Robert E. Lee at Fort Macon

Robert E. Lee at Fort Macon

Paul R. Branch, Jr.

Note: Paul R. Branch, Jr., is on-site historian and ranger at Fort Macon State Park, a coastal fort constructed on North Carolina’s barrier islands near present-day Atlantic Beach between 1826 and 1834. The following essay chronicles Robert E. Lee’s role as an engineer at Fort Macon for several months beginning in 1840. The essay was published in two parts in the Fall 2002 and Spring 2003 issues of the Fort Macon Ramparts, used by permission, all rights reserved. Mr. Branch is the author of Fort Macon: A History (Charleston, S.C., 1999) and The Siege of Fort Macon (Morehead City, North Carolina, 1982).

Robert E. Lee at Fort Macon

Part I

One of the most persisting rumors about Fort Macon’s early years is that Robert E. Lee was responsible for building the fort. It is also rumored Lee had the system of stone jetties currently on the beach around the fort built to protect it from shore erosion. Well, one out of two is not bad! Lee did not build Fort Macon but he did have a role to play in the Fort’s early years, He was responsible for initiating the system of stone jetties which still protect the fort from the sea to this day.

So what exactly is Lee’s connection to Fort Macon? When was he at the Fort? What exactly did he do? The following is a summary of how the paths of Lee and Fort Macon did cross. He faced some difficult problems when he arrived at Fort Macon and the manner in which he solved them as an engineer is interesting.

When construction began on Fort Macon in 1826, Robert E. Lee was 19 years old and completing his freshman year as a cadet at West Point. After being graduated from West Point in 1829, Lee served as assistant engineer in the construction of Fort Pulaski, Georgia, during 1829–31, and the defenses of Hampton Roads during 1831–34. He next held a staff position in the Engineer Department in Washington, and in 1837 was assigned a project for the improvement of navigation at St. Louis and the Mississippi River. When work on this project was suspended in 1840, Lee returned to Washington for a new assignment.

While young Lee was being shifted back and forth between various Engineer Department projects, Fort Macon was completed by other engineers in 1834. It was then garrisoned until 1836, and afterward sat in the charge of an Ordinance Sergeant acting as caretaker. However, an inspection in June, 1839 by the engineer in charge of seacoast forts in the Carolinas, Captain A. J. Swift, disclosed Fort Macon to be in need of numerous repairs as well as protection from shore erosion. Swift was subsequently transferred elsewhere so that during most of 1840 no engineer officer was available to determine a detailed analysis of the repairs and costs needed at Fort Macon.

Finally in October, 1840, 32–year old Captain Robert E. Lee arrived in Washington, available for assignment following the suspension of the St. Louis projects. With no permanent engineer projects currently available for him until the following spring, the Engineer Department gave him the only assignment it had readily available—an inspection of Forts Macon and Caswell in North Carolina, and Fort Moultrie in South Carolina. In light of Captain Swift’s inspection of the previous year, Lee’s objectives at Fort Macon were to plan some means of securing the fort against the encroachment of the sea, and to formulate what repairs and costs were necessary for the fort itself.

Lee arrived in Beaufort in late November or early December, 1840. The weather was inclement but he began his inspection of the fort and its site as best he could. Doubtless he was assisted when necessary by the fort’s caretaker, Ordinance Sergeant Peter D. Stewart.

In studying the erosion along the eastern end of Bogue Banks, where Fort Macon was located, Lee found the problem to be quite serious. The sea had steadily eaten away at the beach and point until it was right at the tip of the fort’s glacis (the earthen mound which surrounds the fort). Further erosion would soon eat into the glacis and eventually threaten the fort itself. Since Fort Macon’s predecessor on Bogue Point, Fort Hampton, had been totally washed away by this same process only fifteen years earlier, it was imperative the erosion be arrested as soon as possible so that Fort Macon did not share a similar fate.

Lee spent time studying the dynamics of the wind, sea and currents as they acted upon Bogue Point. He also gained information from local people and sea pilots as to changes of Beaufort Inlet over the years. He found the erosion problems originated from several causes. First, Beaufort Inlet underwent a cycle of changes over periods of decades. The channel shifted constantly while Bogue Point and Shackleford Point, on the opposite side, changed in relation to each other. At different times the two points built out or receded from each other. At other times one built up while the other receded, and vice versa. Thus the very nature of the beach at Bogue Point was quite unpredictable.

Second, Lee found that waves striking Bogue Banks obliquely with the prevailing southwest winds dislodged beach sand and carried it away parallel to the beach to the east. Known today as the longshore current, or littoral drift, this constant scouring action was a source of continuous erosion of the beach.

A third factor involved was the effect of storms. Hurricanes, nor’easters, and heavy storm tides did great damage to the beach each year. Since the Fort had been built, hurricane storm surges had washed completely over Bogue Banks just west of the fort, leaving it temporarily isolated on a little island.

All these factors combined to show Lee that manmade stabilization efforts were necessary to preserve the site of Fort Macon and prevent it from washing into the sea as its predecessor, Fort Hampton, had done.

Lee was not the first engineer to face these powerful natural forces at Fort Macon. While the fort was being constructed, its superintending engineer had sought to control them. Breakwaters of pilings filled with brush and brick bats had been built on the beach during 1833–34. They produced a large degree of success in causing the accretion of sand on the beach and halting the erosion. By 1840, however, Lee found the pilings and brush had decayed away and the bricks were scattered by wave action. Clearly such temporary structures were not the answer to the problem. Substantial permanent structures were the only suitable means to combat the erosion problem.

As it turned out, the Engineer Department had recently constructed permanent stone jetties resting on a grillage of palmetto log timbers at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina. They had been highly successful. Other breakwaters had also been built at Fort Caswell. As a result, Lee felt such structures held the key to preserving the site of Fort Macon.

His recommendation therefore was to use two similar stone jetties on the beach in front of the fort. Jetty 1 was to be placed near Bogue Point southeast of the fort. Jetty 2 would be placed 1160 feet west of Jetty 1. Each would consist of palmetto logs sunk in a line perpendicular to the beach. On these would be piled stones of heavy granite or limestone.

The idea behind the jetties was that being at right angles to the beach they would disrupt the flow of sand in the littoral drift from west to east. This would cause sand to build up on their western sides extending westward in front of the fort and beyond.

Lee felt these measures would stop the erosion and save the fort site. Now to address the repairs needed on the fort itself.

Editors note: Because of its length, this article about Robert E. Lee’s work at Fort Macon will be concluded in our next issue of the Ramparts. It should be noted that the curriculum at West Point was oriented toward engineering. Before the Civil War most top graduates of West Point were assigned to the Engineer Department of the Army. Lee graduated second in his class in 1829.

Part II

Lee’s inspection of Fort Macon was done with great thoroughness. He took precise measurements of the lengths and heights of the fort’s walls. He then went through each casemate of the fort as well as outside buildings and structures noting cracks, leaks and problems. While the overall condition of the fort was good, there were a number of problems which needed to be corrected, some of them quite serious. Lee studied each and determined a solution.

First, settling of the foundation piers of the fort’s scarp wall (the main wall of the inner citadel fronting the ditch) had resulted in cracks running through the ceiling arch of each casemate. These had to be sealed and patched with bricks and cement from below. Then the earthen parapet had to be excavated on top of the fort to allow access to the cracks from above on top of each casemate. The cracks were then to be flooded with grout.

Next, Lee found all three of the fort’s magazines were very damp and poorly ventilated. The wooden lining of each magazine was so close to the masonry as to allow no air circulation between the two. Each magazine was also secured by two solid oak doors which likewise allowed no circulation when closed. To increase ventilation he recommended a two-foot square passage be cut through a wall of each magazine into the adjoining casemate to allow increased air flow.

The inner door of each magazine was to be replaced with a grated door which would allow air circulation while providing proper security for the magazine. Lee also recommended the wooden lining of each magazine be replaced with a new wood lining which had a one-foot spacing between it and the masonry walls of the magazine to allow further air circulation.

Another problem Lee found involved the fort’s emergency water system and cisterns. In operation, rainwater filtering through the soil over each casemate flowed through a gutter in the bottom of each casemate valley into an iron pipe in the fort’s parade wall. The pipe ran laterally through the wall over the doors and windows to a point above each cistern, located under the parade walkways. The water was then conveyed down by a single downspout in the wall to each cistern. The iron pipe had proved inadequate for the amount of water and clogged easily. Water then backed up in the casemate valleys and leaked below into the casemates. What water did reach the cisterns became brackish and undrinkable.

Lee’s solution was to get the water from above the casemates to ground level as quickly as possible so that it had little chance to leak into the casemates. Dispensing with the iron pipe, he called for a gutter chase to be chiseled in the parade wall from the head of each casemate valley to the foot of the wall. Each was to receive an 8-inch diameter zinc downspout to bring the water down from the casemate valleys. At the foot of the parade wall, under the walkway, the downspouts would tie into a covered gutter which would then convey the water along the wall to the cisterns.

To stop the salty tidal groundwater from contaminating the cisterns themselves, Lee ordered the cistern interiors to be coated with hydraulic mortar and built up with one course of bricks.

When he examined the four counterfire galleries under the fort’s outer wall, Lee found two problems. These rooms were designed to defend the ditch (the sunken area between the fort’s outer and inner walls) against assault. First, the rooms were full of water several feet deep which he thought had percolated through the wall from the ditch. Second, though the galleries were loopholed for riflemen to shoot from, he felt their firepower was inadequate to stop an assault.

To control the amount of tidal water entering the ditch, Lee called for a sluice gate to be installed in the culvert which conveyed the water into the ditch from the creek outside the fort. Controlling the water in the ditch should control the water leaking into the counterfire galleries.

To increase the firepower of the galleries in defending against an assault, Lee proposed to install a total of six carronade cannons in the three largest galleries from which a sweeping fire was possible. Carronades were stubby, large caliber naval cannons frequently utilized in forts for interior defense to deliver a sweeping, scattering fire with anti-personnel ammunition.

Should the fort have been called upon to fight, Lee found only a limited potential for defense at hand. It had received only a third of its intended armament and had only one hot shot furnace inside the citadel for use against naval attack. No guns were mounted and, had there been a need to, there were no permanent gun mounts in the fort. Fourteen temporary gun mounts, consisting of wooden platforms and traverse circles, all mounted on brick foundations, had been installed four years earlier but these were insufficient for proper defense. Lee’s recommendation was that permanent brick and stone gun mounts be built for the fort’s full intended armament. Also, a second hot shot furnace was needed to serve the guns on the fort’s outer wall against naval attack.

These repairs covered all the fort’s major problems. Added to these were also a few minor items. Lee completed his inspection of the fort and its site by December 9, 1840. Although the weather was still poor, he sent a letter that day to the Engineer Department advising of his intention to continue on to Fort Caswell (Southport, N.C.) and Fort Moultrie (Charleston) to observe the breakwaters previously constructed at those two forts. Because the beach at Fort Macon required immediate attention, he planned to obtain information on the cost of the breakwaters and see how they could be adapted to the erosion situation at Fort Macon.

It is not known with certainty if Lee did continue on to observe the erosion control efforts at Forts Caswell and Moultrie as planned. He did not inspect either of the forts themselves or write any report of going there. However, it is clear from his December 9 letter that he regarded the immediate halting of the erosion at Fort Macon as critical and that studying the breakwaters at Caswell and Moultrie would aid in his recommendations for Fort Macon’s problems. He could’ve easily made the trip to each of these forts by steamer in just a few days.

It is certain that Lee was back with his family at Arlington, Virginia, for the holidays. At the beginning of 1841 he sat down with his field notes to draft his final report to the Engineer Department on his findings and recommendations in regard to Fort Macon. His 6-page “Report on the site of Fort Macon, N.C.” with its accompanying estimates for constructing two permanent stone jetties was penned on January 7, 1841. He recommended the two jetties each be a minimum of fifty yards long to be effective. They would require a total of 6380 linear feet of palmetto logs and 3630 tons of stone, for an estimated cost of $25,000. This would provide immediate protection to the fort. To permanently secure the fort site Lee stated in a further 6-page report on February 22, 1841, that the jetties had to be much larger: 200 yards long for Jetty 1 and 100 yards long for Jetty 2. Carrying them to this extent would require 22,535 feet of palmetto logs and 8317 tons of stone. The cost of full length jetties, along with brush fences to stabilize the dunes west of the fort, was $70,000. Lee also drafted two detailed maps of the site of Fort Macon dated January 7 and February 22, 1841, showing the locations and details of his two proposed jetties.

As for repairs to the fort itself, Lee’s 22-page “Report on the State and Condition of Fort Macon, N.C.” with estimates for repairs was completed on January 22, 1841. It is one of the most detailed inspections of the fort ever conducted. In carefully calculating the costs for materials and labor, Lee’s estimate for all the repairs to the fort amounted to $17,674.

This completed Lee’s work at Fort Macon. Although he had the choice of returning to the Carolinas to take charge of the repairs and improvements to Fort Macon and the other forts there, he decided instead to take a new, perm up, his reports served as the blueprint for other engineers to do so. In June, 1841, another engineer was assigned to carry the recommendations into effect. The recommendations were to initiate a phase of repairs and alterations to the fort and its site which lasted from 1841 to 1846.

The recommendations for Lee’s two jetties were adopted and four others were even added to provide additional protection. They stabilized the fort site for years. All are currently covered over with sand. The large sea jetty present today was built over Lee’s Jetty 1.

The repairs to the fort were also carried out during the 1841–46 period. These, along with additional repairs and alterations added by the Engineer Department, brought Fort Macon to a pinnacle of top military condition and readiness before the outbreak of the War Between the States. In that conflict, both Robert E. Lee and Fort Macon would receive their trial by fire.