Fort Macomb Ruins
While wandering around the US Southeast I came across Fort Macomb.
When the British attempted to capture the jewel of the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans, in 1815, they exposed how easy it would have been. New Orleans was strategically important, as it controlled the mouth of the Mississippi River and was the largest port in the Gulf. To protect the city from the south, the Army built Forts St Phillip and Jackson. To protect the entrance from the Rigolets Pass they built Fort Pike. To protect the city’s side door through Chef Pass, they built Fort Wood. Chef Menteur Pass is a narrow natural waterway, which connects Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne to New Orleans.
The French had built a wood and clay emplacement at the location, dubbed simply Fort Chef Menteur in the 1790s. Local militia occupied it after the French left in 1803 until 1822 when the US Army began to build the current brick fort atop of it.
The Army completed what they called Fort Wood in 1827. Designed by
French engineer Simon Bernard; the fort is a mirror image of nearby Fort Pike. Engineers laid out the fort with triangular traces using an arc of casemates to optimize the number of guns facing the channel, while offering no blind angles to any waterborne attacker. Terrain and topography allowed the Army to dispense with elaborate outer works for these forts. Any besiegers would fight the water table in addition to the fort’s defenders. It was designed and armed with 13 32-pounder casemate guns, 26 24-pounder cannons en barbette, and 4 howitzers of unknown size, giving the fort 43 pieces. In wartime, more than 300-soldiers and gunners would staff the base. However, the fort was never fully manned in peacetime and left to the care of a single Ordnance Sergeant who kept the grass cut, the cannons covered in grease, and the shells and powders in the magazine dry.
The 24-pounders were the main teeth of the fort. According to the 1851 U.S. Artillery manual, the barrel of a standard smoothbore, iron cannon designed to fire 24-pound shots, measured 10 feet, four inches in length, and weighed almost 5,800 pounds. It had a bore that was 5.82 inches in diameter, designed to fire a round, which ideally was perfectly spherical and had a diameter of 5.68 inches (or about 143mm). Solid iron-shot in this caliber actually weighed slightly more than 24 pounds — 24.4 pounds, to be precise — while hollow shells only weighed 17 pounds, not including the additional pound of powder which would have to be poured through its one-inch-wide fuse hole so as to make up its explosive charge. In modern naval rifle speak this would be a 5.68inch/21 caliber smoothbore.
In order to be operated, a 24-pounder would first have to be seated on a carriage and then evenly balanced atop a barbette-chassis made of thick wooden beams, this whole towering structure resting upon a firm, level surface known as its platform. Barbette-carriages for such cannons stood slightly more than six feet high; measured fifteen feet, four inches in length; and weighed almost a ton by themselves. They could be rotated (with considerable effort) on a set of wheels at the rear of their chassis, which rolled over an embedded, semi-circular metal track known as a traverse circle.
The maximum range for firing a 24-pound solid shot in 1860,using the heftiest eight-pound charge of powder allowable at a 5° angle of elevation, was slightly more than 1,800 yards — almost exactly one mile. Crew was one gunner (NCO) and four enlisted layers.
The Fort is renamed Fort Macomb in 1851 in honor of Major General Alexander Macomb (1782 –1841), who served as the Commanding General of the United States Army from May 29, 1828 to June 25, 1841. This position now would be the same as the Chief of Staff and was the highest position in the Army.
From 1827-1861 the fort’s caretaker sergeant tended to the site. In 1861, when the announcement of the passage of the Ordinance of Secession was made in New Orleans, several Federal officers immediately resigned their positions. Governor Moore, acting through Maurice Grivot, Adjutant General of Louisiana, moved to sequester the remaining Federal property in the state. To implement the governor’s instructions, Captain Henry A. Clinch of the State Militia, accompanied by a detachment of the 1st Louisiana Regulars, moved against Fort Macomb. On January 28, Ordnance Sergeant D. Wilber surrendered Fort Macomb to Captain Clinch’s command. Sergeant Wilber remained on hand for a couple days before composing a letter.
The sergeant wrote to his commander the following:
Report of Ordnance Sergeant D. Wilber, U. S. Army, of the seizure of Fort Macomb.
FORT MACOMB, LA., January 31, 1861.
SIR: I have the honor to report myself at this post. I will also report that Lieut. R. C. Capers, with a detachment of the First Regiment Louisiana Infantry, took charge of this post on the 28th instant. I turned over all the property under protest, closed my public accounts, transmitted them to the departments to which they belong, and, as there is no use at present for an ordnance sergeant at this post, I will request leave of absence for three months to visit my family in Portland, Me.
Respectfully, I am, sir, your most obedient servant,
Ordnance Sergeant, U. S. Army. Col. S. COOPER, Adjutant-General U. S. Army, Washington, D.C.
The fort was quickly garrisoned by parts of Company A and Company G of the 1st Louisiana Heavy Artillery Regiment of the Confederate Army under now-Major Clinch. Organized February 5, 1861, as part of the Louisiana State Army, the 1st Heavy Artillery transferred to Confederate service March 13, 1861, with 744 men. Regimental headquarters remained at the New Orleans Barracks while the various companies occupied the forts of the New Orleans defenses. Gen. PGT Beauregard, commander of New Orleans defenses in 1861, ordered that fifteen 24-pounder siege guns en barbette with carriages be moved from Fort Macomb to Fort St. Philip. Later in November, four 42-pounder guns were added to strengthen the fort.
New Orleans was captured April 26, 1862 from an assault up the Mississippi River. The Union forces bypassed Fort Macomb and left the garrison to wither on the vine. With no city to protect, the fort was abandoned by the Confederates and the cannon removed. The remaining 13 32-pounder casemate guns, 11 24-pounder cannons en barbette, 4 howitzers, and 4 42 pdrs were gathered and the barracks and wooden buildings burned.
Clinch and the Fort Macomb company withdrew to Vicksburg and from May 20, 1862 operated batteries there. The men manned the cannons in the lower (southern) river batteries at Vicksburg. On March 11, 1863, Company A moved to Grand Gulf to occupy the upper (northern) battery there. In an engagement with Federal gunboats on March 31, the company distinguished itself by its excellent firing. This company again engaged the enemy on April 29 and participated in the evacuation of the post on May 3. During the siege of Vicksburg, May 19 – July 4, 1863, the regiment fired its cannons at enemy gunboats on the river and enemy batteries on the Louisiana shore. The 1st Heavy Artillery marched out of Vicksburg after the surrender there and went into a camp for paroled prisoners at Enterprise, Mississippi. Major General Dabney H. Maury requested the regiment’s services at Mobile, Alabama, after it was exchanged; and the regiment arrived there on January 16, 1864. From that time until summer, the companies manned various redoubts along the Mobile land defenses. Twice during July 1864, the regiment moved to Meridian, Mississippi, to support Major General Stephen D. Lee’s cavalry force. At the Battle of Tupelo, July 14, 1864, the men acted as an infantry reserve. The regiment occupied redoubts at Mobile in early August, 1864, and late that month the companies moved to two water batteries on islands in upper Mobile Bay. The regiment continued to garrison these batteries until April 11, 1865, when they were dismantled and their men evacuated as part of the evacuation of Mobile. Clinch was promoted lieutenant colonel April 25, 1865.When Lieutenant General Richard Taylor’s army surrendered, on May 8, 1865, the 1st Heavy Artillery was camped at Cuba Station, Alabama; and the men received their paroles at Meridian as part of Taylor’s army.
The Union Army reoccupied the abandoned Fort Macomb, rebuilt the barracks, and garrisoned it with field artillery until 1867. Most surviving Civil War era coast defense works were rearmed with giant new 15-inch Rodman cannon and kept on the Army’s inventory until the 1890s. This did not happen at Fort Macomb. In 1871, it was disarmed and decommissioned for good. The land eventually reverted over to the state who still owns it. It is possible that State militia (and later National Guard) used it for drilling purposes at one time or another but this is not documented.
Unlike most of the Third Series forts in the US that were used in the Endicott period and as late as World War Two, Fort Macomb was not and has been unused in over 140-years. Its moat was briefly used as a marina but Hurricane Katrina destroyed even that activity. Today it is unsafe and closed to the public. Due to the nature of its location in the wetlands and the immense cost of making it safe to tour, the Bayou will likely consume the fort.