The Confederate Seizure
(published in the Spring ’98 Ramparts)
By Paul Branch, Fort Macon Ranger/Historian
The question is often asked how Confederate soldiers were able to take over a US Government fort such as Fort Macon at the beginning of the Civil War, requiring Union forces to recapture the fort from the Confederates in 1862 by siege and bombardment. So how did the Confederates initially take it in 1861? The answer is frequently one of the parts of the Fort Macon’s history that is overlooked.
As historical events were about to unfold in 1861 into one of the bloodiest wars in American history, Congressional economizing of the previous decade dictated that Fort Macon and most of her sister forts along the US Coast were not manned by costly garrisons of soldiers, but by military caretakers. (Yes, Congressional cutbacks of the military also existed back then.) The caretakers were usually older soldiers holding the rank of Ordnance Sergeant. Ordnance Sergeants were noncommissioned soldiers of long standing in the military who were specially appointed to this rank in recognition of their many years of faithful military service. They were stationed at forts to look after them and care for the fort’s weaponry.
William Alexander was assigned to Fort Macon in April 1859 as Ordnance Sergeant. At the time, he was 50 years of age. He had been born in Greenock, Scotland and immigrated to the United States as a young man. Alexander’s full career in the US Army began when he enlisted in the 6th US Infantry on June 29, 1831. His service in the Mexican War left him suffering from chronic rheumatism as direct results of exposure and other hardships of the campaign. As April 1861 arrived, he and his young wife of six months, the former Ann L. Livesay, age 21, of Morehead City were living quietly at Fort Macon when National events overtook them and ended forever their period of quiet and tranquility.
The election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in November 1860 was followed in December by the secession of South Carolina from the Union. Other states seceded in the months that followed. Secession fever also surfaced in North Carolina when in January 1861 local secessionist militia troops made an unauthorized seizure of Forts Caswell and Johnston at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in the belief that North Carolina should also leave the Union. This did not happen and the troops soon had to return the forts to their ordnance sergeants while a greatly embarrassed Governor John W. Ellis apologized to the US Government.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Alexander was grateful that there had been no similar trouble at “his” fort. Forts Caswell, Johnston, and Macon, and the US Arsenal at Fayetteville were the four major US military installations in the state. However, as the weeks passed with one Southern State after another leaving the Union, there was no doubt that the nation was on the verge of a serious crisis that could involve Fort Macon. Throughout North Carolina, the populace was now divided on the issue of whether to remain in the Union or join the other seceded states that formed the Confederacy. Newspapers editorialized; speeches were made; unionists and secessionists held meetings; a Southern Rights Party was formed by secessionists, and public excitement was soaring. The more public favor the secessionists gained, the more likely Sergeant Alexander, as sole military person at Fort Macon, which was one of the four major US installations in the state, could expect some kind of trouble. By the beginning of April 1861, he probably had begun to feel concern for his safety and that of his wife. In a letter to the Chief of Ordnance, Col. H. K. Craig, in Washington on April 2, 1861, he requested that a revolver be issued to him. Col. Craig replied on April 12 that there were no revolvers on hand. That very same day, the Confederate forces started the Civil War by opening fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
On April 13, the day the US garrison at Fort Sumter surrendered to the Confederate forces, a group of 17 Carteret County secessionists formed a militia company called the “Beaufort Harbor Guards” with one Josiah S. Pender as their captain. Pender was a wealthy 42-year old local entrepreneur who owned a steamship company and the Atlantic Hotel in Beaufort. He was an ardent secessionist. Only the day before, Pender had helped organize the local chapter of the Southern Rights Party for Carteret County, and was appointed corresponding secretary of the new party. For Pender and his followers, the news that came crackling over the telegraph wires about the attack on Fort Sumter brought with it a moment of truth. The war had begun and in a short time Federal troops would be sent into the South to fight the Confederates. Then, North Carolina would have to decide whether to join the Confederacy or fight the Confederacy. Either way, Federal troops would seek to garrison the forts on the North Carolina coast. At this point, there was no way to know if Governor Ellis and the General Assembly would decide to secede and join the Confederacy or not. Even if they took that serious step, would the Governor have enough time to rush state troops to seize the three forts and the arsenal before the Federal troops arrived and occupied them?
Captain Pender decided he could not take the chance Fort Macon might be occupied by Federal troops before the state could seize it. Without notifying the Governor or waiting for authority, he decided he would seize Fort Macon himself. Accordingly, he set out to round up any volunteers, concerned citizens and interested parties he could find to join his company in taking the fort the following day. Thus, Sergeant Alexander’s worst fears were about to become a reality.
On the fateful day of April 14, 1861, Sergeant Alexander, as it turned out, was not unaware of what was about to happen. He had learned “from reliable sources” that Pender’s company planned to seize the fort. Completely perplexed, Alexander at once mailed off a letter to Chief of Ordnance Craig in Washington. In the letter he reported; “[I] am at a loss how to act, in premises, what to do, or where to go. I have served the US Army for the last thirty years, and am now no longer fit for any active service, have my family at the Post, and all of my property. The latter I expect to lose” having no where to move it “and cannot at this time convert anything into money.”
Resistance to Pender’s men, of course, would have been futile for Alexander. He was alone, except for his wife, was in poor physical condition, and much too old for this kind of stress. Even if he felt compelled to resist, Fort Macon actually offered him little help. The fort was in a dilapidated condition with only four heavy guns mounted on weak rotting carriages. A few field pieces were on hand, but they were impractical to use in his defense. Alexander had no personal weapons. He and his wife were completely at the mercy of the situation.
By early in the afternoon of the 14th , while Alexander pondered his dilemma and awaited his fate, Captain Pender was ready to make his move. He succeeded in assembling a total of 54 men including his own company, citizens from Beaufort, and Morehead City, and a group of cadets from the A. M. Institute in Carolina City. Exactly at 3 P.M, the steamer CORA arrived at the fort’s wharf and landed Pender’s men. They made their way to the fort and found the entrance clear. They went inside and Sergeant Alexander received them courteously.
The entire conversation that followed was punctuated with the utmost kindness, courtesy, and respect on both sides. Pender stated his men were seizing the fort for the State of North Carolina. Alexander replied that he regretted the necessity Pender and his men felt themselves under. He stated that he himself was a native-born Scotsman, and that after 30 years of military service at various places, he had no sectional feeling for any one part of the Union. He requested that Pender sign receipts for the US property at the fort and Pender refused. Alexander had no choice but to submit to the situation, which he did. This was all over within less than 30 minutes after Pender’s men landed. Thus, Fort Macon was seized without bloodshed. Captain Pender jubilantly telegraphed news of the takeover to South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens, closing with the remark: “We intend that North Carolina shall occupy a true instead of a false position, though it be done by revolution.” Perhaps, because of the uncertainty of how his actions would be viewed, however, Pender did not telegraph North Carolina Governor Ellis.
Once the fort was in Pender’s hands, many of the citizens returned to their homes, leaving only the handful of men from the Beaufort Harbor Guards. Alexander and his wife were still at the fort and began packing their belongings in preparation for their departure. Still concerned about receipts for the US property, Alexander wrote a note to Pender concerning them. Pender refused again in a note that was given to Alexander the next day.
Events now took a dramatic leap. On April 15, as expected, President Lincoln issued a call to the states for 75,000 troops to quell the rebellion by the Southern States. North Carolina’s Governor Ellis was requested to funish two regiments as the state’s portion of this total, but he refused. Throughout the state, the call for troops was the event that turned the tide in favor of secession. Most North Carolinians believed they would rather join in fighting an invasion of the South by Federal troops than fight their sister Southern States. Immediately, Governor Ellis ordered state troops to seize the four Federal installations in the state. Unaware that Fort Macon had been taken by Pender, Ellis ordered the Goldsboro Rifles under Captain M. D. Craton to take Fort Macon.
The Goldsboro troops arrived at Fort Macon on the morning of April 16, and Captain Craton assumed command. On April 17, more troops arrived as well as a schooner carrying an engineering work force of free Negroes and slaves from New Bern to prepare the fort for war. After the schooner was unloaded, Sergeant Alexander and his wife, with their belongings, were transported to Beaufort. Soon Alexander received instructions from Chief of Ordnance Craig to remain in Beaufort to await further orders.
This was how the Confederates seized Fort Macon. From this point, the lives of the two principal parties, Captain Pender and Sergeant Alexander, took quite different paths. After taking Fort Macon, Pender and his followers were quickly edged out of the picture by the arrival of numerous companies of state troops and volunteers to occupy the fort for war. There is evidence to indicate that Pender was angered at being usurped in command and shoved into the background, and also that he considered seizing a shipment of cannons for the fort to start a battery on Shackleford Banks. However, this never happened. The Beaufort Harbor Guards were eventually recruited into a full-strength company and formally accepted into state service in May 1861. Pender and the company were on duty at Fort Macon and Bogue Banks for the remainder of the year.
Unfortunately, the remainder of Pender’s life was a series of ups and downs. Pender’s disdain for authority and his penchant to do as he pleased led to his court martial for being absent from his command under false pretenses and resulted in his dismissal from service in December 1861. About this time, his wife died in Beaufort. Undaunted, he threw his energies into his steamship business and continued to serve the Confederacy as a blockade runner. He remarried in September 1862, but suffered another personal loss a month later. His oldest son, serving as a 1st Lieutenant in the Beaufort Harbor Guards, was accidently killed by a gunshot while horse playing with a fellow soldier. Pender continued to run his steamship business until he contracted yellow fever and died at age 45 on October 25, 1864. He is buried with his first wife in the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort.
The life of Ordnance Sergeant Alexander was far less complicated than that of Pender. He and his wife took residence in Beaufort after leaving Fort Macon and dutifully awaited further orders. Because of the active war in progress, these orders never came. Alexander was in an awkward position as a US soldier in a town of largely Confederate sympathizers. However, other than occasional “flings and jeers”, he was not bothered. When Federal troops captured Beaufort in March 1862, Alexander went to the headquarters of the Federal commander, Major John Allen and reported himself for duty. Subsequently, he participated in operations against the fort and was reinstated as its Ordnance Sergeant following its capture. In April 1864, Alexander was discharged from the Army at the end of his enlistment and thereafter continued to reside in Beaufort. In 1868, he purchased the house at 118 Moore Street that bears his name and lived there with his wife for the remaining 19 years of his life. During this time, he was very active as a member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and served on its vestry and also as senior warden. He died July 29, 1887 at the age of 76. He is buried in St. Paul’s Church Cemetery.