The Boat-Burners

Many of the articles on this page are supplements to the article, "Sultana: A Case for Sabotage" published in Vol. 5, Issue 1 of North & South magazine, providing documentation, and additional discussion, for some of the information cited in the sixty-one footnotes in the article.

During the Civil War years over sixty Union steamboats were destroyed by Confederate sabotage on the Mississippi River and in the surrounding area. Thousands of lives—Union soldiers, civilian men, women, and children—were lost when these steamers were destroyed.

Destruction of the steamer Sultana:


"...the result of no accident, but of fiendish design, and locates with much particularity the boss dynamiter and murderer of the age."

St. Louis Globe-Democrat

May 6, 1888

Among the steamboats destroyed on the Mississippi River, the one with the largest single loss of life was the steamer Sultana. The boat had been loaded with over 2000 people, most of them Union POWs returning from Southern prison camps. When the Sultana exploded and burned, as many as 1800 people were killed—as many Union soldiers died on the river that night as died on the battlefield of Shiloh. With them died a number of women, children, and civilian men.

Sheer numbers are what make the Sultana stand out from the other steamboats destroyed on the river during the war years. People died on the other steamers, too, yet their lives, and deaths, have been virtually forgotten. They merit remembrance as much as do the victims on the steamer Sultana. These web pages will have a great deal of material relating to the Sultana, but will also provide information on the other known steamboats destroyed and the people connected with them.

 Sabotage of the Sultana...

"Seven miles out of Memphis, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, the steamer Sultana chugged northward loaded with over twenty-three hundred people, most of them Union soldiers returning home from southern prison camps. Without warning, an explosion ripped through the boilers, scalding steam burst out, and a shower of flaming coal shot upward into the night, raining down on the crowded boat, which in moments was engulfed in flames. Over seventeen hundred people died, making the destruction of the Sultana a maritime disaster worse than the sinking of the Titanic."

excerpt from "The Sultana: A Case for Sabotage"

available in issue 5.1 of North & South magazine

Documentation and Supporting Evidence for "The Sultana: A Case for Sabotage":

Baker's list of boat-burners with part of Frazor's confession

Louden Letters Written from Gratiot Street Prison, Louden confesses his guilt, and promises revenge

St. Louis articles on the Sultana survivors that led to the Streetor/Louden article

Memphis Daily Appeal article, May 8, 1888

St. Louis Globe-Democrat article May 6, 1888

Survivor Wiley J. Hodges remembrance


Comment on sabotage by survivor Samuel H. Raudebaugh

J. W. Tucker and the Boat-burners (with Tucker's letter to Jefferson Davis)

Boat-burners in the Official Records

The White Cloud Incident: The Curious Connection Between Robert Louden and James Cass Mason, Captain of the Sultana

The Sabotage Scenario How the scene at Memphis may have played out

Gene Eric Salecker, author of "Disaster on the Mississippi"offers his rebuttal to the article "Sultana: A Case For Sabotage" from North & South magazine, by D. H. Rule

The Steamer Ruth Another steamboat destroyed by Robert Louden

The Steamer Robert J. Campbell, Jr. Destroyed by Louden associate Isaac Elshire

Hell and Maria by G. E. Rule, Explosion of Steamer Maria near St. Louis so terrible it spawned the river phase "Hell and Maria". Another boiler explosion, like the Sultana, quite likely caused by the Boat-burners with a Courtenay Torpedo. - new April 16, 2002

The Confederate Secret Service Attack on the St. Louis Levee, September, 1864 by John B. Castleman

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 new February 19, 2003

Related pages on Civil War St. Louis:

Gratiot Street Prison

Gratiot Prisoner lists (Louden is on List #1)

Cross Purposes (on the Northwest conspiracy)

People in the article:

Absalom C. Grimes (Louden's wartime mail smuggling partner)

Arthur C. McCoy (Louden's brother-in-law, captain under Gen JO Shelby)

J. H. Baker (Provost Marshal hunting Louden)

George E. Leighton (Provost Marshal who thought Louden a most dangerous spy)

The Minute Men by Thomas L. Snead (Louden and McCoy were Minute Men)

Books on the Sultana and Confederate secret service operations

Courtenay Torpedo

the coal bomb

More on Thomas E. Courtenay and the Courtenay Torpedo (this is at a website by a descendant)


































































Sabotage has been suspected in the destruction of the Sultana since the very beginning. However, the three government commissions failed to do any in-depth investigation into the matter. The explosion was somewhat indecisively credited to a number of causes ranging from accident to negligence while the investigations focused primarily on responsibility for there being so many people loaded on the boat. The article, "The Sultana: A Case for Sabotage," published in North & South magazine looks at the possibility that the Sultana was destroyed by sabotage; the first time, to my knowledge, that there has been credible evidence of sabotage investigated in 136 years. And that evidence points solidly toward confessed boat-burner Robert Louden.

The article came about not as a result of research into the Sultana itself. The Sultana was an ending place, not a starting point. My research was into the Civil War in St. Louis for a book on Gratiot Street Prison. A primary source of information on Gratiot is found in the memoirs of Absalom C. Grimes, a Confederate agent, spy, and mail carrier who spent considerable time in Gratiot. As part of Grimes' tale of his adventures up and down the Mississippi River during the war, he talks about his smuggling partner, a boat-burner named Robert Louden.

Grimes' book is scanty on details about Louden and his life. Louden's wife and children are never mentioned (though Grimes very clearly knew them), and little of Louden's background is given other than mention that Louden had been a volunteer fireman in the Liberty Fire Company. Grimes wrote his memoirs late in life at his daughter's urging and—in keeping with the code of silence of Confederate secret service operatives—withheld a great deal of pertinent information about Louden and other agents. Robert Louden, however, was integral to Grimes' personal adventure story and so couldn't be avoided completely. Thanks in large part to Absalom Grimes' memoirs, Robert Louden remained as a faintly known historical figure.

The clues in Grimes' book, and several years of research tracking tiny clues, led to Louden's story. When researching a person, as I was Louden, there's a sense of wanting to make that person into a sympathetic character—to have that person be a good protagonist with some redeeming characteristics. Other than seeming to be fond of his family (and definitely defensive of them), I failed to find redeeming qualities in Robert Louden. He was cold, calculating, manipulative, and in many ways purely wicked. But he was also intelligent, fearless, and relentless. These traits made for a lethal combination.

At a point in my research, while discussing my material with another researcher, Jane Singer (she's doing work on eastern Confederate agents), she mentioned having read in Jerry O. Potter's book, "The Sultana Tragedy," that a "Robert Lowden," alias "Charles Dale," had been accused of sabotaging the Sultana in a contemporary newspaper article. I didn't give it a great deal of weight at the time as I was sure Louden had been accused of a great many things—he was a known agent and known boat-burner. The Sultana had been so thoroughly researched that I really didn't think there would be anything new to discover.

I was wrong. There was much yet to find.

As soon as I got a copy of Potter's book, I turned immediately to the page mentioning "Robert Lowden" and got quite a shock. The mention of Louden (or Lowden) wasn't the surprise. The surprise was in seeing who had made the claim that Louden was the saboteur of the Sultana. The accuser was a man named William C. Streetor... and I knew who he was, and that he was a very credible source. Streetor was a Union man, assistant keeper and chief clerk of Gratiot Street Prison, the prison in which Louden had been held during the war. He was also a painter who had worked after the war with Robert Louden. Streetor was a Union man of high character, well-respected in St. Louis. To tell such a tale to Sultana survivors was not something such a man, a fellow Union veteran, would do had it not come from a deep belief that it was true. Streetor was far from being the "crank and publicity seeker" one Sultana book dismissed him as being.

My husband (G. E. Rule, called "Geo") became a convert to my research project when I—somewhat excitedly—explained the connection of Streetor to Louden, and has since helped with the research on trips to the National Archives in Washington, D. C., to St. Louis, Missouri, and in no longer fussing over me spending $34 each on rolls of microfilm (over 30 rolls so far—research is not cheap), as well as countless books, articles, etc. etc. Geo has focused on the political aspects of the search, finding and documenting numerous connections between the boat-burners to the Copperhead organizations, to the Missouri Confederate leadership, and to the Confederate government. A number of the pages elsewhere on Civil War St. Louis are the result of his research.

The first step in testing whether there was any validity to Streetor's claim that Louden had destroyed the Sultana was to get the original article cited in Potter's book. The article from the Memphis Daily Appeal is on-line here. This article, from 1888, is known due to the work of the Sultana researchers focusing their work in Memphis. As this is where the disaster took place, it is, naturally, the area where the search for information has focused. This article was—to my eye—very flawed and incomplete. Yet everything in the article pointed to a place not before researched as relating to the Sultana disaster:  St. Louis, Missouri.

This website is called "Civil War St. Louis" and that was my focus and base of knowledge.

        Sultana's homeport was St. Louis.

        James Cass Mason, captain of the Sultana, was from St. Louis.

        Mason's wife and her family were prominent in the St. Louis area.

        Robert Louden was from St. Louis.

        William C. Streetor was from St. Louis.

        Courtenay, inventor of the coal torpedo, was from St. Louis

        Tucker, head of the boat-burners, was from St. Louis.

                ...and they all had connections to each other

Memphis was just a stop on Sultana's trip, as were New Orleans and Vicksburg. The answers were all in St. Louis. Sultana herself, Mason the captain, Louden, and Streetor all had ties and links that went far deeper, and were far more involved, than a single act on a horrible night on the river near Memphis.

It's my opinion, after having done the research, that it would be profoundly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for a researcher taking the Sultana as a starting point to reach the information I have. So thoroughly is the story of Louden, Streetor, and the sabotage of the Sultana entrenched in St. Louis and the secret side of that city during the war, that the links that stood out so clearly to me from the St. Louis end are all but invisible from the Memphis end.

The first draft of the Sultana article had been written, submitted, and accepted by North & South magazine, and reviewed by such noted historians as James O. Hall (who found the case credible and offered suggestions as to other angles to investigate) before we found the St. Louis version of the Streetor/Louden 1888 article. It may seem that the research would have been an easy task with all the information that article contains, but remember no one knew that article existed. It had become lost to history, yet we surmised that a St. Louis version of the article must exist and that the Memphis Daily Appeal article was based on it. Yet we had no idea how great the difference between the articles was.

With great thanks to Dennis Northcott of the Missouri Historical Society who found the St. Louis article for us (he also knew who Streetor was—the Missouri Historical Society has Streetor's Civil War drum in its collection), we saw confirmation of many things we had already found, or had surmised through reconstructing other clues (such as I had decided that Louden must have made his confession to Streetor while drunk as I had a good bit of evidence that Louden was very much inclined toward spending time in saloons). What we didn't find in the article was one thing I had hoped to find, some sense of contrition from Louden for his acts. But there wasn't any. If anything he sounds boastful. And Streetor— who had been part of the Union law enforcement that had been stopped hours before they had been about to hang Louden in 1864—Streetor sounds somewhat bitter. It's no surprise, and probably no coincidence, that Louden left St. Louis very shortly after his confession about sabotaging the Sultana.

D. H. Rule

(Deb Houdek Rule)


©2001-2007 D. H. Rule

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