Federal forces commanded by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had established footholds at various points on the North Carolina coast as part of their expedition that had begun in January. These points included New Bern, which isolated the Confederate garrison at Fort Macon. Located on the east end of Bogue Banks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Fort Macon was one of the strongest and most strategically positioned works in the state. It guarded the water approaches to Morehead City (terminus of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad), as well as Beaufort.
The fort was garrisoned by about 430 Confederates under Colonel Moses J. White. The men were malnourished, with only 300 fit for duty. Burnside directed a brigade of 3,000 Federals under Brigadier General John G. Parke to capture Fort Macon. In late March, Parke had laid the groundwork by seizing Beaufort, Morehead City, and other surrounding towns to cut the fort off from communications with nearby Confederates.
Parke then occupied Bogue Banks and demanded the garrison’s surrender on March 23. He offered to parole the men if the fort was left intact. Colonel White replied, “I have the honor to decline evacuating Fort Macon.” Parke resolved to lay siege rather than directly attack. Federal troops crossed the sound and landed on Bogue Banks on March 29. They brought heavy artillery across by night and positioned the guns behind sand dunes to avoid detection. By April 17, Burnside reported to the War Department, “I hope to reduce the fort within ten days.”
Burnside repeated Parke’s demand to surrender on the 23rd, but despite being outnumbered 10-to-1, White refused once more. The Federals opened a heavy bombardment on the morning of the 25th. The Confederates fired back but could do no damage because the sand dune protected the enemy guns. The Confederates were also at a disadvantage because the fort had been designed to withstand attacks from the sea, not inland.
Commander Samuel Lockwood’s nearby Federal naval squadron–consisting of the steamers U.S.S. Chippewa, Delaware, State of Georgia, and the bark Gemsbok–responded to the sound of gunfire by joining the fight on the fort’s sea side. However, the ships were forced to retire after an hour due to high winds and strong waves. The naval fire served mostly as a diversion from the main firing.
The Federal land fire was initially inaccurate, but a signal corps officer at Beaufort sent messages to the gunners directing them to adjust their ranges. By late afternoon, the Federal fire had become much more precise, disabling 19 the fort’s 56 guns and crumbling the walls. Colonel White, fearing that his magazine would soon be exposed to fire, ordered the white flag raised at 4:30. He lost 25 men killed or wounded. The Federals had fired 1,150 rounds at the fort, with about half hitting their targets.
White sent two officers to arrange for terms; they came back and told White that Parke had withdrawn his offer to parole the men and now demanded unconditional surrender. Parke consulted with Burnside, who determined that renewing the bombardment would only end in more casualties with the same result. He therefore relented and offered to parole the men until formally exchanged. They were allowed to take all their personal property with them. White accepted, and a formal surrender ceremony took place on April 26, the same day that the fort changed hands.
The capture of Fort Macon gave the Federals permanent access to the ports at Morehead City and Beaufort, and it gave them virtual control of the entire North Carolina coast. This strengthened the Federal blockade and opened a path for an inland thrust toward either Richmond to the north or Charleston to the south. Federal forces soon took over many nearby towns and ports along the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and the navy quickly established a coaling station for the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron at Beaufort.
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