They were by no means the last Northerners to arrive at what tourism promoters have since merrily dubbed the Crystal Coast. But instead of coolers, fishing gear and boogie boards, these folks lugged artillery. And once they got there, they planned to stay awhile.
It was no vacation for the Union troops who, 150 years ago, were laying siege to a key Confederate installation: Fort Macon, standing guard over Beaufort Inlet at the eastern tip of Bogue Banks.
For the men who garrisoned the fort trapped there, actually those April weeks of 1862 were even less pleasant. Valiant in resistance the men in gray were, but when the day of reckoning finally came, they would have no choice but to surrender or be annihilated.
The Civil War sesquicentennial (hey, any old stamp collector knows that term) prompts reflection on the ways, means and motives of a conflict that claimed, by estimates just recently updated, three-quarters of a million lives. Perhaps nothing could have justified that carnage save what was in fact accomplished: the Union was preserved and slavery stamped out.
North Carolina, fortunately, didnt become a central theater of the war until William Tecumseh Sherman stalked and checkmated Joseph Johnston in the final weeks. Yet in the early going especially, this state saw many significant if smaller-scale actions as Union forces took control of much of the coast.
The siege of Fort Macon was one of those actions. And certainly the fort rates as the most familiar of North Carolinas Civil War sites, toured by legions of beachgoers who wander in from the state park that includes it.
How many kids, during their family stay in Atlantic Beach or Pine Knoll Shores or Emerald Isle, have trooped atop those parapets or edged into the forts dank chambers to make their first tangible connection to the war that so profoundly influenced our history? Heres the gist of what went down 150 years ago:
Under the command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, he of the spectacular ruff of facial hair, Northern troops had captured strategic Roanoke Island and the inland port of New Bern. Fort Macon was a top priority because its seaward-facing artillery could blast any hostile ship attempting passage through the inlet to Beaufort and Morehead City.
The fort had been built in the wake of the War of 1812 as U.S. coastal defenses were strengthened. It was manned intermittently, and Confederate troops were able to occupy it without incident. Within a year, it was outfitted with an array of 54 heavy guns.
When the Federals took up positions on the mainland across Bogue Sound, the fort with its 450-man garrison was isolated from support. But when the commanding officer, Col. Moses White a West Point grad who was a ripe old 27 was given a chance on March 23, 1862 to turn the fort over without further ado, he replied: I have the honor to decline evacuating Fort Macon.
That was enough to set the siege, directed by Union Brig. Gen. John Parke, in motion. Troops were ferried across to the barrier island and began tightening the noose. The work was hard but the method simple: Dig, dig, dig. Haul artillery forward, shielded by sand dunes. Keep digging. Keep hauling.
The men inside the fort knew what was coming. They fired off enough artillery rounds to keep the encroaching Yankees on the alert, occasionally making them dive into their trenches. But little damage was done. The defenders lacked mortars that could lob shells high in the air and drop them down upon their foes.
Union commanders figured by April 23 that their batteries had come close enough to begin the assault. Gen. Burnside himself issued another surrender demand, again refused. On April 25, the bombardment commenced.
It lasted a ferocious 11 hours. The defenders returned fire, but for naught. Shells from the attackers rifled cannons more powerful than older smoothbore guns cracked and crumbled masonry walls. Mortars were dialed in on target. Several of the rebels guns were knocked out and the powder magazine was at risk of exploding. Finally Col. White ordered a white flag run up. Casualties fortunately were modest: Seven Confederates died and one Union man.
A formal surrender was negotiated the next day and the fort was repossessed by the Federals, who repaired it and held it for the remainder of the war.
Fort Macon, garrisoned off and on during the next decades, finally was declared surplus and would have been sold. But Congress in 1924 heeded a state request that it be deeded over for use as a park. It was North Carolinas first state park when it opened on May 1, 1936.
Except for a brief return to service while German subs prowled off the Outer Banks during World War II, the fort and surrounding property have been a state park ever since a peaceful place to reflect on the deeds of brave men amid troubled times.
Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.