The Road to Fort Macon
by Mickey Magee
(published in the Summer ’00 Ramparts)
As the heavy clouds of gun smoke were clearing from the air over the trenches recently defended by Confederate troops before New Bern, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside was planning his next step to accomplish the grand design of the “Burnside Expedition”.
The general details of the “Expedition’s” plan were to establish a foothold on the North Carolina coastline and thereafter to penetrate the interior of North Carolina, thereby threatening both the water, rail and land means of transporting men and supplies within the areas controlled by the Confederacy.
Burnside began to organize his Division of 12,000 to 15,000 men primarily from the states of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York. It was expected that these states, which bordered the Atlantic seacoast, would supply personnel familiar with the coastal trade as well as mechanical skills necessary to outfit and navigate “a fleet of light-draught steamers, sailing vessels, and barges, large enough to transport the division, its armament and supplies…”.
By the end of the year a “combined fleet of more than eighty ships” with “the capacity to transport 15,000 troops, with baggage, camp equipment, rations, etc.” had been assembled, trained and provisioned under the methodical, efficient and energetic hand of its Commander. On the 9th of January 1862, the invasion fleet rendezvoused in the Chesapeake Bay. A soldier of the 24th Massachusetts Regiment wrote, ” no description was ever able to do justice to the tribulation through which the cooped-up soldiers on board those creaking vessels had to pass”. The transports became “dirty as a stable”, “water casks were cemeteries for dead rats” and the pork that had been boiled and put in barrels for transport at Annapolis became sour and moldy. With persistence, perseverance and a strong constitution the force had entered “the sound harbor in the bight of Hatteras Island” by January 19, 1862.
Hatterasmen had never seen the like of these newcomers from the north. They drank up all the fresh water, tore down its buildings for firewood, ate up all the sheep and cattle and “might have started on the Banker ponies if they had stayed long enough.”
By February 5th the Union invaders got their first glimpse of that low, swampy, brush covered island known as Roanoke Island. It measured only 36 square miles and at 9:30 AM on February 7th, the Federal gunboats and troop transports began to enter the channel between Roanoke Island and the mainland of eastern North Carolina. Burnside’s superior force made victory inevitable and by the 9th “the most important military objective between Wilmington (NC.) and Norfolk (Va.)” had been captured.. No time was wasted by the Commander of the Coastal Division in preparing for the next phase of his campaign; “a swoop across the Sound to New Bern…”. While the Ironclads Virginia (Merrimac) and Monitor were fighting it out in Hampton Roads, some eighty miles away, Burnside embarked his force and set sail for the Neuse River and New Bern on March 12, 1862.
The “flat ca’m” of the sound enabled the fleet to proceed rapidly and it entered the Neuse River by 2 PM that same day. By 6PM it anchored off Slocum’s Creek approximately 12 to 15 miles below its objective, The city of New Bern. Union naval vessels, under the Command of Commodore S. C. Rowan, shelled the terrain along the low, heavily wooded shoreline. The finely planned landing operations designed and implemented by Burnside earlier at Roanoke Island were executed once again and allowed his three Division Commanders to land approximately 4,000 troops within 20 minutes.
A student of local history, Edward Ellis, formerly of Havelock, NC, informs us that the landing took place on the shorefront of what is now the Marine Corps Air Station’s Officer Club. I am sure that the reputation for unmatched amphibious operations earned by the U.S. Marines prompted Fred M. Mallison, the author of The Civil War on the Outer Banks, to compare favorably Burnside’s operations with “landing operations of later wars.”
Burnside’s troops were divided into three Brigades, each Commanded by one of his “most trusted friends” in whom he “had always entertained… the greatest confidence and esteem…” The 13th of March was spent walking through woods, along a railroad right of way and a dirt country road while being drenched to the skin by a North Carolina downpour. By nightfall they were about 1-1/2 miles below the main Confederate line of defense, ill prepared to endure unrelenting rain that lasted throughout the entire night.
The march resumed the next day at 6 AM in fog so heavy that the troops were but a few hundred yards from the Confederate line when scouts reported to Brig. Gen. John G. Foster, Commander of the First Brigade, their close proximity.
Firing began at 7:30 AM on the left side of the Confederate line that was anchored at the Neuse River by Fort Thompson. It was unfortunate for the defenders that the majority of the guns were emplaced to fire on the land side of the fort and could not be aimed to shell the road and the railroad along which Burnside’s Brigades were approaching.
By late in the afternoon of the 14th, Burnside’s army had occupied the city of New Bern, parts of which were on fire. The entire city appeared to be deserted “except for newly liberated Negroes and some poor whites”. Confederate General Branch was fleeing to Kinston along with much of his force while Col. Zebulon B. Vance and Lt. Col. Robert F. Hoke, both natives of North Carolina, were drying themselves after their wade through Brice’s Creek prior to beginning their trek to Pollocksville, Trenton and then on to Kinston.
“Four days after the Battle of New Bern, General Burnside…rode south from the city to reconnoiter along the railroad leading toward Morehead City.” He had chosen the Commander of the Third Brigade, Brig. General John Grubb Parke, to plan the capture of Fort Macon and the deep-water harbor it protected at Beaufort, North Carolina.
The choice of General Parke for this task was a sound one for several reasons. His troops had been held in reserve during the Battle of New Bern and had seen little action during the Battle. In addition Parke, a graduate of West Point in 1849, was particularly well qualified for the logistical, political and tactical demands of the assignment.
On the same day that Burnside traveled south along the railroad, Confederate troops under orders from Col. Moses White, the Commander of Fort Macon, had traveled north from the Fort. They destroyed the 180 foot railroad bridge at Shepardstown, now known as Newport, as well as the turpentine distillery, barracks and two-story hotel near Carolina City. Carolina City was strategically located along the Bogue Sound just one mile opposite a landing point on Bogue Banks.
“For a month General Parke had been preparing for a major assault…” on Fort Macon and on March 19th, he set that plan in motion. The 4th Rhode Island and the 8th Connecticut were loaded on transports at New Bern and sailed down the Neuse River for debarkation at Slocum’s Creek, the site of their original landings on the evening of March 12th. Accompanying these units was the siege gun train under the Command of Lt. Daniel W. Flagler, Burnside’s Chief of Ordinance.
The command of Major John Wright, composed of five companies of Rhode Islanders known as the 5th Rhode Island Battalion, drew the most arduous assignment. To this group fell the task of walking from tie to tie along the 12 miles of Atlantic and North Carolina railroad track from New Bern to Havelock Station. Adding insult to fatigue, the unit had to push hand cars loaded with materials and supplies because the Officers of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad had taken the locomotives and freight cars to Kinston loaded with equipment and supplies from its New Bern facility just prior to the arrival of the Federal troops. Not only did the 5th have to make this arduous trek along the right of way, but the recruiter’s pitch used to entice each man to join the unit must have burned brightly in their memory. The unit had been enlisted on the promise that it would be used solely for coastal service, with no fatiguing marches to endure.
By March 21st, the transported soldiers had marched the one and one-half miles from their landing place on Slocum’s Creek to meet the railroad walkers at Havelock Station, known today as the city of Havelock.
Havelock Station received its name in the late 1850’s when the Atlantic and North Carolina built a depot approximately where its right-of-way crossed what is now Miller Boulevard in Havelock. It was named after Sir Henry Havelock, a British Officer stationed in India, who distinguished himself in 1857 during what was known in English history as the “Indian Mutiny.” A deeply devout Christian and a military genius, his courage and inspiration caused the local residents to choose his name for their community. Regardless of it’s namesake’s attributes, Havelock was described by Confederate and Union soldiers alike as “a wilderness, desolate, snake infested land, and the poorest of duty.”
Upon arriving at Havelock Station, Gen. Parke learned of the destruction of the railroad bridge at Newport. A force of 700 men was dispatched immediately to secure the area from additional damage, and upon arrival they were pleasantly surprised to learn that the County road and bridge over the Newport River had been spared. They used that road to transport vital materials and supplies to Carolina City until the railroad bridge could be rebuilt. By the afternoon of March 23rd, Parke had arrived at Carolina City.
Carolina City had formerly been the site of a large Confederate camp, which extended over an area of a square mile. Its location is now within the boundaries of Morehead City, on the shores of Bogue Sound.
Parke quickly demanded the surrender of Fort Macon by Col. Moses White, a 27 year old who had graduated from West Point in the class of 1858. The Vicksburg, Mississippi, native politely refused the surrender demand and each Commander prepared for battle. By March 29th, a foothold was secured on Bogue Banks by the Union forces when a detachment from the 4th Rhode Island crossed Bogue Sound from Carolina City and landed on Bogue Banks about five miles north of the Fort at Hoop Pole Creek.
During the interim between March 23rd, the date Parke’s surrender request was refused by Col. Moses White, and March 29th, the date on which the first Union troops were landed on Bogue Banks, the tactical and logistical skills of General Parke were tested to their fullest. It was during this period that Parke assembled at Carolina City the remainder of his infantry units as well as the siege gun train of Lieut. Flagler. In addition, the Town of Beaufort and its apprehensive inhabitants were captured by Major John Allen’s two companies of the 4th Rhode Island. From Beaufort, Major Allen was able to contact the Naval blockade fleet which was offshore and commanded by Commander George C. Prentiss. Landing parties from the fleet were able to occupy the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Shackleford Banks, located due east of the Fort on the other side of the Beaufort Inlet.
Perhaps the most impressive feats were performed by those foot sore troops from the 5th Rhode Island. To them fell several difficult construction tasks. Upon their arrival at Havelock Station on March 20th, after a grueling 12 mile march, they were ordered to build a blockhouse at the location and to “guard it against Confederate cavalry or guerrilla bands that might attempt to interdict the route.” On the 23rd, three companies of the 5th were ordered to Newport to rebuild the railroad bridge spanning the Newport River that had been burned earlier by the Confederates. “The job might have easily lasted several weeks under normal conditions but… in less than one week they had completed a railroad bridge able to bear the weight of fifty tons.”
By April 11th, Parke was confident that enough supplies and materials of war had been gathered at Hoop Pole Creek, so he assembled a force to advance toward the Fort and examine the intervening terrain. Of those chosen to engage in the march of approximately 5 miles along a scrub wooded shoreline over dunes covered with ankle deep sand were five companies taken from the 4th Rhode Island and the 5th Rhode Island. The troopers of the 5th had been promised a bed of roses upon enlistment in Providence, Rhode Island, but were becoming increasingly foot sore and callous handed.
During the first 20 days of April, the ocean side of Bogue Banks saw a flurry of activity as men and artillery were moved into position to place the Fort under siege. Parke, together with his artillery officers, selected sites for their three batteries. Lieut. David W. Flagler was in charge of a battery of 10 inch mortars, Captain Lewis O. Morris commanded the 30 pounder Parrott Rifle Battery and Lieut. Menick F. Prouty was given command of four 8 inch siege mortars. Simultaneously, the infantry units had dug a series of siege trenches to within 900 yards of the Fort. An attempt to extend those trenches to within 500 yards of the Fort was thwarted when the Fort’s garrison opened fire with grapeshot forcing the diggers to return to the safety of their trench system.
By April 23rd, the road to Fort Macon had been reduced to approximately 1700 yards of hilly, sandy terrain that separated Parke’s furthest artillery emplacement from the Fort’s Sally Port located in the southeast wall of the Citadel. On that date another demand for the Fort’s surrender was made, this time by recently promoted Major General Ambrose E. Burnside himself. In furtherance of this demand, a meeting took place early in the morning of April 24th on Shackleford Banks between Burnside and White, but they were unable to reach any terms of surrender. “There was little else to say on the subject and after about twenty minutes the officers parted company.”
The early morning silence of April 25, 1862 was shattered along Bogue Banks, when the first shell ever fired at Fort Macon in anger struck the Fort. By 4:30 PM defense was no longer possible. Many of the Confederate guns were knocked out of commission, the gun crews were exhausted and there were not enough able-bodied men in the Fort to relieve them. The northeast powder magazine was in danger of being pierced by a Parrott Rifle shell, and the main powder magazine, located in the southwest angle of the Fort, was in danger of being detonated if the walls of the two storage casemates that protected it were to crumble. A white flag of truce was flown over the Fort. Shortly thereafter a meeting between both sides took place among the remains of the home built by Lieut. William A. Eliason, who had been in charge of the initial construction of the Fort.
Various delays caused a postponement of the actual surrender until about 9 AM the following day. At that hour, the garrison was marched out of the Fort and ordered to stack arms. Shortly thereafter, control of the Fort was turned over to the commander of the fatigued but jubilant Fifth Rhode Island.
The last step into Fort Macon had been taken. The capture of Fort Macon was the culmination of the Burnside Expedition, and the high point of Gen. Burnside’s military career. His success here ultimately led to his appointment by President Lincoln to the command of the Army of the Potomac. But never again would Burnside experience the kind of successes that he had achieved in eastern North Carolina.
The author, Mickey Magee, is an avid student of Civil War history, and conducts guided tours of Fort Macon for school groups and other visitors.
Ed. Note: The next issue will feature an article on the heroic Confederate defense of Fort Macon.