Fort Macon is a “must see” for the history buff who enjoys learning about the details of what was done and why or grade school kid who can enjoy climbing on a cannon or peeking through a loophole designed for a rifleman to shoot through. It’s good for everyone else as well but your level of fascination may vary.
To begin with, Fort Macon is located at the far East end of Bogue Banks, about 10.8 miles from the Catnap. The general spot was chosen to protect the entrance to the Beaufort and Morehead City harbors and the specific location because it was far enough away from the shoreline to be safe from erosion.
The Fort Macon State Park has a nice beach as well as the fort itself. That’s great for the average visitor, but the beach at the Flying Catnap is at least as nice and it’s private. Why swim anywhere else?
Fort Macon is not the first fortification built on the East end of the Banks. The American Colonists began construction of a small fascine fort, Fort Dobbs, in 1756 but never finished it. Later, in the early 1800s, the United States government built Fort Hampton, a small masonry fort, in the same general spot to guard the waterway.
Fort Hampton had a very interesting, if undistinguished, history during the War of 1812 but was completely abandoned by 1820. The structure survived until the chronic problem of beach erosion (we LOVE our dunes and beach renourishment program!) left it vulnerable to the early season hurricane that arrived on June 3rd, 1825 and the once-proud fortress slipped into the unforgiving Atlantic.
Fort Macon has an interesting layout. The outer walls are effectively buried in the sand of Bogue Banks to protect them from hostile cannon fire. The fort’s main cannon are located just behind that outer wall with a good view of the channel that leads to the Beaufort and Morehead City harbors. The cannon are mounted on a track that allows them to swivel left and right, a jackscrew on the breech end of the barrel.
The fort’s keep, complete with more cannon and loopholes for riflemen to defend an intermediate killing ground, has its own defensive wall. Again, it’s mostly below grade so that it is both inside of and protected by the outer wall.
There is a parade ground inside the keep. There are also cannon on the keep’s wall and heavy mortars, which throw cannon balls that arc high over the walls rather than fly (almost) horizontally as do the rest of the cannon.
The fort’s construction began in 1826 and the fort was garrisoned in 1834. By the 1840s, however, it was clear that the migratory ground of Bogue Banks required a system of erosion control or Fort Macon would be following Fort Hampton into the Atlantic (we LOVE our dunes and beach renourishment program!). The federal government brought in one if its best young engineers to deal with the erosion issue, a fellow named Robert E. Lee.
The state of North Carolina seized the fort without resistance, it was garrisoned by a single gunnery sergeant at the time, at the beginning of the Civil War. The fort was in poor shape and steadily deteriorating when the Southerners arrived to take it over because it was far too large to be maintained by the one person that the federal government had assigned.
The Confederates spent the next year or so putting Fort Macon back in shape. It was a lot of work that never paid off because the Union took the fort back with a carefully planned campaign and siege in 1862.
Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, of “Burnside’s Bridge” fame at Antietam, commanded the Union invasion of eastern North Carolina. Part of that campaign was to bring the fort under Union control so Burnside sent Brig. Gen. John G. Parke to capture it.
Col. Moses J. White had 400 men in the fort and refused to surrender several times as Parke carefully brought the fort under siege and positioned heavy guns for an attack.
Parke’s forces, 4 Union gunboats just offshore, and some floating batteries in Bogue Sound began shelling the fort on April 25, 1862. The battle lasted 11 hours with the Union land batteries, using newly developed rifled guns, doing extensive damage.
Col. White surrendered on April 26.
Fort Macon, first carefully restored by the Confederacy and then repaired by the Union, spent the rest of the Civil War as part of the Union’s naval blockade and as a coaling station for navy ships. The soldiers stationed there lived fairly well. The various casemates, the reinforced rooms under the inner wall), served as bunk rooms, storage areas, magazines, and cooking/dining areas.
The old fort’s career was far from over when the Civil War ended. It went through a series of use-ignore-use cycles based on national defense needs until after World War II when it was part of our overall defense system along the Atlantic Coast. The soldiers garrisoning the fort had pretty good, for the time, living conditions during the Second World War.
Today, the proud fort is part of the North Carolina state park system.
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