Colonel Moses James White
On October 5, 1861, a tall qawky-looking uniformed officer with a gaunt, boyish face stepped from a boat onto the wharf at Fort Macon and paused to look over his new command. Twenty-seven year old Moses J. White, newly promoted to the rank of Colonel of Artillery, had arrived from Kentucky to assume command of Fort Macon. He would be Fort Macon’s last Confederate commander. The road that brought him to this moment was one full of pride and hope for a young man who had devoted his life to service in the military. The road after he left Fort Macon for the last time seven months later would be one of suffering, frustration and finally death.
Moses James White was born August 6, 1835, the eldest of four children born to Dr. Franklin and Emily White, of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In his early years, White grew up in Vicksburg to be a lanky teenager six feet two inches in height. Of his early schooling, his father would write that the boy’s education “has been by a combination of manual labor and attention to his studies and I can say that industry is fixed in him as a habit.” As he progressed through his teen years, young Moses’ focus centered on the military for a career, starting with the hope he might attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
In March 1853, White’s father and a number of prominent citizens of Vicksburg applied to Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War and himself a Mississippian, to appoint Moses to West Point should a vacancy occur. Because no vacancy immediately came open, 18-year-old Moses was sent east and began studies at the College of William and Mary at Williamsburg, VA, on October 13, 1853.
After one year as a student here, Moses’ big opportunity finally came in the summer of 1854. A vacant West Point cadetship occurred for the district of Mississippi Congressman G.R. Singleton. Because it was customary for congressmen to fill such vacancies, Singleton nominated young Moses.
Thus, Moses J. White left William and Mary and attended West Point on September 1, 1854. His record at the military academy was impressive, ranking fifth in his class for his first two years and second in his last two years. On July 1, 1858, he was graduated second in his class of 27 members and commissioned in the U.S. Army as Brevet 2nd Lieutenant of Ordinance. However, there was a dark cloud over what seemed to be the beginning of an otherwise promising career. The first manifestation of the disease that would ultimately kill him, epilepsy, appeared in this same year.
Nevertheless, White served as Assistant Ordnance Officer at the Baton Rouge Arsenal in 1859 and went on as commander of the Fort Union Ordnance Depot, New Mexico, during 1859-60. During 1860-61, however, he was forced to take a sick leave of absence from his duties. His health was already beginning to deteriorate.
With the secession of Mississippi from the Union on January 9, 1861, Lieutenant White decided to follow his home state. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Army on February 7, 1861, and offered his services to the Confederacy. On March 16, he was appointed 1st Lieutenant in the Confederate Corps of Artillery, which he accepted on April 10. On July 1 he was ordered to report for duty as ordnance officer on the staff of Major General Leonidas Polk, commanding the military department embracing west Tennessee, northern Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and east Arkansas. Here White participated in early Confederate operations in Missouri and at Columbus, Kentucky, in August and September.
Hundreds of miles to the east, meanwhile, the fall of Hatteras Inlet, N.C., to Union forces in August 1861, disclosed many weaknesses in North Carolina coastal defenses. Among these was a lack of officers trained in ordnance and artillery in the forts defending the state’s coast. The last several officers to command Fort Macon had all been men from civilian pursuits with no formal military training. Upon the resignation on September 25 of Lieutenant Colonel John L. Bridges as Fort Macon’s commandant, the need for an experienced artillery officer to command the fort was recognized. Accordingly, the Confederate War Department promoted Lieutenant White to the rank of temporary Colonel on September 30 and transferred him to the Department of North Carolina to take command of Fort Macon. He assumed command on October 5.
It was inevitable that Union forces would eventually return to attack the coast of North Carolina. During February and March 1862, Union Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside’s expedition swept through the northeast sound region of the state’s coast and then captured New Bern on March 14. From this point, Burnside dispatched part of his forces under Brigadier General John G. Parke to capture Fort Macon and secure Beaufort Harbor. Colonel White and the fort garrison were now cut off. White had his men conduct what delaying tactics were possible and withdrew to the safety of the fort.
Parke’s forces captured Morehead City on March 23 and Beaufort on March 26. A demand for the fort’s surrender on March 23 was refused by Colonel White. Parke’s forces landed on Bogue Banks and besieged the fort on Aril 12. They erected emplacements for siege artillery to bombard the fort into submission.
As the Confederates made their defensive preparations, an unfortunate incident took place in the fort. Finding one of his men had been a baker before the war, White ordered that the rations of flour normally issued to the garrison companies would instead be used to bake bread for the garrison in the fort’s bake oven as an economy measure. At first the garrison was in favor of the change. However, the baker’s bread continuously turned out burned and inedible. Soon the men were clamoring for the flour ration to be returned to them. Even the commanders of the garrison’s five companies and the fort medical officer sided with the men. Thinking he had the fort’s best interest in hand, White insisted the bread baking continue. After several days, the discontent among the men over the bread reached a state of near-mutiny. The company commanders stated unless White returned the normal issue of flour to the men they were prepared to seize the flour rations from the Commissary if necessary. White was furious but found no other recourse but to rescind the order for baked bread.
The “Bread Incident” left many feelings of discontent and ill-will at a time when the garrison needed to focus full attention on the enemy. White’s inflexible sense of duty was a product of being a West Point-educated professional soldier of the old Regular Army where orders were obeyed without question. As such, he had run headlong into the unpredictable, fiercely independent spirit of green, nonprofessional volunteer, citizen-soldiers with all their suspicions about fussy “West Pointers.” Such culture clashes were not limited to Fort Macon, but would appear elsewhere many times, especially in the early part of the war.
One other problem of White’s leadership during the siege was his reluctance to freely use the fort’s superior armament against the Union forces as they prepared their siege works. With a limited supply of powder and ammunition on hand, and a definite need to conserve what he had for a potentially lengthy siege, White kept a tight rein on the use of the fort’s guns to shell the Union positions. His was a difficult situation, weighing the need to conserve with the need to impede the progress of the enemy. When it was clear the fort’s desultory fire was having little effect, White and his company commanders met on April 21. At their insistence, he allowed them to use the fort’s guns at their discretion to vigorously shell the Union positions. For the remainder of the siege the fort’s cannonades were more effective, but by this time most of the work to the Union siege batteries was nearing completion.
On April 23, General Burnside himself arrived to witness the final stage of the siege. He offered White another chance to surrender, which was refused. However, White accepted the offer of a parley on Shackleford Banks with Burnside the following morning. At this meeting, Burnside personally tried to persuade White to give up, but the Colonel resolved to fight.
Just after dawn on April 25, the Union batteries opened fire on the fort. The fort soon returned fire and the bombardment raged almost eleven hours. During the morning Colonel White was very active. Unmindful of his own safety, he visited every gun, shouting encouragement and reminding his men of their duty to state and country. He even visited the exposed batteries on the fort’s outer wall several times to check on his men and encourage them. By early afternoon, however, his frail health was exhausted. He was forced to turn command of the fort over to the senior captain at 1 pm and retire to his quarters to regain his strength.
As the afternoon wore on, it was clear the fort could not hold out. White and his company commanders met and decided surrender was their only option. Accordingly, about 4:30 pm a flag of truce was displayed. A suspension of hostilities was granted for the night until General Burnside decided surrender terms. The following morning of April 26, Burnside decided to release the garrison on parole of honor with their personal effects and belongings. Colonel White came aboard Burnside’s flagship early to sign the terms. During the subsequent surrender of the fort, White was so mortified in having lost the fort that Burnside graciously forbade his troops from cheering to spare the young colonel’s feelings.
After returning to Confederate lines on parole, White returned to Mississippi to visit his family. After being exchanged, he was ordered on September 22, 1862, to report to Major General T.H. Holmes, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, as Chief of Artillery and Ordnance. Unfortunately, White’s health was in rapid decline. General Holmes noted on October 26 that White had reported for duty but “the painful disease with which he is afflicted disqualified him from any trust at all commensurate with his rank. His mind, I think, is seriously impaired. I have appointed Maj. G.H. Hill chief of ordnance and artillery, Colonel White assuring me that his health would not permit him to act in that capacity.”
On November 27, White was then ordered to Pocahontas, Arkansas, to organize a brigade of cavalry. White duly commanded a brigade containing the 3rd and 4th Missouri Cavalry regiments but was unable to lead it in a raid in January 1863. The brigade was subsequently broken up.
White apparently spent most of 1863 on sick leave. In November 1863, he spent some time in a hospital at Richmond, Va. During his return to the Trans-Mississippi Department, the epileptic attacks were so bad he sent in his resignation on December 2, believing he would never be fit for duty again. Three days later, however, he withdrew his resignation and continued on sick leave. He had no choice but to remain in the Army. The confiscation of his personal property by Union authorities in Mississippi left him dependent on his Army pay for support.
In 1864, White leaned of a doctor in London specializing in the treatment of epilepsy. It was his last hope. He succeeded in securing assignment to duty on December 2, 1864, with the Confederate Purchasing Department in London. By the time these orders bypassed Union-held territory to reach him in Mississippi, it was January 1865. With all ports of the Confederacy now in Union hands, he started off as a private citizen for New Orleans, apparently hoping to secure passage on a steamer for Europe.
He never reached his destination. While passing through Natchez, Mississippi, White’s health evaporated. At one of the homes there, he lay dying. Word of this somehow reached his family in Vicksburg. His sister, Lucy E. White, was able to obtain permission from Union authorities to pass through the lines to nurse him back to health (family legend says General U.S. Grant made the arrangement). Her efforts were in vain. Moses died at Natchez at age 29 on January 29, 1865. Reverent J.B. Stratton of the Natchez Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral two days later. Unfortunately, no record has been found of the location of his grave. Even the alumni records of his beloved West Point incorrectly list the year of his death as 1864.
During his brief, tormented life, White did not marry. During the siege of Fort Macon, General Burnside’s secretary noted that White had “a lady love” living in Beaufort. He name is not known, and doubtless he never saw her again after leaving Fort Macon.
Moses James White thus passed into history. His frail health robbed him of the duty and service he sought so hard to offer. His life stands as yet another tragic story that was part of the most tragic period in American history.
Paul Branch is the Ranger/Historian at Fort Macon.