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Posted October 2001
Sabotage of the Sultana...
Joseph W. Tucker and the Boat-Burners
by G. E. Rule
See also Tucker's War: Missouri and the Northwest Conspiracy by G. E. Rule - original research on J. W. Tucker, one of the most important, yet shadowy, figures in the secret war for Missouri, head of the Boat-Burners a secret service sabotage unit
A South Carolinian by birth, Joseph W. Tucker has been greatly underestimated by historians trying to understand the War in the West. Methodist minister, pro-secession newspaper editor, lawyer, political ally of Claiborne Jackson and Sterling Price, spymaster—the very diversity of his roles has lead to a fragmentary telling of his story.
You will find Albert Castel and Thomas C. Reynolds talking about “Deacon Tucker” and his role as one of Sterling Price’s most important political lieutenants. Christopher Phillips writes of Tucker the St. Louis newspaper editor tried for treason by U.S. Attorney James O. Broadhead in the spring of 1861. According to Broadhead, Tucker skipped bail when the trial appeared to be going against him, forfeiting a $10,000 bond. Tidwell, Hall, and Gaddy speak of Tucker the boss of the boat-burners in “Come Retribution.” The Official Records of both armies note “Judge Tucker” in this role as well. Pro-Union Baptist minister Galusha Anderson writes with astonishment of the pro-secession minister who tried to bait him into a duel. David E. Long credits Tucker as a relatively minor Confederate spy in “The Jewel of Liberty.” It does not help matters that Tucker sometimes identified himself as “J. Wofford Tucker.”
All are the same J.W. Tucker, and all of these authors seem unaware of the totality of Tucker’s role and just how influential he was in Confederate Missouri circles—and by extension to the War in the West. Appreciation for Tucker’s influence wasn’t always so unknown, however. One post-war history of St. Louis goes so far as to credit Tucker with arranging the naming of Sterling Price to head the Missouri State Guard. This meeting was said to have taken place in Tucker’s St. Louis State Journal offices, with most of the important pro-secession leaders—including Governor Jackson—in attendance. While certainly apocryphal in its exact details (Jackson’s aide Thomas L. Snead and Lt. Gov. Thomas C. Reynolds give more reliable accounts of how Price came to be Major General of the Guard), this account shows just how influential Tucker was believed to be at a time when many of the war’s participants were still around to share their memories of events.
Tucker had his bellicose thumb in other important pies than just the effort to interdict Union shipping on the Mississippi. In due course we will be sharing our research in those areas as well.
Below are two letters relating to Judge Deacon J.(oseph) W.(offord) Tucker (take your pick on combination of names—everyone else has) and the boat-burners. The first letter, from the OR, provides the earliest documented evidence of official non-Missouri Confederate support for Tucker’s boat-burners. Johnston’s dating of this encounter suggests that it was probably June of 1863 when he agreed to provide funds to support Tucker and his boat-burners. However, keep in mind that Tucker’s close connections to the highest levels of Missouri Confederates strongly suggests that he and his group could have been drawing financial support from that quarter from well before this date. It isn’t documented—it wouldn’t need to be—but it is a reasonable supposition.
The excerpts from Tucker’s 1864 letter to Jefferson Davis do not paint the boat-burners in a particularly patriotic light. “Filthy lucre” seems to be much more the aim of at least some of them, even by the admission of their paymaster. It is however another indicator of how easily Tucker’s group was able to strike in Union-held Memphis.
While Robert Louden is well-documented to have been a drinker, which can be expensive, and he was not unfond of money, there is no reason to believe that his early career as a spy and saboteur was driven by anything other than his support for the Confederacy. Louden was an early Missouri secessionist, closely associated with the Minute Men and their leaders in the spring of 1861. As “Sultana –A Case for Sabotage” documents, in his later career a warm grudge against the Union probably played an increasingly important role.
* * * *
DALTON, January 31, 1864.
Hon. JAMES A. SEDDON, Secretary of War:
SIR: I have had the honor to receive the letter of the Secretary of the Treasury to the President, dated January 9, with your indorsement, dated 11th.
During the siege of Vicksburg, Governor Pettus proposed to me the adoption of a plan suggested by Judge Tucker, to be executed under that gentleman's direction, to cut off supplies from the besieging army. He required $20,000 to inaugurate it. I drew a check for that sum on the assistant treasurer in Mobile, in favor of Governor Pettus, who indorsed it to Judge Tucker. After considerable delay, caused by reference of the matter to the Treasury Department, the money was paid. While I remained in Mississippi, Judge Tucker was, I believe, using this money against the enemy's navigation of the river. About the end of October, I wrote an explanation of the case to the Secretary of the Navy, to be delivered by Judge Tucker, who had large claims against that Department for enemy's property destroyed on the water.
This sum was not a part of that transferred to me by Commander [Samuel] Barron, all of which was returned by me to the Navy Department.
Most respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. E. JOHNSTON.
* * * * * * * *
J. W. Tucker to Jefferson Davis.
(From Confederate Memorial Hall.)
(Spotswood Hotel 14th March, 1864.)
Confidential statements; for the President alone
* * *
4. A deputation, under the authority of the order, was sent to confer with me in Mobile in relation to the destruction of the enemy's marine service, together with armories, arsenals, depots of stores, etc. etc., as a means of weakening and paralysing the military strength of the Federal Government. The Order is desirous of thus aideing our cause. In the Lodge in St. Louis there are seventy-two Engineers serving on the Western Waters, by whom we destroyed ten Federal Transports in ten days. But a doubt arose whether our work was prosecuted by the approval of the Confederate Government; and whether the men employed in this perillous service would be compensated by any provision of law, and especially when officers in the marine service were thrown out of employment by the destruction of the vessels on which they were employed.
5. Our future plans, if sanctioned and aided by the Government, embrace the destruction of that transport service upon which Grant must rely in the great coming struggle of the spring campaign; a week ago we burnt $500,000 worth of hay at the Memphis wharf, to embarrass Sherman; not long since Colt's pistol and gun Factory became an earnest of what can be done. We design to strike a blow on the same day, at many points, that will paralyze the foe. To do this confidence in the countenance and approval of our government must be inspired. To do this an adjustment for work already done must be had. The final agents are often ignorant, and sometimes vicious men. No argument but money will avail with them. If a settlement now be practicable, and a sum of money, say $100,000, of a character of funds current within the Federal lines, greenbacks, or Foreign exchange, can be placed in the hands of Lieut. Gen. Polk, for disbursement, some in advance, and the rest as the work proceeds, I am most confident we shall be able, through this association, to render important and telling service to our government in the ensuing campaign.
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©2001 G. E. Rule
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