration seemed in some ways to be an attempt to return to those days. Russell’s political enemies in the Democratic Party sought to use his liberal attitude toward blacks as a means to weaken him by playing upon the fears of a return to “Negro rule.” Unfortunately, the Black Battalion was to become a tempting target to use in discrediting Russell. All parties involved, including Major Young and his men, realized that in many ways the Black Battalion was an experiment which would end either in credit or discredit. Given the racial and political climate, state officials had to be careful in their treatment of the battalion during its mustering in. The first question was where to muster it in? It was felt this would be best accomplished in a part of the state away from large populations of whites where there would be less likelihood of any racial trouble. Colonel B. S. Royster of the State Adjutant General’s Office toured the eastern part of the state to select a suitable campground for the battalion. After consulting with Army officers and engineers at Fort Caswell he learned of the situation at Fort Caswell’s sub-post of Fort Macon. Not only were more troops needed there, but it was also remote and situated in an area with only a small white population. The decision was made that Fort Macon would be the site of the battalion’s camp. During May, arrangements were made for the battalion to go into camp and be equipped at Fort Macon. Lieutenant Francis C. Marshall of the U.S. Army had a camp of 50 tents in preparation outside the fort when on May 30 the three companies of the battalion, totaling 380 men, arrived at Morehead City aboard a specially chartered train. The battalion took possession of its camp and was formally mustered into service. Fort Macon now had a suitable garrison. Taking a look at the overall situation as it now stood, the entire defense of Beaufort Harbor which the Army had thrown together was an incredible hodge-podge. A handful of white artillerymen from the U.S. Regular Army, supported by black state infantry troops, were to offer defense from an obsolete 68-year old fort against modern armored Spanish warships using obsolete 35-year old muzzle-loading Civil War guns!

Meanwhile, the political intrigue surrounding Russell’s Black Battalion did not end with its arrival at Fort Macon. On May 25, 1898, President McKinley issued a second call to the states for 75,000 more volunteers. Under this call, North Carolina would be able to call up additional troops and Governor Russell seized the opportunity to please his black constituents across the state by calling more black volunteers into service. It was decided that seven additional companies would be formed and added to the three already at Fort Macon to expand the Black Battalion into a full regiment. Most of the new companies would be made up of groups of volunteers selected from 14 towns across the state. As with the battalion, all regimental officers would be black. Arrangements were made for 190 more tents and equipment to be sent to Fort Macon for them, and orders were issued for the new companies to rendezvous at Fort Macon on June 30. At first there was a question whether there was room for a camp of ten companies numbering over 1000 men outside the fort but all were easily accommodated. In July, the ten companies were formally mustered into service as the Third North Carolina Infantry, with Major Young promoted as its colonel.

Life at Fort Macon now settled down to routine camp life and garrison duty. One of the officers of the 3rd N.C. wrote soon after his arrival: “We are having a good time and getting plenty to eat, three meals a day. There are no hard times here. Uncle Sam gives us beef, meats, meal, flour, and sometimes when we are in a hurry and have not time to cook bread, we have hard bread, better known as ‘hard tack’. Drill twice a day. Go on duty 9:30 a.m. and drill until 12:30. Dress parade at 4 o’clock p.m.” The Morehead City Pilot reporting on the 3rd N.C.’s camp, now known as Camp Russell in honor of the Governor, stated: “The health of the camp is excellent, and the men all seem contented and happy. They have comfortable quarters, are well fed, well drilled, and perform light duties.” Soon the men became well known for their fine performance on parade. At first there were some restrictions on the movements of the black soldiers, however. Initially they were not allowed to go inside the fort, which was occupied by Lieutenant Bishop’s detachment of white Regular artillerymen. For a time they were also not allowed to go into Morehead City or Beaufort, although this was later changed. As was inevitable with any military command, there were losses and changes to personnel during the summer. One black recruit drowned in the surf only the morning after his arrival at camp. Another died in September. A total of eleven men deserted during the summer. During the firing of a salute from Fort Macon’s guns on the Fourth of July, a premature discharge severely injured one of Lieutenant Bishop’s white Regular artillerymen. On July 15, Lieutenant Bishop and his detachment of men from Battery C, 6th U.S. Artillery, were ordered back to Fort Caswell. They were replaced by a smaller detachment of 12 men and a sergeant from Battery I, 2nd U.S. Artillery.

The local reaction to all the events going on at Fort Macon, meanwhile, was one of great curiosity. Although the reservation was normally closed to the public, at one point enterprising parishioners of the Methodist Church in Beaufort were able to raise money for the church by arranging a boat trip to the fort and a view of the black troops for 25 cents a person. By August, restrictions on the troops going into town had been lifted and the sight of black soldiers became common. It was not long before racial trouble began to brew, however. Any town adjacent to a military camp could expect a certain degree of problems with soldiers getting into trouble and going astray. Ordinarily, this was to be expected but because these men were black soldiers from Governor Russell’s pet regiment the problems were seized upon and broadcast with glee by the Democratic press across the state.

At first there were complaints of the black soldiers drinking whiskey on the train as they traveled to or from their homes on furlough. Then, on August 20, the Morehead City Pilot complained of the soldiers during the past week being permitted “to roam at large all over this city in squads of five to twenty, unaccompanied by any commissioned officer; to drink liquor, quarrel and fight among themselves and with others; to remain away from the camp overnight reveling in places of disrepute outside of the city limits . . .” In one instance, a soldier convicted of drunkenness and breaking out of jail with the help of another soldier was ordered to pay a fine. When he could not pay, the Marshall and several assistants went over to the 3rd N.C.’s camp to carry the offender back to jail. However, several hundred soldiers crowded around the authorities to prevent them from carrying away their comrade. This tense situation was finally averted when Colonel Young intervened and promised he would take care of having the condemned man given military punishment himself. Other instances were cited of soldiers “insolently defying the authority of our city government, and insulting our citizens by their impudence and offensive language and conduct.”

Such occurrences were commonplace in any ‘military town’ but were conveniently blown out of proportion by the press as a means of disgracing Governor Russell. Numerous derogatory articles on the regiment can be found in state newspapers at this time. This criticism was not just limited to the soldiers but was also directed particularly at Colonel Young. The Raleigh News and Observer was the worst of the Democratic newspapers for attacking Young during both his political as well as military careers. Years later, even the News and Observer’s editor Josephus Daniels had to admit that his paper had been “pretty severe” on Young, and that his men “made much better soldiers than anybody expected.”

During the summer of 1898, American forces were victorious over both Spain’s battle fleet at sea and its forces on land. On August 12, 1898, after a conflict of just over three and a half months the U.S. and Spain signed a peace protocol ending the war. The news actually came as a great disappointment to the men of the 3rd N.C. who had patiently awaited orders to go to Cuba to fight. Now they would be unable to prove themselves in battle. They feared the only military service which lay ahead of them now was dreary garrison and camp duty until they were mustered out of service. After all their enthusiasm for the chance to prove themselves in battle, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

The 3rd N.C. would remain at Fort Macon more than a month after the signing of the protocol until orders finally came transferring them to a camp at Knoxville. Camp Russell was disbanded on September 14 and the next day three special trains carried the regiment away. Along the route, black citizens turned out to cheer the trains as they passed through. The Morehead City Pilot dourly summed up the local viewpoint: “Joy go with them and peace behind them.” Unfortunately, the regiment’s fears of being stuck now only in camp duty proved a reality. It was shifted between two different army camps before finally being mustered out in February, 1899. Trouble and controversy continued to plague the regiment to the end.

Back at Fort Macon, the departure of the 3rd N. C. left only the tiny detachment of Battery I, 2nd U.S. Artillery, still at the fort. At the beginning of October, 1898, this detachment was recalled to Fort Caswell. With all the excitement over, Ordnance Sergeant Isaac B. Henry was now alone again settling down to his peaceful duty as the sole caretaker of Fort Macon. Thus ended the fort’s second occupation for war. Five years later the Army would close and abandon Fort Macon for good..