1864: Stephen Chase Hill to John Hill

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 “USS 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.”

I could not find an image of Acting Ensign Chase Hill but here is an albumen of Abner Dodge Stover who served as Acting Ensign with him on the Water Witch when she was captured in June 1864. (Herman Kinder Collection)

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.

Chase’s letter gives a great description of the capture on 2 June 1864 of the wood-hulled, side-wheel gunboat, USS Water Witch, on which he had been serving as an Acting Ensign. The gunboat was anchored on the Little Ogeechee River near Racoon Key—part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron—where it had been patrolling in Ossabow Sound for many months. The Water Witch was captured by a squadron of small boats led by 1st Lt. Thomas Postell Pelot who stealthily approached the anchored Union gunboat with padded oars on a dark and drizzly night and surprised the ship before they could react.

For a great summary of the ship’s capture, see “The Witch’s Final Fight” by Lieut. Colonel Jay a Stout. To read another first hand account of the capture by fellow ensign Abner Dodge Stover (pictured above), see “Glinting Cutlasses and Flashing Revolvers: Ensign Abner Stoval’s Civil War” by Ronald S. Coddington published in Military Images, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Summer 2019).

A 3D Model of the Water Witch by Brian Fisher


Addressed to Acting Ensign John Hill, Flag Ship “Malvern,” Hampton Roads, Va.

East Boston, [Massachusetts]
December 8th 1864

My Dear Brother,

I received a letter from you yesterday in which you state you were at Norfolk, Va. I am sorry you did not like the service. I don’t like it myself but I don’t see as I can do any better. I have a great mind to shove in an application for Acting Master. When I was in Washington, I told Secretary [Gideon] Welles I wanted to be attached to a cruiser after I had recruited my health. I want you would ask Kidder if he had to stand an examination for promotion. Before I was captured, Secy. Welles issued orders that no one would be promoted only for bravery. I think he ought to promote me. I am afraid if I should get an Acting Master’s appointment that I should have to act as “Exec” on some ship and I wouldn’t like that much. I would sooner have command.

I am not well today. I have been on the go ever since I got home and yesterday p.m. I had a slight attack of chills and fever [malaria]. I contracted the damn disease down in Georgia. I was very sick there with chills and fever.

You state you would like to know who had the deck at the time of our capture. I don’t wonder you ask. I wish most anyone had of had the deck except the one that did have it. You know that we got short of officers—some of them having been detached—leaving two Ensigns and two Mater’s Mates for naval officers. We use to have a Masters Mate in the watch with us until we got short. The Master’s mate that had the deck was the damndest fool that you ever see. We were laying at anchor once in Port Royal and he had the deck. It came on to blow, the old Water Witch commenced to drag and the damn fool, instead of letting go the second anchor, he come down off the hurricane deck and lifted up the wardroom skylight and and yells out, “All hands!” waking up every officer in the ship instead of rousing up the men.

Well, my noble Mr. [Eugene D’W.] Parsons had the deck when we were captured. The quartermaster reported the boats or something he said looked like boats fifteen minutes ere we were attacked. It was an awful dark and squally night. I had the deck from 8 until 12 M. Parsons relieved me at 12 and at 2 the boats came and attacked us. They hailed the ship and Parsons was so damn frightened that he fell off the hurricane deck and landed pretty close to the rattle. He made out to spring the rattle. After that I don’t know where he was [but] he took damn good care to keep out of the way of the bullets.

Chase was shot while at the starboard gangway just aft of the ladder where the black star is located.

By the time we got on deck, they were nearly alongside and I got up pretty damn quick. I think I was one of the first on deck. I couldn’t see anyone at my gun, but heard the Rebs give a yell to “Board her.” There was some one of our side a firing at them with muskets on the port gangway. I called out to the watch on deck [but] couldn’t see a damn man. The boats got alongside, forward and nearly aft. By the time the officers were up, they were alongside. We wounded a great many before they got alongside. I was in the starboard gangway when I was shot. I got wounded before many of them got aboard. Most of the officers were wounded with cutlass wounds. The Captain was cut down very soon after he got on deck. The officers—with the exception of the one that had the deck and Engineers—done all the fighting with 4 or 5 of the men. We killed their leader, Lieut. [Thomas Postell] Pelot of the Rebel Navy [and] also their pilot and eight others, wounding some 25. We only had one killed and 13 wounded. They would have killed more of us but they could not get their pistols off, being wet.

If anybody else had of had the deck and got the crew to quarters, they never would have got aboard, or if the Engineers had have been armed. Each boat had just such a part of the ship to board and they brought engineers with them. Our engineers all piled into the Engine room and started her ahead but when the Rebel Engineer made his appearance with a revolver, they all surrendered—so I was told.

I have not seen Capt. [Austin Pendergrast] nor any of them except Mr. Weston. He was cut over the head. They tried the Capt. & Executive for [court martial]. I haven’t learnt the particulars yet but one of our men that was on the trial told me in Washington the Captain was honorably acquitted. We had a pretty desperate fight but they overpowered us. There was 150 of them and half of our crew was below and couldn’t get on deck. They got aboard forward and guarded the hatches. Finding but little resistance, they soon got aboard but not so easy aft. I think it all lays to Parsons. I see by the Army & Navy Journal that he is ordered to report to Admiral Paulding. 1 None of the rest have received orders to report yet. I am on the sick list [and] have orders to report every 15 days to the department. If I don’t feel any better than I do today, I shall be home a good while.

I wish you was here but you have got a better place than I had stuck in Ossabaw [Sound] for 12 months [where I] never saw anything. But I suppose that would have suited you better than being where you are. As for myself, I never want to see a “flag ship.” Too much signaling going on.

I suffered a great deal with my wound. 2 The ball was in me a month before they extracted it. I was pretty low at one spell. I am awful weak now. I have been drinking too much ale lately. Sum[ner] went to Washington last evening to see about his appointment. There is something in the way and he may not get it. I hope he will. I think if he has a change of climate, it will do him good. I suppose you are a going to attack Wilmington soon, ain’t you? I should think the Navy ought to cooperate with Sherman. He will take Savannah, I think. They were damn frightened when I left.

I was treated very kindly there, being under the C. S. Navy authority. I think it was lucky I was wounded so I could remain in the hospital.

Well, Jack, I must wind up for today. I don’t feel very smart. Excuse the writing. The folks are as usual and send love. Tell Kidder to write. Do you ever see Billy Bangs in Norfolk? Tell him to write also.

Yours affectionately, — Chase

1 Eugene DeWitt Parsons (1835-1903) was appointed Acting Master’s Mate on 19 November 1862. He resigned his commission on 20 January 1865—six weeks after this letter was written. In 1865, after his resignation, he was enumerated in New Lebanon, Columbia county, New York, where he worked as an Engineer. By 1870 he had relocated with his wife Harriet and two small children to Rochester’s 8th Ward where he was employed as a bookkeeper. Eugene was the eldest son of Anson Parsons (1792-1871) and Louisa H. Hull (1816-1903) of New Lebanon, Columbia county, New York. He attended Williston Seminary in the early 1850s.

2 The post incident report files by Acting Asst. Surgeon W. H. Pierson, US Navy, claims that after Chase Hill was shot, he “came limping into the wardroom with a dangerous looking wound…”

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