Sabotage of the Sultana – Boatburners in Official Records

Sabotage of the Sultana…

The Boat-burners in the Official Records:


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,


[this documents the solicitation of funds by Tucker for the boat-burners as early as the siege of Vicksburg]



Little Rock, August 18, 1863.

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VI. Thomas E. Courtenay, esq., is, by direction of the lieutenant-general commanding the Trans. Mississippi Department, authorized to enlist a secret-service corps, not exceeding 20 men, to be employed by him, subject to the orders of the district commander.

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By command of Major-General Price:


Assistant Adjutant-General

[Thomas E. Courtenay was the inventor of the Courtenay Torpedo that Louden claimed to have used to destroy the Sultana. Courtenay had been sheriff of St. Louis County shortly before the war and business partner of St. Louis mayor John M. Wimer. Wimer was the last president of the Liberty Fire Company of which Robert Louden was a member.]


Saint Louis, October 5, 1863.

Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,
General-in-Chief, Washington, D.C.:

GENERAL: The continued destruction of steamboats, by fire, on these waters is assuming a very alarming feature. Unquestionably there is an organized band of incendiaries, members of which are stationed at every landing. It is a current report here that the Confederate Government has secretly offered a large reward for the destruction of our steamers. Already some fourteen first-class boats have been burned, and this is equivalent to 10 per cent. of the whole river transportation. Increase of watchmen and extra vigilance do not seem to arrest this insidious enemy. The incendiary, when it serves his purpose, becomes one of the crew, and thus secures himself from detection. I apprehend that there are disloyal men in disguise in the employ of every steamer, and it will be difficult to eliminate them. General Schofield is alive to the importance of some extra official action. What would you advise?

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Chief Quartermaster

[The first reported act of boat-burning by sabotage was reported about two years before this letter. There may have been earlier acts but they were not recognized as sabotage as they initially had difficulty in determining which boats burned by sabotage and which burned as a normal course of operations. Steamboats were notoriously flammable, yet there had been non-war years in which no steamboats were lost to fire so the pattern of destruction during the war was recognized fairly soon.]


A Union spy report discussing Louden, Tucker, and the boat-burners:

Memphis, Tenn., January 2, 1864.

Col. J. C. KELTON,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Hdqrs. of the Army, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: I have the honor of forwarding to the General-in-Chief statements of one of my agents just from Mobile. I think them accurate, and so submit them.

Your obedient servant,




DECEMBER 31, 1863.

Force at Mobile, two regiments home-guard exempts, Cantey’s brigade cavalry, one battalion light artillery, heavy artillerists to man the batteries, two battalions marines, wooden steam-vessels of war Gaines and Morgan (twelve guns each, 30-pounder smooth-bores); ram Baltic (unwieldy, one Blakely, two light columbiads, two brass pivot Parrotts); Huntsville and Tuscaloosa (four 30-pounders each on both sides, 11-inch Brooke on pivot in bow, and 11-inch Blakely on pivot astern, plated 4-inch slab-iron); two floating batteries (four square sides, plated railroad iron, armed like last two named vessels, but armament not all in): ram Tennessee (screw propeller, 11 knots, three thicknesses slab-iron, 9-inch oak, 14 of pine, armament to be two 10-inch columbiads on larboard and starboard; one large Brooke gun in bow on pivot, three ports and one in stern; very formidable craft afloat, and to take in armament outside the bar). No heavy guns mounted on north and few on west side of the city in the fortifications; eight batteries heavy artillery line the harbor entrance; a new fort being erected at Grant’s Pass, under cover of gun-boats; shells of the fleet pass over Fort Morgan. Steam tug Boston to go on piratical cruise (one 3-inch Parrott and one 12-pounder howitzer). In case of attack re-enforcements to come down Mobile and Ohio Railroad from Enterprise and Meridian; at former place 3,000 paroled prisoners. French’s division having gone to Georgia four weeks ago; at latter point decimated Missouri brigade, captured [at] Vicksburg. Polk’s command consists of Loring’s corps, in winter quarters at Canton, and Jackson’s division of cavalry, out toward Big Black.

On 24th one brigade of cavalry started to march toward Grenada. Same day cavalry at Panola marched northward. Railroad bridge over Pearl River being reconstructed; trains on Meridian road run to Brandon and the river; on Mississippi Central, Grenada to 12 miles of Jackson. Bridge over Yallabusha not being rebuilt, and one locomotive north running between Panola and Grenada. Force under Polk probably be sent to Georgia; infantry, estimated, 5,000; Hardee’s effective, 32,000; Johnston to assume command..Three or four light batteries, breech-loading 3-pounders, to fire incendiary shell, to operate along river about Austin. Steam-boat burners under J. W. Tucker, Mobile; agents all over the river; principal disbursing agent, Major Pleasants, at Senatobia. Drafts and checks to pay-agents paid in Memphis and Saint Louis. At latter point man named Hedenberg, in Homeyer’s commission house, concerned somehow. Informer, an old dealer named Prescott, went out Christmas week to Elam’s, 12 miles on Holly Ford road, probably on this business. Parties concerned frequently come near the lines of Memphis and return south. Cotton brought into Memphis to raise funds for secret agents. Gaines one of the burners, and probably Loudon. Forrest to be maintained north of Memphis and Charleston Railroad, if possible; if not, to operate on Mississippi River below. Headquarters Chalmers’ brigade always to be Oxford; Ferguson’s, Verona or Okolona. A regiment for picket kept at Coldwater depot and crossing. Detached commands and new organizations to form at Panola. Kentucky Faulkner has 1,200 men (three regiments), one-third only armed and equipped. Forrest’s force, fairly estimated, 3,000, inclusive of Faulkner. Logan’s cavalry, of Jackson’s division, to operate on the New Orleans and Jackson Railroad. A large side-wheeler, the Nashville, at Mobile; has engines in and is being plated; wheels protected by compressed cotton; will be the finest of the fleet when completed.

[Louden had been arrested in St. Louis not long before this report. The information on him being in Memphis may have dated to his last trip through that city.]


Report of Rear-Admiral Porter, U. S. Navy, transmitting captured letters referring to the institution of torpedo service. Captured letter by Thomas E. Courtenay follows Porter’s report:MISSISSIPPI SQUADRON, FLAGSHIP BLACK HAWK,

Alexandria, La., March 20, 1864.

SIR: I have the honor to enclose you some rebel correspondence which was captured by the gunboat Signal a day or two since, while the rebel mail carrier was crossing the river. It gives a complete history of the rebel torpedoes, the machine that blew up the Housatonic, and the manner in which it was done. They have just appointed a torpedo corps (I send one of the commissions) for the

purpose of blowing up property of all kinds. Amongst other devilish inventions is a torpedo resembling a lump of coal, to be placed in coal piles and amongst the coal put on board vessels. The names of the parties are all mentioned in the correspondence, and I send a photograph of one of them, which, if multiplied and put in the hands of detectives, may be of service.

I have given orders to commanders of vessels not to be very particular about the treatment of any of these desperadoes if caught only summary punishment will be effective. I trust that we will be prepared to avoid any of their machines.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,




Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.


RICHMOND, VA., January 19, 1864.

MY DEAR COLONEL: I hope you have received all my letters. I wrote two to Mobile, one to Columbus, and two to Brandon, [Miss.]. I now send this by a party who is going to Shreveport and promised to learn your whereabouts, so as to forward it to you.

I have met with much delay and annoyance since you left. The castings have all been completed some time, and the coal is so perfect that the most critical eye could not detect it. The President thinks them perfect, but Mr. Seddon will do nothing without Congressional action, so I have been engaged for the last two weeks in getting up a bill that will cover my case; at last it has met his approval and will to-day go to the Senate, thence to the House in secret session. It provides that the Secretary of War shall have the power to organize a secret-service corps, commission, enlist, and detail parties, who shall retain former rank and pay; also give such compensation as he may deem fit, not exceeding 50 per cent, for property partially and totally destroyed; also to advance, when necessary, out of the secret-service fund, money to parties engaging to injure the enemy.

[portion deleted]

Your friend,