Sabotage of the Sultana...

 

This is the last of the three Globe-Democrat Sultana articles appearing between April 23 and May 6, 1888.  It is amazing that this article seems to have been completely lost to history until rediscovered as part of our investigation.  It is a roadmap to Robert Louden’s and William Streetor’s careers.  Using it an experienced person could track down most of the rest. The most serious omission is the fact that Louden’s death-sentence was not just for spying and mail-running, but for boat-burning as well. 

Streetor is being either somewhat disingenuous or modest when he talks about "the burning of so many boats by Confederate agents came up in the course of the conversation" and "I asked him in an offhand way what he knew of the Sultana explosion".  Remember who these two men were and their history together.  They were important figures on opposite sides of the secret war in the West.  Streetor had spent most of his career during the war protecting the Union against the likes of Louden.  The two maximum security areas of Gratiot were full of Confederate secret service agents, including Louden and his mail-running partner Ab Grimes.  Streetor as assistant keeper was deeply concerned with keeping them above all others under lock and key.  Streetor had also been personally involved in thwarting one of Ab Grimes' regular and always creative escape attempts.  As chief clerk of the prison as well, Streetor would have had access to all Louden's records and been familiar with the charges and suspicions about Louden's activities and connections to J.W. Tucker and the "organized boat-burners".  Certainly Louden knew who Streetor was as well.  The casual conversation that Streetor describes is like an ex-FBI agent and a pardoned serial bank-robber sitting down for a few drinks. Can anyone be surprised where the conversation would end up?

It appears that the transcript of Louden's Dec. 1863 trial is the origin of Streetor giving his pre-war alias as "Dale" instead of "Deal". Louden had used "Charlie Deal" as an alias when he first came to St. Louis, principally in his connection with the Liberty Fire Co. No. 6. In taking down the testimony of Chief of U.S. Police Peter Tallon, the court transcriber apparently heard it as "Dale" and used that spelling throughout. Histories of the Volunteer Fire Department of St. Louis --one of which was written by the ex-brother-in-law of Louden's wife and uncle of his two step-children-- clearly give it as "Deal". As for "Lowden" instead of the proper "Louden" --well, there is a consistent record of mucking-up the spelling of that in creative ways by multiple sources, Union and Confederate, with "Lowden" being the most popular of the incorrect versions.

 Unfortunately, this article was practically the last thing we found instead of the first. Almost all of the revelations found in this article had been discovered by us from other sources before we ever saw it. We had talked for months about our case being built around the fact (as we see it) of the centrality of St. Louis –as opposed to Vicksburg or Memphis-- to the “sabotage theory.”  More and more we convinced ourselves that if the Memphis papers had published Streetor’s story, then there had to be some significant mention of it in the St. Louis papers.  These two men were just too well known there for the St. Louis papers to have taken no notice whatever of Streetor’s accusation against Louden.

Since we are too far away to easily visit St. Louis, it was decided to take Dennis Northcott of the Missouri Historical Society into our confidence, lay out our suspicions, and ask him if he would search for the article we strongly suspected must exist in the May 5th-10th period.  Dennis reacted like a trooper  --after determining that the MHS collection of the Missouri Republican contained no such article, he volunteered to go to the St. Louis Public Library and search their collection.  A few days later a photocopy of the article below arrived in our mail. Certainly we had hoped for more detail than the Memphis paper had published, but we were shocked at how much more there was.

How could this article have been lost?  Well, for one thing, in a city that knew Bob Louden very well indeed  --both friends and enemies—there was no reaction.  His wife, who still lived there, did not come to his defense in print.  Ab Grimes, his war-time partner, still lived near St. Louis and also did not rise to challenge Streetor’s story.  It is simply not credible Ab Grimes –riverman, Bob Louden’s mail-running  partner, and sometime “guest” of William Streetor’s at Gratiot Street Military Prison--  didn’t know about this article, yet his memoirs say not a word about it, are relatively friendly to Streetor (who was, after all, a Yankee), and even confirm the post-war relationship between Streetor and Louden.  The total silence about Louden in post-war Confederate sources until Ab Grimes memoirs were published in 1926 (his daughter published them 15 years after his death; it is not clear Ab ever intended them to be read outside the family) strongly suggests a tacit understanding by all Louden’s friends that it would be better to leave sleeping dogs lie.

 

Sultana's last voyage

A line drawing of this photo appeared in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat article

St. Louis Globe-Democrat

May 6, 1888

BLEW UP THE SULTANA

The Cause of the Horrible Disaster

Explained at Last.

 

 Charlie Dale, a St. Louis Painter, Placed a Torpedo in the Coal Bin on the  Boat—The Steamer Just Before the Wreck.

The recent publication of a number of statements from survivors of the explosion of the Mississippi River steamer Sultana twenty-three years ago, has led to the cause of the disaster, a matter of much historical interest in connection with the war of the rebellion. The generally accepted theories of the explosion are faulty condition and bad management of the boilers. Mr. William C. Streetor, a painter of this city, who now has a shop at 314 Locust street, was a resident of St. Louis during the war, and was employed as a clerk in the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons.  The facts in his possession regarding the cause of the Sultana explosion, as related to a GLOBE-DEMOCRAT reporter, yesterday, removes this much discussed subject from the field of speculation, fixes the fearful catastrophe as the result of no accident, but of fiendish design, and locates with much particularity the boss dynamiter and murderer of the age.

“Yes, I know something about the Sultana disaster,” said Mr. Streetor, in reply to an inquiry.  “I can give the cause of explosion.  A torpedo in a lump of coal was carried aboard the steamer at Memphis and deposited in the coal pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing her destruction. The man who placed the torpedo on the boat is my authority, for I had the statement from his own lips. He was a notorious Confederate mail carrier and blockade runner, was captured some five or six times, and once, at least, was sentenced to death by a military commission in this city. Toward the close of the war, it will be remembered, President Lincoln issued an order that no one should be executed under military laws until the sentence had been confirmed by the President. It was while awaiting confirmation of the sentence that he escaped from the military prison in this city and made his way South, where he remained until after the close of the war. His friends obtained a pardon for him from President Johnson, and, armed with that, he returned to his home in St. Louis. It was after his return home that he told me the story of how he smuggled the torpedo on board the Sultana. His real name was Robert Lowden, but he was always known in this city by his alias, Charlie Dale. He was a painter by trade, and he worked in the same shop with me for William H. Gray, some three years after the close of the war. Dale was at that time a young, vigorous dare-devil. He possessed bravery of a certain kind, I think, equal to that of any man who ever lived. He was cool and calculating in his disposition, but at times he drank heavily, and when in his cups was disposed to talk a little too much for a man with a record like he had. It was while he was drinking one day that he and I got to talking about the war, and the burning of so many boats by the Confederate agents came up in the course of the conversation. He told me that he had fired no less than half a dozen steamboats on the Mississippi. I asked him in an offhand way what he knew about the Sultana explosion. Then he told me the story of the torpedo in the coal, and, using his own expression, 'It had got to be too—ticklish a job to set the boat afire and get away from her.'

Out of a hundred other of Dale’s daring exploits during the war one in particular impressed me forcibly as showing the character of this remarkable man. It was accomplished while the federal fleet was lying between Memphis and Vicksburg. Dale had escaped from prison in this city, and was on his way South. He was in a quandary for several days as to how he was going to get through the Federal lines. Finally he hit upon a plan and it was successful. He got a coffin at Memphis, calked it up with white lead, and launched it on the Mississippi. Then he laid himself out in the ghastly looking boat and floated down the stream. He passed the Government gunboats at night, and two or three times when the current of the stream drifted the coffin up against the hulls of the boats he reached out with his hands, pushed his craft clear and landed in the morning safe within the Confederate lines.

“Before the war Dale was a member of the old Liberty volunteer fire company in this city and was well known to a great many people living here now. He died in New Orleans during the yellow fever epidemic along in the latter part of the ‘60s. But to return to the Sultana explosion. I have read carefully all the information I could find about it, and from the character of the explosion I have been led to believe that Charley Dale’s story of the torpedo is true.”

[Article continues with scenes from rescue of survivors. . .]

Return to the Boat-Burners

Return to Civil War St. Louis

 


©2001 D. H. Rule

No reproduction or distribution without consent of author.

Feel free to link to this or any other page on the site.

Please don't hyperlink to pictures, query for copying permission.

Return to Civil War St. Louis

Hit Counter

 

Total site hits

Hit Counter

since January 25, 2001