Sinking of The Picket


USS Picket 

150 years ago, four gave all for the cause.

The glory of having General Ambrose Burnside on board the USS Picket while crossing the dangerous Hatteras bar into the Pamlico Sound in that February of 1862 would be lost on the morning of that later September day when four Sag Harbor boys would lose their young lives during a Civil War battle in eastern North Carolina. September 6th, 2012 marks 150 years since this tragic event occurred during the Burnside Expedition into the Confederacy.

The USS Picket was just 45 feet long with a 10-foot beam and before being fitted out as a gunboat for the US Marine Artillery, she was an iron barge. The armament consisted of a single 12-pounder cannon. It was said that quite a few Sag Harbor boys were on this ship and a total of 25 were scattered throughout the expedition’s fleet. The Picket was one of many gunboats and ships that made up the Federal armada known as the Burnside expedition. General Burnside chose to enter the treacherous Hatteras inlet into the Pamlico Sound during a raging gale on board the diminutive Picket to help boost morale. Sixty vessels with 13,000 men comprised the Burnside Expedition to help out the Union cause in subduing the eastern shores of North Carolina during the war of rebellion. The military exploits of the Picket and other vessels with Sag Harbor connections would find their way home to our village newspaper via letters to family members and even direct reports from local servicemen to the Sag Harbor Corrector. Many battles ensued in the spring and summer of 1862 with the resulting disruption of many rebel military installations as well as cutting the necessary trade routes the confederate armies needed to keep operational.

In early September of 1862, transport ships and gunboats had entered the Pamlico River as far up as Washington, N.C. with the directive of capturing this important rebel commercial center. The original Union occupation went fairly smoothly but the following day, September 6, 1862, brought a counter attack by confederate forces to retake the town. During the initial action of the ensuing battle, the Union gunships in the river opened fire to assist the land forces with defensive actions. The call to quarters on the USS Picket was just made when a tremendous explosion, apparently from its ammunition magazine accidentally being ignited, tore the ship apart with the instant loss of 19 men out of her 24 man crew. The remaining five injured sailors were rescued by another nearby gunboat. The bodies of the four Sag Harbor men were never known to have been recovered.

My ancestor, Quartermaster William H. Chester age 22, was one of these four brave boys from Sag Harbor who gave all for their country on this dreadful day. The three other causalities were Captain Sylvester D. Nicolls age 42, Quartermaster Jeremiah Lodowick Hedges, son of whaling Capt. Jeremiah Hedges, age 23 and Seaman Henry B. Howell, son of the late George Howell. Henry was a special correspondent to the Corrector, age 22. Captain Nicoll held direct lineage to Nathaniel Slyvester, original European proprietor of Shelter Island with the associated Nicoll family possessing large land holdings on the island. Capt. Nicoll was also a well-respected and successful whaling captain out of Sag Harbor. Seaman Charles Strong of this village was one of the injured and Capt. John L. Foster also of Sag Harbor commanded the nearby USS Vidette in this action.

William H. Chester was the son of house builder John E. Chester and Elmira Latham of Sag Harbor. He was also the uncle of my great-grandmother, Martha Austin Simms. The Chester’s were a prominent Shelter Island family. Elmira was the granddaughter of Hubbard Latham, a revolutionary war captain who sailed out of Sag Harbor and prominent founding merchant. Out of six children born to John Chester and Elmira, William was the only son to live to adulthood and John must have been devastated upon the loss of his only offspring to carry on the Chester name.

A plaque was placed this July 2012 to finally commemorate the deeds of William H. Chester at the family plot in Oakland Cemetery. Since his remains still lie with the USS Pickett, no formal marker was ever erected to bring attention this ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Scott Simms

112 Henston Drive

West Columbia, SC 29172

803 920-8077


William H. Chester, Quartermaster, 1st US Marine Artillery GAR, NY

Killed by an explosion during hostile action onboard the USS

Pickett at Washington, North Carolina, Sept. 6th, 1862.

Mention of this event can be found in the Sept. 20th, 1862 edition of the Sag Harbor “Corrector”.