By Ronald S. Coddington
Abner Stover stood atop Roper Hospital and took in his first panoramic view of Charleston, S.C., on an August evening in 1864. Freshly bathed and satiated after a splendid soup dinner, he gazed from the heights of the majestic three-story building and glimpsed the activity on surrounding streets, the inner harbor batteries, and the distant Fort Sumter.
These landmarks paled in comparison to the sight of Union warships dotting the edge of the harbor. The iron monsters menaced the rebel city, steam pouring from their stacks and the Stars and Stripes fluttering in the hot summer breeze. “It looks good to see our gunboats again,” he confided in his journal.
Stover knew these navy vessels firsthand. He served as an ensign in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, that is, until Confederate sailors raided his ship, made him a prisoner of war, and launched him on an odyssey that turned his world upside down.
Two Augusts earlier, he had stood in the ranks of the newly organized 35th Massachusetts Infantry. Though Stover and his younger brother, Martin, had enlisted for a 3-year term, they left the regiment before the end of 1862 under different circumstances. Martin suffered a wound at Antietam that ended with a disability discharge. Stover, detailed in the commissary, left about the same time, with War Department approval, to be examined for an ensignship in the navy, which sorely needed officers to man its rapidly expanding fleet. Stover passed—he had been a sailor in peacetime—and received a commission as acting ensign before Christmas.
Meanwhile, a small gunboat soon to loom large in Stover’s life neared the end of a long stint of active operations—the Water Witch. The wood-hulled sidewheeler had joined the vanguard of vessels in the Gulf of Mexico, reconnoitering the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana during the uncertain early months of the rebellion. The vessel probed waterways and distinguished itself in minor actions against enemy warships before it joined the squadron in the Atlantic Ocean.
In early 1863, the Water Witch arrived in New York Harbor for much-needed repairs. Stover joined the vessel in March, and left with his new crewmates in June for the South Carolina coast.
On the blockade
The Water Witch checked in at Port Royal, the Union base of operations located between Charleston and Savannah, on June 14. After a brief stay, the ship slipped into a quiet routine along the blockade while the great armies of blue and gray struggled for supremacy at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
While the fates of tens of thousands of soldiers hung in the balance on these faraway fronts, Stover and his mates absorbed the natural beauty of the Sea Islands. Fishing, shooting birds and inland excursions to hunt deer, hogs and other game became the order of the day along inland waterways and on islands named Raccoon, Warsaw and Ossabaw. They often struck out in their small boat, the Flirt, and returned to the Water Witch with a bounty of food. The occasional alligator, rattlesnake and shark some times sparked minor disturbances among the men. These experiences led Stover to note in his diary one day, “All quiet along the lines of the Ogeechee,” a word play combining the sardonic phrase uttered by Union soldiers along the Potomac River and the twisted waterway that flowed through Georgia and emptied into the ocean at Ossabaw Island.
The war brought Stover and his comrades back to reality, however, every so often. They chased Union deserters, took in renegade rebels, and provided safe haven to runaway slaves. Encounters with other blockade vessels prompted friendly visits and exchanges of news and information. On one occasion, the crew dragged the waters for an anchor lost by another gunboat.
The closest Stover came to hostile fire during this period occurred in connection to the Battle of Olustee. In early February 1864, the Water Witch joined other warships along the Florida coast outside Jacksonville in support of the Union army’s invasion of the state. On February 9, Stover and others landed at Mayport along the St. John’s River. They found the once-thriving mill town lying in ruins, its white inhabitants having fled. Two weeks later and a dozen miles closer to Jacksonville, Stover led a 10-man reconnaissance in search of enemy troops along the St. John’s near Yellow Bluff. They returned empty-handed.
By March they resumed their peaceful existence in and about the islands. Stover’s journal entry for May 31, 1864, underscored the life of ease enjoyed by the crew: “Nothing of importance occurred.”
Pelot’s daring attack
Unbeknownst to Stover, that same day an event with momentous implications for him and his crewmates unfolded less than 20 miles away in Savannah. The Confederate naval command ordered an expedition to capture the Water Witch. The man selected to lead the force, Lt. Thomas P. Pelot, had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1857, but resigned his commission in 1861 to follow his home state of South Carolina into the Confederacy.
A day later, the Confederate steamer Firefly towed seven boats, along with Pelot and his detachment of 131 men, from Fort Jackson in the defenses of Savannah, a few miles to the Isle of Hope. Here, the steamer separated from the boats, leaving Pelot and his men to move within striking range of the Water Witch, believed anchored off nearby Ossabaw Sound.
Pelot brimmed with optimism about his chances. “The men are all cheerful and anxious for a brush,” he stated that day, adding, “Our organization is excellent, and I am confident of victory.” Pelot prepared for victory by bringing along an experienced pilot, Moses Dallas, to navigate the Water Witch back to Savannah. “He is a colored pilot, and is considered the best inland pilot on the coast,” boasted one officer.
But the Water Witch had disappeared. That afternoon, Pelot learned that an observer had watched the gunboat steam south. He reported the news to Savannah, and dispatched scouting parties to nearby islands to search for the vessel.
Pelot soon discovered the Water Witch and struck out the following evening to take the prize.
Cutlasses and revolvers at close range
During the wee hours of June 3, Pelot and his fleet of small boats rowed through a pitch black and stormy night towards the unsuspecting crew of the Water Witch. One of Pelot’s subordinates, Midshipman Hubbard Minor, recounted, “When with in three hundred yards all seemed to be asking God, as I know I was, to prosper our undertaking, to shield us from harm, & to make us do our duty.”
The men continued through the rumble of thunder and rhythmic slapping of oars against water until a voice hailed them from the Water Witch. Minor recalled that pilot Dallas shouted “runaway negroes” followed instantly by Lt. Pelot’s cry, “We are Rebels, give way boys!”
On the Water Witch, eyewitnesses recalled different words. One man, an escaped slave who later jumped overboard to avoid capture, heard “Who they hell are you hailing?” The officer on watch that answered the call, Acting Master’s Mate Eugene D.W. Parsons, stated he hailed the rebels twice. His first call met with silence; the second call by a rush and a yell.
Parsons sounded the alarm by turning the ship’s rattle, its ear-splitting rat-a-tat-tat-tat shattering the night like a volley of muskets.
The sound shook Stover from his slumber. “I jumped out of my berth, pulled on my pants, caught my pistol and ran on deck,” he remembered. He entered a scene of chaos, as the rebels had cut protective netting along the port and starboard sides, and had begun to climb aboard.
Somewhere in the dark just ahead of Stover, a fellow officer confronted the oncoming attackers: Paymaster Luther G. Billings, regarded by Stover as a kind and generous soul who abhorred mean and selfish behavior. Now he fought like a madman with a pair of pistols. One of the first foemen he encountered swung a cutlass and struck one of his handguns. Billings grabbed him, pressed a revolver against his side, pulled the trigger, and watched him collapse to the ground face up. Stover indentified the dead man as Lt. Pelot, the first Confederate to board and the first to fall with a bullet through the heart.
About this time, the commander of the Water Witch barked out orders to cut the anchor chain and power up the engine, and for all hands on deck. He was Austin Pendergrast, the nephew of a commodore and a career navy officer from Kentucky who had overlapped with Pelot at the Academy. Pendergrast’s last command, the Congress, ended with the vessel’s fiery death at the hands of the ironclad Virginia in the spring of 1862—and his capture. After his release and return to duty, Pendergrast vowed he would never again be taken prisoner.
With Pelot out of the picture, command devolved upon Lt. Joseph Price, a native North Carolinian, who, like Stover, had started the war in the infantry before he joined the navy. Midshipman Minor became executive officer.
Back on deck, Stover joined Billings in the escalating fray. Shouts and yells mixed with boots pounding along the planks in all directions, as flashes of lightning and revolvers revealed the glint of cutlass blades and muted figures moving in haphazard directions. Stover pulled up alongside the rail and pumped two shots into the first boat, and watched it drop astern. He then squeezed off two more rounds at the rebels swarming over the port side. They fell back, albeit in temporary confusion.
As Stover’s revolver recoiled, Lt. Price grabbed him violently. The rebel commander fired point blank at Stover’s chest. The bullet somehow missed its mark. Stover returned the compliment and sent a ball just above Price’s lower ribs, but it glanced off the clasp of a belt or some other item without inflicting a deathblow. Undeterred, Price drew up his cocked revolver and placed the muzzle against Stover breast. Before Price pulled the trigger, Stover wrapped his fingers around the barrel and threw the gun clear of danger. Then, with his other hand, he fired his revolver and sent a lead slug into the fleshy part of Price’s leg.
Out of bullets, Stover converted his gun into a cudgel, walloped Price in the head with it, throwing him to the deck near one of the howitzers. Stover jumped on top of him, but Price soon gained the advantage in what became a wrestling match. Stover extricated himself from the grip and turned Price under. Then, he grabbed the commander’s own revolver and pushed the barrel hard against his throat and began to crush the windpipe. Price pushed back with all he had and broke the hold. Stover scrambled for his revolver in the darkness and, after he failed to find it, turned to the nearby howitzer and reached for a metal compressor to beat the life out of Price.
As he leaned over Price, two rebels came to their commander’s aid. One landed a heavy blow with a thick, dull blade on Stover’s right shoulder. Then, as Stover instinctively rose to counter this new threat, a sharp saber blade sliced into his head above the left eye. Four more successive fast and furious blows followed, cutting into Stover’s head like a bullock at slaughter.
Stover collapsed, unconscious.
“How long I laid I am unable to tell but when I came to it was by feeling someone hit my head with the foot,” Stover recalled. As the fog cleared from his brain, he realized he had been brought to the captain’s cabin, and recognized Pendergrast lying on his back with a deep gash in his forehead. Stover also learned a terrible truth: That the Water Witch had fallen to the Confederates. And, although he and several officers had put up one hell of a fight, other officers surrendered with little or no resistance. They included Master’s Mate Parsons, who did not have a scratch on him, despite being the first to encounter the enemy, and all the engineers. Stover judged them harshly in his diary, believing that the four engineering officers, armed with revolvers, could easily have defended the machinery. Stover was also unimpressed with the performance by the crew, which showed little appetite for battle.
Stover summed up the uneven response by the crew to the attackers: “We surrender a pusillanimous coward.”
There were a few notable exceptions, among them Landsman Jeremiah Sills. This young African American, according to an officer, “is said to have fought most desperately, and this while men who despised him were cowering near with idle cutlasses in the racks jogging their elbows.” Sills died at his post in defense of prejudiced white crewmen who had held him in contempt for the color of his skin.
Sills was not the only black man to die. On the Confederate side, pilot Moses Dallas suffered a death wound inflicted by the revolver of Billings the fighting paymaster. The loss deprived the victorious Confederates of the man they depended upon to get them home. They navigated the Water Witch towards Savannah with the help of a slave named Ben. The vessel grounded several times before it anchored near Burnside Island at Battery Beaulieu, part of the city’s defenses. Confederates manning the battery rowed out to meet the newest addition to the defenses of Savannah.
Fresh fish and bloodhounds
Once secured, the new masters of the Water Witch removed the federals, stripped the vessel of valuable signal books and other materials, and counted casualties, which totaled 18 Southerners killed and wounded, and 14 Northerners. A total of 77 Union sailors were imprisoned in Savannah and at its naval hospital. Stover landed in the latter place, transported with the other wounded by ambulance with their baggage. He noted that, “every attention paid us that was possible; indeed we fared much better than we had any reason to suspect.”
The limits of better care soon became evident. On June 5, the rebels transferred Stover and other prisoners to Oglethorpe Barracks, a military post established a few decades earlier. The heat and flies were stifling. Using a broken bottle for a cup, Stover and Paymaster Billings took turns pouring water over each other to keep their bodies and wounds clean. One of their comrades, Acting Master Charles W. Buck, procured a pipe and tobacco in an attempt to smoke out the army of insects.
The worst was yet to come.
On June 9, Stover boarded a train with others for Camp Oglethorpe in Macon, Ga. They marched into the stockade that night, Stover recalled, and “were greeted by the Cry of Fresh fish!, take off that hat, and don’t hit him with that corn bread, and all such like expressions, but as soon as the excitement was over a little, we were surrounded by eager questions and for a long time we were unable to answer the many questions put to us. We then spread out our bed clothes and laid down under cover of the star decked cloudless canopy of heaven.”
Stover awoke the next morning to his first look at the 3-acre compound that housed some 1,300 Union officers. In the days that followed, events occurred that became recurring themes in his diary: short rations, new arrivals, prisoner escapes, rumors of mistreatment of enlisted men at nearby Andersonville, and health issues. On June 17, he wrote, “All day it seems to be a dream that we can be cooped up but we are coming to the stern reality of the thing.”
A few uniquely memorable occasions broke up the steady stream of daily challenges, including a chance encounter with an officer from his old regiment, the 35th Massachusetts. Stover’s poor performance as a cook prompted him to muse in his diary that his girlfriend back home, Emma, “would laugh at me and make fun of me but it is a course of experience which will live in my memory as long as a I live.” During a July 4th celebration, the inmates rallied around a tiny flag smuggled in by one prisoner, followed by songs, speeches and cheers for President Abraham Lincoln, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. Sherman, the Union, the Declaration of Independence and the Stars and Stripes. Stover also wrote his will to prevent fights over his few belongings in camp in the event of his demise.
On July 17, Capt. Pendergrast arrived from Savannah, finally healed from his wounds and ready to join his subordinate officers and the rest of the prison population. Stover wrote, “His good-natured countenance gives us new hope and strengthens us for a little while longer.” He added, “as long as we are together we shall feel much better.”
The strength gleaned from these bonds of friendship supported Stover during the next stage of his prisoner of war ordeal—Charleston.
At midnight on July 27, Stover and others left Camp Oglethorpe for Charleston by rail. Two days later, he and five other officers leapt from the train, took cover in bushes, and set out for the coast, where they hoped to hail a blockade ship. They might have made it had not Confederate bloodhounds brought them to bay less than 24 hours after the escape.
Back in Confederate custody, the prisoners resumed the trip and arrived in Charleston on the last day of July. There, Stover and his comrades took up residence in the county jailhouse for two weeks, exposed to a brutally hot sun on bare, filthy ground, with nothing but a thin piece of duck cloth for protection. Meager rations and no cooking utensils added to the ordeal.
“I think it is rather rough treatment for Prisoners of War,” Stover observed.
Human shields and Southern chivalry
Perhaps the biggest threat to Stover’s survival came not from the grounds of the county jail, but from above, in the form of an incessant artillery barrage, in this case, from friendly fire. The shells that hummed overhead from morning until night roared from the muzzles of cannon on federal gunboats and Union-occupied island batteries.
The shelling had intensified in recent weeks due to a grim game of tit-for-tat brinkmanship in which soldiers became pawns. A month before Stover and his mates had arrived, the general in charge of the Confederate military department that included Charleston, Samuel Jones, had placed 50 federal officers in the line of Union fire in an effort to end the shelling. The incensed Union commander, Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, retaliated by placing 50 Southern officers in the path of Confederate fire. In essence, the men became human shields. About the time Stover stepped foot in the county jail, the situation escalated when the Confederates placed 600 more Union officers in harm’s way. Foster later struck back with 600 Confederates, before both sides finally backed down.
Stover and the captive Water Witch officers did not officially number among the 600. They may be considered, however, human shields as the county jail was located within range of the Union guns. Roper Hospital, where Stover moved on August 13, proved as dangerous as the jail. He could clearly see Union gunboats and batteries pounding away at the city from the rooftop of the hospital. Two weeks later, on August 28, one of the shells—a 100-pounder—burst over one end of the facility, sending a 15-pound fragment crashing into an adjacent work house that sheltered a number of prisoners. No one suffered an injury. Stover noted, “That is a little too close when we have no means to protect ourselves, but that is the treatment of the Southern Chivalry towards her prisoners of war.”
The shelling continued day after day. Though Stover had his share of close calls, he did survive the bombardment—and his imprisonment. On Sept. 30, 1864, he boarded a train north for a formal exchange. The trip lasted three weeks, including a stay at Libby Prison in Richmond.
At 4 a.m. on October 17, Stover marched from Libby Prison to a truce boat for the last leg of his journey out of captivity. In his final diary entry, Stover reflected, “Oh what joy! Shall I ever forget? No, I guess not.”
Four days later, Stover arrived in Washington, D.C. His stint as a prisoner lasted about four months. The navy furloughed him for the holidays, and he made a beeline for Brooklyn, where he wed his girlfriend, Emma, on December 6. A few weeks later, they celebrated their first Christmas as a married couple. Some 800 miles south, Maj. Gen. Sherman and his army observed the holy day in Savannah, which they entered as victors on December 21. Sherman famously presented the city as a Christmas gift to President Lincoln. The gift did not include the Water Witch, for Confederates had burned the gunboat to prevent it from falling into federal hands.
The Union navy launched a Court of Enquiry to investigate the capture of the Water Witch. Rear Adm. Lewis M. Goldsborough presided over the assembly, which took Lt. Cmdr. Pendergrast to task for not taking enough precautions to insure the vessel’s safety. The Court reasoned that if Pendergrast had thrown out a picket boat manned by a couple of sailors and an officer with a proper signal lantern, the enemy might have been detected earlier, and precious minutes saved to organize a successful defense. The Court criticized Acting Master Mate Parsons for exhibiting poor ability and raised serious questions about the conduct of the chief engineer.
Navy brass brought Pendergrast before a court martial and found him guilty of “culpable inefficiency in the discharge of duty.” Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles approved his suspension from duty for two years on half pay and loss of rank during this time. Pendergrast served his sentence and returned to duty with the South Pacific Squadron. He died in 1874 with the rank of full commander.
Paymaster Billings went on to a long navy career, buoyed by his valorous acts in defense of the Water Witch. He retired from the navy in 1898 as a rear admiral, and was recalled to duty during the First World War as purchasing officer for the Eastern Division in Baltimore. He died at age 78 in 1920, and was buried with full honors in Arlington National Cemetery.
Lt. Joseph Price, who took charge of Confederate forces after Paymaster Billings shot and killed Lt. Pelot, continued his navy service in North Carolina as commander of the ironclad ram Neuse. In March 1865, the Confederates burned the vessel to keep it out of the hands of advancing Union forces. Price settled in Wilmington, N.C., after the war, and went on to become the city’s harbormaster. He died in 1895 at age 59.
Midshipman Minor, who advanced to executive officer and second-in-command to Lt. Price, survived a serious gunshot wound to the leg during the combat on the Water Witch. Minor remained in Savannah and fled upon the arrival of Sherman’s army. He landed in Richmond only to be forced to evacuate when Grant’s forces took the city in April 1865. Minor made his way back to Savannah, and married a young woman with whom he had fallen in love during his time there. He died of an unknown cause at age 29 in 1874.
The navy recalled Stover to duty on Jan. 3, 1865. Ordered to the frigate Savannah, which he may have found amusing considering his experience, officials soon detached him to the sleek gunboat Preston, a British-built blockade-runner recently captured by Union forces along the North Carolina coast. Plagued by diarrhea and lung trouble attributed to his time as a prisoner of war, he was granted a leave of absence in August 1865, and an honorable discharge before the end of the year. In 1868, a doctor diagnosed him with consumption, and he succumbed to its effects in February 1869 at age 33. Emma and their two-year-old son, Charles, survived.
Later that year, Emma received a package from Georgia. It contained a sword carried by her late husband, returned to her by a Confederate veteran. He was William W. Carnes, a U.S. Naval Academy cadet who had resigned to become an artillery captain in his native Tennessee. He transferred to the navy’s Savannah station late in the war, at which time he stated that an officer under his command, who participated in the Water Witch affair, had given him the sword. Carnes recalled that the officer “called my attention to the name on the blade, and requested me to keep it and make such disposition of it as I thought best.”
Carnes forgot about the sword until he rediscovered it during a move in the winter of 1868-1869, when Stover lay in the throes of his final illness. Carnes advertised his desire to return the sword to its rightful owner in the New York Tribune. One of Emma’s friends noticed the ad and alerted her to it. Though Emma remarried in 1886, she likely kept the sword in her possession, and passed it to her son before she died in the 1910s.
Engraved on the blade of the sword are words that are a tribute to Stover’s service and sacrifice—“For the Old Flag.”
Special thanks to Ben Greenbaum and Bill Irvin of Perry Adams Antiques for bringing this material to my attention, to Herman Kinder of Bowling Green Drummer Military Antiques for his generosity and enthusiasm, and to Chad Carlson for providing Young’s paper.
Note: Punctuation has been added and capitalization revised in some of the quotes from Stover’s diary for comprehension.
References: Abner Dodge Stover Papers, Herman Kinder Collection; Abner D. and Martin Luther Stover military service records, National Archives; 1860, 1910, 1920 U.S. census; Abner D. Stover pension file, National Archives; Official Records of the War of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion; Minor and Campbell, ed., Confederate Naval Cadet: The Diary of Midshipman Hubbard T. Minor; Young, Matthew, “Irony Clad: The Remarkable Odyssey of the U.S.S. Water Witch,” Columbus State University; Luther Guiteau Billings Collection, Library of Congress; Hoy and Smith, Camp Oglethorpe: Macon’s Unknown Civil War Prisoner of War Camp, 1862-1864; Washington Post, Jan. 8, 1921; Wilmington Messenger, May 16, 1895.
Ronald S. Coddington is Editor and Publisher of MI.
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