2303 East Fort Macon Rd, Atlantic Beach, NC 28512
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The Ante-Bellum Period

(published in the Fall ’97 Ramparts)

by Paul Branch

A very important, and very often overlooked, aspect of Fort Macon’s history is the ante-bellum period between the completion of the fort in 1834 and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Yet these were years of considerable importance, and what follows is a brief overview of the new fort and its pre-Civil War use.

In June, 1833 Brevet Major R.M. Kirby and Company G, 1st U.S. Artillery, arrived at Beaufort Barracks as the intended garrison of Fort Macon, that was then nearing completion by the Engineer Department. The superintending engineer of the fort project reported the new fort would be completed by the end of the year, but Major Kirby discovered much to his surprise and dismay that one very important aspect of the fort had been overlooked by the War Department where would its garrison be quartered? No exterior barracks had been built and the fort’s interior casemates were only damp bare-brick rooms with no finish work or amenities. This was pointed out and finally the War Department was forced to extend construction another year to fit out 18 of the casemates with flooring and plastering for the reception of troops. Finally, the fort was “finished” in 1834 and Major Kirby, still protesting the unhealthiness of quartering troops in damp casemates, moved his company into the fort on December 4, 1834.

Company G numbered 59 officers and men, including a 2nd Lieutenant named John Bankhead Magruder who would go on to achieve considerable fame in the Civil War at Yorktown and Galveston. The new fort in which these men now found themselves was hardly defensible. Just as the troop accommodations had been overlooked by the War Department, so too had the means of defense. The new fort had no cannons, no cannon mounts and none of the three intended hot shot furnaces for defense. Only three 6-pounder field guns which the company itself had brought were available for defense. After Kirby pointed this out to the Engineer Department, a formal armament plan was eventually deveoped that called for the installation of eleven 32 pounders, seventeen 24 pounders, eight 18 pounders, eight 18 pounder- carronades, three 8- inch howitzers and four 10- inch mortars for a total of 51 guns. While this looked fine on paper, the realities of Congressional economizing dictated that neither Fort Macon nor any other of its sister forts would ever be fully armed with its planned armament. What Fort Macon actually received were only seventeen 24 pounders with only 10 gun carriages. The Engineer Department was authorized to build only 14 temporary gun mounts for those guns and only one hot shot furnace,which was to be located in the parade ground. However, before these items were on hand, Major Kirby and his company were ordered to leave for Florida on February 2, 1836, to participate in the Second Seminole War. They also left their field guns behind at Fort Macon.

For the next six years, Fort Macon remained ungarrisoned except for soldiers detailed as caretakers. Usually these caretakers were ordnance sergeants whose main task was to look after and care for the fort’s weaponry. There were periodic visits from inspecting engineers as well.

In December, 1840, Engineer Captain Robert E. Lee made one such inspection of Fort Macon. Lee’s reports of the inspection to the Engineer Department left little doubt Fort Macon needed more attention. The casemates leaked from a defective water system. The magazines were too damp. Modifications were necessary to the fort’s three entrances and its counterfire galleries to make them more defensible. Adjustments were needed to the height of the parapet walls. Permanent brick and stone gun mounts were needed for a total of 54 guns, along with a second hot shot furnace. Outside the fort, shore erosion was threatening the fort site and needed to be arrested by the construction of two permanent stone jetties.

The recommendations of Lee’s reports sparked a second construction phase of alteration and modification at Fort Macon. These began in June, 1841 and lasted through September, 1846. During this period all the items contained in Lee’s reports were addressed, including the expansion of Lee’s shore erosion recommendation of two permanent jetties to six at various points to preserve the beach. Some unforeseen items also had to be addressed. Chief among these was the alarming discovery that the weight of the earth parapet on top of the citadel was pushing the scarp (or exterior) wall of the citadel outward. This necessitated very extensive, costly repairs to excavate the earth fill on top of the citadel and relieve the pressure with concrete fill and masonry buttresses called counterforts. Another unforeseen expense involved the permanent gun mounts, that at first consisted only of granite pintle stones and traverses. Firing the guns in target practice loosened the pintle stones. All had to be repaired by enclosing each pintle stone in a brick “bed.”

While these repairs were in progress, with the end of the Second Seminole War in May, 1842, meant the return of Army units to the forts and military posts for garrison duty. On July 28, 1842, Company F, 3rd U.S. Artillery arrived at Fort Macon as its new garrison. During its stay of over two years, the company included several officers who later became famous. 1st Lieutenant, Edward O.C. Ord, became a major general in the Union Army, commanding successively the XIII, VIII, and XVIII Corps, and the Army of the James in various campaigns in the Western and Eastern theaters. Its 2nd Lieutenant, Alexander P. Stewart, served prominently in the Confederate Army as a corps commander with the rank of lieutenant general in the Army of Tennessee. Its Brevet 2nd Lieutenant, Samuel G. French, was later a major general in the Confederate Army in both the Western and Eastern theaters.

The stay of Company F at Fort Macon was quite difficult with all the workmen and materials of the Engineer Department crowded into the fort at the same time. At one point there was talk of moving the soldiers completely out of the fort so that repairs could be made to the casemates, but this was never carried out. Fortunately, most of the heavier repairs to the fort were completed by the engineers before February 8, 1844, when a portion of Company B, 3rd U.S. Artillery, arrived to join Company F at Fort Macon.

The commander of Company B, Captain John R. Vinton, took charge of the post and, during his brief stay, enjoyed life at Fort Macon more than perhaps any other post commander. He lived, as did all the ante-bellum post commanders, in a large two-story house known as the Eliason House, 600 yards west of the fort. An intelligent, refined man, Vinton undertook the educating of two young drummer boys of the garrison and also of his 9-year-old son who came to live with him . He even had his most cherished possession, a piano, shipped down from the North. Vinton enjoyed keeping company with the eastern North Carolina gentry who spent the summers at Beaufort, and the piano proved to be the hit of parties he hosted for them at his house. Both he and his son wrote a series of letters now in the collection of Duke University which tell of numerous charming incidents of life at ante-bellum Fort Macon. Unfortunately, Vinton’s tenure at Fort Macon was short because orders came reassigning the garrison to other duty. Company F left in October, 1844, followed in November by Vinton and Company B. Three years later, Vinton would go on to become one of the few American officers to killed in action during the Mexican War.

For the next few years, Fort Macon was unoccupied except for its ordnance sergeant and the engineers completing their repairs. The end of the Mexican War once again freed numerous military units for garrison duty and in October, 1848, Company H, 2nd U.S. Artillery, arrived as Fort Macon’s new garrison. Concerned for the well-being of his company, its commander, Captain Henry Swartwout, took a dim view of the condition of the quarters that had been unoccupied for several years and allowed to become rundown. He caustically wrote to the Quartermaster Department: “When it becomes necessary that an officer should be located on a sand bank, the Government should at least be willing to give him comfortable quarters.” Swartwout was able to have a few repairs made, but after only a year, he and his company were ordered to Florida on October 2, 1849, to help quell another uprising of the Seminole Indians. This was Fort Macon’s last ante-bellum garrison.

In the decade that followed the departure of Swartwout’s company, Fort Macon remained ungarrisoned other than several successive ordnance sergeants. Only a few repairs were made by the engineers during this time, although a 50-foot lighthouse was built northwest of the fort during 1854-55. A succession of engineers in charge of this section of the coast made periodic inspections, among whom were several of later fame. Captain George W. Cullum later served as a brigadier general in the Union Army and compiled the monumental Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Lieutenant W.H.C. Whiting became a major general in the Confederate Army and was the defender of Fort Fisher, N.C. in 1865. Captain John G. Foster became a major general in the Union Army commanding the XVIII Corps and the Union Department of North Carolina. Foster also served in the Burnside Expedition into eastern North Carolina in 1862 where his knowledge of Fort Macon’s layout and the locations of its gunpowder magazines proved invaluable for Union artillerymen during the bombardment of Fort Macon.

Largely, though, Fort Macon was neglected during this period because of Congressional economizing. It steadily deteriorated from disuse and the assaults of the elements. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the Fort was in a deplorable condition. “It was at that time,” wrote Engineer Captain Foster, “in bad repair: the woodwork of the quarters and barracks and of one of the drawbridges required renewing and painting, the iron work, and door and window fastenings were much rusted, the shingled interior slope was very much rotted, and the masonry in many places required repointing. The embankment of the Causeway needed repairing, and the bridge across the canal to be rebuilt. A few guns (four, I believe) were mounted on the southeast, or sea front, but the carriages were decayed and weak.” Such was the condition of Fort Macon at the end of the ante-bellum period in 1861. In the next edition of Fort Macon Ramparts an article will examine how Confederate soldiers first took over the fort at the beginning of the Civil War.

Paul Branch is the Ranger Historian at Fort Macon State Park