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The Confederate Defense-Part II

by Paul Branch

(published in the Spring ’01 Ramparts)

In the previous installment of The Fort Macon Ramparts (Fall, 2000), the first part of the Confederate Defense of Fort Macon recounted the problems faced by Colonel Moses J. White and the Confederate garrison of Fort Macon during the siege operations of Union General John G. Parke against the fort in March and April, 1862. Now, on the eve of battle with Union guns ready to open fire on the fort, the Confederate defenders waited to see what dawn of April 25, 1862, would bring.

On the eve of battle, it is not known what was happening in Fort Macon, but Colonel Moses J. White and his garrison knew that the enemy was now ready to open fire at any time. They must have readied their guns and ammunition, and made last minute preparations for whatever the morning of April 25, 1862, would bring. At some point they protected the three eastern walls fronting the parade ground inside by positioning stacks of railroad rails taken from Morehead City upright against the walls to ward off enemy projectiles flying over the wall from the opposite side.

Dawn came. At 5:30 a.m. on the morning of April 25, 1862, the usual morning roll call of the garrison showed 263 men present for duty out of 403. The rest were sick.

At 5:40 a.m., the Union batteries opened fire on Fort Macon for the first time. At 6 a.m. the fort began to return fire with at least 21 of its guns which could bear on the landward side. Just before 9 a.m., four gunboats of the Union Blockading Squadron in the ocean off Beaufort Inlet joined in the action with their guns from offshore. Confederates turned some of the fort’s guns to face them and hit two of them with cannon fire. One of these was the squadron commander’s ship which had an 8-inch columbiad shot pass almost completely through the ship, missing the engine and main steam line by only six inches. After less than an hour and a half the ships had had enough. They retired out of range and did not return to the fight again. The fort had won the first round. Northeast of the fort, efforts to get Burnside’s two floating batteries into action in the sound were largely unsuccessful due to wind and choppy seas. One battery was able to deliver some long-ranged fire against the fort but the effort was soon given up as ineffective. It was all up to the land batteries. During the morning, the Union 10-inch mortar battery suffered great damage from the fort’s fire. By 11 a.m. so much of the embankment protecting its gunners had been shot away the gun crews were exposed from the waist up and were forced to take cover. The battery was thus silenced for a time. The Parrott Rifle battery and the 8-inch mortar battery continued to fire but for much of the morning their shots had been missing the fort. The heavy smoke from the fort’s guns obscured the fort so that Union gunners could not tell where they were hitting. Many of their shots were overshooting the fort and hitting in the inlet. This might have gone on all day had not Union officers manning a signal station on the top story of the Atlantic Hotel in Beaufort taken it upon themselves to signal range corrections to the batteries to help their shots zero in on the fort through the smoke. These men were lucky enough to be in a perfect position to see where the artillery fire was falling and kept the Union guns on target. Their actions marked the turning point of the battle.

With the Union artillery projectiles now falling steadily into the fort, it was the Confederates’ turn to be driven to cover. The fort’s fire slackened and the smoke began to clear. By noon every Union shot seemed to hit the fort or explode over it. Particularly destructive were the three 30-pounder Parrott Rifle cannons. Even from almost 1500 yards away, their phenomenal accuracy was greater than what smoothbore cannons could have accomplished at half that range. They caused great damage to the fort’s walls and knocked out a number of the fort’s guns. One single Parrott projectile hit three of the fort’s largest guns in succession, knocking out two of them, killing three men and wounding five. Another actually went through the stacks of railroad iron leaning against the fort’s walls. Some of them were able to break through into some of the fort’s casemates and wound some of the men inside. One of these took off the leg of a man lying sick in his bunk. Of greatest concern to the Confederates in the fort, however, was the fact the rifled guns had the pinpoint accuracy to enable Union gunners to concentrate fire at specific sections of the fort’s walls where the fort’s gunpowder magazines were located. Since the fort was a former U.S. Army installation, the Union gunners knew the layout of the fort and exactly where to concentrate their cannon fire to reach the magazines. Colonel White had been active all morning, encouraging his men and directing the battle. Unmindful of the enemy fire, he made rounds visiting each of the fort’s batteries repeatedly, including the heavily exposed batteries on the outer wall. By 1 p.m., his frail health had failed him and he was forced to retire to his quarters to regain his strength. Captain Guion assumed command of the fort during his absence.

By mid-afternoon, it was clear the Confederate defense had spent itself. Such a concentration of fire was being poured onto the fort that by 2 p.m. only two or three guns were returning fire at intervals of every five minutes. Later, this increased to every fifteen to twenty minutes. Union observers could see Confederate cannoneers rushing up to the ramparts to fire two or three guns during these intervals until the Union fire drove them back to cover again. During one of these lulls, a Union soldier working on top of the 10- inch mortar battery to reset aiming stakes was unable to get to cover in time when the fort suddenly began firing again. He was hit squarely in the chest with a 32-pounder cannonball and killed instantly. About 3:30 p.m. a seemingly last ditch effort was made by the fort garrison to return fire with all guns which had not been knocked out. One of the Parrott rifles was temporarily disabled by a Confederate shot which shattered one of its wheels. By 4 p.m., most of the fort’s guns were silent once again.

Meanwhile, about 2:30 p.m. Captain Guion met with the other company commanders and held a council of officers to review the situation. It was not good. Many of the fort’s most important guns had been knocked out. Enemy fire was so hot Captains Manney and Pool had withdrawn their gun crews from the exposed batteries on the outer wall. The garrison was exhausted as a result of its poor state of health and there was no one to afford reliefs to the gun crews. The fort’s walls had provided shelter against the bombardment so that only seven men had been killed, but the lives of everyone else in the fort were about to become in jeopardy. The enemy had concentrated so much fire on the wall adjacent to the southwest gunpowder magazine that the wall was cracking and would soon be breached. Then the magazine and the 10,000 pounds of gunpowder it contained would be completely exposed to the enemy fire. A magazine detonation would, of course, cause the complete destruction of the fort and its garrison.

It was clear the fort could not hold out, especially when faced with the explosion of its magazines. The officers then met at Colonel White’s quarters where the conclusion was reached there was no choice except surrender. Burnside’s previous conditions for surrender had been that the garrison would be paroled and allowed to return home to await exchange. White and his officers could only hope the offer was now still good. At about 4:30 p.m., a white flag was displayed from the fort, bringing the bombardment to a stop. Thereafter, Captains Pool and Guion and a detachment of men left the fort under a flag of truce and met with Union officers in front of the lines. General Parke was only willing to demand an unconditional surrender, which was unacceptable to Pool and Guion. After much discussion it was agreed to suspend hostilities for the night, leaving everything as it was, until General Burnside could be consulted as to whether the old terms of capitulation would be still offered. Although the Confederates honored the stipulation of leaving everything as it was, the Union battery commanders repaired their batteries and hauled up more ammunition. It was not an easy night in the fort. If Burnside insisted on unconditional surrender rather than honor the terms he offered previously, what then? Everyone expected to have to renew the battle in the morning. How long could the fort last? A magazine explosion notwithstanding, Colonel White estimated two more days of bombardment would “reduce the fort to a mass of ruins.” The men of the garrison constructed crude wooden coffins for their seven comrades who had been killed and awaited what dawn would bring. During the early morning hours of April 26, Generals Parke and Burnside conferred over the situation and decided to grant the Confederates the terms of capitulation previously offered, namely, that the garrison would be released on their parole of honor to return home to await exchange, carrying with them their private effects. About daylight two of Burnside’s staff officers went over to the fort in a boat under a flag of truce and announced the surrender terms to Colonel White. Since these were the best which could be hoped for, White and Captain Guion returned with the Union officers to General Burnside’s flagship, the Alice Price, anchored off Shackleford Banks. Here the surrender terms were formally drawn up and signed.

Afterward, White and Guion returned to the fort while Burnside, Parke and staff officers walked up the beach to the Union trenches to bring up their troops. The Fifth Rhode Island Battalion, on duty in the trenches that morning, was marched up the beach to the fort to receive the surrender. At 10:10 a.m. the Confederate flag was lowered from the flagstaff. Twelve minutes later the U.S. flag was raised in its place. Fort Macon now belonged to the United States once more. The Confederate garrison filled out their paroles and awaited transportation home. That afternoon, the local men from the area were transported across the harbor to Beaufort to return to their homes. On April 27 part of the garrison was carried back to New Bern with General Burnside aboard his flagship Alice Price. The remainder of the garrison and Colonel White boarded the Union gunboat Chippewa and were returned to Confederate lines under a flag of truce at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. The siege of Fort Macon had passed into history.

With the capture of the fort, Burnside took 396 prisoners, the armament of 54 cannons, 20,000 pounds of gunpowder, ammunition, supplies, forty horses and about 500 small arms. The fort had taken quite a battering during the bombardment. Of 1150 shots fired by the Union batteries, 560 hits were counted. The walls and grounds were scarred with craters and pock marks, and littered with thousands of fragments of exploded shells. Seventeen of the fort’s guns had been knocked out or damaged. The Parrott Rifle cannons had caused the most astounding damage. Some of the Parrott projectiles had penetrated two feet through solid masonry. Others passed through the stacks of iron railroad rails which the Confederates had leaned against the walls for protection. One passed through one of the solid stone stair steps. Of course the damage they caused in cracking the 4-foot thick upper section of the outer wall adjacent to the magazine was the primary reason for the fort’s surrender. Despite the pounding the fort had taken, only seven Confederates had been killed and eighteen wounded. Union losses were one man killed and three wounded.

Burnside had taken the final objective of his expedition. Beaufort Harbor was now in his possession and would be used extensively by both the Union Army and Navy for the remainder of the war. The damage to the fort was repaired and it was continuously occupied by the Union Army for the remainder of the war. General Burnside went on to have a tumultuous career in both the eastern and western theaters of the war. Parke also served with distinction for the remainder of the war. The Confederates comprising the garrison of Fort Macon were exchanged in August and September, 1862, and served for the remainder of the war in eastern North Carolina. Colonel White battled health problems for the remainder of the war and died only three months before the war ended.

The author, Paul Branch, is a Park Ranger and the official historian of Fort Macon. He has authored the definitive book on the history of Fort Macon. He is also a frequent contributor of articles to the Fort Macon Ramparts.