Mary people in Edgecombe County are familiar with the Pender family name and usually associate it with William Dorsey Pender who was a young Civil War general who died after being wounded at Gettysburg. In fact, Pender County was named in his honor.
But Dorsey was just one of many Penders that populated our county from the late 1700s. Dorsey had numerous cousins that were also involved in local history and in the Civil War.
Josiah Pender, a cousin of Gen. Dorsey Pender and son of local merchant Solomon Pender, led the capture of Fort Macon in April 1861, without authority from the governor. Pender had raised his own company of men knows as the Beaufort Harbor Guards.
He had been operating the Atlantic House, a hotel on the waterfront in Beaufort at the beginning of the war. When the union occupied the coast, Pender lost his business. He was later assigned to Fort Macon as part of the 10th NC regiment. His wife Maria was ill and he requested leave. He was denied leave, but according to records, he returned to Beaufort to care for her. His wife died in December 1861. He was dishonorably discharged from the Confederate Army for being absent without leave and received his discharge on the day of her funeral.
He brought most of his nine children home to Tarboro for relatives to look after them. He became reacquainted with a cousin, Laura Melvina Pender. Laura was the daughter of Louis Pender, a cousin of Josiah. Perhaps he needed a wife to help care for the children and perhaps he fell in love with the young Laura. He wrote a poem to show his appreciation for her using her name as the first letter of each line.
Lo? An apparition of delight
As first she gleamed upon my sight
Unblemished woman, nobly planned,
Resplendent, suited to command:
And yet, a spirit still and bright,
Possessing fine heavenly light.
Every motion light airy free,
Not unlike the wavelet o’ the sea:
Delicious one, in whom do meet,
Everything that’s pure, good, and sweet.
Really, a seraph, o’ the land o’ bliss
Laura Melvina Pender is.
The couple married on Sept. 23, 1862, and Josiah took Laura to Bermuda where he was part of a blockade running operation, smuggling goods into the port of Wilmington for the Confederate cause. While in Bermuda, they moved in high social circles and traveled with the Colonial Secretary Miles Keon and the Archbishop Thomas Connolly. On one occasion they sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, according to letters Laura sent home.
Laura became pregnant and wanted to return home to Tarboro to have her baby at home in Tarboro. Josiah had to go to England to get more goods. He put Laura on another ship with orders to the captain to take the ship into Wilmington. Various versions of her story have been passed down through family lore and even published in United Daughters of the Confederacy articles.
When the ship got close to the Carolina coast, the Union ships tried to capture it. The captain was ready to surrender until Mrs. Pender persuaded him, some say with a pistol, to escape the blockade. The ship arrived safely in Wilmington, and Laura took the train home to Tarboro.
Two weeks later on Oct. 19, 1863, she delivered her son Josiah Keon Pender, named after his father and for Miles Keon of Bermuda. Unfortunately, Josiah Pender got yellow fever and died in 1864 never making it home to see his son. Josiah was buried by his first wife in the Old Burying Ground in Beaufort.
Laura continued to live at Oak Grove, her family’s home outside of Tarboro. She raised her son Keon and took care of several of Josiah’s children. In fact one step-daughter Kate Dunn Pender, married Laura’s younger brother Joshua Clifton Pender in 1868.
Joshua and Kate had four children before Kate died of illness in 1875. Joshua lost his wife and his two daughters in less than four months in 1875. He may have borrowed a poetic leaning from his father-in-law who was also his brother-in-law. The following poem appeared in The Southerner on Dec. 17, 1875:
Mrs. Kate D. Pender, wife of J.C. Pender died near Tarboro, Dec. 10.
Farewell Katie, darling Katie,
We scarce can think that you are dead
That your form lies in the coffin
And your spirit from earth has fled
But the truth is forced upon us
So cold and dismal dark and drear
For with sad hearts were following
The the grave your funeral bier.
How I wish it were a fancy
Some wild creation of the brain
There's your coffin just before me
And behind a funeral train
Ere an hour has gone by Katie
Your body in the grave will lie
But again, we hopt to meet you
Over the river bye and bye.
Joshua later married Mary Mercer of this county. Meanwhile Laura raised her son Keon who died in 1881just shy of his 18th birthday. Laura had married a Dr. Charles Cook in 1870, and they had four children.
Laura, her son Keon, and several of her step-children are buried at the little cemetery by St. Anne’s Chapel at the Oak Grove home currently owned by Kevin and Trish Wilson.
A note to thanks Betty Holland, a former student and good friend, who first did the research on this fascinating family and found the poem about Kate.
Monika Fleming, chairwoman of the English/Humanities Department at Edgecombe Community College, is an Edgecombe County historian. Look for her reports each month on the Community page.