The Siege of Fort Macon
Fort Macon was a coastal fort that guarded the approaches to Beaufort and Morehead city along the North Carolina coast. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside realized that Union forces could not use the various ports in the area unless the fort came into the possession of his army.
After the capture of New Bern, Burnside sent Brig. Gen. John Parke south to seize several coastal cities and then reduce the fort. Parke began his mini-campaign by seizing Carolina City, Morehead City, Newport and finally Beaufort on March 25, 1862. He then began preparations for the siege of Fort Macon.
Fort Macon was a casemated masonry fort that had been built on the eastern end of Bogue Bank, along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It was intended to defend the inlet to Morehead City and Beaufort. Begun in 1826, it was completed and garrisoned in 1834. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the war, it had been allowed to deteriorate.
By the time that the North Carolina militia took over the fort only 4 guns were mounted. The North Carolinians immediately began to add guns, ending up with a total of 56 pieces: five 8-inch and two 10-inch columbiads, nineteen 24-pounders, thirty-two 32-pounders, and six field guns. For all of the guns, they only had ammunition for three days.
The fort was commanded by Colonel Moses White who was not a very popular officer. He had 430 officers and men in his garrison but as many as a third of them were sick during the siege. Part of White’s unpopularity was due to him being a Kentuckian commanding a North Carolina garrison. White, however, had a particular specialty in artillery, so his command of Fort Macon seemed appropriate.
On March 23rd Parke sent a message to Colonel White, demanding the surrender of the fort, offering to release the Confederate garrison on parole. White declined with a terse reply, “I have the honor to decline evacuating Fort Macon.” The siege can be said to have begun with this exchange.
By the 29th the investment of the fort was complete. Parke had set up four batteries that would bear on the fort: four 8-inch (20.3 cm) mortars at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters); four 10-inch (25.4 cm) mortars at a range of 1600 yards (1460 meters); three 30-pounder (13.6 kg) rifled Parrotts at a range of 1300 yards (1190 meters); and a 12-pounder (5.4 kg) boat howitzer at a range of 1200 yards (1100 meters).
The Confederates attempted to disrupt the artillery by sending out patrols but the Union forces drove them off, mostly without casualties to either side. On April 17th, Burnside predicted in a communication to the War Department that the fort would be taken in ten days. It was a remarkably accurate prediction.
Once again, on April 23rd, Parke offered to parole the Confederates if the fort was surrendered intact but White continued to refuse. Burnside ordered Parke to begin the bombardment. On the morning of April 25th, the bombardment began. The Confederates returned a vigorous fire but because of the protection of the dunes it did little damage to the Federal artillery.
The Union navy joined in but the rocking from the waves disrupted their aim. After a short time they moved away. The Union mortars were inaccurate until a Signals officer, Lt. William J. Andrews, sent adjustments to them. Thereafter, their accuracy increased and caused severe damage to the Confederate guns. By noon, the fire had become increasingly accurate. Nineteen guns were dismounted and te wall began to crumble.
By mid-afternoon, Colonel White began to fear that the magazine would be breached. By 4:30 PM he raised the white flag and the fort was surrendered to Union forces. After some discussion, Burnside agreed to accept White’s surrender on the original terms of parole for the garrison. Shortly after dawn on April 26, the Confederate flag was lowered, the defenders marched out, and Union soldiers of the 5th Rhode Island marched in.
The Siege of Fort Macon was relatively bloodless with the Union side having only one man was killed, and two soldiers and one seaman wounded. On the Confederate side, seven were killed outright, two died of wounds, and sixteen were wounded. The entire Confederate garrison surrendered.
Although the Burnside Expedition had gained notable success at little cost, little was done to exploit it. Wilmington, for example, would seem to have been vulnerable, but it was not attacked until the final days of the war. Burnside was recalled shortly after the victory at Fort Macon, to join General George B. McClellan in the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. No further major offensive actions took place, and North Carolina became a secondary theater until late in the war.