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Josiah Pender & Capture

(published in the Spring ’97 Ramparts)
by: Bennett R. Moss

Fort Macon was built to protect Beaufort and its harbor from hostile invaders. Whoever possessed Fort Macon would have effective control of an important area of eastern North Carolina.

When word of the Confederate siege of Charleston’s Fort Sumter was received in Beaufort, a local unit of secessionist militia decided to take action against Fort Macon. The militia unit, known locally as the “Beaufort Harbor Guards” consisted of 17 men under the command of Josiah S. Pender. On April 14, 1861, the Beaufort Harbor Guards and some of their friends, descended upon the surprised Union caretaker, Sergeant William Alexander, and took possession of Fort Macon for the Confederacy. They lowered the Stars and Stripes and replaced it with an improvised Confederate flag.

Sgt. Alexander was not the only one surprised by this venture. The governor of North Carolina was also surprised when he heard of it. The War had barely begun. Not only did the capture of Fort Macon occur just one day after Fort Sumter fell, but North Carolina was still a part of the Union, and remained so for another 35 days!

To say the least, the military career of the militia commander, Josiah Pender, was strange. Pender was born into a wealthy North Carolina family in March, 1819. At the age of 16, he obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He entered West Point on July 1, 1835. Seven months later he resigned from the Academy because he found military discipline to be intolerable. He then turned to the study of art.

In spite of his disappointing experience at West Point, Pender still retained a mental image of himself as a dashing military officer. When the war with Mexico broke out in 1846, Pender’s military juices began flowing again. In December of 1846 he joined Company A of the First North Carolina Volunteer Regiment. Apparently, the combination of a year of college education and his West Point experience resulted in his being elected to the rank of Second Lieutenant. In January, the unit was mustered into the U.S. Army and shipped to northern Mexico. By August 1847, Josiah Pender was Dishonorably Discharged for insubordination, by order of the Commanding General. This time his military service lasted for seven and a half months.

Pender successfully appealed his discharge directly to Washington, D.C. He was reinstated, with the rank of First Lieutenant, by direct order of President James Polk and the Secretary of War. He was then given administrative duties, from which he resigned five months later on May 31, 1848. Apparently, Pender was eager to serve as a soldier, but only on his own terms.

For the next dozen years, Pender pursued an artistic career. With family funds, he built a prosperous jewelry business in Tarboro, N.C. He soon expanded into the shipping business with the purchase of three steamships operating between Beaufort, New Bern, Bermuda and New York. In 1856, he moved his family to Beaufort, and purchased the Atlantic House Hotel. Because of his frequent business trips to Bermuda, he also purchased a cottage in Hamilton in 1858.

When war clouds began to gather, and many southern states began to talk seriously of secession, North Carolina found itself straddling the fence. The coastal areas and the mountains were largely pro-union, while the principal agricultural areas of the state leaned toward secession. But there was no uncertainty in the mind of Josiah Pender. Pender already had three bad experiences as part of the Union Army. He had no qualms about aligning himself against that army. With his own funds, he recruited and completely outfitted his own secessionist militia unit, with himself as Commanding Officer. But without any orders from the State, he seized control of Fort Macon with this unit.

Prior to this, we had seen Josiah Pender enter upon active military service three times. On each occasion, he lasted less than eight months. His latest venture was to prove to be no different. One week after,Governor John W. Ellis heard of Pender’s action he ordered four of North Carolina’s regular military units to proceed immediately to Fort Macon to take charge. Pender formally volunteered to join the State Troops. He was commissioned on May 16 as Captain of Company G, Tenth North Carolina State Troops. This was soon followed by the unit’s induction into the Army of the Confederate States of America, after North Carolina left the Union.

Before long Pender began to test the limits of military authority. His wife was seriously ill in Beaufort, and barracks life had become insufferably dull. When his request for leave was denied, he decided to go home anyway. At a Court Martial convened in Morehead City at the end of November, 1861, Captain Josiah S. Pender was convicted of being absent without leave and of making false statements to the Fort’s commandant, Colonel Moses J. White. Captain Pender was dismissed from State service on December 21, followed ten days later by orders from Richmond dismissing him from the Confederate Army. This finally marked the end of Josiah Pender’s bizarre military career.

Although his military service had ended, Pender never wavered in his support for the Confederate cause. As Union forces under General Burnside began to approach Beaufort early in 1862, Pender felt he had to make a move. With his three steamships and his base in Bermuda, he began to operate as an active blockade runner.

While engaged in this blockade runner activity, Pender contracted Yellow Fever in October, 1864. Somehow he managed to return to Beaufort, where he died on October 25. He was 45 years old. Josiah Pender, the man who loved to play soldier but couldn’t stand to take orders, is buried in Beaufort’s Old Burying Ground.