The preparations for the siege of the Confederate stronghold of Fort Macon and its eventual capitulation were foremost in the minds of Ambrose Burnside and his subordinate commanders as spring arrived along the Carolina shore in 1862. The expedition commander had always placed the reduction of Fort Macon as one of his highest priorities in order to open a deep-water port on the North Carolina coast for the Union fleet. To complete this important mission, Burnside entrusted his brigade commander, Brigadier General John Grubb Parke, with the task of investing and reducing Fort Macon.
Parke is as closely tied to the Civil War service of Ambrose Burnside as any other officer who served during the conflict. An 1849 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Parke ranked second in his class just behind classmate and fellow Union general Quincy A. Gilmore who in the spring of 1862 was, ironically, preparing an assault against the Confederate-held Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia. After serving as one of Burnside’s brigade commanders for the operations in North Carolina, Parke was promoted to Major General and served as Burnside’s Chief of Staff for the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Fredericksburg. He would later succeed Burnside in command of IX Corps following the debacle at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg in 1864.
Brig Gen John Parke, charged by Burnside with seizing Fort Macon
Only three days following the capture of Newbern in March of 1862, General Burnside conducted a reconnaissance to the south toward the Bogue Banks with the purpose of assessing the feasibility of moving at least one of his brigades toward Fort Macon. On that very day, the Confederate command, likely anticipating Burnside’s next move, had burned a railroad bridge spanning the Newport River. This prevented any force of Union troops from being quickly resupplied in an action against Fort Macon. It also hindered Burnside from moving the required heavy siege guns and ammunition to support an assault against the fort. However, the Confederates had failed to destroy the road bridge over the Newport River which would allow passage of troops and wagons until the railroad bridge was repaired.
General Parke’s advanced guard of troops was able to reach Carolina City by March 22nd with the main body and the general close behind them. Leaving the 5th Rhode Island to repair the railroad bridge, Parke and the remainder of his brigade including Oliver Case and his fellow troops in Company A of the 8th Connecticut occupied Carolina City preparing for operations against Fort Macon. The soldiers were glad to be done with the marching as it was “a hard march…raining most of the time the road was full of mud & water & we had to march through one continual swamp…”
Parke’s first action was to send the Confederate commander of Fort Macon, Colonel Moses White, a note under a flag of truce demanding the surrender of the fort and its garrison. Even in the face of a certain capitulation, even after a potentially lengthy siege, Colonel White refused Parke’s terms and prepared his garrison for the attack.
Beaufort, North Carolina after capture by Parke’s troops; Fort Macon in distance at right
For his part, General Parke immediately took actions aimed at getting all required troops and armament into position. He secured approaches to Carolina City from Morehead City but decided to wait until the railroad bridge was operational and more troops arrived to attempt an attack on Beaufort. By the 26th of March, one company each from the 4th Rhode Island and 8th Connecticut had conducted a secret night crossing of the Newport River and seized Beaufort fully surrounding the garrison at Fort Macon. As Lieutenant Wolcott Marsh of the 8th Connecticut put it, “Our being here completely cuts the rebels in Ft. Macon off from all communications with the rest of seceshion…although they say they will fight to the last.”
Soon enough, Lieutenant Marsh and her friend Oliver Case plus the rest of Parke’s Brigade would see if the rebels could hold true to their promise.
- Letters to a Civil War Bride: The Civil War Letters of Captain Wolcott Pascal Marsh,” Compiled by Sandra Marsh Mercer and Jerry Mercer, Heritage Books, Westminster, Maryland, 2006.
- From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 26, 1862.
- Mercer, 2006.