Battle of Fort Macon
The Battle of Fort Macon began on March 23, 1862, as part of Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition. Fort Macon, a third system casemated masonry fort thought to be well-protected, became the subject of a month-long siege notable for the inadequacy of such fortifications against large-bore, rifled artillery.
With New Berne in his grasp Burnside was free to pursue other objectives. First, to consolidate his new base of operations he ordered Foster's Brigade to push out pickets well beyond the boundaries of the city and a regiment was sent to occupy Washington. Reno's 2nd Brigade was deployed south of the Trent River and threw out patrols "to burn all the bridges on the stream for 30 miles above the one held by us." They also went to work repairing the the destroyed railroad bridge and another to open communications "to our supply trains and artillery."
Burnside also realized to secure his new base of operations he would have to take hold of Beaufort, Morehead City and ultimately to retake Fort Macon. The five sided fort was located on the eastern end of Bogue Banks about thirty miles southeast of New Berne. General Parke's 3rd Brigade was detailed for operations in this direction. On 19 March the 4th Rhode Island Infantry and the 8th Connecticut Infantry were loaded on the Eastern Queen for the short trip to the Slocum's Creek landing. The following day they disembarked and began a "severe march" toward the coast. They were joined at Havelock Station by the 5th Rhode Island Bn who had marched down the railroad. The column continued to Carolina City where they found "a large hotel, turpentine works, and a few other buildings comprising the city were destroyed by the rebels shortly before our arrival and all that remained of them were black smoking ruins." About two miles further down the main road was "another small collection of houses and a large railroad station and wharves" known as Morehead City. There they found two ships flying "the English colors", one at the wharf and the other anchored off shore "just beyond our reach." The advanced guard of the column took possession of the tied up vessel and two days later the vessel at anchor was burned by her crew.
By the 21st Parke understood that "in order to regain possession of the fort it was first necessary to take possession of Beaufort." At midnight of the 21st four companies (Co's A and B of the 4th RI and two Co's of the 8th CT) were at the Morehead City docks to conduct the "difficult and dangerous operation." The boats to carry them past the fort were manned by "colored fishermen" who served as guides and pulled the muffled oars. Covered by fog and darkness the troops experienced only a brief scare when challenged by a sentry. The challenge was answered by the call of "relief" from his replacement. This fortuitous coincidence allowed the boats to escape unnoticed and move into Beaufort unopposed. By 0200 guards were posted at the Beaufort wharf and the nearly deserted resort town occupied. With Beaufort in his control Parke issued a request to Colonel M. J. White for the surrender of the fort. In a terse reply White declined the opportunity of "evacuating Fort Macon."
Parke resolved to besiege the fort, but complete investment of the fort could not be accomplished until troops were put on Bogue Banks. A 29 March reconnassaince by 21 men determined that no resistance would be met outside the fort. In the next thirteen days Parke shuttled 8 companies of the 4th RI, 7 companies of the 8th CT, and the 5th RI Bn on to the banks. The only thing needed to attempt a siege was artillery.
Siege and Defeat of Fort Macon
The movement of the artillery for the siege of the fort was a masterpiece of ingenuity and hard work. First the weight of the guns required the repair of the railroad bridge at Newport. The 5th RI Bn, under the command of Major John Wright, was detailed to this task. Upon completion of the repairs they were relieved by the 9th New Jersey (on loan to Parke from 2nd Brigade for the purpose of supplying security). Originally the ordinance dedicated to the siege consisted of a battery of 30lb rifled Parrotts and four 10" mortars. The ordnance officer in charge, LT Daniel Flagler, however, deemed this insufficient for the task and went to New Berne and coordinated for an additional four 8" mortars.
The batteries were taken to the landing at Slocum's Creek and then transported by wagon to Havelock. There they were loaded on to railroad cars that were hauled along the tracks to Morehead City by horses and mules (no serviceable engines could be found). Finally the pieces had to be brought across the sound to Bogue Banks. Only one suitable scow could be found for this duty and due to the tides and shallow water only one trip a day could be made. Once on the Banks all the guns and ammunition had to be hauled by fatigue parties up 4 1/2 miles of sandy beach. It was not until April 11th that all the necessary equipment was on hand. On the 12th CPT Williamson, Topographical Engineer, conducted a reconnassaince to locate the positions for the batteries. The narrowness of the island left few options and the sand dunes were originally thought to be obstructions to the proper placement of the guns. Williamson turned the problem into a positive by devising a way to turn the sandy hills into emplacements by revetting the walls of the dug out dunes with sand bags. Much of the work was done under fire from the fort and at night but remarkably few casualties resulted from the enemy fire. The works were completed and ammunition stocked in the batteries on the night of 23 April. The order to open on the fort was recieved at 1400 on the 24th but the mortar batteries were inadequately manned and the barrage was delayed overnight while men of the Company I, 3rd New York Artillery were marched into position. CPT Lewis Morris, commanding the Parrott battery, took the opportunity to use the delay to make some last minute adjustments to his embrasures.
The guns were opened on the fort at 0530 on the 25th with Morris reporting that the first shot struck the parapet.The mortars soon followed and for several hours the batteries poured fire into the fort as rapidly as they could be serviced. In the mid morning the fleet joined in the bombardment but remained on station for just an hour before they claimed high seas and departed. The fire from the rifled guns proved most effective, after some adjustments by LT W. S. Andrews who was observing from his signal station. Andrews reported that after 1200 "every shot fired from our batteries fell in or on the fort." The Confederate defenders manned their guns throughout the barrage but the sand dunes proved remarkably effective at absorbing their rounds. The only Federal soldier killed was lost when he scrambled over the dunes to replace a downed aiming stake. The amount of fire was eventually slowed by Parke in an effort to preserve ammunition but the damage being done by the Parrotts was enough to convince Colonel Moses White, commanding the Confederate garrison, that further resistance was folly. At around 1700 the white flag of surrender was raised over the fort. The final arrangements for surrender were not completed until the morning of the 26th when White and 400 defenders marched out of the fort. The Confederate colors were struck and the fort reclaimed.
- Official Records (Army) Series I, v. 9, p. 381)
- Trotter, William R. Ironclads and columbiads, Joseph F. Blair, 1989; p. 141.
- Official Records (Army) Series I, v. 9, pp. 272, 281, 295.
- Official Records (Army) Series I, v. 9, p. 294.