William Henry Chase

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William H. Chase
Born June 4, 1798
Chase's Mills, Massachusetts
(now Buckfield, Maine)
Died February 8, 1870
Occupation Engineer, land developer

William Henry Chase (1798-1870) was a military engineer who supervised the construction of many U.S. coastal fortifications, including Forts Pickens, Barrancas and McRee on Pensacola Bay. Chase made his home in the city and was involved with local banks, railroads and other businesses that benefitted greatly from the military contracts he brought to the area. He also amassed large land holdings on the east side of Pensacola, which he and his brother George planned to develop under the name "New City" until a loss of investors after the Panic of 1837. At the commencement of Civil War, he was recruited by Confederate forces to demand the surrender of Union-held Fort Pickens, but was refused by U.S. Lieutenant Adam Slemmer.

Chase Street is named for him.

Early life & engineering career[edit]

Chase was born in what is now Buckfield, Maine, then an exclave of Massachusetts. He graduated from West Point in 1815 and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. He worked in repairing Fort Niagara from 1817 to 1818, then began constructing new defenses for New Orleans and other Gulf of Mexico ports, which had been shown to be vulnerable during the War of 1812. He engineered Fort Pike, Fort Macomb, and other defenses at the Rigolets, Chef Menteur Pass, Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Dupre. He was made captain in 1825.

In 1828, the Army transferred Chase to Pensacola to oversee the construction of a fort to protect the new Navy Yard. The resulting venture, Fort Pickens, was situated on the western end of Santa Rosa Island and provided easy targeting of any ship entering Pensacola Pass.

The fort construction and subsequent military projects were a major boon to Pensacola's economy. After relying briefly on imported construction materials, Chase urged local businessmen to build their own brickyards using the available clay deposits. A rapid infusion of federal money allowed the nascent brick industry to grow quickly, but after more than 20 million bricks had been delivered by 1831, years ahead of the actual completion, the manufacturers still had millions of surplus bricks and few prospects for future contracts. Using his position as commanding engineer of the Gulf region, Chase requested funding to construct further defenses that were "vitally needed" to protect Pensacola's harbor.[1] The resulting projects, Fort McRee on Perdido Key and a brick rebuilding of the Spanish Fort San Carlos de Barrancas (Fort Barrancas), were completed over the next several years. Chase also successfully lobbied for $106,000 in funding to dredge the waterway for heavier warships.[1]

Captain Chase continued to serve as chief engineer of Gulf coastal fortifications and was promoted to major on July 7, 1838. Among the fortifications he supervised were:

Bricks from Pensacola's yards were exported for use in many of these projects, bolstering the local economy.

President Franklin Pierce appointed Chase superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point, but he resigned from duty on October 31, 1856, to remain in Pensacola as president of the Alabama and Florida Railroad Company.

Other dealings[edit]

Civil War[edit]

As the outset of Civil War became inevitable in January 1861, Chase sided with the Confederate partisans in Pensacola and was commissioned a colonel in the Florida militia. On January 8, two days before Florida officially seceded from the Union, Florida Governor Madison S. Perry authorized Chase to seize all federal forts in Pensacola. He was active in securing the surrender of the Navy Yard on January 12. On January 15, he and a small party rowed out to Fort Pickens, where Union forces had relocated, to demand surrender from Lieutenant Adam Slemmer.

As recounted by J. H. Gilman, Chase said the following to Slemmer:

"… It is a most distressing duty to me. I have come to ask of you young officers, officers of the same army in which I have spent the best and happiest years of my life, the surrender of this fort. I would not ask it if I did not believe it right and necessary to save bloodshed; and fearing that I might not be able to say it as I ought, and in order, also, that you may have it in proper form, I have put it in writing and will read it." He then took the manuscript from his pocket and began to read, but, after reading a few lines, his voice shook, and his eyes filled with tears. He stamped his foot, as if ashamed of exhibiting such weakness, and said, "I can't read it. Here, Farrand, you read it."[2]

After the demand for surrender was read, Slemmer and Chase discussed what chance of success the 800 Confederate troops would have in seizing Pickens by force. Chase insisted that a defense would be futile:

I could carry it by storm. I know every inch of this fort and its condition. … If you have made the best possible preparations, as I suppose you have, and should defend it, as I presume you would, I might lose one-half of my men. … You must know very well that, with your small force, you are not expected to, and cannot, hold this fort. Florida cannot permit it, and the troops here are determined to have it; and if not surrendered peaceably, an attack and the inauguration of civil war cannot be prevented. If it is a question of numbers, and eight hundred is not enough, I can easily bring thousands more.[2]

Slemmer refused to surrender and held the fort until reinforcements could arrive. Pickens remained under Union control throughout the war.

Chase was promoted to brigadier general and later major general of the Florida forces, but due to his age and health, he had little active role in the war.

He died at his home at the southwest corner of Palafox and Wright Streets (now the site of Episcopal Day School) on February 8, 1870.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gene M. Burnett. "Pensacola's One-Man Economy." Florida's Past: People and Events That Shaped the State. Pineapple Press Inc., 1997.
  2. 2.0 2.1 J. H. Gilman. "With Slemmer in Pensacola Harbor." Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Century Company, 1887.