Realizing that captivity awaited Union sailors suddenly tossed onto a South Carolina beach on a cold, rainy, and wind-driven January day, a Maine sailor stepped across a cutter’s gunnel and went to the rescue.
George H. Pendleton should have received the Medal of Honor for what happened next, but his story vanished into history except for a friend’s letter and several Official Records’ reports.
Born in 1835, Pendleton hailed from Gorham in Cumberland County. He took to the sea, where by late 1863 he was the acting master and executive officer aboard the USS Montgomery, a wooden-screw steamer launched in New York in 1858 and bought by the Navy in August 1861.
The 201-foot, 787-ton Mongomery mounted four 32-pounders and one 8-inch gun and by late 1863 belonged to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Her commander was Lt. E.H. Faucon.
Early on Thursday, January 7, 1864, as the Montgomery was “steaming slowly alongshore” near Lockwood’s Folly west of the Cape Fear River entrance, sharp-eyed lookouts “saw what we took to be smoke on the land” to the northwest, Faucon reported. The smoke coalesced into a Confederate blockade runner, the Dare, “moving to the westward,” and the Montgomery “immediately gave chase.” The Cape Fear River flows past Wilmington, North Carolina, a major Confederate seaport used by blockade runners.
At 7:30 a.m. Faucon noticed the USS Aries (an 820-ton, England-built screw steamer) “standing toward” the Dare. The Aries fired a “30-pounder rifle” at 8:30 a.m., and the steamer “showed Confederate colors.”. Pursuit continued, and a Union ship (most likely the Aries) “continued firing at intervals, [the] shot falling very near” the Southern vessel.
Faucon reported the Montgomery as “going 12½ knots” as “the chase hauled up west” at 10:30 a.m. “Finding escape impossible,” the Dare’s skipper “ran [his ship] on the beach a little to the northward of North Inlet,” near Georgetown, South Carolina at 12:30 p.m.
About two miles from shore, Faucon lowered his second and third cutters, loaded with sailors armed to the teeth and commanded by Pendleton, to board the blockade runner and “secure all papers which he might find” and burn the ship if he believed she could not be floated.
Located nearer the Dare, the Aries “boarded her first,” reported Faucon, who soon “sent in our largest boat,” a “12-oared cutter.” Realizing his sailors were not needed on the beached ship, Faucon “set the cornet and fired a gun” at 3:20 p.m., and the second and third cutters appeared alongside the Montgomery by 4 p.m.
Faucon noticed a problem: Where was his XO, George H. Pendleton?
Then Faucon saw the 12-oared cutter “pulling along the beach and away from the [Southern] ship; could see some men on the beach trying to get into her [the cutter].” Soon he “saw the boat on shore and the men on the beach, It soon shut in thick with rain, and was dark.”
Faucon learned from Acting Master Robert Wiley, who was aboard the third cutter, that two Aries’ boats had reached the Dare before Pendleton did. By 3 p.m. the experienced Yankee sailors decided the blockade runner could not be towed off the beach, so Pendleton ordered his two cutters to return to the Montgomery.
“One boat from the Aries [was] alongside” the Dare when the cutters pulled away, Wiley said.
Pendleton’s boats quickly reached the approaching 12-oared cutter, commanded by Acting Master’s Mate Walker. “Mr. Pendleton ordered him to return to return to the Montgomery,” then saw that the Aries’ cutter “had swamped,” Wiley said,
Pendleton “immediately ordered” Walker’s cutter to pull “alongside of the third cutter.” With sailors keeping the boats safely apart, Pendleton ordered Walker to trade places “and pulled in to rescue the men of the Aries; that was the last I saw of him or the boat,” Wiley reported. Both Pendleton and Walker stepped over each cutter’s gunnels; Walker returned safely to his ship, and Pendleton and his boat’s crew pulled for shore.
Montgomery crewmen watched as “the Dare burned very freely” in the night, Faucon noted. Daylight brought sight of the Dare “swung head off the beach and … apparently full of water.” Daylight also revealed “a large party of horsemen, or cavalry” behind the beach.
“None of our men were to be seen,” Faucon said.
Into captivity with Pendleton went 15 sailors. “Marched 48 miles to Kingstree, thence to Charleston … they were kept in a cell for five months” at a Charleston Harbor position “under fire from our batteries,” wrote “M.,” apparently a Pendleton friend who contacted the Portland Daily Press in late 1864.
He also clarified that as Pendleton and his sailors attempted to rescue the Aries’ sailors on January 7, the Montgomery’s cutter “became unmanageable, and was thrown upon the beach.”
May 1864 saw the captured sailors sent to a Macon, Georgia prison and confined “within a stockade with 1600 other Union officers.” Pendleton was among 600 prisoners shipped to Charleston in late July; other Macon prisoners went to Savannah.
According to M., all but two sailors captured with Pendleton “are dead” by November 1, when he wrote the Daily Press. Pendleton lingered in Charleston until Union and Confederate officials agreed to exchange prisoners; the exchange started on October 1, 1864, and Pendleton traveled to Libby Prison in Richmond.
He and other captured officers stayed there until exchanged around October 21 or so. Reaching Maine several days later, Pendleton “is now on a visit to his father in Gorham,” M. wrote on November 1.
While in captivity Pendleton met many captured Maine officers, including several whom he befriended. “His account of the treatment of our officers and men in those Southern prisons is awful beyond description,” wrote M.
“How proud Maine should be of her officers and men in the Army and Navy,” he commented.
Sources: Captain George H. Pendleton, Portland Daily Press, Friday, November 4, 1864; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1, Vol. 9, pp. 388-389
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