For many thousands of people, old fort Macon is a well known landmark and historic attraction. Its imposing walls have been a source of wonder and curiosity for decades. But many people are not aware of Fort Macon’s predecessor, an obscure little fort known as Fort Hampton, which predated the present structure by more than twenty years. The story of this earlier fort is an interesting, if frequently overlooked, part of Fort Macon’s overall history.
The need for coastal defense was not a new concept for Beaufort Harbor. Twice in its history the town of Beaufort was captured and plundered by hostile ships that were able to sail into the harbor through undefended Beaufort Inlet. And twice, also, attempts were made to build a fort to guard the entrance to Beaufort Inlet and defend against such incursions.
The first attempt was made in 1756, when the Colonial government tried constructing a battery named Fort Dobbs. Unfortunately, the battery was never completed and Beaufort Harbor remained defenseless during the Revolutionary War. The second attempt, more than fifty years later, resulted in Fort Hampton.
When it first appeared in 1807 that the United States would fight a second war with Great Britain, military officials began plans to build a chain of coastal forts for the country’s defense. This chain of forts became referred to as the Second System, following an earlier defense system that was initiated in 1794. At first, no fort was planned for the protection of Beaufort Harbor, but in November, 1807, the North Carolina Assembly took steps to encourage the federal government to build one there. A tract of land on the point of Bogue Banks that formed the west side of Beaufort Inlet was purchased and ceded to the federal government to be used as the site for a fort to defend the inlet. The tactic worked and in early 1808 the Army Engineer Department was authorized to build a small fort on the Bogue Point tract.
Work began on the fort later that year. The superintending engineer was Captain Charles Gratiot, and the work force was provided by civilian laborers and slaves. By January, 1809, the fort was virtually complete at a cost of $8,863.62. It was later named Fort Hampton for a North Carolina Revolutionary War hero, Colonel Andrew Hampton.
Although it was the smallest of the federal government forts built at this time, Fort Hampton was typical of other forts in its shape. It had a horseshoe-shaped parapet facing the channel was seven feet high and made of an oyster shell cement called tabby, or tapia. The parapet wall was fourteen feet thick at the base tapering to eight feet at the top. Behind the parapet was a gun platform 23 feet wide, on which were to be mounted five 18-pounder cannons. Each cannon could fire an 18-pound iron cannonball with a range of about one mile.
At the rear of the fort, the walls of the two prongs of the horseshoe were eighteen inches thick at the top and were loopholed for riflemen to fire through. Connecting the two prongs and enclosing the work was a two-story barracks building, about 82 feet long and 30 feet wide. Each story contained five 13- by 16-foot rooms, three for enlisted men and two for officers. The barracks could accommodate one company of fifty men. Beside the barracks on the right-hand prong was a small 15- by 16-foot brick building for a gunpowder magazine.
From rear wall to front the fort was 90 feet long, 123 feet wide and had a perimeter of about 440 feet.
For the next few years, Fort Hampton apparently was garrisoned by small detachments of troops. The citizens of Beaufort felt proud and secure with their new fort when the country at last went to war with Great Britain in the War of 1812. During the war, the presence of the fort forced British warships to keep their distance. Apparently the British believed the fort was quite formidable, because they never attacked it. This was fortunate, not so much for the British, but for the fort itself and those who garrisoned it. There were problems that made the fort’s ability to resist attack a doubtful matter.
First, there were problems with keeping the fort garrisoned. In July, 1812, the Army withdrew the fort’s garrison to other service. North Carolina Governor William Hawkins had to rush four local militia companies to occupy it and the surrounding harbor area. When no British attack materialized, the militia was ordered home in November and replaced by a company of infantry regulars from the 10th US Infantry. This company remained at the fort for nine months.
During July, 1813, the British made a raid into Ocracoke Inlet. Fearing this to be the beginning of an invasion, the coastal inhabitants went into a near-panic. At this critical time, the Army suddenly withdrew the company of regulars at Fort Hampton to other duty, leaving the fort defenseless. However, North Carolina militia was hurriedly rushed in to take the place of the regulars and the fort was once again secure. Meanwhile, the raiders at Ocracoke soon departed without further incursions and order was soon restored to the coast.
Militia troops continued to occupy Fort Hampton for the remainder of the 1813. The fort’s armament was increased by two 6-pounders and a 4-pounder to supplement the main battery of 18-pounders. In 1814, as the enlistments of the militia company occupying the fort expired, it had to be replaced by other militia troops. Meanwhile, protests were made to the federal government from North Carolina’s governor and General Assembly about the government’s apparent lack of effort to help defend the state’s coast. These appear to have been successful because the militia at the fort was soon replaced by elements of the 43rd US Infantry. The fort apparently was occupied by these regulars until the end of the war.
As if this circus of shifting troops between the militia and the regulars was not bad enough, there were other troubles as well. In August, 1813, Governor Hawkins visited the fort and found that it also had structural problems. Like many of its sister forts, Fort Hampton had been made cheaply with little thought given to its structural longevity. Governor Hawkins felt the fort’s parapet of tabby had been badly cemented and, whether through age or faulty construction, was becoming brittle. The oyster shells in the cement were flaking off, causing a situation where, if the British attacked, their cannonballs might scale the shells from the top of the parapet and hurl them with lethal effect among the garrison. Nor was this all. There was a problem regarding the fort’s armament.
Through some lack of foresight, the fort’s guns had been mounted on very low gun carriages-so low they could not fire over the crest of the parapet. To cure this, the gun platform behind the parapet was raised so that they might clear the parapet. Again, with lack of foresight, the platform was raised until it was only two feet from the crest. Sure, the guns had no problem firing over the parapet now, but the gun crews found themselves protected from enemy fire only from the knees down. To cure this ludicrous situation, Governor Hawkins ordered the gun carriages to the raised and the platform lowered to reduce the exposure of the gun crews.
Hawkins also felt the fort was vulnerable on its landward side. Since the guns faced the water, an enemy force could pass around behind the fort out of their reach and assault the fort from the rear. He noted, however, that with a small expenditure of money and effort, the fort could be made much stronger. Fortunately, these problems and weaknesses would never be put to the test before the war ended in 1815.
After the war, the fort was intermittently occupied for the next four years by small detachments from an artillery company shared between Fort Hampton and its sister fort, Fort Johnston, at Southport. By 1820, Fort Hampton was completely abandoned by the federal government, a victim of congressional economy and military cutbacks. No one seems to have paid any attention that the little fort was now battling a more sinister enemy-the sea.
For years the sea had been steadily eroding Bogue Point. By 1820-21 engineers making surveys and shoreline inspections found the high tide mark had advanced to the point of lapping at the base of the fort’s rounded front. Still, there was limited interest in Fort Hampton because by now the federal government had begun the construction of a chain of permanent forts for a new system of seacoast defense known as the Third System. One of the new forts of this system would soon be built at Beaufort Inlet to replace Fort Hampton.
For the next several years the erosion at Bogue Point progressed and eventually lopped off an extensive portion of the beach. Included in that portion, at last, was Fort Hampton. There seems to have been no exact record of when the little fort actually met its end. Local tradition claimed it disappeared virtually overnight in a summer storm. Undoubtedly, it was the early season hurricane of June 3-4, 1825, that finally claimed the fort. The exact sequence of its demise is not known, but the sea undoubtedly surged around the walls of the fort, undermining and crumbling its parapet. Once a breach was made, the tide swept through the weed-choked parade ground to topple the empty shells of the barracks and magazine. It is known that by February, 1826, the high tide mark lay over 200 feet in the rear of the spot where the little fort had stood. By 1834, the site lay in the inlet along the line of a 12-foot deep ship channel.
The site of the new fort on Bogue Point, Fort Macon, was initially fixed by the engineers about 130 feet southwest of Fort Hampton. By the time construction was ready to begin in 1826 the site was in the possession of the sea. A new site had to be chosen 300 yards west of Fort Hampton and here Fort Macon now stands. Even then, Fort Macon was saved from its predecessor’s fate only by the building of brick and stone sea jetties over the years that followed.
Thus, unlucky little Fort Hampton is now gone, and in so going, it left behind virtually no tangible evidence of its existence. A couple of iron objects found on the beach near Fort Macon are typical of the hardware used in a fort and do not match anything in Fort Macon. However, there is no way to link them to Fort Hampton. And the numerous old-style bricks, well rounded from abrasion, that frequently wash up on Fort Macon beach cannot be identified as having possibly come from one of Fort Hampton’s buildings. The ocean jealously guards its possessions, but occasionally some objects do make their way back into the realm of man. Hopefully, some day something may wash on shore that can be positively identified as having come from Fort Hampton, the ill-fated predecessor of Fort Macon.
Paul Branch, Park Ranger II
Fort Macon State Park
PO Box 127
Atlantic Beach, NC 28512
252-726-3775, Ext. 103