Fort Macon Celebrates North Carolina State Park Centennial
As the sentinel of Beaufort Inlet and protector of the Crystal Coast, Fort Macon has stood weathering storms on the southern Outer Banks for nearly 200 years. Since then, the five sided fortress has been converted into a popular state park and now draws more than a million people from around the world each year. Superintendent at Fort Macon State Park Randy Newman.
“The Crystal Coast is so gorgeous and our beaches are so clean, and we have lots of people just coming to the beach. But when they get here, they want to learn about history too and Fort Macon is just a national treasure, it’s one of the best preserved forts on the East Coast and in the nation.”
And it’s only a day trip for most eastern North Carolinians. The history of Fort Macon and the month-long Civil War skirmish in 1862 will take center stage at an event this weekend celebrating the 100th anniversary of the North Carolina State Park system.
“We’re really excited and if you want to hear some cannons, Fort Macon is the place to be this weekend.”
The brick, pentagon shaped fortress, with outer walls 24 feet high include six cannons, three of which were recently installed. Newman says a dedication and firing will be held this weekend.
“Friends of Fort Macon provided funding and Wayne Community College helped build the carriages for the guns. This completes the battery. So Fort Macon is about the only place in the nation where you can see a functional battery.”
A fireworks display, performance by the Marine Corp band, educational programs and artillery demonstrations will kick off the North Carolina State Park Centennial Celebration. Another highlight of this weekend’s event will be a reenactment of the Siege of Fort Macon by volunteers with the 1st North Carolina Battalion on Saturday and Sunday.
“We’re going to have about 450 reenactors, this is our biggest reenactment of all time here at Fort Macon. We’ll have cannons in the sand dunes, we’ll have cannons in the fort.”
Following the War of 1812, there was a push to build up defenses along the North Carolina coast. Fort Macon was constructed from 1826 to 1834 at the eastern end of Bogue Banks to protect the ports of Beaufort and Morehead City. It wasn’t until almost 30 years later that Newman says it saw action during the Carolina Campaign of the Civil War.
“And what General Burnside was trying to do was capture a deep water harbor in the South. So they came up through Hatteras, captured Edenton, Elizabeth City area and then went on to New Bern. Capturing New Bern, they cut off the supply line of the railroad. They came down the supply line and basically captured Morehead City and Beaufort and were finally able to come over to Fort Macon.”
And on March 23rd 1862, the Siege of Fort Macon began. Having surrounded the fort, Burnside gave three opportunities for Confederate troops to surrender. They refused. Park Ranger and on-site historian Paul Branch says the Union Army attacked Fort Macon nearly a month later on April 24th.
“Then on the morning at 5:40, the Union guns opened fire on the fort. Bombed it for 11 hours. The fort resisted the ships of the Union Navy which joined in, drove them away after an hour and half. The Union artillery fire was very destructive. The artillery fire was concentrated at the gun powder magazines, and the main magazine of the fort was cracking open and it had five tons of gun powder in it so the Confederates were about to get blown up by their own gun powder.”
The Battle of Fort Macon was one of the first uses of rifled cannons, giving the shot a rotation vertical to the line of propulsion.
“This was brand new technology. Literally, once we had rifled weapons, it pretty much spelled the end of forts and castles as a mean of primary military defense.”
Union forces hit the fort 560 times causing extensive damage. The Confederate flag was lowered at Fort Macon around 10 o clock the next morning and the U.S. flag was put up in its place.
After the Civil War, Fort Macon served as a federal prison until it was garrisoned by state troops during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The fort didn’t see action during World War I. It wasn’t until 1923 that Superintendent Randy Newman says Fort Macon was put up for sale as surplus military property.
“And the state of North Carolina stepped forward in 1924 and bought Fort Macon from the federal government for a dollar, basically a donation.”
With a plan of establishing a state park system, Fort Macon became the second state park, joining Mount Mitchell acquired in 1916. It sat unchanged for about a decade until the Civilian Conservation Corp was called in to make the fort accessible to the public.
“They built all the roads, the highways, they built a lot of like restroom buildings, picnic areas. They basically cleaned out the fort, it was all overgrown, repaired the fort, and got it all cleaned up and ready for the public to visit.”
On May 1st, 1936, Fort Macon officially opened to visitors as North Carolina’s first functioning state park. Only five years passed before the fort was put back into service during World War II.
Coast Artillery troops used Fort Macon to protect nearby facilities. A year after the war ended, the Army returned the fort and the park to the state and it has remained open to the public since.
Today, the park receives 1.2 million visitors annually. They come to enjoy free beach access, a nature and wellness trail, interpretive programs, special events and a new 600-foot exhibit space. Newman says he’s proud of the honor given to Fort Macon in 2015, when it was named the “North Carolina State Park of the Year.”
“We’re hoping to keep building off of that. Keep promoting the park. To bring in more tourism into the area.”