Following the War of 1812, the United States bolstered its coastal defenses by building a series of fortifications. Called The Third System, it consisted of 38 large, permanent forts and several forts from two earlier systems that were modified and upgraded. The War of 1812 showed the vulnerability of the coast to foreign attack, and it also revealed the inadequacies of the few remaining forts from the First system (1794) and the Second System (1807).
Beginning in 1816, the U.S. Army began work on the Third System which lasted for more than 50 years. Two hundred sites were identified for construction, but only 42 were built under the management of the Army Corps of Engineers. One of those forts, Fort Macon, was built on the east end of Bogue Banks in Carteret County. Construction began in 1826 and concluded in 1834. The fort recently came back to life when officials from the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation (NCDPR) hosted Civil War re-enactors to observe the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Fort Macon as part of the national 150th Anniversary of the Civil War events.
“These forts were meant to be permanent forts and after 170-something years some of them are still here,” said Paul Branch, Park Ranger II, NCDPR. “So that attests to the way that they were built; the engineering, the craftsmanship and all of these things that went into making them. Fort Macon is still here not only having weathered war, but hurricanes, the assault of winds, seas, salt and tourists.”
Fort Macon was in the hands of a caretaker when the Civil War began April 12, 1861. The North Carolina Militia seized control of the fort two days later and began upgrading the armament in anticipation of a Union attack. The fort remained in Confederate hands for a year before Union forces under Brig. Gen. John G. Parke mounted a siege. The siege included land base gun and mortar batteries south of the fort, a fleet of gunboats offshore and floating batteries in the sound. Some of the Union land batteries were using new rifled cannon and their fire proved too much for the masonry fort. When the fort's magazines became exposed and vulnerable, the Confederate fort commander, Col. Moses J. White surrendered on April 26, 1862. The fort remained in Union hands for the duration of the war. It took a pounding during the bombardment, but the Corps of Engineers patched it back up to its original condition.
“What they did was absolutely immaculate, and the fact that the fort is still standing is a testament to the work that the Corps does,” said historian Jim McKee of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Department of Cultural Resources. “And they did this work in all of the Third System fortifications across the eastern seaboard and along the gulf, even along the Great Lakes region.”
McKee said all of the Third System forts were similar because of the masonry, but that they all had design differences. They were designed that way so that if one fort was defeated the enemy force would not have a blueprint to capture all of the others. He added that Army engineer officers consulted with their artillery and infantry counterparts to determine those strategies that would thwart enemy attacks.
McKee said as a historian he’s awed by the architecture of Fort Macon such as the arches and the counterscarp walls, covered entry ways, galleries and casemates where cannons were mounted. He also said there are still subtle clues of the Battle of Fort Macon that are in and around the fort. On one wall he pointed to a hole “that still contains the original cannonball.” He then points to a staircase inside the fort.
“If you look at one of the stairways you can see some indentations on the steps. That’s where a Union cannonball hit inside the fort and bounced down the stairs.”
More than three million men fought in the war, and two percent of the population - more than 620,000 - died in it. Branch said he’s honored to help promote the events of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary
“This is something that needs to be remembered. We need to look back at these events and just reflect on how these events came about, what that means to us today, and how that got us to where we are today as a country. So there’s definitely a time for reflection at these events, certainly help us to reflect and think about the sacrifices they made over the years.”