Sabotage of the Sultana – Memphis Daily Appeal article

Sabotage of the Sultana…

As would be expected, the search for information on the Sultana tragedy has mostly centered in Memphis and Vicksburg.  Consequently, the article below is the one most historians are familiar with when they talk about the Sultana and the “sabotage theory.”  Jerry O. Potter cites it directly in “The Sultana Tragedy” as does William Tidwell in “April ‘65”. Gene E. Salecker’s “Disaster on the Mississippi” does not mention this article directly in the text, but does list it in his secondary sources (Mr. Salecker was kind enough to share by email the text he has of this article  —it is slightly different from the wording given below, which we received from the Memphis Public Library).

What a pale, puny thing this article is compared to the Globe-Democrat article of two days before.  On top of the misspelling of Louden’s name and alias which were present in the original article, this article adds new mistakes –including the assertion that “what has become of him is not known.”  Most importantly, it completely fails to include Streetor’s credentials in making this assertion—his relationship with Louden during and after the war, and the position of responsibility he held during the war working with the Union Provost Marshal’s office as assistant-keeper and chief clerk of Gratiot Street Military Prison.

May 8, 1888 Memphis Daily Appeal

EXPLOSION OF THE SULTANA

Another Theory of the Cause Advanced by a St. Louis Man

St. Louis, Mo, May 7  — The awful explosion on the steamer Sultana near Memphis twenty-three years ago, in which nearly 2,000 Union soldiers lost their lives, has always been a mystery.  The survivors at their reunion have recently made a number of statements regarding the affair, but the most sensational story has been told by a resident of this city, William C. Streeter.  His statement fixes the explosion as the result of design.  He claims that a noted Confederate blockade runner and mail carrier named Robert Lowden, better known during the war as Charles Dale, was the author of the terrible disaster.  Streeter claims that Lowden told him, after the close of the war, that while the Sultana lay at the Memphis wharf, he smuggled aboard a large lump of coal in which was concealed a torpedo.  This he deposited on the fuel pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing the destruction of the boat.

Whether the responsibility for the awful crime rests solely with Lowden, or whether he was acting under the direction of others, Streeter is unable to say.  Lowden had an adventurous career, being captured several times while running blockades, and once narrowly escaped execution.  What has become of him is not known.

Sabotage of the Sultana

Sabotage of the Sultana…

This is the first of the three Sultana articles appearing in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat between April 23 and May 6, 1888.  While it can not be said with certainty that William C. Streetor saw this article, it certainly is possible.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 23, 1888

Story of the Sultana

The Steamboat Explosion Which Cost

Two Thousand Lives

How a Soldiers Longing for a Drink and a

Par of Lieutenant’s Epaulets Saved

The Lives of a Chicago Man

and His Companion

[From the Chicago Tribune.]

Friday next a soldierly-appearing German, aged about 45, whose features wear an expression of settled seriousness that rarely changes for an instant, will celebrate the twenty-third anniversary of the Sultana disaster. He is Edward F. Hedrick, for fifteen years a member of the Chicago police force, now proprietor of a well-ordered little saloon on the corner of Centre and Halsted streets. Besides himself there are said to be now living but five of the 2100 passengers aboard the Sultana at the time of the explosion. It will be remembered that about 400 were picked up alive, but a large proportion of that number survived their wounds and exposure only a few days, and many others swelled the roll of victims within a year or two. Mr. Hedrick served two years in the 8th New York Infantry, at the expiration of which time he enlisted at Indianapolis for three years in the 9th Indiana Cavalry. He was captured at Sliver Branch Trestle and imprisoned at Cahaba, Ala. With 2000 other Union prisoners he was exchanged and sent up the river. These passengers taken on at New Orleans, were on the boat when her boilers blew up. Mr. Hedrick recently told the story of the disaster, including the details of his own remarkable escape, for publication in the Tribune, so frankly and graphically that it is best reproduced in his own words:

“When we boarded the Sultana at Vicksburg,” he began, “we were a jolly crowd. Two thousand of us had just been released from a Southern prison and we were happy. The Sultana was a regular Mississippi River packet boat of that period. A thousand passengers would have crowded her uncomfortably; with over 2000 she was like a hive of bees about to swarm.

“We steamed out of Vicksburg and moved slowly up the middle of the river. The spring floods were at their highest, the stream being in some places as much as forty miles wide. We reached Memphis at 8 o’clock in the evening. Three of my prison chums were on board—Johnny Hinckley, Montgomery Hall and John Wills—and as the Captain said he would not leave till midnight we made up our minds to land and have some fun. I’m going to tell you about this because if we hadn’t gone up-town Johnny Hinckley and I would have been blown sky-high with the others. Our main object in landing was to get something to drink. But we soon discovered that the town was under martial rule and that only officers were allowed anything stronger than coffee. We were so thirsty that we went into an alleyway to reconnoiter. When we were out of sight of the street Johnny Hinckley took out of his pocket a pair of lieutenant’s shoulder-straps he had picked up somewhere, put them on, and while we waited in the alley he entered the nearest saloon. He was gone quite awhile and came back a trifle unsteady, and wiping his mouth. Then I put on the shoulder straps and followed his example with equal success. By the time Hall and Wills had performed their part of the programme it was time to start back to the boat. None of us were drunk, but we were full enough to be happy and to care little whether school kept or not.

“It was just about midnight when the boat left Memphis. Everybody was in the best of spirits. There were a number of professional gamblers on board, and as we passed the cabin door I noticed that it was crowded with officers and gamblers who were playing for high stakes. We went to bunk in the middle of the middle deck, between the office and the bar room and directly over the boilers. Hall and Wills were sleepy.  They rolled up in their blankets and were soon snoring. It was the last ever seen of them. I wanted to follow their example, but Johnny Hinckley wouldn’t have it. He was much elated over our luck with the shoulder straps. We were both a little top-heavy, so when he insisted on going to the back end of the boat and turning into a couple of the officer’s cots I readily consented. There were a great improvement over the hard floor of the deck, and we were soon sound asleep.

“The next thing I knew thee was a terrible crash. The passengers were shouting and screaming and jumping into the river on all sides. I got up, and as I moved forward to see what the matter was I bumped my head against a part of the upper deck which had fallen in. Then I saw flames creeping back toward the stern and knew that the boilers had blown up. I ran back to find Hinckley, but his cot was empty. The notion of jumping into the river, as passengers were doing all around, didn’t please me, so I slid down to the freight deck on one of the swinging bumpers that hung over the side. A big crowd of passengers had flocked to the stern, where a lot of mules were quartered. Many of the mules hand broken loose and were stamping up and down the deck. Several of us seized one and threw him overboard, intending to jump ourselves and let him swim us ashore. But the water was black with heads and arms of drowning passengers, and the mule sank instantly with a dozen men under and on top of him. We threw in several more, all with the same result. People were constantly jumping in and carrying others to the bottom with them. There wasn’t a clear space within jumping distance in any direction. The water was rough and churned the crowd of swimmers up and down as though there were logs in a broken raft.

“All the time Capt. Mason was working bravely on the upper deck throwing planks and barrels overboard and shouting to the passengers to keep cool. Many swam ashore on what he threw into the water, but he staid aboard too long to save his own life. After awhile, when most of the passengers had thrown themselves into the river, the boat seemed to drift away from them, leaving a clear space. I had thrown several shutters over, but they had all been seized by those in the water. Finally the flames had driven the terrified mules so closely about me that I was obliged to seize a bit of plank and jump for my life. By the light of the flames I saw what I took for the shore only a few rods distant, and congratulated myself that I was getting off so easily. But it was only an island, and in spite of all I could do the current carried me past the lower end of it. There was no shore in sight. Pretty soon a half-drowned man floating by caught hold of the end of my plank. He placed his whole weight on it, and we commenced to sink together. I cursed him and said: ‘Why don’t you help yourself a little so we can both be saved?’ But he was too exhausted. I let him have the plank, and started to swim with nothing under me. When I was nearly worn out a steamer came by picking up floating passengers so near that I thought of course she would take me on. But the wind was in the wrong direction. They couldn’t hear me, and I gave myself up for lost. Just then a brandy jug floated by. I worked it under me and plucked up courage again. In this way I floated down to where the current struck the bend just above Memphis, and caught the overhanging branch of a half-submerged tree. Dozens of people had floated in just as I had, and were clinging to bushes and trees. The water was so high we couldn’t touch bottom, and there was no land in sight. The blaze of the burning Sultana had been seen from Memphis, and we were presently rescued by one of the boats in search of survivors and bodies of the dead. The water was so cold that we were chilled through, but there was plenty of spirits and a blazing fire on the rescuing boat, besides piles of blankets in which we were wrapped.

“As I walked up the bank at Memphis in my blanket, almost the first person I met was Johnny Hinckley. Before jumping overboard he had secured a life preserver, and floated down to the bend without much difficultly. The people living at the principal hotel bought us new suits of clothes, and in a day or two we came North to Indianapolis. Then I lost track of Hinckley and haven’t seen or heard of him since. I would like to know where he is. You see, it was nothing in the world but his shoulder-straps that saved our lives.”

Story of Another Survivor

Frankfort, Ind., April 12—

James Payne, one of the few survivors of the Sultana disaster, lives in Hamilton County, this State, near Packard’s Mills, and there he was found by the Tribune correspondent. Mr. Payne was a private in the 124th Indiana, which was captured by the Confederates at Spring Hill, Tenn., in 1864. He spent three months amidst the horrors of Andersonville, and was then exchanged. “Orders came to the effect that 500 men should be taken out each day to be exchanged,” said Mr. Payne, “with the provision that the old men were to go first—that is, those who had been longest in the prison. But we found out that a little persuasion in the way of money had a great effect upon the officers of the prison, and as the boys of our company had succeeded in keeping a little money concealed, we bought our exchange, and consequently our company, which was now down to eleven men, got out on the first list.  One of our boys went out on a dead man’s name. When the dead man’s name was called he answered to it. We were taken to Vicksburg, and the morning of the 1st day of May, 1865, we were marched down to the wharf to embark to be sent North and home. We lost no time in getting aboard the Sultana, as that time the largest boat on the Mississippi. She was a side-wheeler of unusual dimensions. She carried eighteen boilers. The boilers and machinery of the Sultana had been inspected at St. Louis just before her down trip, and at Vicksburg just before we started.

“We started from Vicksburg about noon.  Everything went well, excepting our sickness, the result of our confinement, and the rough water, as the river was running high. We landed at Memphis at 11p.m., where we had about 400 hogsheads of sugar to unload. Here occurred my miraculous escape. A number of the boys, myself being one of them, got off here and went up into the town to see if they could get something to eat, and at least get some fresh air. A comrade, whose name I have forgotten, and myself wandered around until we heard the signal to start and then we ran for the boat, but we were too late, and the only result of our efforts was to get into the sand up to our knees. We saw that the Sultana was going to stop at some coal barges and take on some coal, and we in our desperation tried to get aboard here; but it appears that Providence was working in its own mysterious way, and we were again unsuccessful. While we were standing on the wharf, or rather in the sand, we were watching the Sultana, our hope, joy and pride, steam away, feeling our hearts sink within us.

“We watched the Sultana until she got to a point in the river where there is a small island called ‘Hen and Chickens’, seven miles above Memphis, where, to our horror, the boilers exploded, and then what was left of the vessel took fire, and, slowly drifting down the river, burned up. Of course a great many were killed by the explosion, but the greater part of them were either burned to death or driven by the fire into the water and drowned. Some few of the boys were able, by getting hold of some of the floating wreckage, to get ashore. One man, or boy, rather, J.W. Thompson, who was then only 18 years old, swam until he was opposite Memphis, which was seven miles, when he was picked up by a yawl. They were afraid to put out large boats until it became light, consequently no boats but skiffs and yawls were used until morning. A very dense fog also came up just immediately after the explosion. The river was very high at the time, all the bottom lands for miles on each side of the river being inundated. One soldier succeeded in getting upon a log, and also helped upon the log a lady passenger whom he found in the water, and by means of using his hands and feet as oars finally guided the log out of the channel and lodged it safely against some timber. She was, I think, a Chicago lady, and she has since handsomely rewarded him. As to the actual number saved I, of course, do not know, but I do know that it was comparatively few. John W. Thompson, whom I have named, lives now at Fisner’s Switch, Ind. Lieut. Elliot is now living at Indianapolis, Ind. Matthew Wright, the man who went out on the dead man’s name, is now living at Boxytown, Ind. These four men, besides myself, are all the men I think who are living, except Wesley Negley, whom I had almost forgotten.”


This is the second of the three Sultana articles appearing in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat between April 23 and May 6, 1888.  Note that it appears on the 23rd anniversary of the disaster, and talks specifically about a reunion of Sultana survivors being held in Michigan.  One way or the other, this article must be the key event that lead to the publication of the revelations contained in the May 6th article.

There are two possible explanations.  The first is that Streetor saw it and came forward on his own, contacting the paper to tell his story. The Sultana survivors only began meeting about 1885, so it is possible that this was the first notice Streetor had that such a group existed and still memorialized the event.  The second possibility is that Streetor had previously shared his story with others, who when they saw the article contacted the paper and said something like “You really ought to talk to William Streetor about this.”

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 27th, 1888

Sultana Survivors

Reunion at Hillsdale, Mich.

Special Dispatch to the Globe-Democrat

HILLSDALE, MICH., April 26—

Of the eighty survivors of the great Sultana disaster on April 26, 1865, Joseph Stephens, of Buffalo, N.Y., is the most interested in the re-unions of the remnant of persons now surviving that historical casualty. Stephens is one of the veterans not lost on that occasion and takes the deepest interest in the annual gatherings, at which the attendance grows appreciably less each spring. Mr. Stephens formerly lived in this place, and offered last year to pay the expenses of this year’s reunion if held at his old home, which offer was accepted. The reunion is to last two days.

The programme consists of an address of welcome by the Mayor, response by the President of the society, election of officers and the spinning of yarns about the fatal day. The Grand Army veterans here and the Woman’s Relief Society are taking a leading part in the entertainment of the survivors. A banquet will be given tomorrow night. Only half a dozen of the survivors have arrived up to this evening. A fair representation of the total number is looked for to arrive on the late trains tonight and early in the morning. The celebration proper takes place on the second day.

Story of a Survivor

Special Correspondence of the Globe-Democrat.

FORT WAYNE, IND., April 26.

Two veterans of the late war were distinguished yesterday above the many hundreds of their fellow solider-citizens in Forth Wayne, by receiving circular invitations to attend a meeting of the survivors of the explosion on the Mississippi River steamer Sultana, perhaps the most melancholy incident of the rebellion. The survivors have long since formed an association, and the meeting referred to is to take place at Hillsdale, Mich., on Friday, April 27, the twenty-third anniversary of the catastrophe.

The two gentlemen referred to are Louis Schirmeyer, a clothing store clerk, and Geo. H. Fredericks, a fireman on the Wabash Railway. Mr. Schirmeyer was called upon today by a Globe-Democrat representative, and related his personal experience. It was a thrilling tale, and in substance is as follows:

“I was a member of the 32d Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and had been captured at Chickamauga. I was first sent to Libby Prison, then to Pemberton Prison, next to Danville, Va., and finally to Andersonville, where I remained until the war ended. I was then taken to Vicksburg and placed on board the Sultana with 2,100 others, mostly discharged prisoners. The boat stopped at Memphis at 8 o’clock in the evening and many of us went ashore, and an opportunity for drinking was not neglected. A friend of mine had money and I filled up with beer and almost missed the boat, which resumed its course at midnight. In fact, I was the last to cross the gang plank, which was at once drawn in after me.  In the vast crowd it was difficult to find a place to lie down, but I found one on the top-most deck, just in front of the pilot house. Here I fell into a deep sleep. I was awakened by the noise of a terrific explosion of the boilers, and found myself being hurled upward through the air.  I must have gone up 20 or 25 feet. In falling I struck the shattered pilot house. My face was cut and bleeding, and my hair was half singed off by a flame that burst over me. It was a rude awakening. I swung myself down a rope that hung over the boat’s side, and from a perch on the lower deck peered out into the river. The night was moonless, but the flames spread a bright gleam over the swollen stream. Never can I forget that scene. The heads of the people in the water were so numerous that it seemed as if an apple thrown in any direction must have surely hit one of them. Some cursed, some prayed, all cried out for help. Every few minutes a hand would be uplifted helplessly, and the next moment its owner would be swept out of my sight. The flames grew hotter, and approached more nearly. My place of observation could be held but a little longer. To remain would be to burn to death. To jump would be to drown, for I was an indifferent swimmer. The increasing heat decided me.  I sprang into the water. A mattress, which had been thrown from the cabin deck, floated by me. Two Irishmen seized it. I cautioned them not to bear their entire weight upon it, but they gave no heed and were soon sprawled on its top. The mattress became water-soaked and sunk. The two Irishmen sunk with it. Scenes like this were constantly occurring. I paddled on as best I could. At last, when my strength was almost exhausted, I was struck from behind, and turning about, grasped a floating piece of timber that had probably been a deck support. I threw my arms over it, and in an hour had floated into the branches of a tree that overhung the swollen river. I clambered to a place of safety. Four others found places in the tree. Here we remained until daylight, when one of the many boats that had been sent up from Memphis for the relief of the survivors approached near enough to hear our cries. We were lifted on board. I fainted at once. In three days I was able to pursue my journey by another steamer to Cairo, and at Indianapolis I received an ovation and was mustered out.”

Louden Letters

Louden Letters…

Letters written by Robert Louden from Gratiot Street Prison:

November 1, 1863 – letter by Robert Louden to brother Andrew Louden (a POW in Ohio). Louden wrote and spelled well yet used absolutely no punctuation. The letter has been broken into sentences for easier reading. Liz is his sister. Mollie is his daughter. Lulu is his step-daughter. Arthur is his brother-in-law, Arthur C. McCoy.

Gratiot Sr Prison St Louis Nov 1st

Dear Brother

I suppose you have heard of my arrest if you have received any letter from mother or Liz. At all events I was taken prisoner Sept 2nd 1863 in this city and immediately confined in Lynch’s nigger pen on 5th & Mrytle and a ball & chain on my leg. I was kept there 3 weeks and then I moved to this prison, where I have since been kept in close confinement not having even the liberty of the yard. I am in the same room that Mary was in during her imprisonment, what I am charged with, I do not know, and the probability is that I will not find out until I am about to be tried, and that event seems to be further off now than the day I was taken. I would have been over to see you had I not been taken for I was on my way there and only came here to see about Mollie and get Lulu off to the Convent. They had no one to look to for anything but me, for you are aware that Mary was banished last May and is now in Miss. somewhere. I do not know what will become of the children too. Mother wrote to you of the cruel and inhuman way the Fed’s have treated Father. Nothing had been heard of him at the date of the last letter from mother. She was about frantic at his loss and the way they murdered him but you know the old Jewish law and if you ever rejoin your command carry it out to the full letter. Of your treatment I know nothing but hope it has been better than mine, even little Mollie is not permitted to visit me nor have I been allowed to receive a visitor since my arrest. Where Mary is, God only knows. I seen her for a few minutes when she arrived south and since then have not heard from her or about her. I do not know how you are off for clothing but if you need any send me word and I will try and have some sent to you for I have some money due me by parties in town that I can draw if necessary. Aleck & Jim Buist have both deserted and are in the Yankee nation now. The old lady, Mrs. G. comes down occasionally to get my soiled clothes and generally has Mollie with her but Nellie (you remember her) has stuck to me as she always did & was the first one to come and see what I wanted. Arthur is now a major in the C.S.A. and [?] he will fight them on the last half-inch for he has a double duty to perform now, fight for freedom & revenge both. I am in hopes you will soon be exchanged and if you are well of your wound be in the service again. I do not know what mother says to you but she was in hopes you would take the oath and stay at home, poor Mother she has suffered in this war. Father and Jim gone, you and I in prison. I seen Dave Thomson he has recovered entirely from his wound and says he has enough of the war he was in the 79th Regt of New York at Bull Run. Lizzy and he are living in New York now but I understand Liz is in bad health, when you write send my love to them and to Mother. Frank write to me as soon as you can and if I can assist you let me know. Direct to Robert Louden Gratiot St Prison St Louis hoping you have fully recovered.

I remain

Your affectionate brother

Bob


With his execution nearing, Robert Louden wrote the following letter pleading for mercy. The confession of guilt sparked excited articles in St. Louis newspapers saying Louden had confessed all, and that there were many very nervous people in St. Louis, not knowing if Louden had named them or not.

Gratiot Prison

April 29, 1864

Major General W. S. Rosecrans

Comdg Dept of Missouri

Sir

Upon you as Commander of this Department devolve the duty of appointing the sentence of the Military Commission in my case to be carried into effect, and to you in this hour of tribulation I appeal for that mercy in your power to show me an afflicted wife and helpless family join in this prayer to you.

That I have violated the laws of my country I freely and humbly confess and do not seek to extenuate my guilt but I am deeply and truly penitent for all I have done and pray for forgiveness.

An affectionate wife and infant children will be left entirely destitute at my death, my long imprisonment has diminished their scanty resources and deprived entirely of their natural protection I tremble for their future. My aged parents, residing in Philadelphia have not yet received the sad news of my condemnation, although immediately on the first knowledge of it means were taken to inform them and they will make no delay in coming to see me.

I appeal to you then, to intercede in my behalf for the sake of those who will suffer so much by the execution of my sentence, my sufferings will I hope end with death, for though the intercession of our Divine Saviour I trust to be forgiven for all my sins, but at my death the suffering of my innocent family will commence, for their sake then do not turn from the pleading of an humble and penitent offender.

Throwing myself entirely on your mercy and praying that this appeal may not be in vain, but that sympathizing with my own distress and that of my afflicted and heart-broken family you may think proper to recommend my case for Executive clemency, and solemnly pledging never again to transgress the laws of my country but as a true and loyal citizen to devote myself to my family.

I remain, Sir,

With respect, Yours

Robert Louden

Sabotage of the Robert J Campbell

Sabotage of the Robert J. Campbell, Jr….

The Steamer Robert J. Campbell, Jr., destroyed September 28, 1863 by Isaac Elshire, one of the Organized Boat-burners:

Excerpts of a passenger’s account published in Boston:

“I was a passenger on board the steamer Robert Campbell, Jr. I stood upon the boat with four other men until everyman, women and child that was not burnt was overboard, nor did I leave it then until my neck, face and hands commenced to burn… I saw a women rise for the last time, with her two hands raised to Heaven for help. I recognized in her the mother of two children on board; and as she already sunk twice, my resolution was taken either to save her or perish in the attempt. No sooner thought of that I made for her just as she was going to sink. I got her by her clothing and pulled her into the wheel-house and seated her on the paddle. I then commenced to built a raft out of such things that floated near; and those were principally trunks and boxes of clothing… she was raving about her children“her little angels.” It was an awful moment, but not a moment to be spend in idleness. I had already broken up three boxes and lashed them together, but the raft was not needed, for they came to our relief with a boat. When we got on shore we inquired about the children, but they were not found. The little girl was seven years of age, the boy nine. Both were drowned. I held out the hope to her when we were in the wheel-house that her boy was saved. I saw a man take him under his arm, but I did not tell her that I saw a man jump right on his back as he struck the water… I need not dwell on the horrors of that scene; but the tragedy is played, and I have witnessed it all. It will never be forgotten by me. The cries of those women and children, the groaning and bellowing of the 200 cattle on board, are still ringing in my ears… It is not doubted that the burning of the Campbell is one of a series of similar rebel atrocities, and that the perpetrators of this act came on board at Goodrich’s landing, leaving the steamer just before the discovery of the fire, and getting ashore by means of life preservers.”

Known dead of approximately 40 fatalities:

  • David L. Lynch, age 28, son of William A. and Catherine Lynch, former brother-in-law of Mary Louden (her first husband was David Lynch’s older brother William L. Lynch)
  • Assistant Adjt Gen. Lowden, of the 40th Illinois
  • Lt. Warner of the 53rd Illinois
  • Lt. Hopkins of the 40th Illinois
  • two children, boy aged 9, girl aged 7, of Mrs. Cooley of New Orleans

Sabotage of the Ruth

Sabotage of the Ruth…

The Steamer Ruth, destroyed August 5, 1863:

On the night of August 4, 1863, shortly before midnight, after a refueling stop at Cairo, Illinois, the Ruth burned. The Ruth was enroute to Vicksburg with eight Union payroll masters and $2.6 million dollars in army payroll on board. The money was reported destroyed. Twenty-six of the one hundred fifty passengers, military and civilian, were killed. Grimes, in his memoirs, places the blame squarely on Robert Louden. St. Louis Provost Marshal documents also link Louden to the burning of the Ruth. Louden ultimately confessed to destroying the Ruth, was tried and convicted.

From The Missouri Republican, August 6, 1863:

“Ruth burned last night. Crew saved. Twenty-six lives lost. Boat, cargo, books and two million six hundred thousand dollars total loss. One Paymaster and three Paymaster Clerks lost… the flames spread all over the boat in less than five minutes. There  is no satisfactory theory as to how the fire originated. It is believed, however, to have been fired by an incendiary in the interest of the rebel Government.”

Known dead of 26 fatalities:

  • Maj. Theodore D. Greenwaldt, paymaster
  • L. R. Martin, clerk
  • S. G. Sampson, clerk
  • H. C. Fletcher, clerk
  • Frank Oglesby, clerk of the steamer (son of the captain of the Ruth)
  • two negro deck hands
  • a chambermaid
  • colored woman deck passenger
  • One corporal and four privates of Company I, Ninth Wisconsin
  • several passengers

J W Tucker and the Boatburners

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.

James H Baker – Provost Marshal

James H. Baker – Union Provost Marshal

James H. Baker was Union Provost Marshal of St. Louis in 1863, later of the Department of Missouri. In his role as Provost Marshal he pursued, among others, Robert Louden, subject of the article in “North and South” magazine.

Baker was from Minnesota, having served as Secretary of State. He became a Colonel in the 10th Minnesota, later brevet brigadier-general.

Baker in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion

Following are memorial tributes by fellow Minnesotans:


I met General Baker first in the political campaign of 1860. I heard him then make one of the very ablest and most eloquent speeches I had ever listened to, though I had heard speeches by Daniel Webster, Daniel S. Dickinson, William H. Seward, Joshua R. Giddings, Benjamin F. Wade, Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and many other noted orators. I say now, after hearing many speeches delivered by General Baker, that in true eloquence he was the peer of all of them, and in power the superior of all of them, Abraham Lincoln excepted. Once I heard Henry Clay, when I was in my “teens” and Clay was an old man, somewhat enfeebled doubtless by age and disappointment; but the old fire flashed as he “picked his flint and tried it again,”–at any rate, he electro-fired me. When I heard General Baker the first time (and many times after), the image of Henry Clay came before me like a flash.


James Heaton Baker, son of Rev. Henry Baker, a Methodist preacher, and Hannah (Heaton) Baker, was born in Monroe, Ohio, May 6, 1829. He graduated at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1852. In 1853 he purchased the Sciota Gazette, at Chillicothe, Ohio. In 1855 he was elected secretary of state on the ticket headed by Salmon P. Chase as governor. In 1857 he removed to Minnesota, where, for two successive terms he was elected to the same office. At the outbreak of the Civil War he resigned, and accepted a colonel’s commission in the Tenth Minnesota Volunteers. In 1863 his command was ordered to the South, and he was detached and made provost marshal of St. Louis, and subsequently of the department of Missouri, in which position he served until the close of the war, he being meanwhile promoted to a brevet brigadier generalship.

At the close of the war he was appointed register of the land office at Booneville, Missouri, but in two years resigned and returned to his farm in Blue Earth county, Minnesota.

In 1871 President Grant appointed him commissioner of pensions, a position for which he was singularly well fitted. He resigned in 1875, and was appointed by President Grant surveyor general of Minnesota. Gen. Baker has been prominent in Masonic circles, and has contributed much to the newspaper and periodical press. He was married Sept. 25, 1852, to Rose, daughter of Reuben H. Thurston, then of Delaware, Ohio, now of Mankato, Minnesota. This estimable lady died at Washington City, March 21, 1873, leaving two sons, Arthur and Harry E. Gen. Baker, since his appointment as surveyor general, has resided at Mankato. He served in 1885 and 1886 as railroad commissioner for the State.


General James H. Baker, a life member of the Minnesota Historical Society, died at his home in the City of Mankato in this state on May 25, 1913.

General Baker was born in Monroe, Butler county, Ohio, on the 6th day of May, 1829. He was the son of Henry Baker, M. D., and Hannah Heaton Baker. In his youth he attended the Firnian Academy at Middletown, Ohio, and later the Ohio Wesleyan University. For a period of time he edited the Sciota Gazette at Chillicothe, Ohio, it then being the oldest newspaper in the state. He served as Secretary of State of Ohio from 1854 to 1856, when Salmon P. Chase was Governor of that State. In 1857 he came to Minnesota, and shortly thereafter located with his family in Blue Earth County.

He was elected Secretary of State in 1859 and again in 1861. In 1862 he was commissioned, by Governor Alexander Ramsey, to be Colonel of the Tenth Minnesota Volunteers, then being recruited for service in the War of the Rebellion. He served with his regiment the first year in the campaign against the Sioux Indians, and in the fall of 1863 with his regiment went South. At the close of the war General Baker was appointed Commissioner of Pensions, and afterward Surveyor General for Minnesota. In 1881 he was elected State Railway Commissioner, in which office he served two terms.

For a time General Baker was the editor and proprietor of the Mankato Free Press. A goodly portion of his life in Blue Earth county was spent on a beautiful farm owned by him near Rapidan, where he personally engaged in agriculture, in which he was always much interested and very progressive.

General Baker was always much interested in the early history of Minnesota, and was never more at home than at the meetings of the old settlers of his county and state. He was pre-eminently a social man, an easy, fluent, and very interesting conversationalist, and hospitable to a fault. He was never more happy than when surrounded by his friends whom he always delighted to entertain.

He was a consistent attendant and supporter of the Methodist Church, and also belonged to the Masonic Order, as well as the Elks, the Grand Army of the Republic, and the Loyal Legion.

He was a power to be reckoned with in politics, and his influence was always felt in the civic and social life of the community in which he lived, and always for the betterment of conditions and of humanity in particular. The life of General Baker stands out as one of pronounced individuality, and of great strength of purpose.

On September 25, 1851, he was married to Rose Lucia Thurston at Delaware, Ohio, who died March 20, 1873. On December 23, 1879, he was married to Miss Zula Bartlett, who survives him and now resides in the homestead in Mankato.
General Baker was away in beautiful Glenwood Cemetery in Mankato. His funeral was held on Wednesday, May 28, 1913, being largely attended.


The late General James H. Baker was a man of many splendid talents. Eminent as he was as an orator, warrior, and statesman, he also possessed rare talents as an author. His numerous and valuable historical and biographical contributions found in the publications of this Society attest this fact. Among these papers are “History of Lake Superior,” “The Sources of the Mississippi River,” “Transportation in Minnesota,” and “The Lives of the Governors of Minnesota.” All these writings show great research and a masterly selection and presentation of the mass of material their author was always able to discover.

The general had a very acute mind and retentive memory, and his long life spanned one of the most eventful periods of the world’s history; and so far as this related to the “Middle West” of our own country, he had a personal acquaintance with most of the great men and a personal touch with most of the big events which went to make up that history. Hence the ease with which General Baker could always command the right material and infuse into it the very life and atmosphere it had when it was the actual reality.

Besides the very unique relation he bore to the people and the times concerning which he wrote, the general had a remarkable command of the English language and a fervid literary spirit, which gave force, fitness, and finish to every sentence he penned. His style is never dull nor florid, but always elegant, incisive, and vigorous.

His monograph on “The Sources of the Mississippi” is a valuable contribution to geographic knowledge, and it dealt a mortal blow to certain theories as to the head of the great river once in vogue. His “History of Lake Superior” did much to call attention to the world’s greatest waterway and the world’s greatest iron mines. “The Lives of the Governors of Minnesota,” forming Volume XIII of this Society’s Historical Collections, written at the eventide of our author’s life, is a fitting climax to his literary activity, being truly a great work, which will grow in worth and importance as the years go by.

Mighty was he with tongue, sword, and pen, and his passing removes from our midst one of our greatest and best citizens.

Absalom Grimes Bio

Grimes was a steamboat pilot on the upper Mississippi river at the outbreak of the war. Refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States suddenly required to renew pilot’s licenses, Grimes left the river and waited, expecting that in a few weeks the “secession disturbance would be settled.” Grimes’ own family was Union, his mother saying she had to leave her home in Ralls County because of the animosity of her pro-secession neighbors to her views. At least one of Grimes’ brothers enlisted in the Union army. Many others of his relatives, aunts and cousins, aided him in his mail smuggling at great personal risk and cost. The family of his fiancée, Lucy Glascock, was also pro-Confederate. Their wartime romance become famous.

Grimes first joined an irregular Missouri State Guard unit in Ralls County, Missouri. Sam Clemens, later famous as author Mark Twain, was a lieutenant in the “Ralls County Rangers.” Twain’s version of the adventures of this unit leans more to the serious side than the version Grimes told. (these hyperlinks take you to another site–use your back button to return here). A Twain biographer gives more credence for accuracy to Grimes’ version. Grimes later joined the 1st Missouri Cavalry CSA as a private and was captured near Springfield, Missouri. He escaped while being sent from Myrtle Street Prison in St. Louis to Alton Prison in Illinois.

Before returning south to join his unit, Grimes decided to gather up letters from Missouri families to carry with him, thus establishing himself in his wartime career, becoming “Official Confederate Mail Carrier”, with a commission as a major, for General Sterling Price’s army. Grimes was captured several times but acquired a reputation as an escape artist, once by escaping from the guardhouse at Cairo, Illinois, then from Gratiot Street Prison in St. Louis while chained in close confinement and under heavy guard.

Excerpts from Grimes’ memoirs telling of his escapes from Gratiot

(this hyperlink takes you to another site–use your back button to return here–the site has very loud music on it, you may wish to mute your audio before following the link)

The next time the Federals arrested him they were very serious about holding on to him and several escape attempts failed.

A letter from Grimes to Lucy Glascock written from prison, Dec. 1863

In the last attempt to escape from Gratiot in June of 1864, shortly before Grimes was scheduled to be hanged as a Rebel spy, two men were killed and Grimes was shot and seriously injured. This ended both his escape attempts and wartime career. Grimes was spared execution through the influence of Union friends, eventually being given a full pardon by President Lincoln.

Grimes married Lucy Glascock in March of 1865. They had seven children together but only two–Hudson D. Grimes and Lottie Grimes Mitchell–survived to adulthood. Grimes returned to river piloting, then into other careers, including the ownership of a hotel. He also owned a hunting resort in Lincoln County, Missouri. A few years after Lucy’s death in 1903, Grimes remarried to a younger woman named Nell Tauke. Grimes died in March of 1911.

A. C. Grimes obituary

Shortly before his death, at daughter Lottie’s insistence, Grimes wrote his memoirs. It’s likely he never intended the memoirs to see publication, and they weren’t published until 1926. The story he tells is true, though contains many errors in dating and sequence of events, but also contains considerable omissions. Grimes was far more deeply associated with the Confederate secret service agents operating under General Price than he says in his book. Still, the book is a fascinating story of the War in Missouri and along the Mississippi River.