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

The Confederate Defense-Part I

by Paul Branch

(published in the Fall ’00 Ramparts)

In the previous installment of The Fort Macon Ramparts (Summer, 2000) an article by Micky Magee illuminated the operations of Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside’s expedition in North Carolina, culminating with the siege and capture of Fort Macon. In part one of the present article, the Confederate defense of Fort Macon is recalled, detailing the odds and problems faced by the defenders in gray.

During most of the day of Thursday, March 13, 1862, a northeast wind brought the heavy rumble of gunfire from the direction of the Neuse River to the anxious ears of Confederate soldiers defending Fort Macon. They correctly guessed that the Union forces of Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside must be making the long-awaited advance up the Neuse River to capture the city of New Bern, second largest city in North Carolina some 35 miles to the northwest. Indeed, the gunfire was from a Union gunboat fleet covering the landing of Burnside’s forces on the south bank of the river and their subsequent advance toward the city.

On the following day, after a bitterly contested battle with Confederate forces defending the city, Burnside’s troops succeeded in capturing New Bern. Along with it, the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad, Fort Macon’s supply line, fell into Union hands. Fort Macon was now cut off from the rest of the state and remained the only major Confederate stronghold on the North Carolina coast north of Wilmington. It would be only a matter of days before Burnside’s powerful forces could be expected to advance down to Beaufort Harbor to effect the capture of Fort Macon, too.

The events leading up to this moment of truth began with the seizure of Fort Macon the previous year by local secessionist militia on April 14, 1861, for the defense of North Carolina at the start of the War Between the States. Fort Macon was originally one of the seacoast forts of the national defense chain, begun after the War of 1812, known as the Third System. It was built during 1826-34 on the eastern end of Bogue Banks to guard the entrance to Beaufort Harbor, the second largest seaport in the state.

Once Fort Macon was in Confederate hands, a Herculean effort was put forth to prepare the run-down, long-neglected fort for war. Troops were rushed to fill the fort’s casemates. Cannons were procured from Charleston, Richmond and Norfolk. Various preparations were made during the summer of 1861 to make the fort defensible and enable it to meet the warships of the Union Navy, which were expected to attack Beaufort Harbor at any time.

The Union Navy had other ideas, however, and first attacked Hatteras Inlet instead, capturing two Confederate earthwork forts there with the overwhelming superiority of its heavy- caliber naval gunfire on August 28-29, 1861. This engagement demonstrated that other Confederate coastal defenses in North Carolina, including Fort Macon, were inadequate to defend properly against the heavy caliber long-ranged guns of the Union Navy.

During the months which followed, efforts were made to acquire more heavy columbiad cannons (the largest-caliber class of Army seacoast cannons) and long-ranged rifled cannons for Fort Macon to compete with the Union naval guns should a naval attack be made against the fort. To guard Bogue Banks against an amphibious landing of Union Army forces to attack the fort by land, elements of the 7th and 26th North Carolina regiments were stationed on the banks and in the immediate area during the fall and winter to support the fort.

Although there were several false alarms of impending attack during the fall of 1861, the Union Navy only attempted to blockade the entrance to Beaufort Harbor and otherwise kept its distance from Fort Macon.

The new year of 1862, however, brought a different threat in the form of Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s 12,000- man amphibious expedition to eastern North Carolina. After entering Hatteras Inlet, Burnside’s forces were able to capture the Confederate stronghold on Roanoke Island on February 7-8, 1862, and secure the northeast sound region of the coast. New Bern was correctly guessed to be Burnside’s next target, although it was not until March 11 that Burnside finally began to move against it.

In the meantime, Confederate forces tried to consolidate their defenses to meet the threat. Various Confederate units were stripped from other defenses to protect New Bern. This included the infantry regiments which had spent the winter near Fort Macon, and three infantry companies in Fort Macon’s garrison. The fort was left with five heavy artillery companies as its garrison, the largest number of men which could be sheltered in the fort itself in case of siege.

Enough provisions were sent to the fort to give a seven month supply for its garrison. The fort was left to fend for itself as all eyes now turned to New Bern. Despite Confederate efforts, Burnside captured the city on March 14, 1862, leaving his way clear to his third and final objective- Fort Macon.

With the fall of New Bern, Fort Macon’s commander, Colonel Moses James White, was forced to take a long, hard look at the odds which faced him. The 27-year old West Pointer knew he faced serious limitations. His garrison consisted of five heavy artillery companies: Company B (Captain Henry T. Guion), Company F (Lieutenant Daniel Cogdell), Company G (Captain James L. Manney), and Company H (Captain Stephen D. Pool) of the 10th North Carolina (1st Artillery) regiment; and Company F (Captain Richard H. Blount) of the 40th North Carolina (3rd Artillery) regiment. No one had any battle experience. Colonel White, though a West Pointer, was a staff ordnance officer rather than a line officer. Of his five company commanders, Guion was a civil engineer, Cogdell and Manney were doctors, Pool was a teacher and newspaper editor, and Blount was a merchant.

According to muster rolls compiled on February 28, 1862, the paper strength of Fort Macon’s garrison was 484 officers and men. In reality, though, this was not the true total of men actually present for duty. Many men were sick at home or in field hospitals. Some of them were discharged over the next few days due to prolonged sickness. Others were on furlough, leave of absence or special assignment. After the fall of New Bern, the fort garrison actually numbered 441. The general health of the men was not good.

Stocks of provisions were on hand in the fort for seven months, although there were some shortages of certain types of small stores. Much of the salt beef on hand would become rancid before the siege ended. Ammunition stocks were adequate, but the supply of gunpowder was not. The fort had a total of about 35,000 pounds of gunpowder on hand, which was estimated to be only enough for three days of sustained firing by the fort’s armament (the fort’s two largest cannons normally consumed eighteen pounds of gunpowder each time they fired). Most all of this was the course-grained type of gunpowder used as the propellant charge to fire the cannons. Lacking was the type of fine-grained gunpowder used as the bursting charge for explosive ammunition. Without the fine-grained powder, the fort’s shells would not explode with complete effectiveness.

The fort’s armament was adequate against a sea attack: two 10-inch and five 8-inch smoothbore columbiads (the largest calibers available to the Confederacy at the time), a rifled 6-inch columbiad, four old 32-pounder smoothbore cannons converted into rifled guns, eighteen 32-pounders, eighteen 24-pounders, and six stubby 32-pounder carronades for flanking defense in the galleries under the outer wall. The 24- and 32-pounders were heavy smoothbore cannons weighing between two and three tons each capable of firing cannonballs of the weight indicated over a mile with normal elevation. The rifled cannons had ranges of three to five miles with accuracy. The 8- and 10-inch columbiads were very large smoothbore cannons capable of firing large projectiles of the diameter indicated at ranges of two to three miles. The fort’s largest cannon was a 10-inch columbiad weighing 15,998 pounds, which fired a 10-inch, 128-pound cannonball.

Absent from the fort’s armament, however, were mortars to defend the landward side. These stubby cannons lobbed explosive shells into the air to drop among attackers from above. Even if enemy troops were hidden behind sand dunes or in trenches or foxholes, a mortar could still reach them. The Confederates had known all along that mortars were needed to complete the fort’s defenses, but there had been little need of them as long as Confederate infantry regiments guarded Bogue Banks during the fall and winter against an enemy landing.

Now that the infantry had all been withdrawn to try to defend New Bern, Fort Macon’s landward side lay exposed and unsupported. It was too late to procure any mortars now to guard the landward side. If Burnside’s troops attempted to besiege the fort on the landward side, as they surely would, the fort’s regular flat-trajectory guns could do little to reach them once they entrenched behind the sand dunes.

Once New Bern had fallen, Colonel White’s first concern was the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad. Previously it had been Fort Macon’s supply line to New Bern; now it was a ready-made line of communications and supply for any of Burnside’s forces advancing toward Beaufort Harbor. On March 18, White sent a detachment of soldiers to Newport, where they burned the railroad bridge over the Newport River. The detachment also destroyed some military barracks and a hospital building at Carolina City, three miles west of Morehead City, and finally tore up almost a mile of railroad track at Morehead City. The railroad iron was carried back over to the fort.

On March 23, the inevitable happened. A boatload of Union officers came over to the fort from Morehead City under a flag of truce to demand the fort’s surrender. Back on March 19, Union General Burnside had dispatched a portion of his Third Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General John G. Parke, from New Bern to effect the capture of Fort Macon. Parke’s advance had reached Carolina City on March 22 and then Morehead City on the morning of the 23rd. While Parke’s surrender demand of course was refused by Colonel White, it signified that the enemy had finally arrived and was ready to fight.

Early on the morning of March 26, Parke’s forces quietly took possession of Beaufort as well. Parke planned to begin siege operations against the fort as soon as he could bring down heavy siege cannons by railroad. The destruction of the Newport River railroad bridge had caused a great deal of hardship and delay to Parke’s operations but it was soon repaired. On March 29, his forces finally landed on Bogue Banks. The siege had begun.

White continued with his preparations for battle, meanwhile. Ammunition was prepared and readied for each kind of gun. The men were vigorously trained on the guns they would be assigned to use in battle. Sand bags were placed to raise the parapet and reduce the exposure of the guns bearing on the sea front. On March 23 a bark near the fort wharf was burned to prevent capture. On the 25th, a large house about 600 yards from the fort was burned to prevent its use by the enemy. Various buildings outside the fort were demolished because they were in the fort’s line of fire, including the 50-foot Bogue Banks Lighthouse. Any boatloads of Union soldiers seen passing between Morehead and Beaufort were fired upon.

The mental strains imposed on the fort’s garrison over their situation began to take a toll early on. The sick list began to grow. Since Manney’s, Pool’s and much of Cogdell’s companies were composed of men from the Beaufort/Morehead area, concerns were high over the well-being of their families which were now under Union occupation. Their homes were in sight and yet they were in a situation where they were powerless to help or check on their loved ones.

In desperation they fashioned small toy boats containing letters and messages which were released into the inlet on the incoming tide in the hope the messages would somehow be carried across the harbor to shore to reach their loved ones. When Colonel White made it known he would not hesitate to shell the towns should Union forces attempt to place siege batteries there to bombard the fort, both the townspeople and the local men in the garrison were horrified. Although White’s announcement had the desired effect of discouraging General Parke from placing artillery in the towns to fire on the fort, an undercurrent of discontent began to manifest itself in the local men of the garrison. They decided they would obey no order to fire on the towns.

A number of men in Pool’s company decided they were dissatisfied with the whole situation and made plans to desert so they could go home. Since Pool maintained the picket posts along Bogue Banks, it would be a simple matter for them to slip away while on picket duty and give themselves up to the enemy. Starting on March 29, Union soldiers began landing on Bogue Banks at Hoop Pole Creek, about five miles west of the fort. At this time, a group of Pool’s men not only deserted but then helped Union officers conduct a reconnaissance of the area. Over the days which followed, more of Pool’s men also deserted and gave themselves up to the enemy, making seventeen in all.

As if this was not bad enough, an extraordinary incident now took place in the fort which added further fuel to the discontent. One of the men of the garrison had been a baker before the war and, because the fort had a large supply of flour on hand, Colonel White ordered that the flour be baked into bread for the garrison as a change of diet rather than be issued to the individual companies. At first everyone was agreeable to this, but the baker was unable to produce any loaves which were edible. As the days went by with no change in the poor quality, the men clamored for their flour ration to be returned to them. White refused to give in to the grumbling and insisted on continuing the experiment.

Soon the five company commanders sided with their men and sent a petition to White to dispense with the baked bread. When White refused to back down, the company commanders issued an ultimatum on the morning of April 8 stating unless the flour ration was returned by 9 a.m., they would send detachments to the commissary to take it. A furious White threatened to arrest the officers and place a guard over the commissary but finally realized there was no one in the angry garrison who would serve as his guards. Five minutes before the deadline, he relented and ordered the flour ration returned.

The “Bread Incident” was an unfortunate study of how a small incident can be magnified by stress and tension in the face of a growing crisis. For eight local men of Manney’s, Pool’s and Cogdell’s companies, the incident was the last straw. They deserted from the fort that night. The bitterness of the incident lingered for a time but the garrison’s determination to hold out did not wane. To the tune of Dixie, they sang: “If Lincoln wants to save his bacon, He’d better keep away from old Fort Macon, Look away . . .”

On the night of April 9, Colonel White sent out an officer and seven men in a boat to escape to Confederate lines with dispatches and to request reinforcements to break the siege. The boat slipped past Union ships and succeeded in reaching friendly lines. Unfortunately, there were insufficient Confederate forces available in the state to advance against Parke’s forces to break the siege.

In the meantime, General Parke had been steadily ferrying his troops, guns and equipment over to Bogue Banks at Hoop Pole Creek. In all he brought over 21 companies of infantry and artillery (about 1500 men). His next step was to establish siege positions in front of the fort and place his siege artillery to bombard the fort into surrender.

On April 11, he made a reconnaissance in force up the beach to within 3/4 mile of the fort, driving in the pickets of Captain Pool’s company. Sites for three siege batteries were chosen in the sand dunes and then Parke’s forces retired back to camp. On the following day, Parke repeated the operation but then had his forces dig in permanently behind the sand dunes in front of the fort about 1200 yards away. They were here to stay. The fort’s cannon fire had little effect on them once they were in position under the cover of the dunes. Manney’s company was sent out of the fort that afternoon to attack, but was unable to dislodge the Union soldiers.

Parke now spent the next week and a half constructing emplacements for three batteries of siege guns: one of four 10-inch siege mortars 1680 yards from the fort; one of three 30-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons 1480 yards from the fort; and one of four 8-inch mortars 1280 yards from the fort.

During this time, there was deep frustration in the fort at being unable to do much harm to the Union soldiers working on their siege positions. It was almost impossible to tell where the Union soldiers were in the sand dunes or where they were working. Even establishing a lookout high up on the fort’s flagpole offered only minimal help.

The fort periodically shelled the area but its projectiles did not explode properly. This was caused by the fort’s lack of the fine-grained gunpowder needed for the bursting charges of shells. The course-grained powder used for propellent charge of the cannon was all the Confederates had available to substitute and this did not burst the shells effectively. Also, there were problems with the fuses of the fort’s large columbiad shells which likewise reduced their effectiveness. The most serious problem of all, however, was the lack of mortars to lob shells behind the sand dunes where the enemy was working. As a result, minimal harm was caused to the Union soldiers.

In desperation to achieve a lobbing effect with the fort’s guns, White had six 32-pounder carronades dragged out of the counterfire galleries under the outer wall and established in a battery on the northwest front facing the enemy. These stubby naval broadside cannons were then jacked up at a 40 degree angle to be fired into the air as improvised mortars. The fort’s two 10-inch columbiads were also elevated at a high angle to get the same effect. Although it was a valiant effort, the fire from these guns was in no way as effective as that of a mortar.

The fort’s garrison was too weak numerically to drive the Union soldiers out of their entrenched position. The number of men present was now down to 403 after losses through desertions, sending off the boat crew, and one death from disease. Sickness was now rampant throughout the garrison to the extent that no more than 300 men were present for duty on any given day. It was noted that some of the diseases were “of a nature that renders the handling of heavy guns or any great bodily exertion entirely out of the question.”

The fort’s pickets at times made aggressive demonstrations in front of the Union position trying to coax the Union soldiers out of the sand dunes to fight, but were unsuccessful. Whenever Union soldiers did appear out from behind cover as a suitable target during the course of their work, they frequently disappeared again before the fort’s guns could get a shot at them. This was primarily due to the fact the gunners had to seek permission from Colonel White before they could open fire. White had instituted this practice in the interest of conserving the fort’s limited ammunition, but usually the opportunity to shoot was lost before permission could be obtained. This was particularly galling to the fort’s five company commanders, who felt the lack of being able to aggressively use the fort’s great firepower at their discretion was allowing Parke to complete his siege operations almost unhindered.

On April 21, the five company commanders presented their views on this subject to Colonel White. White agreed and allowed them to fire aggressively on the enemy at will at their own discretion. This new policy was put to the test that same night when General Parke sent a detachment of his soldiers forward to establish an advanced post for sharpshooters only 600 yards from the fort. A blast of gunfire from the fort dispersed the Union soldiers and wounded two of them.

The fort’s fire was much more aggressive over the next few days, at one point keeping a Union detachment in an advanced picket post pinned down for 48 hours without proper food or water. Unfortunately for the Confederates, by this point most of the work on the Union siege batteries had been completed.

On April 23, Union General Burnside came down through Core Sound with his flagship Alice Price and two floating batteries. He joined the Union gunboat Ellis anchored off Harker’s Island. The vessels were immediately forced to retreat by long-range fire from the fort’s rifled columbiad. That afternoon, however, another demand for surrender was delivered to the fort by Burnside. Even though he refused it, Colonel White agreed to a parley with Burnside on Shackleford Banks on the morning of April 24 to discuss the matter further.

On the 24th, White and Captain Guion met with Burnside and his officers on Shackleford but remained steadfast not to give up the fort without a fight. When the parley ended, Burnside gave orders to Parke for the siege batteries to open fire on the fort that afternoon. However, last minute work on the three siege batteries caused a delay until the morning of April 25.

The Spring issue of The Fort Macon Ramparts will feature the conclusion of The Confederate Defense of Fort Macon, culminating in the bombardment and surrender of the fort. The author of this article, Paul Branch, is a Park Ranger and Historian at Fort Macon State Park. He is the author of the definitive history of Fort Macon.