1861-65: Increase Sumner Hill to John Hill

How Increase Sumner Hill might have looked during the Civil War

These letters were written by Increase Sumner Hill (1806-1873), husband of Mary S. Perkins (1806-1878) and an Boston Engineer by trade. Toward the end of his career, Increase worked as a government inspector of steamboats and boilers. Known children of the couple, who married in 1829, were John Hill (b. 1836) to whom he addressed this letter, Sophronia E. Hill (1832-1876) and Stephen “Chase” Hill (1841-1903). The 1860 US Census enumerates the family in Boston’s 2nd Ward and besides John and Chase, were Anne Hill (b. 1844), and George Hill (b. 1848). In the 1850 US Census, the family resided in Salem’s Ward 3 where Increase was identified as a “Machinist.”

In one of his last major assignments, Increase was given the heavy responsibility of co-leading the investigation into the explosion of the Staten Island ferry steamer Westfield that took place in New York Harbor on 30 July 1871, killing 125 passengers. When he died in 1873 at the age of 65, he left a “wife and four sons.”

Increase wrote the letter to his 24 year-old son John Hill who was 2nd Mate of the crew on the clipper Golden Fleece.

One of Increase S. Hill’s last major assignments was to co-lead the investigation into the explosion of the Staten Island ferry steamer Westfield that took place in New York Harbor on 30 July 1871, killing 125 passengers.

Letter 1

Addressed to Mr. John Hill, Ship Golden Fleece, Capt, Mandon, San Francisco, California

East Boston, [Massachusetts]
20 October 1861

My dear son John,

We have written you several letters, some of which have not been directed right, & you had better call to the post office & see if any remain there. Our family are at present not very well. Your mother is rather more poorly than usual, and Anna is rather slim. She has had some trouble with her lungs lately and has spit some blood. She may recover, however, her usual health but I fear she will pass away as Lizzie did before long. She is quite liable to take cold and is not so careful as she might be.

Phronia is tolerable well but is at present suffering from swelled face, bad teeth, &c. Dony is well as usual & so is George & Eliza.

Hattie is well and was up here a few days since. Susan Hill’s beau at their house.

My own health is about as usual. I have had two slight attacks of bleeding since you left. I think on the whole I am not so strong to endure fatigue as usual. The store is vacant & has been for three months past. Brown has moved into Morgan’s store on the corner so we are now losing the rent. I have had it painted and cleaned and signs put up to let but the times are so hard that no one wants it unless I would let it for a grog shop which of course I will not, so it must remain vacant.

I hope you will be able to get along and not go before the mast any longer as it seems to me almost like throwing away your time—and besides, you are quite capable if you will only put yourself ahead.

The war seems to absorb all people and all things at the present time. We now have an army of 300 thousand and more, & the secessionists have nearly as many more. we are expecting every day that the army under McClellan will move down towards Richmond and a tremendous battle must be fought. The old flag will be triumphant this time, you may depend on that. The papers will give you all the news.

Write often and let us know all particulars. Sumner is all right at Salem and his boy is a fine child.

Affectionately yours, — I. S. Hill

Letter 2

Addressed to 2nd Mate John Hill, Steamer Golden Fleece, San Francisco, California
per Wm. Burnette, Esq.

45 Niles Block, Boston [Mass.]
November 17, 1862

My dear son John,

The Niles Block Building in Boston where Increase wrote the letter. It stood near the corner of School Street and City Hall Avenue.

You will perceive I have altered my room. I now have a room to myself & have to pay 50 dollars more a year but it is the best room in the building on the corner of school street. As Mr. Burnett was going to leave with his family for San Francisco next Monday, I thought I would commence a letter to you today and finish it the last of the week.

So far as my health is concerned, I am about as usual. Your mother is ditto. Dony do, & Liza do. Anna is still under Dr. Birmingham’s [care], the Indian doctor, and has decidedly improved. She goes out every day when it is pleasant and I think will get patched up pretty well if she is careful. Susan has got about again, and has discharged the doctor, but is still feeble. She will with care I hope soon get strong. Sophronia got over her womb difficulties some weeks since, but was found to have an ulcer formed in the back passage & has now to undergo an operation for fistula and expects the doctor every day to perform the operation. It will be very painful but this is the only way it can be healed. Poor thing—she has suffered dreadfully the last two months but we hope so soon as the operation is performed that in a few weeks she will get about again.

Chase left the pilot boat because the 1st boat keeper left and they did not give him the boat. He loafed round a few weeks and I succeeded in getting him a 3rd Mates berth on the steamer Mississippi—one of the 2,000 ton iron steamers built at Loring’s for the New Orleans line. His captain’s name is [Charles H.] Baxter. 1 I being acquainted with the captain, I pressed him to take Chase although he never had a 3rd Mate before. But as the other steamers carried one, I persuaded the captain to take him. He gets 30 dollars a month and has made one trip to New Bern, North Carolina with troops and is now down there on another similar trip. I expect him back in a few days and will try and get him to write you & enclose his letter in this.

When they returned from their first trip, I asked Capt. Baxter how he liked Chase. He told me he was well pleased with him and if he did not get to be a Master of a vessel in due time, it would be his own fault. The Chief Mate and 2nd Mate also like him. The other mates are not sailor men and the Captain & Chase have to look after everything of that sort so I think Chase is fairly under weigh now and if he don’t stick this time, I shall abandon him to his fate. Chase says he likes it first rate and well he may. He has a good state room with one of the quartermasters and messes in the mess room with all the officers & lives first rate. I expect both these steamers will be sent by the government with troops to Texas for General Banks’ expedition now fitting out at New York. If so, he will be gone a month or two. Thus far for Chase.

Sumner and Phronia will both write you in season so that you may expect a good budget of letters on your arrival in California. I hope that Young America [14 year-old George Hill] has been a good boy and given you no particular trouble. Your mother was very sorry she forgot to put into your things or George’s any towels but I told her she need not be uneasy—that you would contrive well enough till you got to California, and then you could buy a few for George & yourself. I shall write George by mail and you also by & bye. When Mr. Burnett arrives, he will probably take rooms in San Francisco and you and George will undoubtedly call on them.

I shall not say much about the war as all the newspapers will give you more particulars than I can write. I will merely mention that the monitor [USS Nahant] at South Boston will be ready for service in about 3 weeks. Willie Neal has been ordered to her as 3d Asst. Engineer so he is in a fair way to see war service. I expected that 3 or 4 of these monitors will be sent down to Charleston, Savannah, & perhaps Mobile in the course of a month so you may expect to hear something in the way of war music from the ironclads for service this winter and these are the things now most wanted.

November 21st 1862

I resume your letter to say that Chase has not yet arrived from his second cruise but one of the steamers which went with them—the Saxon—has arrived two days since in Philadelphia. I suppose the 2 large steamers were detained at New Bern, N. C. & will be here in due season.

Sophronia has not yet had the operation performed as she was not well enough and the doctor has set next Wednesday for the operation. I hope she will soon get about after that is done. I have no special news to communicate today but shall keep you informed by the mail in due season.

Remember me to Capt. Manson and Mr. Baxter. And believe me most affectionately yours, — I. S. Hill

We shall expect a good long letter from you on your arrival in California.

1 Charles H. Baxter was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1835, was educated there and also in Calcutta, India. He joined the East India Company as an officer of engineers, and served in the Crimean War and Indian mutiny. In 1857 he fought in the second Anglo-Chinese War as a lieutenant of engineers. He served in Madagascar, worked for the Portuguese government, then worked in Uruguay and participated in a rebellion in Argentina, before working as a surveyor in Mexico in 1859. Returning to the United States, Baxter bought land in the Bronx, New York, but then went back to Mexico and built barracks in Vera Cruz. In 1861 he joined the United States Navy and was sent to Cairo, Illinois, where he joined the Mississippi fleet. Baxter is mentioned in the Official Record of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion as an ensign assigned to the Union gunboat “Genesee” under Commander William Macomb. In a report, Macomb refers to acting Ensign Baxter and commends him “for celerity and attention to supplying powder” during the Battle of Port Hudson on March 14, 1863. On March 29, 1864 he was promoted to acting master of the “Genesee” and in that capacity commanded his ship as part of Admiral Farragut’s fleet at the Battle of Mobile Bay in October 1864, and was honorably discharged with that rank on September 16, 1865. He returned to New York and was involved in numerous Bronx and veterans’ organizations. Baxter died in New York on January 18, 1917.

Letter 3

East Boston, [Massachusetts]
January 18, 1863

My dear son John,

As the mail leaves New York on the 20th, I thought you would expect a letter from home & so I sit down to write you a few lines. I have written you by Mr. Burnett & by the last mail. So has Phronia & I believe Sumner and Phronia intends to write George by this mail so I shall omit writing to him. But I want you to assure him of my great anxiety concerning him & I hope he will be a smart, active, obedient & good boy, & get well posted in all his nautical duties whether he intends to follow the sea for a living or return to go to a trade. In either case, knowledge even of a sailor stamp will be found useful in after life on many occasions.

My own health is comparatively feeble. I am much troubled by the pain in my back, preventing my sleep & otherwise preventing me from labor of any kind but that which is light. Besides I have had recently within two months two slight attacks of bleeding which has weakened me considerably & confined me at home several days on each occasion.

I am now, however, out every day and yesterday went down to Salem and inspected a boiler for the county in the Court House.

Phronia is still confined—scarcely goes the length of a block out doors. Her case is destined to be a long one, I fear, & she may never recover fully, but we hope she may. Anna is getting along pretty well & is quite smart for her. Your mother is about as usual & Dony the same. Lizzy as usual. Chase is down in the Gulf [of Mexico]. The last news of him was in the paper. He wasspoken going up the Mississippi River with troops. I expect him home soon. Susan is pretty well and has discharged her doctor. I am glad of this for I have had to assist her with the others. It has cost me some 350 dollars—a pretty heavy bill for one year’s doctoring. To meet this, I had to draw on my life insurance which I was loath to do & must now try to pay it up if possible.

I am about moving my office into our store. Got it parted off so as to have the office in front & store room for the instruments back & intend to move over this week. This will save the rent of the City office & be quite as well for the steamboat interests.

I want you to write every opportunity. Don’t let a mail leave without a letter to me as I shall look for one. And tell George to write also. If you can procure some of the California Angelica sweet wine—say a keg of 10 or 15 gallons—get it if you can find some dealer who will warrant it pure, and if you go to Manilla, don’t fail to get some of the chocolate they raise on that island, It is the best in the world and there is none to be had here. The preserves I imported from Manilla spoiled coming out. They were not put up well. They were called lemoncetas.

I do not know of any particular news to give you as the papers will tell all about the war and you can get the latest by telegraph. Mr. Burnett will be found at the custom House. If he does not know of your arrival, you must call on him. Give us all particulars of your voyage & how you get along with officers, men and boys.

George Williams sent Anna a letter the other day & says he shall call on you soon as you arrive, or soon as he hears of your arrival.

The Lord bless you & keep you & in His own good time return you both to meet us all well is the prayer of your affectionate father, — Increase S. Hill

Letter 4

Addressed to Mr. John Hill, Acting Ensign, U.S. Steamer Daylight, Hampton Roads, Va.

East Boston [Massachusetts]
Sunday, [October] 23rd 1863

My dear son John,

George has written you today & I will just add a line also to say that we hope you will be ordered to Baltimore & get a furlough to come home. We all long to see you. If you should be ordered to another vessel, it is likely you will be sent to the attack on Wilmington which we all dread as it will be a very hard place to take.

Friday, July 29, 1864 Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio

Judge how disappointed we all were to see all the officers of the Water Witch on the exchange list of prisoners at Fort Monroe 3 days ago and Chase’s name not there. I got a letter from Chase yesterday dated at the hospital the 8th of this month. In that he says the Rebel papers there say the exchange was to have taken place at Charleston on the 1st inst. and he was disappointed that he had not been called for.

I am afraid for some reason he was overlooked but we hope he will be sent along in the next batch. You may have a chance to see him if you could be near when the flag of truce boats arrives at Fort Monroe.

Our family are in usual heath. Sum[ner] will not get off for a month yet as the steamer will not be ready. Her engine is not completely in yet.

Try hard & get off for a furlough & write oftener so that we may know how you are. Sherman [he means Sheridan] give the Rebs Jessie in the Shenandoah Valley the other day. I think they won’t trouble him again this fall.

Affectionately tours, — I. S. Hill

The USS Water Witch performed blockade duty at several points along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, but most frequently at Ossabaw Sound between Ossabaw Island and the Georgia mainland about 15 miles due south of Savannah, Georgia. That remained her primary duty station well into 1864. On the night of 3 June of that year, a Confederate Marine boat force under the command of First Lieutenant Thomas P. Pelot, CSN, succeeded in boarding and capturing Water Witch in Ossabaw Sound after a brief scuffle which cost the Union ship two killed and 12 wounded—Chase Hill, acting ensign, among them. (13 officers and 49 men were captured). Confederate losses were 6 killed and 17 wounded. African-Americans were killed on both sides, Confederate river pilot Moses Dallas and Union landsman Jeremiah Sills. The only Union man to escape was a “contraband” named Peter McIntosh.

Letter 5

Addressed to Mr. John Hill, Acting Ensign, U. S. Steamer Daylight Malvern, Turkey Bend, James River, Fort Monroe, Va.

East Boston, Mass.
November 15, 1864

My dear son John,

I duly received your note on the back of the paymaster’s letter to you concerning Chase. Capt. [Austin] Pendergrast informed us that Chase was not well enough to stand the journey to Richmond where they were liberated or he would have been exchanged with them but he said nothing about his having had the dysentery not did Chase either in his letter of the 8th last month. So I expect Chase did not want to let us know he had been sick with any disease except his wound and that he was said was all healed up. I hope he will get comfortable quarters on the transport but it will take but a few days to make the passage to New York and I expect him home in a week or two at farthest as the fleet of transports have been sent to Port Royal and Savannah some days since.

I see by the papers that a fleet of iron clads and gunboats are up the James river. I suppose they are near you. Let us know what they are up to. I expect now Lincoln is elected for another term by such an overwhelming majority that the Rebels will see we mean to prosecute the war until ew overcome & subdue their armies, &take their principal cities & sea ports. Then if Jeff Davis and his accomplices don’t escape to Mexico, or some other foreign country, & we take them prisoners, they will have to swing & serve them right enough.

We have a glorious country now & we mean to leave it to posterity cost what it may, and from the Southern papers I think they know it for they seem to be in a very unsettled state of mind. Some are coming back. Some for arming the slaves, and some for fighting it out, and as many the opposite way of thinking. There is unmistakeable evidence that they are sadly disappointed in not having McClellan elected on th basis of the Chicago Platform. If that had been done, the rebels would have got an armistice & then goodbye to the Union, for England and France would then have stepped in & broke the blockade by acknowledging their independence. But now these nations know what we mean & will keep hands off till we settle the matter by force of arms, & this is the only way we shall ever have a permanent peace and United States of America—the glory of the World, and the asylum of the oppressed for all Nations to flee to.

When we have once settled our difficulties on this base, there will be no fear of any one or two foreign nations daring to attack or insult us. We shall be stronger than any other people on the face of the earth, and if we only grow a better, and more law loving and law abiding people, we shall never again be at war with any Nation or among ourselves. Slavery is dead—no fear of that. And the South knows it.

A few days ago, in the early evening as I was walking down the square, I felt the blood coming up—my old trouble. I walked quietly home, took some salts, lay by for a day or two, and it stopped as it did a year ago. It is alarming to have it occur without the least notice but my lungs are like your old boiler—a little extra strain and a leak follows. The you and I have to stop, blow off and patch, and carry less pressure in future. The fact is, John, I am sensibly ging down the other side of the hill and consequently expect to be a long time before I reach the bottom. I dread the cold winter more than anything else & have tried to prepare for it by plenty of coal and wood in the cellar and war clothing for the body, & hope to weather it comfortably. I intend to be outdoors more this winter than I have been the last summer. I have confined myself too much to my office. I have done more work than for 10 years before in making instruments and tools, &c. Probably it would have been better for e to have kept out more.

I wrote you about saving your money. You must try and save up 20 or 30 a month out of your 60. Certainly $1 a day ought to support you. I want you to get ahead. Look out you don’t get gobbled up going ashore hunting. All send love. Write often. Give me all the news. Affectionately yours, — I. S. Hill

[In a different hand]

My dearest brother—I think I could add a line or two in this page as my stamps are getting short. Mother and I are anxious about this hunting business. You will be gobbled up the firs thing you know if you are not careful. I am worried to death about those horrible guerrillas and Rebels. Now look out for yourself and do your hunting in the boiler room! You know the poor prisoners suffer untold horrors some of them, and we don’t want you among them. Poor Chasy! I believe if he doesn’t come soon, he shall be crazy. We feel must more anxious since hearing he had been sick with dysentery. God grant he may soon be home once more so we can nurse him up again. I hope he will reign. He will have a good excuse, feeble as he must be now.

A ten cent stamp from the National Sailor’s Fair held in Boston in November 1864

There is a great Fair in Boston now for the benefit of “Poor Jack1 and I hope they will raise two millions! It is held at Boston Theatre. I haven’t been—want to go bad enough, but tis $100 a ticket. Can’t afford it. Sum[ner] and Carrie were up Friday and they went. Mother went with them. was perfectly delighted. There will be a full description of it in the Weekly. Capt. and Nelly called the other day. He always speaks in the highest terms of you. He doesn’t care to go to sea this winter. Will keep house at Situate. His typhus [?] troubles him a good deal so it is not cured as he thought. Too bad. I hope you will lay up enough this winter to resign in the spring and go into business with Henry in the spring. All send lots of love. Now do take care of yourself. I shall write again in a day or two. With love as ever, — [sister] Phronia

Young America [brother George] expects to sail tomorrow and will probably return Master of the Ship! Get $20 a month—ordinary steamer.

1 “Poor Jack” was a general reference to sailors or mariners. It probably derived from the lyrics of a song composed by Charles Dibdin entitled “Poor Jack” in 1789. The National Sailor’s Fair was held in Boston from 9-22 November 1864.

Letter 6

Addressed to Mr. John Hill, Acting Ensign, U. S. Flagship Malvern, Commodore Porter’s Expedition, Via Fort Monroe, Va.

East Boston, Mass
January 8, 1865

My dearest John,

I received yesterday yours of the 2nd inst., dated Beaufort, & was very glad to hear you was well. I am sorry your whiskey got damaged by breakage of 2 bottles. Hope they were the small ones but suppose they were the large ones or you would have mentioned it.

I expect from appearances that your Naval Expedition will again be called on to battle Fort Fisher in company with a land force under some other general than Butler but I hope it is a flag ship you may be required to go in and around the fleet in an engagement to give orders &c. We trust you will get through the war without injury & settle down at home in some kind of business which suits you better than going to sea.

Sum[ner] has been quite unwell for two weeks past by inflammation of the bowels. He is now better and we think will soon be out again. He hears nothing more about the consulate but expects to shortly. I think they will both be off to California in the course of a month & on the whole, it may be the best for him.

Chase is still on the court martial at Philadelphia. Expects to get through this week. 1

I shall buy another government bond for you tomorrow although I have not enough of your money by $25 to get it. Still I shall try to make it up. Then you will have $400 in government bonds bearing interest. And Chase has the same if he can keep it, but he spends his money altogether too freely, after taking such risks to get it.

Write often as possible. Keep me posted up. All send love. Affectionately yours, — I. S. Hill

P. S. I am glad you mean to redeem your Mass. Bill. I would not pay such a bill in future. Get a furlough soon as you can. — I S. H.

1 Stephen Chase Hill was no doubt called to testify in the naval general court martial proceedings held in the naval yard at Philadelphia to examine the charge against Lt. Commander Austin Pendergrast for “culpable inefficiency in the discharge of duty” for not having taking adequate precautions to secure his vessel (the Water Witch) against a surprise night attack, neither “by stationing picket boats nor leaving the charge of the deck in the hands of a vigilant and competent officer (Acting Master’s Mate, E. D. W. Parsons)” Pendergrast was found guilty of not posting picket boats and suspended from duty for two years, on half pay, with loss of rank during the suspension.

Letter 7

Addressed to Mr. John Hill, Acting Ensign, U.S. Steamer Malvern off Wilmington, N. C., via Fort Monroe, Va.

Office 43 Maverick Street
East Boston, Mass.
January 29, 1865

My dear son John,

Increase Hill’s boiler inspector business/office may have been in a gambrel roofed brick building such as can be seen at right in this photo from the early 1900s. This building was at 33-39 Maverick. Hill’s was at 43 Maverick in East Boston.

We received two letters from 20th & 21st inst. addressed to Phronia & Sum[ner[ yesterday and we were happy to learn you were well and that your vessel had taken two prizes though we suppose that all the gunboats which were within sight would participate in the awards. Please let us know exactly how this case stands, who took the prizes, and how many vessels & their names will have a claim on them, &c. &c.

Both these prizes have arrived at New York & they will be condemned & sold there which is a pity, as all the prizes are better sold here. The expenses here are less than in New York. In some cases I hear that the officers & crews of some of our naval vessels have been assessed to pay the expenses of selling the prizes they took, as all the proceeds were used up and more too by the marshal in New York. Hope you will get something out of these vessels.

Let me know what you are about and where you are going & when you expect to get off for a furlough.

Chase is still at home & is ow quite smart. He is out all the time & we see no more of him than though he was a transient boarder. He spends two or three hours at home every day and thinks the bedroom downstairs rather too common a place for him so he goes out to lodge with some of his chums about every night. His wardrobe was rather scant when he came home which he has replenished & with his theatre & horse ride expenses, he has made way with about 500 dollars, leaving only his 400 in government bonds which I expect will go before he goes & then Jack -like, when he is run out [of money], he will go to sea for more to spend in the same foolish way. No more of my talking about him. 1

I have hard work to keep the wheels ground at home, now the government has taken off all my fees for tug & ferry boats, and compel me to inspect them under a new law and pass all fees into the treasury of Uncle Sam so that I get now only $800 a year, & what little I can pick up outside by private inspection & yet I have some 6 or 8 dependents on me for grub, fuel, and clothing. I don’t know what Chase would do if he had a wife to support. Perhaps he would then be prudent. He has tried to get promoted but he’s received no orders yet for examination. I expect he will be ordered to report for duty any day.

Sum[ner] is still here with his wife [Carrie] waiting to see if anything will turn up as Micawber says, or to get well. He has been down with a bowel complaint for 4 or 5 weeks but is some better. He will probably be off with his wife to California in a few weeks, if some other door don’t open. I shall miss him much as he will be absent some time wherever he goes. I hope you may be able to see him before he starts.

Well, John, be careful of yourself & don’t on any account volunteers for any of those dangerous expeditions likely to come off in the taking of Wilmington, such as searching for torpedoes & cutting out vessels & the like. Let them go that wants to. Don’t you go unless positively ordered, in which even be exceedingly careful & not too venturesome. We long to see you and have you at home with us. I could probably get you into some kind of business if you were disposed to stop at home, but enough. You know how we all feel about it. Do right and do your duty to your country & the Lord will take care of you in any event. All send love. Affectionately yours, — I. S. Hill

1 Stephen “Chase” Hill (1841-1903) was working as a pilot in Boston Harbor when he was only 19 years old. From these letters we learn that he shirked responsibility and resorted to sea duty whenever he needed to make money. During the Civil War he enlisted on 13 May 1863 as Acting ensign in the US Navy and was assigned to the crew of the “Water Witch.” He was aboard the ship when she was boarded and taken captive almost without a fight by Confederates in June 1864. He was wounded and taken prisoner by the Confederates but exchanged later in 1864. He resigned his commission on 25 April 1865. In 1870, he was still enumerated in his parents East Boston residence, still single and employed as a “mariner.” He was married to Emma Laura Gay (1855-1920), the daughter of Charles Royal Gay and Laura A. Young, sometime in the late 1870s and in the 1880 Census, he was enumerated on Liverpool Street in Boston, working as a “Ship Keeper.” By that time, he and Emma had a young daughter named Laura M. Hill, age 1. Stephen died in 1903 at the Home for Disabled Soldiers in Togus, Kennebec county, Maine, where he was buried. His admission papers at the Home indicate that he had received a “gunshot wound in his right side on June 3rd 1864.” When he entered the Home in September 1891, he was 50 years old, stood 5’10” tall, had blue eyes and gray hair. He told them he was an “Engineer” by profession and that he was married and had been living in Wollaston, Massachusetts, just before admitting himself to the Home. He gave his brother John Hill of Dorchester, Massachusetts as nearest relative.

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