04/22/12 — Wayne County's Fort Macon connection

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Wayne County's Fort Macon connection

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on April 22, 2012 1:50 AM

News-Argus Video Report

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Civil War re-enactor Kerry Thompson, dressed in a Confederate artillery uniform, leans on a cannon as he watches Union troops drive back rebel defenders Saturday during a battle re-enactment at Fort Macon. Men from Wayne County helped defend the fort during the war.

Wayne County's voice within the walls of Fort Macon is booming.

From the thunder of the cannon to the calls from the members of Andrews' Battery, this guardian of the Beaufort Inlet is teeming with connections to the Goldsboro area.

It was members of the Goldsboro Rifles group who seized the fort from Federal control in the early stage of the Civil War, and Wayne County natives who made up the membership of Andrews' Battery that fought when Union troops took the fort back for good nearly a year later.

Now, 150 years later, there is another connection between the fort and Wayne County, and it echoes across the inlet.


It started with erosion, truly.

The wooden carriages for the fort's cannons wore down time and time again beneath the salty sea breezes, leading to repairs and new coats of paint far too often.

Johnny Johnson with Fort Macon's maintenance division was hoping to put together some carriages that wouldn't deteriorate as quicly.

"We wanted to build something that wouldn't rot away," he said. "But we wanted to do it in a manner where we could afford it."

They looked into some estimates, but it proved way too costly to do alone, so Johnson began looking for options.

He heard about a case where a historical site had teamed up with a community college for a similar project elsewhere and decided to fish around the area for any partners.

"That's where approaching Wayne Community college came in," Johnson said.

Kirk Keller, who teaches mechanical engineering at the college, was more than willing to get involved.

For Keller, a history buff who has been involved with state parks and historic sites throughout his life, it was the perfect marriage of his work and his passion.

"They contacted me one afternoon and asked me to review some prints that they had," Keller said. "I had no idea what they were talking about and then they walked in the door and laid out some copies of the 1830 prints of the carriage and cannon.

"Then one thing led to another."

With labor costs eliminated through the collaboration with the college, the state was able to cut the carriage costs to less than half of their $50,000 total. The savings were used to buy cannon barrels capable of being fired, allowing the fort to direct its first reenactment during the sesquicentennial of the battle of Fort Macon in 1862.

Adrien O'Neal, the eastern district superintendent of the state parks program, said the cooperation between the groups was phenomenal.

"Its a win for everybody," he said. "The parks, the reenactors and Wayne Community College."

O'Neal, whose office is at the Cliffs of the Neuse park, said the fireable cannon was unequivocally better than what had previously been done to simulate firing. Living history tour guides would build suspense with tour groups, telling them how the cannon would be primed and loaded, but had no way to capture the sheer loudness and power of the cannon.

"Instead of hearing that," he said, referencing to the cannon's heart-stopping explosion," we would just say 'Boom!'"

Tom Kelly, the president of Friends of Fort Macon, said the project filled the gap in the visitor experience.

"It had always been the missing link at the fort," he said, noting that 35 volunteer tour guides give five tours a day throughout the summer and finally have working cannons to show guests who come to North Carolina's second-most visited state park.

And when fired, those blasts reverberate much longer in the minds of visitors than it does in their ears, Johnson said.

"When they hear it and feel it, they go home with it," he said.

Kelly said his group was thrilled with the result.

"We would never be able to raise the funds to do this," he said, gesturing to the three cannons sitting in battery. "It just enhances the educational experience."

And it allows for visitors -- and reenactors -- to step back in time to the nation's most trying war.


Fort Macon had been held for a year when the Union determined it was time to move inland to cut off the Confederacy's railroad ties at Goldsboro, but to reach that inland target, they would need to retake the fort that guarded the port at Beaufort.

Designed to thwart naval attacks, the more than 400 Confederate troops within the fort were unprepared for an attack from land, which is from where the Union advanced, protected from fire by the dunes.

Surrounded, those in the fort twice shook off conditions of surrender before succumbing after a single shot from Union artillery nearly ignited the fort's stash of gunpowder and explosions.

If the Confederacy hadn't surrendered the fort then, there was a chance that before long there would have been no fort to surrender.

After 33 days of siege and 11 hours of bombardment, the fort traded hands once more in the Civil War and it remained in Union hands until Robert E. Lee's surrender years later.

But for visual learners, Randy Sauls has an idea.

Sauls, of Goldsboro, is proud to be a part of the Andrews' Battery reenactment group, which pays homage to the only artillery unit raised from Wayne County, but to him, the camaraderie and educational opportunities are the real spoils of defeat as he and the rest of his unit have been reenacting for nearly a decade.

Nearly all of the members of his unit are history buffs, he says, and it takes a certain amount of passion for the craft and for each other to reenact.

"It's a very time-consuming and a very expensive hobby," he explained, noting that between clothing and equipment, reenactors can have several thousand dollars invested into reenacting. "But it's very much worth it."

He said almost all reenactors take the historical side of the craft very seriously and are always willing to share and educate on military history. They're also almost always looking for new members to join their ranks.

"Reenacting ebbs and flows with the economy," he explained. "Right now it's slightly down, but we're hoping it will pick up with the sesquicentennial this year."

Reenactments and special events are planned across the state and the country through 2015 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

The final reenactment of the Battle of Fort Macon is scheduled for today at 2 p.m., weather permitting.