Late one night in the fall of 1861, a slave waterman named Dempsey Hill slipped into the customs house in Beaufort, N.C., removed copies of the latest nautical charts and buried them in the local cemetery– the one people now call the Old Burying Ground.
It was the first months of the Civil War. Beaufort was still in the hands of the Confederacy, but Union forces had reached the Outer Banks and were expected to move in the old town’s direction. Rebel sympathizers were fleeing inland and all havoc was breaking loose.
Not long after, on a pitch black night, Hill and four other slave watermen returned to the cemetery and retrieved the charts. They then made their way to the waterfront a block south, being careful to avoid Rebel patrols.
They stayed low and moved quickly down a wharf, commandeered a pilot boat and set sail.
They sailed under the guns of Fort Macon and out the inlet into the open sea. As the moon came up, they could see the masts of Union naval vessels, part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
The five black men steered toward the closest Union ship. As they approached, the ship’s guns rolled out and a voice called out and demanded to know who they were, friend or foe.
Dempsey Hill and his companions shouted over the dark waves: “We are five Africans seeking freedom.”
When they climbed aboard the U.S.S. Braziliera, they were slaves no more.
A Boatlift to Freedom
In my book The Waterman’s Song, I wrote a good bit about the unique role that slave watermen played in combatting the Confederacy during the Civil War on the North Carolina coast.
But I did not know Dempsey Hill’s story until recently, and it captures that historic moment like few others.
To gain their freedom, slave watermen such as Dempsey Hill and his companions certainly did seize boats and head to sea.
But they did more, too. Prior to the Civil War, Beaufort’s merchants, planters and sea captains had relied on slave watermen to pilot their ships, man their boats and provide their dinner tables with fish and oysters.
But at the outbreak of the Civil War, those slave watermen quickly turned their knowledge of boats and the local waters against the Confederacy.
As the first Union soldiers set foot on North Carolina soil, those slave watermen had already begun a massive boatlift of enslaved men, women and children out of Confederate territory.
Recruited by Union commanders, they also piloted Union naval vessels on North Carolina’s sounds and rivers.
They even piloted the boats that carried the first Yankee troops into Beaufort, slipping them beneath the guns of Fort Macon in the dead of night.
As Dempsey Hill did with the nautical charts, many of those slave watermen also shared their knowledge of local waters and other military intelligence with Union commanders.
In that way, the one advantage that the outnumbered local Confederate forces had– their knowledge of local waters– vanished.
Finally, some of those liberated slave watermen also enlisted in the Union navy.
According to an interview with Dempsey Hill published in The Boston Globe on June 5, 1891, he and all four of his co-conspirators joined the Union navy when they reached the U.S.S. Braziliera.
They were ready to fight for their people’s freedom.
From Beaufort to Wareham
I recently learned about this extraordinary story from a retired librarian named Lynda Ames in Wareham, Massachusetts.
Ms. Ames first brought Capt. Hill’s story to light. For many years she worked in the research room at the Wareham Free Library in Wareham, Mass., which is located at the head of Buzzards Bay, 50 miles south of Boston.
In her retirement she has remained an avid researcher of the town’s history.
As it happens, Dempsey Hill did not return to Beaufort after the Civil War. Instead, he went north and eventually settled in Wareham, where he made his living as a fisherman, boat pilot and fishing guide.
Intrigued by historical references to him in the library’s files, Ms. Ames has been assiduously researching his life there.
This past February, she presented her preliminary research on Capt. Hill in a lecture at a meeting of the Wareham Historical Society.
I could barely contain my excitement when I heard about the lecture and learned that Capt. Hill had been born in Beaufort, only a few miles from my family’s homeplace in Carteret County, N.C.
Ms. Ames is currently preparing a final research report on Dempsey Hill’s life. I’m sure that report will cover more details about his family, his enslavement in Beaufort, his flight to freedom, his naval service during the Civil War and his life in Wareham. I’ll be sure to share those details here when she’s done.
In the meantime, I want to share excerpts from just one of her historical sources– that interview in The Boston Globe that I mentioned earlier.
In the spring of 1891, a reporter for The Globe visited Capt. Hill at his home in Wareham.
He was no ordinary newspaperman. His name was Robert T. Teamoh and he was The Globe’s first African American reporter. He was one of the first black journalists to write for a major daily anywhere in the U.S.
Teamoh was also a civil rights activist. He fought for equal rights in public accommodations in Massachusetts, and he even served in the state legislature in 1894-95. He had a special interest in African American history, which I presume is what led him to Wareham.
He found Capt. Hill “in a little house under which is a fish market.”
“Everybody around Buzzard’s Bay knows or has heard of him. Commonly he is called `Cap’n Demp.’”
When Teamoh arrived, “Cap’n Demp” had just returned from an unsuccessful search for bait and had time to sit and talk.
“`Yes,’ said he, `I don’t mind giving the Globe a little story about myself. Nor do I mind having my picture took. Nor do I read, but the boys tell me it is a mighty big and powerful paper and has telling circulation.’”
Then Teamoh began to tell Capt. Hill’s story:
“Captain Dempsey Hill of the sloop Dempsey’s Dream was born in Beaufort, N.C. at what time or in what year he does not know. He says, though, that there was not much importance attached to his birth, as he was considered a part and parcel of the estate of William Jones, a planter of Beaufort, N.C. His parents were Berry and Mary Hill.”
Like most of the enslaved men in Beaufort at that time, Capt. Hill worked on the water from a young age.
“On this estate it was early his duty to look out for the pleasure boats that belonged to the Jones family. These he attended to faithfully until the war broke out….
“It was then that he began to conceive the idea of escaping from slavery. Previous to that, however, he had often heard of the great free North. But he knew escape was almost useless, yet he often wondered how he would feel if he ever became a free man.
“His opportunity came, he says, at the bombardment of Fort Sumter. He was then strongly impressed with the idea that the war was to give him that which he most wanted—freedom.”
The bombardment of Fort Sumter, near Charleston, S.C., occurred on April 12 and 13, 1861. It marked the beginning of the Civil War.
“It was when Hatteras was captured by Gen. Burnside and the Confederates were leaving Beaufort in the hands of the `Yanks,’ that he saw “the light of freedom glimmering in the darkness, and he felt that his prayers had been answered and that the hour of his freedom was at hand.”
Union forces captured Hatteras in August 1861. Over the next eight months, they gradually moved through a broad swath of the North Carolina coast, capturing the rest of the Outer Banks and then a number of seaports– New Bern, Washington, Plymouth and Beaufort.
“When the people of Beaufort were rapidly leaving the city he was about to flee to the Union lines when it occurred to him that in the custom house, in the room of William King, a customs house officer, were some important charts recently made showing the watercourse around Beaufort and from Nassau to Beaufort.”
In the Old Burying Ground
Beaufort quietly fell to Union forces at the end of April 1862.
“These, he thought, would be of some use to the Yankee squadron, which he heard was down the bay. That night he crept into the customs house and secured these and other charts. To avoid detection he buried them in Beaufort cemetery in a basket containing champagne. He then secured the confidence of four other companions with whom he entrusted the security of the charts and plans of escape.”
Today that cemetery is known as the Old Burying Ground. Some of my mother’s ancestors are buried there.
“The next night proved to be dark and the moon did not rise until after midnight. Stealthily they met at the spot indicated, and, as he says, `in the stillness of that night over the graves of the old and departed Beaufortonians, we gave toasts and drank champagne from the resurrected basket.’
“In a pilot boat moored in the shadow of a dock we left Beaufort praying that we might gain the day. Just before we reached Shackleford Point and Fort Macon the moon rose and we sighted and steered for the Yankee fleet.”
Fort Macon was a Confederate stronghold on the east end of Bogue Banks, a barrier island. “Shackleford Point” refers to the west end of Shackleford Banks, another barrier island.
“When we saw through the night those big ships lying so majestic and so still, our hearts leaped for joy and on our bended knees we thanked our God for preserving us thus far.”
“When within speaking distance we saw the half ports drop and the guns run out. Then the Yankees spoke to us and we answered, `”We are five Africans seeking freedom.’
As Union vessels blockaded Confederate shipping, enslaved African Americans confiscated boats and headed to sea to join them.
“We were told to come aboard while they took possession of our charts and our champagne. When I got on board and saw Cap’n Ben—I forget his last name of the Brazaleria I presented the whole of them to him.”
The bark U.S.S. Braziliera was a Union gunboat that was part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. I suspect “Cap’n Ben” was Acting Volunteer Lt. C. F. W. Behm, the Braziliera’s commanding officer.
“After he examined them he told me that he found them to be of great value. We told the `cap’n’ that we were all watermen and wanted to become sailors and free men.
“So we were scattered: I was put on the Keystone State; afterwards, by various transfers, first on the North Carolina, then on several monitors….”
After the Civil War, Dempsey Hill went north. For a time he made his living as a sailor on a packet that ran between New York City and Cape Cod.
By 1867, he had settled in Wareham and was working on Buzzards Bay, which is where The Boston Globe’s Robert T. Teamoh found him.
For many years Capt. Hill made his living as a commercial fisherman, fishing guide, pilot and jack-of-all-trades around the water. Every local and most visitors knew his boat, the sloop Dempsey’s Dream.
He was apparently very well liked and respected. His knowledge of commercial fishing and boating was often sought, and he was a very popular guide for fishing trips and pleasure boat excursions on the bay.
I cannot thank Lynda Ames enough for uncovering the story of Capt. Dempsey Hill. I think it’s a tremendous achievement and I look forward eagerly to learning more from her about “Cap’n Demp.”
Even with the very little I know now, I feel as if I can already see him and his companions on that long-ago night in Beaufort.
In my mind’s eye I see them, five men, “five Africans seeking freedom,” coming out of the graveyard in the dark, slipping aboard the pilot boat on the waterfront and quietly raising the sails.
And then, in a silence broken only by the sounds of the wind and the waves, they headed toward the sea and freedom.