Fort Macon State Park
Checking in on our New Year’s Resolution:
We’re going to Fort Macon State Park
(Part 1 of a 4-part series)
Folks think of Fort Macon as a Civil War park, but it was actually built to thwart British invasion.
This was the message delivered by Fort Macon State Park Superintendent Randy Newman to the Leadership Carteret class on its visit to the park site in late January.
To get primed for the big centennial celebration event coming up April 22-24, you need to go farther back in time than the Civil War era.
Fort Macon Ranger Paul Branch knows the story. Here’s an abridged version of his essay on the subject.
The need for coastal defense was not a new concept for Beaufort Harbor. Twice in its history the Town of Beaufort was captured and plundered by hostile ships that were able to sail into the harbor through undefended Beaufort Inlet. And twice, also, attempts were made to build a fort to guard the entrance to Beaufort Inlet and defend against such incursions.
The first attempt was made in 1756, when the Colonial government tried constructing a battery named Fort Dobbs. Unfortunately, the battery was never completed, and Beaufort Harbor remained defenseless during the Revolutionary War. (It was to be named for North Carolina’s Colonial Governor Arthur Dobbs, who served from 1754-65.)
The second attempt to locate a fort on Bogue Banks came more than 50 years later – resulting inFort Hampton. In November 1807, a tract of land on the point of Bogue Banks that formed the west side of Beaufort Inlet was purchased and ceded to the federal government to be used as the site for a fort to defend the inlet.
Work began on the fort in 1808. By January 1809, the fort was virtually complete at a cost of $8,863.62. It was named Fort Hampton for a North Carolina Revolutionary War hero, Colonel Andrew Hampton.
The fort was small – only 90 feet long and 123 feet wide with a perimeter of about 440 feet. The gun platform contained five 18-pounder cannons. Each cannon could fire an 18-pound iron cannonball with a range of about 1 mile.
The citizens of Beaufort felt proud and secure with their new fort guarding the harbor when the country at last went to war with Great Britain in the War of 1812. During the war, the presence of the fort forced British warships to keep their distance. Apparently, the British believed the fort was quite formidable, because they never attacked it. Lucky for us.
In August 1813, North Carolina Governor Williams Hawkins visited Fort Hampton and found structural problems; he also believed the fort was vulnerable on its landward side. Since the guns faced the water, an enemy force could assault the fort from the rear. Fortunately, the war ended in 1815.
After the war, the fort was intermittently occupied for the next four years by small detachments from an artillery company, which was shared between Fort Hampton and its sister fort, Fort Johnston, at Southport.
By 1820, Fort Hampton was completely abandoned by the federal government, a victim of congressional economic and military cutbacks. The little fort was now battling a more sinister enemy – the sea.
For years, the ocean had been steadily eroding Bogue Point. By 1820-21, engineers making surveys and shoreline inspections found the high tide mark had advanced to the point of lapping at the base of the fort’s rounded front.
For the next several years, the erosion at Bogue Point progressed and eventually lopped off an extensive portion of the beach. Included in that portion, at last, was Fort Hampton.
There seems to have been no exact record of when the little fort actually met its end. Local tradition claimed it disappeared virtually overnight in a summer storm – the early season hurricane of June 3-4, 1825.
The exact sequence of its demise is not known, but the sea undoubtedly surged around the walls of the fort, undermining and crumbling its parapet. Once a breach was made, the tide swept through the weed-choked parade ground to topple the empty shells of the barracks and magazine.
Meanwhile, a site for a new fort had been selected on higher ground – some 300 yards to the west of where Fort Hampton stood – to be named Fort Macon. It was named after North Carolina’s eminent statesman of the period, Nathaniel Macon.
Nathaniel Macon represented North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1791-1815 and was the fifth Speaker of the House (1801-07). He later served in the U.S. Senate from 1815-1828 and was President pro tempore of the Senate (1826-27).
Fort Macon was designed by Brigadier General Simon Bernard and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Construction of Fort Macon began in 1826 and lasted for eight years. The fort was completed in December 1834. More to come.
Out and about in Carteret County:
‘Military legends’ leave their mark on Fort Macon
(Part 2 of a 4-part series)
What do we know about General Simon Bernard, the architect of Fort Macon? First of all, he’s from “Off,” as in way-off.
Simon Bernard was a French baron, born in 1779 in Dole, in eastern France, and he was educated at École polytechnique located in Palaiseau near Paris.
He graduated in 1799 and entered the French Army in its corps of engineers and rose rapidly through the ranks. He served from 1809-12 as aide-de-camp to Napoléon Bonaparte, French Emperor (1804-14 and again in 1815). Napoléon was one of the greatest commanders in world military history.
Gen. Simon Bernard stuck with him through thick and thin and was there with Napoléon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Around about this same time in America, peace was declared with Great Britain in 1815, ending the War of 1812.
We are told by U.S. National Park Service researcher Thor Borresen (in an article published in 1939) that America’s defensive fortifications had proved inadequate during the War of 1812; they were incapable of preventing the English from landing at any chosen place and pillaging the U.S. coastline with the aid of its powerful naval fleet.
Borresen continues: In 1816, President James Madison instructed his War Department to find “an engineer of repute, one who was thoroughly familiar with all types of warfare and well versed in the science and art of designing fortifications.”
The executive order was to secure the services of a “prominent military engineer to supervise the fortification of our coast.”
General Simon Bernard was available. He had just been notified by authorities in France that his life was in danger, suggesting the general leave France ASAP.
“General Bernard’s reputation as a military engineer was of so high an order that his services were eagerly sought by several European governments. Most flattering offers were tendered him, all of which he declined in order to follow the example of those eminent French nobles who had cast their lot with the American colonies during the Revolution.”
With the support of President Madison, Simon Bernard was appointed Brigadier General of Engineers with the U.S. Army in 1816.
Gen. Bernard made and extensive tour of the east coast and gave a detailed report of his findings and recommendations to Congress in 1821. This report became the basis for all American coastal fortification built before the Civil War. The forts built as a result of the recommendations of this report are commonly referred to as Third System fortifications.
Borresen reported that Gen. Bernard “chose the sites and determined the general character” of at least six U.S. forts during the 19th century.
In addition to Fort Macon, the others are: Fort Jefferson at Key West, Fla.; Fort Morgan at Gulf Shores, Ala.; Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Ga.; and Fort Jefferson and Fort Macomb, both at New Orleans, La.
His design plans for these fortifications were based on one simple principle, namely: “The fortifications should be strong in proportion to the value of the objects to be secured.”
Fort Macon was built between 1826-1834.
(For the record, Gen. Bernard resigned from the U.S. Army in 1831. He returned to France, served twice as France’s minister of war and died in 1839.)
A young U.S. Army engineer was given the assignment of doing a routine inspection of Fort Macon in 1840. He was Captain Robert E. Lee, son of Revolutionary War Major General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Governor of Virginia.
Capt. Lee found Fort Macon to be in a scrape – beach erosion was threatening the structure. “It was imperative the erosion be arrested as soon as possible, so that Fort Macon would not wash away – as Fort Hampton had done in 1825,” said Fort Macon State Park Ranger Paul Branch.
Capt. Lee studied the dynamics of the wind, the sea and the sea’s currents as they acted upon Bogue Point. Ranger Branch wrote: “Lee found that waves striking Bogue Banks obliquely with the prevailing southwest winds dislodged beach sand and carried it away parallel to the beach to the east. Known today as the longshore current, or littoral drift, this constant scouring action was a source of continuous erosion of the beach.”
Lee’s recommendation (January 7, 1841) to preserve and protect Fort Macon required “manmade stabilization efforts – construction of two permanent stone jetties.”
Ranger Branch concludes: “The recommendations for Lee’s two jetties were adopted and four others were even added to provide additional protection. They stabilized the fort site for years. All are currently covered over with sand. The large sea jetty present today was built over Lee’s Jetty 1.”
Other suggestions by Capt. Lee for repairs and alterations to the fort, including ventilation and drainage, were carried out during the 1841-46 period, bringing Fort Macon “to a pinnacle of top military condition and readiness before the outbreak of the War Between the States.”
“In that conflict, both Robert E. Lee and Fort Macon would receive their trial by fire,” Ranger Branch concludes.
General Robert E. Lee, of course, became the Commander of the Confederate forces in the Civil War.
Out and about in Carteret County:
Confederates move into Fort Macon
(Part 3 of a 4-part series)
U.S. Army Ordnance Sergeant William Alexander was assigned to Fort Macon in April 1859 as its caretaker. No soldiers were stationed at many of the U.S. coastal forts during this era, as British invasion was no longer a threat to America.
Sgt. Alexander was born in Scotland and moved to America as a young man. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1931 and served as an infantryman in the Mexican-American War (1846-47).
Sgt. Alexander was 50 years old when he arrived at Fort Macon and suffered from chronic rheumatism, as reported by Fort Macon State Park Ranger Paul Branch. This was viewed as a choice military assignment reserved for older, loyal and faithful soldiers.
While here, Sgt. Alexander met and married Ann Livesay of Morehead City, and they were living peacefully and quietly at Fort Macon.
“Secession fever,” as Ranger Branch referred to it, was heating up all across the South. Sgt. Alexander sent a letter April 2, 1861, to Colonel H. K. Craig, his commanding officer in Washington, D.C., requesting that a revolver be issued to him at the fort.
Col. Craig replied April 12 that there were no revolvers on hand. That very same day (April 12), the Confederate forces started the Civil War by opening fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
On April 13, a group of 17 Carteret County secessionists formed a militia company called theBeaufort Harbor Guards with Josiah S. Pender as their captain. Pender was a wealthy local entrepreneur who owned a steamship company and the Atlantic Hotel in Beaufort.
Capt. Pender decided he would seize Fort Macon and assembled 54 men to carry out the task on April 14. Weaponless, Sgt. Alexander received them courteously. Thus, Fort Macon was seized without bloodshed.
Unharmed, Sgt. Alexander and his wife, with their belongings, were transported to Beaufort. Soon thereafter, Sgt. Alexander received instructions from Col. Craig to remain in Beaufort to await further orders.
These orders never came, but his discharge papers did in April 1864. The Alexanders remained in Beaufort, and he was an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and served on its vestry and also as senior warden. He died at age 76 on July 29, 1887, and was buried in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery.
Meanwhile, Capt. Pender’s command was short-lived. It took about a week for news of the seizure of Fort Macon to reach North Carolina Governor John W. Ellis, who promptly ordered four of North Carolina’s regular military units to proceed immediately to Fort Macon to take charge. Pender had a long history of resisting military authority and was later dismissed from state service and from the Confederate Army for insubordination and other infractions.
Ranger Branch tells us: “Although his military service had ended, Pender never wavered in his support for the Confederate cause. As Union forces under Major General Ambrose Burnsidebegan to approach Beaufort early in 1862, Pender felt he had to make a move. With his three steamships and his base in Bermuda, he began to operate as an active blockade runner.”
“While engaged in this blockade runner activity, Pender contracted Yellow Fever in October 1864. Somehow, he managed to return to Beaufort, where he died on October 25. He was 45 years old. Josiah Pender, the man who loved to play soldier but couldn’t stand to take orders, was buried in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground.”
In 1862, Fort Macon was under the command of Confederate Colonel Moses J. White of Mississippi. He was 27 years old and suffered from severe epilepsy, according to Ranger Branch.The Siege of Fort Macon
Union Brigadier General John G. Parke was sent down from New Bern to capture Fort Macon. Gen. Burnside wanted to have Beaufort Harbor in his possession.
Gen. Parke easily captured Morehead City and Beaufort on March 23 and 26, respectively, and then transferred his troops, supplies and artillery over to Bogue Banks at Hoop Pole Creek.
On April 25, 1862, the Federal batteries opened fire on the fort.
Four vessels of the Federal blockading fleet joined in from the ocean, under the command ofCaptain Samuel Lockwood. The fleet was soon forced to withdraw, however, due to heavy seas and the accuracy of Confederate fire.
By late afternoon, two of the fort’s powder magazines were in danger of being hit and exploded by Federal shells. Rather than be blown up by their own gunpowder, the garrison had little choice but to surrender. Federal forces took possession of the fort on the following day.
The fort had been hit 560 times by artillery fire. Seventeen guns were knocked out or damaged. Seven Confederates were killed and 18 wounded. One Federal soldier was killed and three wounded.
Union forces now held control over the entire northeastern North Carolina coastal area.
The Union Navy had obtained an excellent deepwater supply base (Beaufort Harbor) on the coast of North Carolina.
Out and about in Carteret County:
Fort Macon: After the Civil War
(Part 4 of a 4-part series)
After the Civil War, Fort Macon was used as a federal prison, and Dr. Elliott Coues (pronounced “cows”) was assigned to the fort as an Army assistant-surgeon.
From Jeannie’s letters written to her sister that were preserved and shared by descendants with the Friends of Fort Macon State Park organization, much can be learned about those times. Here are bits and pieces of interest:
March 13, 1869:
I suppose this is as pleasant as most forts and I ought to like it, for my life in all probability will be spent in just such places – but I don’t. I might like it better perhaps if I had any ladies society. There is only one here beside myself. She is very nice and pleasant, but I don’t feel drawn to her.
I don’t know how to describe Fort Macon so that you will get my idea of it. It is built on a little island two miles out from the mainland. It is in the form of a hollow pentagon, and has a moat and a drawbridge. On the ramparts are cannons commanding the harbor and ocean called guns en barbette.
The fort is turfed over, and from the water looks only like high breast works, but in reality it is 40 feet high. The entrance is called the sally-port and there is a guard of 10 or 15 men stationed there night and day. No one enters without being challenged. That is, no one living outside the fort.
Every sunset and sunrise the cannon over my casemate is fired, and every day when the time comes, I get so nervous expecting it that I feel as though I should fly.
I go over to Beaufort nearly every day in a rowboat to market. The officers all “mess” together. The cook is splendid. Oysters are only 30 cents a bushel and almost everything else is cheap. We might save a good deal of money here for there is nothing to spend it on, but Elliott’s pay isn’t nearly as much here.
It is very healthy here and (there are) nice places for Edith [young daughter] to play. Warm days she is taken down to the beach and there she rolls over and over, fills her…hair full of sand and makes little mud pies, though she hasn’t attained too much proficiency in the latter. Everything is so clean on the beach that I like to have her there. The sea comes up twice a day and washes away all impurities.
April 16, 1869:
About 10 days ago, I went up to New Bern to have my teeth filled. The dentist worked on them four days and then my mouth got so sore I had to come home. It will cost seventy five dollars to have them put in order. I do wish Elliott would consent to my having a false upper set.
My literary efforts have been confined lately to correcting manuscript for Elliott. He is working hard all the time, and in a certain select circle is already looked up to as an authority. He is publishing constantly, but the scientific articles you wouldn’t care for, and the literary articles, I can’t send for we never have more than one number of a magazine or paper and those Elliott always sends to his mother.
Commenting on Dr. Coues’ career, one biographer said: “The practice of medicine seems never to have been an absorbing interest with him. The world knows him not as a physician, but as a naturalist, ornithologist and historian.
“He will probably be best known and remembered as one who above all others has had the most influence on ornithology in our own land. His ‘Key to North American Birds’ (published in 1872), in all its details stands as one of the best if not the best bird book ever written.”
Dr. Coues also edited the journals of explorers Lewis and Clark (1893) and the travels of Zebulon Pike (1895). Army officers Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast in 1804-06, and Army Captain Zebulon Pike’s explorations in 1806-07 led to the discovery of Pikes Peak in Colorado.
The biographer wrote: “Dr. Coues talked of the Lewis and Clark expedition like one who had been a part of it – not of the hardships and dangers – but of the aim of the expedition and its success.”
The good doctor’s sense of humor can best be illustrated by his commentary in 1889 as editor of “Osprey,” a scientific bird magazine.
He told his readers: “One woman wrote to say she was so unhappy because the cats in her neighborhood killed birds. We were going to write back and suggest that she collect the murderous felines and read the Audubon circular to them; but we restrained ourselves and advised her to feed the cats.”
Back to Jeannie from April 16, 1869:
This is a very healthy place. Elliott keeps two horses and we have splendid canters on the beach. Two days ago we went 10 miles away in a sailboat to see a whale that had been harpooned. It was 50 feet long. I knew whales were large but how large I never realized until it loomed up before me. Elliott is very fond of sailing, hunting, etc., and we frequently go out on excursions.
June 14, 1869:
Edith is the only child at the Post now and is fast being spoiled. Several of the officers keep a private paper of candy for her, and she trots around to the different rooms and asks for “tan tan” every morning as soon as she is dressed.
It is pretty warm here now, or would be were it not for the sea breeze.
August 30, 1869:
In a fishing excursion the other day, I caught seven immense blue fish just as fast as I could pull them in….
Now in 2016, people are still visiting the beach…and “Fishin’ the Fort,” because it’s such a popular location to catch blues, Spanish mackerel, red drum, speckled trout, pompano, pinfish, spots and flounder, according to local fishing hole expert Dr. Bogus.
He is Dr. Richard Ehrenkaufer, a research scientist who retired from Wake Forest University Medical School and now lives in Emerald Isle. He fishes, offers fishing guide services, writes newspaper columns and has a weekly radio show on “The Talk Station” – FM 107.1.
Here is one of his news reports: http://www.ncoif.com/fiishin-the-fort-macon-by-dr-bogus/.