Sabotage of the Maria – Hell and Maria

Sabotage of the Maria…

“Hell and Maria”


G. E. Rule

Way's Packet DirectoryWay’s Packet Directory

by Fredrick Way, Jr.

Courtenay Torpedo

the coal bomb

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

When your name gets memorialized by generations of rivermen (see “Ways”, entry #3744) with “Hell and” in front of it, something bad indeed has happened. Dec 11, 1864, at Carondelet, Mo, the steamer Maria, carrying parts of two Union cavalry regiments, entered river lore with this dubious distinction.

Lying at the landing, making moderate steam, her boilers blew at the forward (furnace) end, and at least 25 people, mostly Union soldiers, lost their lives. She had left St. Louis, after coaling, the night before. The front end of the furnace was destroyed, burning coal shot out starting a fire, the deck above crashed down onto the boilers, and men slid down onto the partially destroyed furnace. The engineer on duty swore that there was plenty of water and no excess of steam. Within half an hour she was a mass of flames, eventually burning to the waterline. At least some members of the crew were convinced that “some fiend has placed a shell, or other explosive missive, among the coal used for fuel, which was thrown into the furnace and produced the disaster”.

Sound familiar? The similarities to Sultana are striking, with none of the risk factors that have lead many to doubt that sabotage was the cause of Sultana’s demise. No overloading, no reports of careening, no excessively muddy lower Mississippi water, no recently repaired boiler. Indeed, Maria and her boilers were only on their third trip since being built. This would be enough use to prove their soundness, while not yet having sustained significant wear.

Like Sultana, Maria was a commercial steamer in government employ, carrying Union troops and supplies when she was destroyed. Also like Sultana, she had coaled at a port known to have an active and effective Confederate secret service/OAK presence.

Was it a Courtenay Torpedo that destroyed Maria? While it may never be known for sure, it certainly must be considered a prime possibility. The report that one of the victims was “confident he smelled burning powder” at the time of the explosion, combined with the circumstances, the damage to the boilers and furnace, and the crew’s reports, strongly suggests that Maria may indeed have been another successful operation of the “organized boat-burners”.

While the death count was reported the day after the disaster at twenty-five, by the descriptions of the injuries, it is likely that within a few days that count was significantly higher. Luckily for the Union troops on board, she was lying at the landing at Carondelet when the explosion occurred. The account below makes clear that the loss of life would have been much worse if she had been underway –as a saboteur slipping a Courtenay Torpedo in her bins at St. Louis would have expected– when the explosion occurred.

It is interesting to note that Maria does not appear on any of the lists prepared by J.H. Baker, Provost Marshal General of the Department of the Missouri. For whatever reason, Baker relied on the distinction, explicitly made, of “owned in St. Louis” in making his lists of boats he suspected were sabotaged. Maybe because that was his area of responsibility, or maybe because the owners were right there to complain bitterly to him about their losses. At any rate, Maria, a Cincinnati-owned boat, may have been left off his lists for this reason.

We will continue to work on uncovering the story of Maria. . .a boat and disaster that today, in spite of her adding to the store of river expletives, is practically unknown. Since this story has been practically lost, we’ve included the complete text of the article, including the casualty list, for those who may be searching for family history. The details of the explosion and theories as to its cause can mostly be found in the second paragraph and below the casualty list, and have been marked in bold that did not appear in the original.

Missouri Republican

Dec. 12, 1864



The Boat Blown Up and Burned.

Some Twenty-five Lives Lost.

About 7 o’clock Sunday morning, the steamboat Maria, loaded with Government troops, horses, mules, wagons, etc, was blown up while lying at the landing at Carondelet, and afterwards burned to the water’s edge. About 6 o’clock Saturday evening, the Maria, Lillie Martin, and the Ella Faber, having on board a considerable number of cavalry, principally belonging to the 3rd Iowa and the 4th Missouri cavalry, left the levee at St. Louis, and dropped down to Carondelet, about seven miles below, where they were lying when the disaster took place –the Maria between the other two. She had on board Col. Benteen, commanding brigade, with his staff and escort, Col. B. S. Jones, 3rd Iowa cavalry, a portion of his command, and detached troops, amounting in all to about one hundred men, besides the crew of the boat, en route for Cairo. She had no freight, except 200 sacks oats, 40 bales of hay, one ambulance, nine army wagons, about sixty four mules, and one hundred and twenty horses, with the necessary equipments.

The explosion, by whatever means caused, threw the forward end of the boilers apart, landing them on the deck, without disturbing the after ends, and dashed the front of the furnaces and a quantity of burning coal forward, setting fire to bales of hay, twelve of which only were on deck, the remainder, with the oats, being in the hold. At the moment the explosion took place, the floor of the cabin was burst up, and falling back, precipitated a number of the soldiers down upon the boilers and burning wreck. The office floor also gave way, carrying with it the first clerk, Mr. W. B. Dravo, of Pittsburgh, Pa., together with the safe and other contents of the office. Mr. Dravo fell upon one of the boilers, and is burned in the hands and feet, and scalded about his face, arms and body generally. He is seriously, though not dangerously injured, and is well cared for on board the steamer Bertram, laid up at Carondelet. Jerry Fowler, steward of the Maria, is on the Bertram, having severely injured his ankle by jumping from the boat after she had taken fire. A negro deck hand was struck on the head by some missile, besides being severely burned by the coal thrown on him as he stood at the furnace. He died about noon. With these exceptions, none of the boat’s crew was injured.

The names of the soldiers injured and missing belonging to the 3rd Iowa cavalry are:

Lieut. C.L. Hartman, co. F, burned in side and hip severely.

Sergt. James Pain, co. B, burned in hands and face severely.

John Balbach, co. H, in hands and chest severely.

Chas. M. Hume, co. A, one leg broken and the other badly crushed.

A. L. Curtis, co. H, leg bruised slightly.

Francis E. Robb, co. F, hands and hip burned severely.

W.W. Blair, co. H, breast and head burned slightly.

J. Famulener, co. H, foot burned severely.

O. B. Parker, co. H, legs and arms burned severely.

Bazel Gurwell, co. H, burned severely.

James Owens, co. H, wounded slightly.

David Hurlbert, co. H, wounded slightly.

James W. McCormick, co. F, shoulder dislocated.

Volney Henry, co. G, hand and leg burned slightly.

Sergeant Perry Newell, Bugler Jacob C. Boone, and privates Martin Sigler, J.W. Vandeventer, co. H, and Jacob Worley, co. E, are all missing, and supposed to be dead.

Patrick McCormick, co. F, 10th Missouri, is badly burned in the hands and face.

J.W. Frank, co. D, 4th Iowa, has both legs broken.

Patrick Highland, co. E, 3rd New Jersey, badly burned on the legs, one hand and face.

Coleman, a negro servant of Col. Benteen, was severely burned, and Dick, a negro belonging to the 4th Iowa, was badly burned and otherwise hurt, and is dead.

When the Maria left St. Louis, she was in advance of the Ella Faber, who had aboard men recently belonging to the 4th Missouri cavalry. Eight of the men of this regiment, left behind, got on board the Maria. Two only of those are known to have got off unhurt. What has become of the others is not known. It seems to be thought they may have come up to the city on the cars, immediately after the disaster occurred. Fourteen of the privates of this regiment have been reported “absent without leave,” among whom are those who went down to Carondelet on the Maria. Their names are Kirber, company B, Henipke and Hengel, company D; Ahrens, Gerhardt and Mitzger, company H; Arntman, Gieber, Heicleman and Thoma, company G; Hetzel, Schneider and Sonbauers, company K, and Schlepper, company M. Their officers seem to think these men safe and “straggling”.

Of the freight on board nothing was saved except two horses and two or three mules, which broke their halters and managed to get ashore. The soldiers lost all their arms and equipments, except a few who had their side arms on when the disaster occurred. Several of them did not even save a suit of clothes. The officers and men of the boat’s crew lost everything, except a portion of their clothing in three or four trunks saved. Everything belonging to the boat was lost. Col. Benteen lost a fine mare, valued at $1,000, and a horse worth $500. Had the disaster occurred with the boat under way, every soul on board must have perished, as the water was so intensely cold that no one could have remained in it any length of time without perishing. A number of mules that got into the water perished among the floating ice, on account of the cold chilling them before they could swim out.

Immediately after the accident occurred, the Lillie Martin, which had steam up, fell down and took off the men on board on the after part of the boat, and also three ladies. Col. Jones, his Surgeon and other officers and men of the 3rd Iowa, speak in high terms in praise of Capt. John Hare, of the Lillie Martin, for his promptitude in rendering assistance, and for the generous treatment rendered the wounded men conveyed on board his boat.

In half an hour after the explosion, the boat was a mass of flame, allowing time to save nothing but the load of human life aboard. As the flames got well under way, it was stated there was a quantity of ammunition in the hold. To avoid the danger that would result from its explosion, Mr. Andrew Acker, second mate, cut the cable with an axe, and let her loose. The high wind prevailing from the west, drove her out into the river, and she floated off, the hull lodging about two miles below, at the point of the island. It turned out there was no ammunition on board.

All the officers spoken to, excepting the first clerk, are very positive there was no explosion of the boilers, or of the flues. The second engineer says he had examined the water a few minutes before, and found it in plenty. The steam was only up to 115 pounds, while the boilers were capable of carrying 145, with safety. The second mate had been on the watch, and had just retired to the room of the Texas. When the explosion took place, some body was projected upward through the Texas, and he is confident he smelt burning powder. The mate of the Ella Faber, lying a few rods below, at first thought the noise produced was that of a cannon discharged to the west of where his boat lay, while the Maria was directly North. A person on the Lillie Martin, lying a few rods above, mistook the sound for the discharge of a cannon, signaling the three boats to cast off. No one says he observed steam, as would have been produced, had the boilers exploded. They, therefore, have come to the conclusion that some fiend has placed a shell, or other explosive missive, among the coal used for fuel, which was thrown into the furnace and produced the disaster.

The only evidence to rebut this conclusion, as yet discovered, is the opinion of the first clerk, (who thinks [emphasis in original] the boilers must have burst because his feet are scalded on the top of them, which might have been done without the explosion) and the statement of the second engineer, that a moment previous he heard an unusual hissing, a sound that is sometimes heard immediately preceding an explosion of steam. He, however, is very positive no explosion of steam took place. An examination of the boilers, which has not yet been had, may determine the cause of the disaster.

The Maria is a new boat, built at Cincinnati, her trip to St. Louis being her third since built. Her cost was $35,000. She is insured in Cincinnati, but for what amount we did not learn.

The officers of the Maria are: Captain, Alex. Montgomery; Wesley D. Dravo and Wm. Dravo, clerks; Washington Couch and Frank Canger, engineers; Thomas Bours and Andrew Acker, mates: Sol. Catterlin and David Blashfield, pilots.

Confederate Secret Service Attack on St Louis Levee

The Confederate Secret Service Attack on the St. Louis Levee, September, 1864

By John B. Castleman

Excerpted and introduced by G. E. Rule

from “Active Service”, John B. Castleman, Major CSA, General USA, 1917

John B CastlemanMajor John B. Castleman had an active career. First as captain of one of John H. Morgan’s cavalry companies, and later as Thomas H. Hines’ junior partner in the Northwest Conspiracy. In late September of 1864, Castleman was captured in Indiana and spent the rest of the war in a Union prison wondering if he was to be executed. He was finally released on the condition that he leave the country and never return.

A few years later his exile was rescinded and he returned to his native Kentucky where he had a very successful career. Castleman was a U.S. General in the Spanish-American War, and many observers credit his cool actions for preventing another Civil War in Kentucky in 1900 when a disputed election for governor, and assassination of one of the candidates, threatened anarchy there.

Did The Confederate Secret Service Attack on the St. Louis Levee, September, 1864 actually occur? The documentation is sketchy. While Castleman’s account does not claim a specific number of boats burned, it certainly leaves the impression that at least some were destroyed. That he was in Missouri about the time in question seems proven by the Charges and Specifications brought against him by the Federals and by his own account. James D. Horan, working from Hines’ and Castleman’s papers in his account of Thomas H. Hines career (“Confederate Agent”, 1954), claims 5-10 boats destroyed at St. Louis by Castleman and his comrades in September of 1864.

The levee at St. Louis was a favorite target of the Confederate secret service and their copperhead allies, OAK (Order of American Knights). Not counting Castleman’s action, there are at least four documented instances of multiple-boat burnings at St. Louis during the course of the war. These accounted for the destruction of 18 boats. While one of them, in 1862, may (or may not) have been accidental rather than intentional, the other three were almost certainly the work of the Confederate secret service and/or OAK.

St. Louis was the top of the supply chain in the theatre. Men and supplies were funneled from the northern states down the river network to St. Louis and then distributed from there. In 1862-1864, Grant’s and then Sherman’s armies were both principally supplied from St. Louis. Each so-called “civilian” boat was a military asset to the Union, and recognized by the authorities as such. One government witness at Robert Louden’s trial testified “I consider every boat on the river to be in the government service, directly or indirectly.” The Confederates were quick to take notice of the state of affairs and act accordingly.

But did Castleman’s attack result in the destruction of any boats? Did it really take place in September of 1864 at all? We have not been able to find any documentary evidence outside of Castleman’s and Hines’ accounts that any attack took place in the timeframe claimed. Even the Charges and Specifications against Castleman only claim that his mission was to destroy public property, including in Missouri, not that he and his comrades had actually done so. Neither Castleman nor the charges name a specific boat either. Other sources that make no mention of this attack are the newspapers of the time, other memoirs, various official records, and “Way’s Packet Directory 1848-1994”. This last source is considered “the bible” for steamboats on the western waters (someday we’d like to share our research with the current editors to make it even more complete), and is a truly impressive achievement of 6,000 listed boats and their fates. Mr. Frederick Way, Jr. (now deceased) spent roughly 80 years of his life collecting this information. While we have identified approximately 100 “suspicious” steamboat burnings on the western waters during the war from Way’s, there are none at the levee at St. Louis later than July of 1864.

It is highly unlikely that if 5-10 boats had been destroyed at once at St. Louis it could have gone without notice from all these separate sources. Unless further evidence appears, it must be considered either Castleman had his dates wrong or his “Greek Fire” was even more ineffective than he complained –so much so the St. Louis papers disdained to even notice the attack. If several boats really were destroyed, then the other candidate dates for Castleman’s attack would be September of 1863 and July of 1864. The traditional timeline would have Castleman in Canada on the latter date, but September of 1863 is a mystery as to Castleman’s whereabouts. He was with Morgan on his Ohio raid that summer, but was not amongst those captured after the Battle of Buffington’s Island. Castleman’s memoirs leave this period entirely to Hines account of events –Castleman himself does not appear in the narrative from approximately April of 1863 until December of 1863. Another hint that September of 1863 might be the true date is Castleman’s description of “embarrassing the United States Army at Vicksburg”. While this would certainly be true in September of 1863, one year later that army was at Atlanta.

Our interpretation of “Military Direction” led to the contemplation of embarrassing the United States Army at Vicksburg by partially destroying its means of supply. It was known that the army at Vicksburg was with commissary stores, quartermaster stores, ordnance, forage, supplied chiefly from St. Louis by steamboats.

From Marshall [Illinois], George B. Eastin was sent to inspect and report in particular detail. Where such inspections were made, immediate report was required. Within twenty-four hours verbal information was brought of the approximate number of boats lying at the St. Louis wharf, between what streets, the names and approximate size of the steamboats, character of cargoes and probably sailings.

The same date ten of us went back to St. Louis to attempt partial destruction of this government service and embarrass the supply to the Vicksburg army.

We stopped separately at the Olive Street Hotel, where we arrived early in the morning. Directly after breakfast, without seeming concert of action, each one went aboard of the boats, previously assigned, lying between the foot of the streets allotted and each quickly knew his boats by name and location, and where was to be found the most combustible or most easily ignited feature. Citizens were not denied permission to go at will about the boats.

By eleven-thirty this was done. We took our luncheons separately and proceeded to make the best use of the information obtained by the personal inspection, advices of which had been considered by our little “conference of war”, held in my room.

We had had the misfortune to have had made a quantity of small bottles of liquid designated “greek fire” [typically made of turpentine and phosphorous]. “Greek fire” was a combination of chemicals which, when exposed to the air, ignited and had, or was designed to have, the advantage of ignition after a minute had elapsed in which time the user of the liquid could move from the scene.

It is probable that had the little band of fearless Confederate soldiers used a few boxes of matches, there would have been none of the seventy-three steamboats left on that day or landed at the St. Louis wharf.

But “greek fire” was not reliable and in most instances the self-ignition did not occur. We dared not go back to complete the work and, as previously arranged, we quietly left–taking passage separately—on the train that afternoon.

One cannot, in the fifty years that have passed, forget the deliberate courage of that little body of men. It is a picture still vivid in memory that made lasting the quiet demeanor of those boys, each taking life in hand, and going with nonchalance in performance of service.

Those boys are now all dead, but one –God bless those fearless boys.

On the first of October I had an engagement at Sullivan, Indiana, to meet some men who were trusted by Hines and me. The chief of those men was Mr. Humphrey.

I drove across from Marshall, Illinois, and instructed my comrades to come via railroad to Sullivan. To do this they went to Terre Haute, and thence over the Evansville Road. I was arrested at Sullivan, and afterwards, after detention, was taken to Terre Haute on a train that arrived there in the early morning.

Charges and Specifications Preferred Against John Breckenridge Castleman,

Major of the Second Regiment, Kentucky Cavalry of the Rebel Army.

Charge 1st: Lurking and Acting as a Spy.

Specification 1st: In this, that the said John Breckinridge Castleman, Major of the Second Regiment, Kentucky Rebel Cavalry, did, on or about the 26th day of August, 1864, secretly, in disguise and under false pretenses, enter and come with the lines of the regularly authorized and organized military forces of the United States, and within the states of Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, and did secretly and covertly lurk and travel about as a spy in the dress of a citizen, and under and assumed name, and did seek information with the intention of communicating it to the enemy, and remained within said military lines until arrested as a spy at Sullivan, Indiana, on or about the 30th day of September, 1864. All this within the states of Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana, during the months of August and September, 1864, and within the military lines and the theater of military operations of the Army of the United States, at a period of war and armed rebellion against the authority of the United States.

Specification 5th: In this, that the said John Breckinridge Castleman, Major of the Second Regiment, Kentucky Rebel Cavalry, was found lurking and acting as a spy in the state of Missouri, at or near the city of St. Louis on or about the 14th day of September, 1864, within the military lines and the theater of military operations of the Army of the United States, at a period of war and armed rebellion against the authority of the United States.

Charge 6th. Conspiring to Destroy Government Property in Violation of the Laws of War.

Specification: In this, that the said John Breckinridge Castleman, Major of the Second Regiment, Kentucky Rebel Cavalry, did, on or about the 26th of August, 1864, enter the states of Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana, in pursuance of an agreement with Jacob Thompson, Clement C. Clay, Jr. [Confederate commissioners in Canada], James A. Barrett [Missouri OAK leader], Captain Hines, and others unknown, to burn and destroy government arsenals, depots, and storehouses, and steamboats in government employ, and incite others thereto, with the purpose and intent of hindering and impeding the efforts of the lawfully constituted authorities of the United States in suppressing an armed rebellion against its authority.

[All emphasis added by editor]

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.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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,


Sabotage of the Sultana – Baker’s Boatburner List

Sabotage of the Sultana…

Provost Marshal J. H. Baker’s report on the boat-burners:

Official Records, Series I, Volume XLVIII, pages 194-198

Saint Louis, Mo., April 25, 1865.

Hon. C. A. DANA,
Assistant Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.:

SIR: I have the honor to state that in the month of January last I obtained information from various sources of the presence, in Saint Louis and other river cities, of a number of men employed by the rebel authorities to destroy Government property and steam-boats. I gave immediate attention to the matter, using all the means at my command to find and secure the parties, with so much success that early in February 1 was enabled to make the arrest of ten of them, among whom was one Edward Frazor, the leader. One of the parties implicated at once made a full confession, upon the understanding that he should not be prosecuted. I then preferred charges against Frazor, intending to make his the test case, and turned him over with the evidence to a military commission. Circumstances over which I had no control have delayed the trial, and Frazor, probably becoming weary of his imprisonment, and hoping that he might be reprieved by giving evidence against his accomplices, a few days since made a confession of his connection with the boat burners, which not only corroborates the information I had already procured, but throws additional light on the matter.

From this statement it appears that Frazor went, in company with others, to Richmond in the summer of 1864, and was introduced to Mr. Seddon, the Secretary of War. His account of what occurred at that interview is as follows:

At Richmond, Clark introduced me to the Secretary of War, Secretary Seddon. Clark told his business, when he sent us to the Secretary of State, J.P. Benjamin. I believe he looked our statement over and took time to consider. * * * The next day I went there, and Mr. Benjamin asked me if I knew all these claims for destroying U. S. property were right and correct. I told him they were, as far as I knew. He then offered $30,000 in greenbacks to settle. I told him I could not take that. Then he said he would take time to study again.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Benjamin next offered $35,000 in gold. Then Clark went to see him, and before he went I told him to get all he could, but not take less than the $35,000 down and get all the more he could. When he came back he said he had taken the $35,000 down and $15,000 on deposit, payable in four months from date, provided those claims of the Louisville matter (burning of Government medical stores last year) were all right. I think that is the way the receipt read. I went over to Benjamin’s to sign the receipt, and while I was there the President, Jefferson Davis, sent for me. I went in to see him with Mr. Benjamin. Mr. Davis was talking about sending men up here to destroy the long bridge, near Nashville. He asked me if I knew anything about it–knew where it was. I told him I did. He asked me which would be the best route to send men up here to do it. I told him I thought it was rather dangerous to send men up here who had never been here. He wanted to know if I would not take charge of it. I told [him] yes, provided he would stop all men from coming up here, as they would only hinder the work. He said he would do it, and wanted to know if I wanted any men from there to help me. I said I didn’t. Benjamin said the pay would be $400,000 for burning the bridge. After we got all ready to leave Mr. Benjamin gave us a draft for $34,800 in gold on Columbia, S.C. * * * Clark got passes from the Secretary of War, twelve or thirteen in all.

The party, some six in all, left Richmond, drew the money, and started for Memphis. At Mobile they were arrested, but upon telegraphing the fact to Jeff. Davis, he ordered General Taylor, commanding the department, to release them, which was done, and they proceeded on their way, entering our lines near Memphis. At this place they separated, going in various directions. The names and residences of the principal men engaged in this infamous pursuit, which has resulted in the destruction of so much valuable property and life, are as follows:

No. Name Residence Remarks.
1 Tucker, Judge a Mobile, Ala Chief of this service under the Secretary of War.
2 Majors, Minor Next in rank to Tucker, and chief of this service in our lines.
3 Barrett, Hon. John R. b Saint Louis, Mo In charge of “land operations;” can get him any time.
4 Harwood, S. B do Can arrest him any time.
5 Frazor, Edward do In Gratiot Prison..
6 Clark, Thomas L Grenada, Miss Supposed to be in rebel lines.
7 Irwin, William Louisville, Ky.
8 Dillingham, Henry Inside our lines.
9 Fox, Harrison Saint Louis, Mo
10 Stinson, — Mobile, Ala
11 Roberts, Kirk do
12 Louden, Robert Saint Louis, Mo Under sentence of death. Escaped from Lieutenant Post while being transferred from Gratiot to Alton Military Prison. Last heard from in New Orleans; supposed to be in rebel lines east of Mississippi.
13 Elshire, Isaac c …. In Gratiot Prison last year, but released for want of evidence; supposed to be inside rebel lines east of Mississippi River.
14 Raison, John ….
15 Mitchell, Peter Saint Louis, Mo. Inside our lines.
16 Murphy, William New Orleans, La Came voluntarily and exposed the others; afterward left suddenly; am looking for him.
17 O’Keife,– Natchez, Miss
18 Triplett, —
19 Parks, John G Near Memphis,Tenn. In Gratiot Prison.

a Tucker formerly resided in Missouri, and was an editor; published the State Journal, and was subsequently connected with the Missouri Republican

b Formerly Member of Congress from Missouri. Went to Europe in 1863, it is supposed on business for the rebels, where he was in conference with Mason and Slidell. Arrested by this office in 1864 on charge of being a member of the Order of American Knights, but afterward released. Has a brother in rebel artillery service.

c Burned the Robert Campbell, during which the lives of a number of soldiers were lost.

The foregoing list contains the names of the principal men only, as far as I have been able to ascertain them, and does not embrace any merely supposititious cases. A number of those most needed, it will be observed, are in territory which until recently has been occupied by the rebel army, where it will require your authority to operate. I therefore respectfully suggest that you order the commanding generals of the several departments to ascertain whether any of the parties above named are within the limits of their jurisdiction; and if so, to arrest and forward them to Saint Louis without delay.

It would be impossible to obtain a correct account of the property destroyed by these parties during the war, but the following list has been traced to one or the other of the men whose names are given above:

Name Where Burned Date
City of Madison Vicksburg, Miss August 1863
Champion Memphis, Tenn do
Robert Campbell, jr Milliken’s Bend September 28, 1863
Imperial Saint Louis, Mo do
Hiawatha do do
Post Boy do do
Jesse K Bell do do
Forest Queen
Catahoula Saint Louis, Mo September, 1863
Wharf-boats Mound City, Ill do
Do Cairo, Ill do
Small tow-boat Memphis, Tenn do

Since the outbreak of the rebellion to the present time over seventy steam-boats owned in Saint Louis have been destroyed by fire alone. Of this number only nine have been fired by rebels in arms, and there can be little doubt but the greater portion of the balance were fired by the above or similar emissaries of the rebel government.

By direction of Major-General Dodge:

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


Colonel and Provost-Marshal-General, Dept. of the Missouri.

[First indorsement.]

Saint Louis, April 26, 1865.

Respectfully forwarded to the Assistant Secretary of War, Washington, D.C.

I consider it important that these parties be brought to justice, and would suggest that good detectives be sent to Richmond and Mobile to arrest the parties named as in the rebel service and obtain further evidence. There is no doubt of the guilt of the parties. They were in the habit of burning boats, store-houses, &c., taking to Richmond papers with full account of burning, there filing affidavits, and on that receiving their pay. They then came into our lines and squandered the money, which brought them to our notice, and on making arrests the entire modus operandi was divulged. We have a large amount of testimony in the case, but desire to obtain more proof before we go to trial, and, if possible, get all the parties.



[Second indorsement.]

May 16, 1865.

Respectfully returned to the Secretary of War.

It appears from the within report of Col. J. H. Baker, provost-marshal-general, Department of the Missouri, that two members of the conspiracy engaged in destroying Government boats and property on the Mississippi River, principally in 1863, have confessed that they were employed by the rebel authorities and that they were paid at Richmond by the rebel Secretary of State, and that in one instance one of them was personally engaged and contracted with by Davis himself to destroy valuable property in the use of our Government. The confession of Frazor to this effect is fully detailed by Colonel Baker, and would appear to be most conclusive.

Colonel Baker presents a list of names of the parties connected with this conspiracy (by which, as he estimates, some sixty boats were consumed and in some cases lives of soldiers, &c., were destroyed), and urges that the commanding officers of the various departments be ordered to ascertain which, if any, of the individuals named are within their jurisdiction and to arrest such as are found and send them to Saint Louis for trial. Major-General Dodge further advises, in his indorsement, that detectives be sent to Richmond and Mobile to arrest parties supposed to be commorant there, and to obtain further evidence. These recommendations are concurred in.

The subject is regarded as one of great importance, especially as illustrating the fact that Davis and other leaders of the rebellion have been the principals in this and other similar detestable and treasonable enterprises executed by men who were merely their hirelings. It is esteemed to be of the greatest consequence that such men, especially as Judge Tucker, John R. Barrett, Isaac Elshire, Louden, and other conspicuous members of the conspiracy, should be apprehended as promptly as possible, and that all of the gang who can be found should be tried together by military commission for a treasonable conspiracy in the interest of the rebellion. It is further recommended that certified copies of all the affidavits and other written evidence in the case be required to be forwarded to the War Department for the use or reference of the executive officers of the Government.


Major and Judge-Advocate. (In the absence of the Judge-Advocate. General.)

[Third indorsement.]

May 26, 1865.

Respectfully referred to the Adjutant-General. The recommendations of the Judge-Advocate-General, Colonel Baker, and General Dodge are approved, and will be carried into effect without delay. By order:


Inspector-General U.S. Army

Sabotage of the Sultana – Gene Salecker Rebuttal

Sabotage of the Sultana…

Gene Eric Salecker,

author of “Disaster on the Mississippi,”

offers his rebuttal to the article by D. H. Rule,

“Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”

The owners/authors of Civil War St. Louis—D. H. Rule and G. E. Rule—have offered to host Gene Salecker’s rebuttal to the article “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” that was published in issue 5.1 of North & South magazine. Due to copyright considerations, the full text of “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” cannot be offered online at this time. Issues of the magazine with the article are available from the publisher.

Though both Gene Salecker and we (author of the article D. H. Rule, and co-researcher G. E. Rule) express our viewpoints with vigor below, we have no personal animosity between us and are, indeed, on quite friendly terms. Gene was a great help to us in our research and we freely acknowledge his mastery of the subject of the Sultana. As historians we are both interested in uncovering the truth which, when lost in a tangle of conflicting history and scanty records, is often a matter of interpretation. We interpret the evidence surrounding the Sultana incident differently and so present both sides of the issue. Gene said to us, “I appreciate the fact that you are willing to add my rebuttal to your website. I still do not believe that the Sultana was sabotaged, and I think that I make a strong argument against such in my rebuttal. However, I also think that it is good that people get both sides of the story.”

Civil War St. Louis is pleased to host Gene Salecker’s rebuttal to “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”:

SULTANA: A Case Against Sabotage

Gene Eric Salecker

©2002 Gene Eric Salecker. No reproduction or distribution without the consent of the author.

SULTANA: A Case for Sabotage—The Counterargument


D. H. Rule

Disaster on the Mississippi

by Gene Eric Salecker

a new reprint by Broadfoot Publishing now available

Place Orders with the author

$25.00 plus $4.00 priority shipping to:

Gene Eric Salecker
2526 N. Davisson St.
River Grove, IL 60171-1710

“Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”

by D. H. Rule

in Volume 5, Issue 1 of North & South magazine

copies available from publisher

Volume 5, Number 1 of North & South featured an article entitled, “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” by D. H. Rule. At best the article is entertaining. At worst, it is filled with hearsay evidence and speculation, neither of which would hold up in a court of law. There are at least five main arguments against Rule’s supposition. 1) The person that claimed that he destroyed the Sultana lacked credibility and made his claim under questionable circumstances. 2) His closest associate did not corroborate his supposed sabotage. 3) The witness who heard the testimony appears to have suffered from a bit of hero-worshipping. 4) The way the perpetrator supposedly placed a destructive device aboard the Sultana is highly suspicious. 5) The way that Rule claims the boat was destroyed is inconsistent with the facts and eyewitness reports of the actual destruction. “…filled with hearsay evidence…” whereas Mr. Salecker offers only his own  unsubstantiated opinion in the first three of his main areas of dispute and ignores significant facts in the other two.

Would it hold up in a court of law? That’s a matter of speculation. Robert Louden, saboteur of the Sultana, WAS convicted in a court of law of sabotaging steamboats on the Mississippi (Dec. 1863). Though he pleaded not guilty at the time, he later confessed that the charges were true. He also confessed to destroying the Sultana knowing that with the Presidential Pardon he had he was safe from prosecution in the matter. 1

Rule’s article contends that the Confederate mail runner and boat burner Robert Louden smuggled a lump of coal containing a hidden torpedo into the coal bin of the Sultana while the boat was stopped at Memphis on April 26, 1865. Supposedly, it was this device that ultimately doomed the Sultana and cost the lives of over 1,700 people. Although the article went on for some length, the ONLY concrete evidence that Rule provided to support her claim was a statement made by William C. Streetor to a reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1888.1 It’s a significant point that it was not a “lump of coal” as Salecker says. It was a cast iron bomb, then called a torpedo, designed to look like a lump of coal. This type of bomb was known as a Courtenay Torpedo and was greatly feared by the Federals as it was known to be highly effective in blowing up the boilers of Mississippi River steamboats.Both of our cases are, by necessity, largely circumstantial. The case for sabotage is bolstered by the confession of the saboteur with considerable “concrete” evidence offered to establish that he met the classic standards of “means, motive, and opportunity.” Pains were taken to find confirmatory evidence from both Confederate and Union sources.2
1) The person that claimed that he destroyed the Sultana lacked credibility and made his claim under questionable circumstances.Robert Louden was a convicted murderer, a mail smuggler, and an arsonist.2 In the 1888 newspaper article William Streetor stated:

[Louden] 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 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 a half 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.”3 [my underlining]

As Streetor admits, Louden was “in his cups” and drinking “heavily” when he made his statement about the Sultana. It is also interesting to note that it was Streetor, and not Louden, that brought up the topic of the Sultana (underlining above). In a court of law this is known as “leading the witness,” i.e. putting the idea of something into someone’s head. Rule even admits in her St. Louis in the Civil War Website, that “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 towards spending time in saloons.”4 In a drunken state of mind, Robert Louden, a convicted murderer, smuggler, and arsonist (not the most credible witness) was likely to admit anything to anybody.

The question of Louden’s nature is, in many ways, at the heart of the matter as regards his confession to Streetor. Louden had many less than admirable traits. After spending years trying to get inside his head, so to speak, and tracing down every element in his life, I don’t like him. He was a convicted killer but it was a manslaughter conviction, not murder as Salecker says.

Louden was also a mail smuggler. Whereas Mr. Salecker presents this as a negative trait, mail smuggling was probably one of Louden’s kindest, most selfless activities. He placed himself at considerable personal risk to carry letters between lonely soldiers and their families. Mail smuggling was a very dangerous occupation that carried the death penalty. It was an occupation that required steady nerves, resourcefulness, bold—even brazen—actions, and the ability to pass through Federal lines and into Union-held places where he was well known, and which were well guarded, without detection.

Louden wasn’t the sort to betray his secrets unless there was something to loosen his tongue, in this case being “in his cups.” Yet even when drinking, he’s still described as cool and calculating. You’ll notice what didn’t happen that night with Streetor… Louden didn’t go back the next day and retract what he’d said. There was no legal action Streetor could take against Louden (who had a pardon), yet very shortly after his confession Louden left St. Louis and never returned.

Credible witness against himself? With his record and proven actions? None better.

2) His closest associate did not corroborate his supposed sabotage:Absalom C. Grimes, the “Official Confederate Mail Carrier,” and a partner of Louden in smuggling and boat burning, wrote his memoirs after the war but never mentioned the Sultana or Louden’s supposed connection to it. Although Grimes wrote that Louden was busy during the war “amusing himself burning government steamboats,” and admitted that Louden had set fire to the steamboat Ruth while it was carrying military stores and $2.6 million in greenbacks, he never mentioned the Sultana, which would have been the biggest “prize” ever for the boat burners. Grimes never intended for his memoirs to be published so he had no reason NOT to mention the destruction of the Sultana. And, since Louden died in 1867, Grimes should have had no fear of causing harm to Louden by telling the truth, if indeed Louden had committed the heinous act. If Grimes felt no qualms about mentioning Louden in connection with the Ruth, why should he fail to mention the Sultana and Louden’s supposed part in it’s destruction? And, since both Grimes and Louden lived in St. Louis after the war, it is hard to believe that Grimes would not have known that his compatriot and friend had been the cause of the worst maritime disaster of all time (at that time) and would not have put it in his memoirs!5

Robert Louden supposedly told William Streetor that he “had fired no less than half a dozen steamboats on the Mississippi,” while Rule states that Louden was “notorious for the destruction of steamboats along the Mississippi River.”6 In truth, however, only the destruction of the Ruth can be positively attributed to Louden. Although Rule writes that the destruction of the U.S. gunboat Baron De Kalb was committed by “Grimes, probably accompanied by Louden,”7 (my underlining), she gives no concrete evidence to support that Louden was present. “Probably” would not hold up in a court of law!

This argument unfortunately demonstrates Mr. Salecker’s unfamiliarity with the overall situation in regards to Confederate agents, and secret service activities, at the time of the war and in later years as memoirs were being written and published.

It is not an exaggeration to say there was a “code of silence” among the Confederate agents. The code of silence was published and came from the highest authority. When John B. Castleman and Basil Duke announced their intention to publish stories of Confederate secret service activities, Jefferson Davis himself wrote to them and implored (ordered?) them not to reveal the secrets.3 Castleman and Duke complied. Castleman also is responsible for sabotaging steamboats on the Mississippi and was connected to the very organization of saboteurs of which Louden was a part.

Absalom Grimes’ memoirs reflect his adherence to both the code of silence as well as to protecting his own safety. He tells his personal tale of mail smuggling and escapes, with Louden included where the adventure requires. He leaves out material pertaining to the Confederate secret service activities and other agents even where contemporary documentation makes his knowledge and connections evident. Of the burning of the Ruth, Grimes says [my underlining], “at this late date it is safe to say…”  Consider that. In 1911, at age 76, Grimes finally felt it was safe to acknowledge that Louden, who had been dead for over forty years, really did commit an act for which he had long since been convicted and confessed.

As to the destruction of the Baron De Kalb, space limitations in the published article did not permit more lengthy discussions of some areas, this being one. Louden’s location can be established to within days either side of the DeKalb, with every indication he was a participant and no contradictory evidence that he was elsewhere. Still, the careful historian must say “probably”.

Grimes’ own position in 1865, the time of the Sultana incident; in 1888, the time of Streetor’s article; and in 1911, the writing of his memoirs, all have one other overriding thing in common: His pardon was dated December of 1864. He could not, and does not, admit to wartime connection to Louden after that date. Even ignoring that, as our current debate here demonstrates, there is and was no time in which the destruction of the Sultana was not a volatile subject.

What could Grimes say of Louden and the Sultana? There is exactly one thing he could say: “Louden didn’t do it.” And that one thing, he does not say, not in 1888 nor in 1911. Grimes’ silence on the subject is more damning than his words.

3) The witness who heard the testimony appears to have suffered from a bit of hero-worshipping.William C. Streetor, the ONLY witness to Louden’s claim, had been the chief clerk and assistant keeper at Gratiot Prison in St. Louis during the Civil War when Louden was held prisoner there in 1862 and 1864. After the war, in 1867, the two men worked together in St. Louis as painters. Louden had fled St. Louis in October 1864 but, as Rule states, “by the spring of 1867 Robert Louden was back,” cleared by a full pardon from President Andrew Johnson. In Streetor’s own words, “It was after his return home [to St. Louis] that he told me the story of how he smuggled the torpedo on board the Sultana.”8 Since Louden died in New Orleans on September 22, 1867, this leaves only a short period, from about March to September 1867, in which Louden could have made his confession to Streetor.9 The short time between the time of Louden’s confession and the time he left St. Louis suggests that, lacking any legal actions that could be taken against him, his admission to Streetor still presented Louden with a very real peril to life and limb.
According to Rule, William Streetor was a “Union man of high character, [and] well respected…” She also called him “a loyal Union man, …and a respected member of the Grand Army of the Republic.”10 If so, then it seems inconceivable that just two years after the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, in which more than 1,700 “loyal Union men” lost their lives, that this respected veteran should discover the perpetrator of the disaster and then keep the information to himself for more than 20 years! The court martial trial of one of the officers accused of overloading the Sultana had ended only a year before (in June 1866) and in an important river town such as St. Louis, the home port of the Sultana, the memory of the Sultana would have been alive and well.11 And, with the inquisitive nature of newspaper reporters, it is a certainty that Streetor never leaked this information to anyone prior to 1888 or else the story would have made headlines long before it finally did. If Streetor truly was a “Union man of high character,” why than did he wait more than twenty years to break a story about a Confederate mail runner, an arsonist, and a murderer, that had been dead since 1867? William C. Streetor is the man I have portrayed him to be. I have a great deal of documentation stretching from 1860 to 1920 supporting this. Streetor wasn’t a famous man and doesn’t seem to have craved fame. His letters show a man of modest good humor, of forthright and unassuming character. His role during the Civil War was one of highest trust, a position he maintained through several Department of Missouri administrations and Provost Marshals. I have found not one word of reproach or doubt expressed by any of them about Streetor. His loyalty is unassailable. That he enlisted in Union service in May of 1861 in St. Louis speaks volumes about the loyalty of this man. I’d sooner take Union Provost Marshal James O. Broadhead’s and Union Provost Marshal George E. Leighton’s opinion of Streetor over that of Gene E. Salecker.The court martial for overloading the Sultana had nothing to do with the explosion’s cause. Nothing relating to the cause of the explosion affects the equally heinous crime in loading so many men on the boat.

It is not “a certainty” that Streetor’s story did not come out before 1888. The article itself says Streetor spoke “in reply to an inquiry.” Until we found the May 6, 1888 St. Louis article no one, including Mr. Salecker, knew it existed. Even in 1888 it “made headlines” only in St. Louis with the Memphis version of the article being only a short summary. What else may lie in unexplored archives remains to be seen.

The answer to that question may appears as though it lies in the 1888 newspaper article in which Streetor called Louden “a young, vigorous daredevil”, “cool and calculating”, “a remarkable man” who “possessed bravery of a certain kind, I think, equal to that of any man who ever lived.”12 Clearly, William Streetor was mesmerized by Louden. It appears as though Streetor hung on every word that Louden uttered. With a man like Streetor at his elbow, a drunken Louden could clearly make outlandish claims of notoriety, fully expecting that his words would be believed beyond a shadow of a doubt. The story of the destruction of the Sultana, plus another unbelievable story that Louden told Streetor about floating past Union gunboats while hiding inside a water-tight coffin, smack of alcohol and are fine examples of Streetor’s hero-worshipping of Robert Louden.13When Streetor finally talked to reporters in 1888 he was either lying about what he had heard in 1867, if anything; he was “pumping up” his hero; or he wasn’t the “loyal Union man…[and] respected member of the Grand Army of the Republic” that he appeared to be! What sounds to Mr. Salecker as “mesmerized by Louden”  and “hero-worship” sounds to me like frustration and disgust that Louden got away with it. (Here’s the article, decide for yourself) Present day sensibilities would have us calling Louden a “coward” in such an article. Such was not the case at that time. To call an enemy, even a reprehensible one, “brave” did not imply admiration. At that, Streetor qualifies it was “bravery of a certain kind“. Streetor even called Louden “notorious”. Hero worship?The story about floating down the river in the coffin certainly is one of boldness and daring and might, at other times and from other people, be taken for baseless, drunken bragging. But, as Mr. Salecker is apparently unaware, the story is not particularly unusual for that time and place, with comparable actions documented by numerous others. It’s not even one of Louden’s most brazen actions (even of those carefully documented by Federal sources from Federal witnesses). Louden and Grimes floated through the gunboat blockade of Vicksburg clinging to a rowboat submerged to within an inch of the surface. Others got through holding to floating logs or debris.4

When Salecker speaks of Louden making “outlandish claims of notoriety” he is writing nothing but opinion. Louden’s notoriety is clear, evident, and well-documented. As well as contemporary newspaper accounts, the 280 pages of Louden’s trial transcripts are a matter of public record.

However, we must take responsibility for Salecker misunderstanding the “remarkable man” comment. Formatting of the article on the website revised some original punctuation (now corrected). The “remarkable man” description was the reporter’s comment. It was also the reporter relaying the coffin story.

We’re to believe that Streetor, this alleged hero-worshipper, would bait his “hero” into admitting an act that could get him lynched? The publication of which could cause serious discomfort for Louden’s surviving wife and children still living in St. Louis? And that didn’t even reflect particularly well on Streetor himself? Nonsense.

4) The way the perpetrator supposedly placed a destructive device aboard the Sultana is highly suspicious.Could Robert Louden, carrying a coal torpedo “packed with ten pounds of explosives”14 and measuring about the size of a man’s head, board the Sultana, without being seen, while she was docked at Memphis and place the torpedo into one of the empty coal bins?

The 1888 newspaper article quotes Streetor as stating, “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 [Robert Louden.]” Rule states in her article that “Louden had the perfect opportunity, under the cover of darkness and in the confusion of crowds of people, to place his bomb.”15 Are these statements true? The facts and eyewitness statements suggest otherwise.

“…measuring about the size of a man’s head” is Mr. Salecker’s interpretation. The physical size of the Courtenay Torpedo is such that it was 1) large enough to cause the destruction of boilers, yet 2) small enough not to attract notice among the other lumps of coal.
Taken literally, Streetor’s statement infers that Louden personally placed his torpedo into the empty coal bins, and that the boat was docked at the city proper. Let us analyze this possibility. Quoted correctly, Streetor says, “…deposited in the coal pile in front of the boilers…” He also does not say that the boat was docked at the city proper, just, “at Memphis.”
The Sultana, carrying about 2,100 recently released Union ex-prisoners-of-war, and over 200 civilian passengers, crew, and guards, arrived at Memphis about 7:00 p.m. on April 26, 1865. The boat docked by nosing into a wharfboat (usually a derelict steamboat tied parallel to the levee). By “nosing” up to the wharfboat, only the bow of the Sultana touched the derelict boat. In this fashion, other steamboats could slide up beside the Sultana and a number of boats could utilize the wharfboat at the same time. (Similar to parking cars side-by-side, as opposed to parallel parking.) Lanterns aboard the Sultana, and aboard and around the wharfboat, would have illuminated the entire area. Areas specific to the Sultana are Mr. Salecker’s greatest strength. His long years of research show and provide vivid and interesting background for the various scenarios.
Once docked, a large cargo of sugar was removed from the hold of the Sultana. While this was taking place, twenty-two guards from the 58th Ohio Infantry, which were traveling with the prisoners, were placed around the bow of the Sultana to keep the men from “jumping ship” and going into town. Some, however, managed to get away before the guards were in place while others got away by helping to roll the huge hogsheads of sugar to the top of the levee and then sneaking away.16While the deckhands were unloading the sugar, the engineers decreased the pressure in the boilers from a running pressure of 135 to around 100 pounds.17 Clearly the fires within the furnaces were banked, or reduced, and the stokers would have been given a brief rest from their job of shoveling coal. Since almost every inch of deck space on the Sultana was covered with soldiers, it would be natural to assume that the stokers relaxed near, or even inside, the coal bins (which were nearly empty). In his own book, “Disaster on the Mississippi”, Salecker says “a large number” got past the guards as they docked, and dozens more snuck past with the sugar hogsheads. When one of the casks spilled sugar “onto the Memphis wharf” the soldiers “descended on the spill like ants at a picnic.” This image is a far cry from the orderly, controlled scenario Salecker is trying to portray here.
While the Sultana was at Memphis, a few civilian passengers left the boat and a few got on.18 In typical steamboat fashion, these passengers would have been met by the captain and a clerk at the foot of the gangplank and then sent up to the cabin deck for room assignment by another clerk. In other words, with the guards crowded around the bow of the boat, the stokers relaxing near or inside the coal bins, and the steamboat officials doing their usual job of welcoming passengers, it is highly unlikely that Robert Louden could have carried a “torpedo in a lump of coal… aboard the steamer at Memphis and [deposit it] in the coal pile in front of the boilers…” without being noticed. Mr. Salecker is quite correct. As he mentions several times in his narrative, the torpedo could not have been placed at the bottom of the empty bins.
Furthermore, Rule, in her article and in her Website, speculates that J. Cass Mason, captain and part owner of the Sultana, probably knew Robert Louden from a couple of earlier encounters and from the fact that they were both residents of St. Louis.19 If Mason did indeed know Louden, then it would have been nearly impossible for Louden to board the Sultana with a large lump of coal without being recognized. Captain Mason, who was in financial straits, had everything riding on the successful completion of this trip. If he could get the paroled prisoners to Cairo, IL, without any trouble, the Federal Government would pay him $5.00 for every enlisted man and $10.00 for every officer.20 He never would have let a known Confederate boat burner climb aboard the Sultana at Memphis and threaten his precious boat and cargo without raising some sort of a fuss. Yes, even if Mason and Louden did not personally know each other they certainly would have known of each other’s reputations. Mason had been smuggling for the Confederates and changed sides. He captained the boat that carried Louden’s wife into forced exile. Louden would have had no fondness for Mason and many causes to wish him harm.5 Salecker, in his book, says, “Mason turned to the bottle” and offers evidence he was drinking heavily during this trip. Yet now we are to believe this man was efficient enough to check every face of the over two thousand on board for one man he didn’t know he was looking for and may not have recognized if he did?
Likewise, in her article, Rule states that “Advisories with [Louden’s] description and orders to arrest him were sent from St. Louis to a number of other cities.”21 Most certainly one of the “other cities” would have been the important river city of Memphis and the authorities there would have been on the look out for Louden. He would have had a difficult time, at best, boarding the Sultana while she was docked at Memphis. And yet Louden wasn’t caught, not at Memphis nor anywhere else, and he even had Allen Pinkerton after him.6 It’s a measure of how good Louden was at this sort of thing. He was a professional and he had a strong support network in Memphis and the surrounding area.
Near 12:00 midnight, the Sultana cast off her lines and went up the river to a series of coal barges. There, she took on 1,000 bushels of coal.22 This coal would have been dumped into the empty coal bins – directly on top of any “torpedo” that Robert Louden may have previously placed there! If Louden had been able to elude the guards, the steamboat officials, and the stokers, and had been able to place his coal torpedo in the empty coal bins, then it would have been covered by tons of fresh coal when the new coal was hauled on board. If the coal torpedo had been covered by the new coal, then the torpedo would not have been shoveled into the fires of the Sultana until most of the new coal was gone, and the explosion of the Sultana would have occurred much further up river and much later than it actually did. We’ve already established the torpedo couldn’t have been put at the bottom of the piles in empty bins.
But, if the deadly lump of coal had already been thrown into the furnace, it would not have been buried under the new coal. Indeed. However, the Sultana remained at the coaling barges for nearly an hour, keeping up steam the entire time, which meant that her furnaces would have been constantly fed.23 If the coal torpedo had been shoveled into the furnace during this time, the device surely would have exploded while the Sultana was taking on coal. Since the Sultana did not explode while taking on coal, it is safe to say that no coal torpedo was shoveled into her furnaces while she was stopped. Yes, it is indeed extremely safe to say that!
But, what if Streetor’s statement is not taken so literally. What if the words “carried aboard the steamer at Memphis” actually meant “carried aboard the steamer while she was in the Memphis area, i.e. at the coal barges?”Even Rule speculated that Streetor’s statement should not be taken so literally. In her Website she presents a “scenario” detailing how Louden “may have” carried his bomb on board the Sultana. “At the coaling station,” she suggests, “[the Sultana] took on fuel. In the darkness and confusion of men no one noticed an extra worker carrying coal on board… Among the other workers, Louden carried aboard a lump of coal… that wasn’t coal, though. It was cast iron in the shape of coal, coated with coal dust. The inside was hollow and packed with ten pounds of explosives… Louden placed his torpedo in the coal bin, placing it where he knew it would be used in a few hours. Then he slipped away into the night.”24 Could Louden have personally smuggled his coal torpedo aboard the Sultana while she was at the coal barges? It is highly unlikely. On the contrary, it is highly probable that this is exactly what happened. Remember, this had been done before, many times. March 1864 Union Admiral David Porter said, “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.”7 On the Mississippi River alone sixty steamboats had been destroyed by sabotage. Louden had sneaked onto and off of numerous steamboats during the war years when he was a wanted man with a reward offered for his capture. His trial in 1863 emphasized his use of disguises. Getting aboard the Sultana would not even have been the most difficult thing he did in his career.
The coal barges were anchored about a mile above Memphis. The Mississippi River was at flood stage and the barges were surrounded by water.25 Louden would have had to procure a rowboat, row over to the coal barges, board the Sultana, and place his dangerous lump of coal in the coal bins. All without being seen or raising suspicion by the thousands of soldiers and civilians on board! And, since no eyewitness ever stated that they saw anything like this being done, it most definitely was not.Steamboats were refueled by the deckhands of each boat, under the direct supervision of the first mate. They were not refueled by the proprietors of the coal barges. The proprietors sold the coal, the steamboat crews put the coal on the boat. The entire area would have been lit by lantern and torch light, eliminating much of the “darkness,”26 and most of the paroled prisoners would have been lying down or asleep, eliminating most of the “confusion.” Any person not connected with the boat crew who was helping to carry coal on board the Sultana would have drawn suspicion from the first mate as well as from the deckhands. The first mate of the Sultana, William Rowberry survived the disaster. He was interviewed by one of the committees investigating the disaster and never once mentioned a suspicious character at the coal barges, or at the wharfboat either.27 This smacks a bit of an “if a tree falls in the forest” argument. If no one saw him, it only means that no one saw him. Or in seeing him, saw nothing that aroused suspicion.Louden wasn’t a bumbling fool, nor was he a novice at this. He knew steamboats extremely well and how they operated. There were a considerable number of Confederate agents associated with Louden in and around Memphis. One of them, a man named Keaton8, owned a boat supply store near the wharf. Any help he needed to pull off the act, Louden would have had at his disposal.

The number of successful steamboat destructions on the Mississippi, including the Memphis area, demonstrate most clearly bombs could and had been smuggled aboard steamboats. Nothing about the Sultana exempts it from being as much at risk as the other 60 boats destroyed by sabotage.

Then, it would have been nearly impossible for Louden to have simply “slipped away into the night,” as Rule speculates. Are we to believe that after placing his torpedo on board the Sultana, Louden simply walked to the edge of the barge, dropped into a waiting rowboat, and rowed quietly away, all without being noticed?  The proprietors of the coal barge, most of the crew of the Sultana, and even a few of the thousands of soldiers were still awake at this time, and yet not one single person ever reported such activity. Why? Because it never happened.If Louden had rowed over to the coal barges prior to the arrival of the Sultana the barge tenders would have remembered, and reported, such an act. The barge tenders helped save a number of drowning victims and went to work trying to collect the dead almost immediately after the disaster. Most certainly the tenders would have reported the suspicious activities of Louden if he had rowed over to the barges and then stayed around to personally place his torpedo aboard the Sultana. A few days after the disaster, it was reported in the Memphis newspapers that a piece of a shell was found on the remains of the wreck. (see below) Under the circumstances, the barge tenders would have come forward to report any suspicious activity. Since they did not, Louden never did row over to the coal barges.28

Additionally, just one day previously, on April 25, a Union gunboat crew, fearful of guerrilla activity, had gone up and down the river destroying all privately owned  skiffs, rowboats, and canoes in the Memphis area. Young William H. Wooldridge, who lived on a farm above Memphis, remembered hunting in the city for “several hours” before procuring a small skiff so that he could tend his mother’s livestock that had become stranded on high spots around the farm because of the flood. Then, it took him several hours to row over flooded fields and up back rivers, being extremely careful to avoid the watchful eyes of the Union pickets camped along the river.29

Louden slipped away from the White Cloud without being seen, though a Federal detective was trying to keep track of him.Louden slipped away from the Ruth after planting an incendiary that destroyed the boat and killed twenty-six people. The Ruth had $2.6 million dollars in cash aboard, eight Union paymasters, and considerably tighter security than the Sultana.

Louden slipped away from a steamer in the Potomac River when he was spotted by Federal agents. He swam away.

Louden cut off his handcuffs under the eyes of a guard of twenty-one—a lieutenant, four non-commissioned officers, and sixteen privates—on the Hurricane deck of the City of Alton. He rolled up his sleeves, picked up a tray and, blending in with the boat’s waiters, walked away from the guard. He then slipped over the side of the boat and swam away.

Louden went through the blockade of Vicksburg twice. The second time (Federal documentation) he got away from the city two days after the Union had taken control of it. Several Union steamers were destroyed by sabotage at Vicksburg though they had General Grant, his army, and the Union gunboat fleet protecting them.

These examples did not come from Louden. They came from his enemies, the ones who wanted to see him hang. Are we to believe that the Sultana was so specially and particularly guarded that it was “nearly impossible” for one man to slip away from it unseen in the night?

Union General Benjamin Butler’s steamer Greyhound was destroyed by Confederate sabotage November 27, 1864. It came near to taking the life of Rear Admiral David Porter who knew well the power of the Courtenay Torpedo and had issued reports on it.

General Grant came close to being killed at City Point, Virginia by a Confederate bombing August 9, 1864. The agents slipped in. The agents planted their bombs. The agents slipped out and got away. This was at General Grant’s headquarters, guarded by the entire Army of the Potomac!

The Union pickets stationed around Memphis certainly had reason to be watchful for guerrilla activity. The tinclad Grossbeak, the ironclad Essex, the gunboat Tyler, and the picketboat Pocohontas, along with several steamboats, were all docked at Memphis. The sentries, both north and south of the city, were so watchful that during the morning of April 27, they actually fired shots at the unknown survivors and rescue boats as they moved “suspiciously” about on the river. In fact, the sentries had standing orders “to bring to [shore] all small boats passing up and down the river, by discharging their pieces.”30 To suppose that Robert Louden could have procured a boat in a short time and rowed unseen across the river to deposit his coal torpedo in the coal bins of the Sultana is preposterous. There’s no need to “suppose”. Louden didn’t need to procure a boat in a “short time.” He had time, help, and resources on his side, as much as he needed while he waited for a good target to arrive. He had agents in Memphis and his brother-in-law, Capt. Arthur C. McCoy9 of General Shelby’s command, nearby on the Arkansas side—McCoy who was sending spies into and out of Memphis regularly. What’s preposterous is to assume the Federals had such a strong grip on the area when they so clearly did not. Look at some of the other documentation provided on this website and note how many times “Memphis” is mentioned. Memphis, whether occupied by Unionist or Confederates, was a hub of Confederate secret service activities, including sabotage.
5) The way that Rule claims the boat was destroyed is inconsistent with the facts and eyewitness reports of the actual destruction.Near 1:00 a.m., on April 27, 1865, the Sultana left the coal barges and headed towards Cairo, IL, her next stop. After going only seven miles above Memphis, at 2:00 in the morning, the center of the Sultana suddenly erupted. Rule reports, “Without warning, an explosion ripped through the boilers, scalding steam burst out, and a shower of flaming hot coal shot upward into the night, raining down on the crowded boat, which in moments was engulfed in flame.”31 Dramatic, but not factual.

The furnace of a steamboat was built directly under the front 1/3rd of the boilers.32 If a torpedo had exploded inside the furnace, the blast would have gone in a 3600 circle or sphere, sending pieces of the “cast iron” explosive in all directions at once. An exploding device inside the furnace would have blown out the top, the bottom, and the sides of the furnace. Cast iron shards hurtling downwards would have torn through the bottom of the furnace, through the main deck, and into the hold, perhaps even tearing through the hull of the Sultana. The fact that the Sultana stayed afloat for another seven hours after the explosion, shows that the hull was not damaged.33

Here we run into the single biggest problem with Gene Salecker’s counterargument:

Salecker does not believe a Courtenay Torpedo could destroy a steamboat.

His entire argument in this section—section 5)—is based on that single flawed premise. We can argue details of the Sultana’s destruction and iron shards and flying coals and furnace doors from now until doomsday without resolution, but without Mr. Salecker’s realization that the Courtenay Torpedo was an effective means of destroying steamboats his other points are futile to debate and are contradicted by numerous authorities on the subject—Union and Confederate; contemporary and current.

Not only did Union authorities recognize and fear the Courtenay Torpodo, but even as late as World War II it was still in use by the OSS! (David W. Gaddy, co-author of “Come Retribution” advised me of this in an email he sent me about the Sultana article10).

Thomas E. Courtenay, inventor of the coal torpedo, said in November of 1864: They have destroyed many Steamers on the Mississippi River and a few months ago blew up the new Gun Boat Cherrango [sic: Chenango] at Brooklyn, New York.11

Sgt. Andrew T. Peery (3rd TN Cav.) wrote, “When the explosion occurred, I was asleep on the lower deck about the center of the boat… I ran to the side of the boat but could see nothing but water… I ran back and grabbed some clothes and started for the bow of the boat. Then the fire shot up…As we passed, the fire was getting a start and we had to pass it… Somehow I… got to the bow of the boat.”34 Peery was one of the few soldiers who actually moved from the back of the boat to the front of the boat, thus proving that the decking around the furnace was still intact and the sides of the furnace had not been blown out. J. Thomas Scharf in “History of the Confederate States Navy” says that when a Courtenay Torpedo was taken aboard steamboats with the coal it “exploded with terrible effect in their boilers.”I have found no descriptions or accounts suggesting the bottom of the boats or the sides of the furnace were blown out. The coal torpedo acted on the boilers.
Any shards of metal from an explosion of a torpedo inside the furnace also would have gone upward, into the bottom of the boilers. Punctured at the bottom, the tremendous steam pressure inside the boilers would have instantly forced its way out through the hole caused by the metal shard, i.e. through the bottom of the boiler. The force of escaping steam could be tremendous. A 1903 test demonstrated that water contained in a high-pressure boiler, heated to 150 pounds of pressure, had “enough energy to hurl the boiler over two miles into the air.”35 Such escaping pressure, coming through the bottom of the punctured boilers, would have torn the bottom out of the Sultana. But again, the hull was not damaged, proving that the explosion did not occur in this manner. Correct. Salecker’s hypothetical scenario did not occur and would not occur in Courtenay Torpedo explosion.
Rule wrote, “Several of the statements made by witnesses of the disaster lend credence to Louden’s story. William Rowberry – the first mate of the Sultana – blamed sabotage, claiming the ship [sic] was running well until the moment of the blast. The theory of a shell exploding in the furnace was ‘actively discussed and [had] many believers among experienced river men.’…A newspaper reported a witness seeing the furnace door burst open before the boilers burst. Survivors mentioned flaming coals flying about.”36First, William Rowberry made no such statement that he “blamed sabotage!” Within two weeks of the disaster, Rowberry gave a statement to an investigative committee set up by Gen. William Hoffman. He stated that he “had charge of the boat” when the explosion occurred, recounted his survival, and told about the patching of the boilers at Vicksburg. He made no statement whatsoever that he “blamed sabotage.” Both the Memphis Daily Bulletin (April 28) and the Memphis Argus (April 29) wrote of Rowberry’s survival but neither paper reported that the first mate “blamed sabotage.” In fact, the Memphis Daily Bulletin reported, “He can give no idea of the cause of the accident; says the boat was going at ordinary speed, and that all seemed well up to the moment the explosion occurred.” First mate Rowberry, nor any other member of the Sultana crew, never “blamed sabotage” for the destruction of their steamboat. Being “in charge of the boat” at the time of the explosion, it would have been convenient for Rowberry to latch onto the sabotage theory, yet, he never did.37 Rowberry on sabotage:The Missouri Republican, April 29, 1865, says, “I conversed with the first mate of the ill-fated steamer, Wm. Rowberry—who in company with six others clung to a plank, from which five fell off before they were rescued, from exhaustion, and were drowned; and he thinks there must have been some infernal machine put in the coal, as the boat, at the time, was running very steady, and so little steam on that an explosion was impossible.” [my emphasis]

This article, datelined Cairo, April 28, was also carried in the Chicago Times and the New York Times. The New York Times article ended with a further citation to the Memphis Argus, which said “Mate Paberry [sic] says that the steam was near as high on the Sultana as it was usually carried. He thinks a torpedo shaped like a lump of coal must have caused the explosion.” [my emphasis]

As you see, the first mention of sabotage by a coal torpedo came the day after the disaster. It came from the first mate of the steamer, William Rowberry, who had been in the pilot house at the time of the explosion.

Mate Rowberry of the steamer Sultana disagrees with Mr. Salecker; Rowberry certainly thought it was possible for a saboteur to get past their security.

Second, the first mention of sabotage occurred on May 2, 1865 when the Memphis Daily Bulletin reported, “…The probability of the explosion having been caused by the bursting of a shell in the furnace of the ill-fated steamer is actively discussed, and has many believers among experienced river men. One circumstance in favor of this cause is the fact that a witness before the investigating committee swore that he saw the doors of the furnace blown open, just before the explosion, and a more important circumstance is the fact that on Sunday [April 30] Capt. [William C.] Postal found a piece of a shell weighing nearly a pound among the bricks near the starboard guard knee. It was much blistered, and gave evidence of having been in intense heat.” Asked the Daily Bulletin, “Was it a Fiendish Atrocity?”38It seems strange that the “witness” who testified before the investigating committee that he saw the furnace doors blow open is not mentioned by name. The Memphis Daily Bulletin had been reporting the names of almost every other person connected with the disaster; from the men at the coal barges, to the men that drove the wagons that took the survivors to the hospitals, to the many, many rescuers. Now, suddenly, when something as horrendous as sabotage is unveiled, the newspaper declines to identify the man by name. The National Archives in Washington, DC contain the eyewitness statements from all three separate committees that investigated the Sultana Disaster and not one witness ever claimed that he saw “the doors of the furnace blown open…” This statement is entirely false and appears to be the workings of some reporter’s overactive imagination!39 It was hard at that time for them to figure out what was sabotage and what wasn’t. Many were revealed after the war was over for having been the sabotage they really were. The explosive technology being used was new. With the Courtenay Torpedo explosions triggered boiler explosions. Forensic evidence of sabotage was lost, or masked, due to the nature of the device.
As to the piece of shell that was found on the guard of the Sultana once the wreck was examined, Captain Postal reported, “We found among the rubbish portions of fire brick, pieces of coal & etc. and a piece of shell. It looked to me as if it had been subjected to severe heat.”40 Anything on board the Sultana on April 27, 1865 would have been subjected to “severe heat.” The entire superstructure of the boat burned to the water’s edge! And, if Robert Louden had been able to smuggle a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana, it certainly would not have looked like a “shell,” i.e. an artillery shell. The illustrations, which accompany Rule’s article, make that perfectly clear, and Streetor claimed that Louden had deposited his “lump of coal” on board the Sultana, not a “shell.” What did Captain Postal find? Perhaps it was a piece of the boiler, or perhaps not. We will never know. However, the three commissions that investigated the disaster came to the conclusion that the “shell” had no bearing on the explosion of the Sultana. On May 13, after two weeks of investigation, the Memphis Argus reported, “From indications about the wreck, and upon examination of the fragments of bodies raised, the idea advanced by some that her blowing up was from effects of the bursting of a shell, is explored, as is also that it was caused by the way in which she was loaded and the number of human beings on board. The true reason, as near as can be ascertained from ocular [visual] proof, is that the water was too low in her boilers and her fires were too hot, hence this sad calamity.”41 What did an exploded “shell” look like to Postal? How many had he seen and of what type? Whereas an unexploded Courtenay Torpedo would look like nothing other than coal, the exploded remnants of one may have looked to Postal like the remnants of an exploded artillery shell. Did he see interior fragments of the cast iron torpedo? Did he see a fragment of the fuse area of the torpedo?Postal’s observations may be irrelevant. Or they may be very relevant. They are part of evidence to be given due consideration, not dismissed out of hand. The three commissions barely investigated sabotage. Their focus was on responsibility for having so many people loaded on the Sultana. None of the three very brief commissions offer anything that conclusively rules out the possibility of sabotage.

Again, I emphasize a key point that Mr. Salecker is trying hard to avoid:

A Courtenay Torpedo is not a lump of coal. It is a cast iron shell shaped to look like a lump of coal. It was then covered in coal tar and coal dust to perfect the disguise. It was effective against steamboats and their boilers.

Third, regarding Ms Rule’s claim that “Several of the statements made by witnesses of the disaster lend credence to Louden’s story.” This statement appears to be a bit of an exaggeration. After studying the Sultana Disaster for more than 23-years, I have managed to accumulate the statements of 218 survivors (out of a total of about 550). Out of that number, only 4 men ever wrote that they believed in the “sabotage theory,” and three penned their reminiscences after 1888, after William Streetor managed to make his outrageous claim.42 When I said “several” I believe I was referring to three particular accounts. Thank you, Mr. Salecker for providing me with more evidence!However, it was descriptions of the explosion I was referring to, not survivor opinions about sabotage. Though on the boat at the time of the explosion, survivors really weren’t in a good position to have valid opinions about what caused the boilers to explode (unless they were steamboat men, or torpedo experts). Their personal narratives, while interesting and often heart-wrenching are of limited use in this venue.
Finally, although Rule stated that “Survivors mentioned flaming coals flying about.,” only 6 of the 218 statements that I have accumulated report “chunks of coal,” “burning coals from the furnace,” or “hot coals and cinders,” being scattered around. Undoubtedly, some hot coals were scattered around but not enough to convey the wild image of “flaming coals flying about.” And, if the “flaming coals” had been thrown all over the boat – on the bow, in the stern, all along the sides – fires would have broken out all over the place. The eyewitness statements suggest otherwise.43 “…flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks.” “The Sultana Tragedy” by Jerry O. Potter, page 83.”…hot ashes and flaming coals rained across the entire length of the vessel…” Potter, page 88.
When the boilers exploded, they disintegrated and left the top of the furnace exposed. The fire that ensued broke out when the shattered decks above the boilers collapsed and fell into the open furnaces. Corp. Erastus Winters (50th Ohio Inf.) had been asleep on the cabin deck, “just forward of the smokestacks…” When the explosion tore upward through the center of the boat, Winters said, “I found myself slipping down an incline, and landed on my feet on the coal pile in front of the furnaces.” Chester Berry (18th MI Inf.) recalled, “The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder.”44Every soldier that wrote about the start of the fire reported that the flames started in the center of the boat, proving that the furnace had not exploded outward, sending a “shower of flaming coal upwards into the night” or “flaming coals flying about!” The fire started in one place and one place only, when the shattered debris from above fell into the open furnace. In fact, had the soldiers not panicked, they might have been able to put out the fire.

Simeon Chelf (6th KY Cav.) wrote, “The men rushed to the bow of the boat and jumped overboard… After the main rush was over I had more room and could see what was going on. While gazing about I saw a fire start up in the coal that lay near the furnace. I looked for a bucket so as to get water to put it out, but couldn’t find any.” George Kayton, the pilot of the Sultana, said, “The fire could have been easily put out but all [the] buckets were blown overboard.” Corp. Thomas Sharp (2nd WV Cav.) agreed. He wrote, “Three or four men with buckets could have kept the wreck from burning.” Added Chester Berry, “A few pailsful [sic] of water would have put the fire out, but alas it was ten feet to the water and there was no rope to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks.”45

An explosion in the furnace would most likely send burning material upward through the stacks, which is consistent with the accounts of coals and ash falling, driven toward the back of the boat by wind. Salecker’s insistence that an explosion in the furnace would burst “outward”, other than through the furnace doors, seems to be his own speculative interpretation. The furnaces are not sealed units, as the pressurized boilers are. The force of the blast would direct to openings (doors, stacks) and into weak areas (boilers) with the shrapnel piercing the relatively thin boiler iron. Sides of the furnace, and the floor are the least likely areas to be damaged.A Courtenay Torpedo is not a particularly large bomb. By itself it is unlikely to cause major damage to a steamboat. It’s effectiveness, and the reason it was used, and used successfully, is that it had sufficient explosive force and shrapnel to cause the secondary explosion—it made the boilers blow up.
So, what then caused the explosion? If it was not a coal torpedo in the furnace, what was it? Again, let the facts and the eyewitness accounts tell what really happened.The Sultana carried four newly designed high-pressure tubular boilers. Each boiler measured 46-inches in diameter and 18 feet in length. The four boilers were set side-by-side over a brick and mortar furnace and connected underneath by a water pipe to maintain a common level of water in each boiler. Flues, or tubes, ran from one end of the boiler to the other, allowing hot air from the furnace to pass through the boilers. The average 1865 boiler contained two flues, ranging from twelve to sixteen inches in diameter. The Sultana, however had newly designed boilers with each boiler carrying twenty-four flues measuring five inches in diameter.46 Yes… the “facts and eyewitness accounts” that have failed for over 135 years to provide any conclusive proof as to the cause of the explosion.Mr. Salecker now provides a list of “the usual suspects.” None of these listed causes are actually proven and most of the “facts” are speculative observations and unproven theories.

There is little to say in counterargument as none of these hypothetical causes contradicts or disproves the assertion a Courtenay Torpedo triggered the boilers to explode. We know the boilers exploded. The question is what triggered the boilers to explode; a point on which Mr. Salecker does not offer conclusive proof.

To say that the Sultana had problems with her boilers would be an understatement. The boilers of the Sultana had been repaired two times in March, and again on April 24, 1865, while the paroled prisoners were being placed on board the boat at Vicksburg, The last repair had been necessitated when the chief engineer, Nathan Wintringer, discovered “a small leak in the larboard [i.e. left] boiler at the third sheet from the forward end, a few inches below the horizontal diameter of the boiler…” While the Sultana was being loaded with the prisoners, an experienced boiler mechanic riveted a temporary patch over the leak and declared the work, “a good job.” However, the mechanic felt that “from the appearance of the boiler when I repaired it, I think the iron was burned and that the boilers were used with little water.” (my underlining) Additionally, the mechanic felt that “so long as there is a sufficiency of water in the boiler there is no danger of an explosion.”47 A little further down Mr. Salecker says, “the path of the explosion proves that it was not the patch that failed.”Salecker has successfully refuted the repair at Vicksburg as the cause of the explosion. Next…
The problem with the boilers seemed to be in the design itself. The water of the Lower Mississippi was filled with silt. Since the water from the river was used inside the boilers, the silt got into the boilers and collected in pockets around the many flues. These “pockets” had a tendency to heat up, especially if the boat careened or tilted. When the Sultana went up river from Vicksburg, after having her boilers cleaned and repaired, the boat was a bit top-heavy because of all of the prisoners crowded onto her upper decks. At times, the boat careened in such a way that the crew of the boat feared that the Sultana would either capsize or that her boilers would explode. When a vessel careened, or tilted to one side, the water within the interconnected boilers flowed from the high boiler to the other(s). In other words, if there are four interconnected boilers set side-by-side, and the boilers are tilted to one side, the water in the highest boiler will flow into the lowest boiler. With no water inside the high boiler, the metal is exposed to the direct heat of the furnace and dry pockets of silt can form. These unprotected pockets turn red-hot and when the boat rights itself, the water rushes back into the boiler, hits the red-hot pocket, and immediately turns to steam. This increase in steam results in a sudden increase in pressure and if there is a weak spot on the boilers, a resulting explosion could occur.48 Mr. Salecker said the boilers had just been cleaned. So he has successfully refuted silt as the cause of the explosion. Next…
To demonstrate, present-day boiler mechanic and expert Donald Cooper of Hayes Boiler & Mechanical, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, suggested taking a glass of water and tipping it about five degrees. “The water level drops on the one side,” he wrote. “In a glass it only amounts to a fraction of an inch, but on a boiler (depending on its width) could be four to six inches.” He further suggests that to see an example of the “violent reaction of water against an overheated metal,” all one has to do is heat a frying pan and then pour some water on it. “You have to be very careful not to get burned from splashing hot water and steam.”49 The “careening” theory does have some support though not a great deal. Kayton, the pilot, who was in the pilot house at the top of the boat where effects of careening would be magnified, does mention careening but—interestingly—not at the point at which the explosion occurred. Rowberry, the first mate, was also in the pilot house and does not mention careening. Rowberry initially blamed sabotage. Careening seems to have come up as an afterthought to most who mention it at all. Most of those who do talk about careening weren’t even on the boat. How severe could any careening have been if so few onboard mention it? Wouldn’t any great degree of careening have sent a good percentage of the thousands on board to the railing puking, instead of sleeping peacefully?

Further, Hoffman, whose investigation was the most credible of the three done at the time, and who listened to the testimony of Rowberry, Kayton, and others on this point, concluded in his report that “There is nothing to show that there was any careening of the boat at the time of the disaster” [my emphasis]

The explosion that tore through the Sultana went upward and back at about a 30-degree angle. (It did not go downward!) The blast tore through the main cabin on the second deck, leaving a gaping hole in the floor and ceiling. Capt. J. Walter Elliott (44th USCT), asleep inside the main cabin, recalled, “Suddenly I find a yawning opening in the floor… The cabin, roof and texas are cut in twain; the broken planks on either side of the break projecting downward…” The blast continued up through the small collection of cabins occupied by the officers of the boat, known as the Texas cabins. Chief engineer Wintringer was asleep in his cabin, about midway on the Texas, and recalled, “I do not know how much, if any, of the Texas in front of my room was injured, but most of it behind my room appeared to have sunk down on the cabin or lower deck.”50Two men, pilot George Kayton and chief mate William Rowberry, were in the pilothouse as the blast continued upward. Only the back portion of the pilothouse was ripped off by the blast, sending the chief mate flying through the air, while the forward portion simply crumpled down into the gaping hole. Rowberry recalled, “We were seven miles up the river when the boilers exploded and I found myself in the river.” Added Kayton, “I was at the wheel and fell on top of the boilers where I was wedged in by the wreck. I crawled out [from] under the pilothouse…”51

The explosion clearly came from the back of one of the boilers, and from the top since the blast went upward and back. Since the patch that had been put on at Vicksburg was placed on the forward end of one boiler, the path of the explosion proves that it was not the patch that failed.

Again, Salecker’s interpretation of the nature of a sabotage explosion is his own contrivance and is not to be construed as having any connection to claims made in the article “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage.”
Just prior to the explosion, Corp. Robert M. Elza (3rd TN Cav) was near the boilers and was watching second engineer Samuel Clemens, the man on duty at the time of the explosion. Elza wrote:Nathan Markham [4th KY Cav.] was my bunk mate and he had made a bunk near the boilers on some poles. Between   12 and 1 o’clock I was sitting on the steps talking to J.F. Haun [Joshua A., 3rd TN Cav.], as we were going around the northwest side of the Hen and Chickens Island, endeavoring to enter what is known as Chute No. 40 to Mississippi rivermen. At this juncture I heard the engineer complain of his boilers being too full of water to make Chute No. 40, as it took a great deal of steam. He then blew some water out and closed the valve and struck the gauge, the boiler being still full of water. The engineer said, ‘D—m, it is not enough,’ blowing the water out the second time. He closed the valve and struck the gauge, and a dry steam whistle began to sound. At once I realized the danger, and went to my partner [Markham] and woke him, at the same time starting to tell Whittenbarger [Drewey A., 3rd TN Cav.] of the danger of the explosion. I said, ‘the engineer had –’ and at that juncture she blew up.52 In providing Elza’s account, Salecker damages one of his own earlier arguments. He criticized Streetor’s truthfulness and integrity because he hadn’t published his Louden/sabotage claim until 1888.Now we have the account of Robert Elza who didn’t publish his allegedly significant account until 1912!

Worse than just using a double-standard in his selection of evidence, Salecker offers no reason why Elza withheld his information for so long. Given Salecker’s earlier criticism of newspaper reporters, are we supposed to now accept an article from the Knoxville Sentinel without any secondary evidence?

Engineer Clemens was mortally scalded by the explosion but lived long enough to supposedly tell Chief Engineer Wintringer that there was “plenty of water in the boilers, and there was not an extra pressure of steam.” Perhaps Clemens was lying when he made his statement, after seeing what his “tampering” had caused, or perhaps he honestly believed that the boilers were full of water. When interviewed by the Washburn Inquiry, Wintringer admitted, “The water in boilers sometimes ‘foams’ as it is called, giving the appearance of plenty of water when there is little or none…”53 When Clemens let the water out of the boiler upon approaching Chute No. 40, he may honestly have felt that there was enough water in the boilers, when in reality there was not. A deathbed statement is a powerful thing, taken very seriously by courts of law. In an era more religious than ours, would Clemens imperil his immortal soul by going to judgment with both a lie and a guilty secret charged to him? Refuting a deathbed statement is a difficult matter.
Although the soldiers were asleep at the time of the explosion, the 1865 supervising inspector of steamboats, J.J. Witzig, rented a tugboat and followed the exact course of the Sultana just prior to her explosion. When the Sultana exploded, she had just completed crossing diagonally from the right side of the river to the left side, passing through the strong flood current. Witzig reported that when the tug followed the same course, “[it] did careen some.” When he was asked if “the Sultana with 1800 [sic] passengers on board, and no ballast or freight in the hold” would careen, Witzig replied, “My opinion is she ought to careen certainly.”54 J. J. Witzig, inspector of steamboats in St. Louis testified that he thought the numbers of men on board would cause the boat to careen and pose a danger of explosion of the boilers. However, he also reported that it was the patch that caused the explosion. Salecker has already said that the patch wasn’t the cause thus discrediting his own best witness in favor of careening. Witzig was scorned as an incompetent drunk by engineer Wintringer who said Witzig had even drunkenly fallen off the boat on the way to Memphis.12 And by early 1867 Witzig had been removed from his position for malfeasance!13 Next…
Chief engineer W. W. B. Richardson of another 1865 steamboat, reported:”The fires under the boilers of the steamboat are very intense, and but a few moments are required to heat to redness any part of the boiler not covered by water, exposed to it; and when, by the careening of the boat, the water is thrown from the highest boiler to the lowest ones, the exposed parts of the boilers may be so heated in a very little while, as to cause an explosion on the boats being righted, causing the water to flow back into the heated boilers, the sudden generation of steam thus caused being too powerful for the weakened iron. On this account a boat that is top heavy as the Sultana was, is in much more danger than a boat with its load in its hold.”55 Speculation.
Richardson went on to state that, “When a boiler bursts from the giving way of a weak place or a patch, the fracture is not confined to the point that gives way first, but it covers more or less of the boiler, which is generally wholly destroyed, and with it much of the boat, by the great power of steam which is so suddenly let loose.”56Another engineer and boilermaker, Isaac West, was interviewed on May 14, 1865. He stated, “Boilers may be destroyed either by bursting or destroying… In the second case, one or more boilers of the set are entirely destroyed by the sudden development of steam by some unusual cause, which acts on the boilers like the ignition of so much gunpowder. This explosion is in all cases occasioned by the want of sufficient water in the boilers, in which case the boilers or the flues become heated to redness, and when the water is again forced into them, the sudden development of steam, which is caused by the water coming in contact with the heated iron, acts like the burning of a mass of gunpowder, and the immediate destruction of the boilers is the consequence.”

“In the case of the Sultana,” he concluded, “…I am inclined to believe that the explosion took place from a deficiency of water in the boilers… The Sultana’s boilers were of the tubular kind, having about twenty [flues] in each boiler, and if at any time the water should be below the upper tier for a few minutes, they would become red-hot, and on the return of the water to its proper level, they would in all probability collapse which would probably result immediately in the explosion of the boilers.”57

J.S. Neal, captain of the 1865 steamboat Indiana, was interviewed and stated, “In my opinion boilers never explode except from the absence of sufficient water in them.” When asked, “What would be the effect on a steamer crossing diagonally the current of the Mississippi River if it was heavily loaded, on the cabin and hurricane decks, and lightly freighted in the hold and on the main deck?” Neal’s answer was, “It would careen even if its lower decks were freighted and much more if the boat was top heavy.”58

And finally, even Chief Engineer Wintringer had an opinion on the cause of the disaster. In his testimony before the Hoffman Investigation he stated, “…I can only assign as the probable cause of the disaster that the boat was top heavy and was consequently inclined to careen over from side to side and in this way the water has been thrown from the upper boilers to the lower ones, exposing some parts of the upper ones to be heated, which parts gave way, where the water was suddenly brought back to its proper level.”59

This is also what would happen if a Courtenay Torpedo exploded in the furnace. As with the others on the list of hypothetical causes, this in no way contradicts a coal torpedo as the cause of the boilers exploding.

New York Times, May 18, 1865:

“This was the awful contrivance employed with so much success by rebels in blowing up our transports on the Mississippi, and it is suspected that the awful disaster to the Sultana was accomplished by one of these diabolical things.”

This article is talking specifically about the Courtenay Torpedo pictured in the article; the one found in Jefferson Davis’ office in Richmond. The Courtenay Torpedo was a popular, and successful, means of destroying steamboats.

Noted historian William A. Tidwell in “April ’65” says:

“The whole truth about the Sultana may never be known, but the circumstances surrounding its sinking are almost exactly what they would have been if it had been ‘hit’ by a Courtenay torpedo.”

Tidwell also says:

“Capt. Thomas E. Courtenay developed a torpedo of cast iron in the shape of a lump of coal… At some point the device would be shoveled into the firebox of the engine along with the coal. Within a few seconds or minutes the bomb would explode and tear open the boiler, causing a secondary explosion of steam. The steam explosion would mask the cause of the disaster, making it appear to be an industrial accident instead of enemy sabotage.”


“Major Norris of the Confederate Signal Corp recommended to the secretary of war that the use of the disguised torpedoes be extended to additional places behind enemy lines.”

Instead of the impractical sabotage scenario put forth by Rule, boiler expert Cooper put forth a scenario of his own:”The Sultana, running with 135 pounds per square inch of steam pressure, top heavy, and slightly low on the water, lists thus exposing [a] portion of the boiler metal… to direct heat with no water against it. This area of the boiler overheats and the metal fatigues. The boat moves out of the main current and rights itself. The water returns to level against the overheated, fatigued metal, causing the area to explode out…”60 From St. Louis, April 25, 1865:

“Since the outbreak of the rebellion to the present time over seventy steam-boats owned in Saint Louis have been destroyed… Of this number only nine have been fired by rebels in arms, and there can be little doubt but the greater portion of the balance were fired by the above [list of organized boat-burners, including Louden] or similar emissaries of the rebel government.”

The Confederates did not find sabotage “impractical”.

Supervising Inspector J.J. Witzig concurred. In 1865 he stated, “I can only assign one cause [to the explosion] – over-pressure at the time.” Over-pressure caused by a sudden increase in steam, caused by the careening of the boat and a lack of water in the boilers. As Corporal Elza witnessed, the reason for the low water was the questionable actions of Second Engineer Clemens.In January and February of 1866, the boilers on the steamboats Missouri and W.R. Carter, respectively, exploded without warning. Steamboat historian Frederick Way, Jr., wrote, “Both were equipped with tubular boilers then considered the rage because of their fuel-saving attributes. The U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service outlawed them almost overnight. Many steamboats were withdrawn from service and were given regular Western-type boilers immediately thereafter.”61 The Sultana had been another victim of the explosion of tubular. Wrote Chief Engineer Wintringer:

“Now what did cause this explosion? The explosion of the ‘Walker R. Carter’ and ‘Missouri,’ in rapid succession, I think fully answers that question. It was the construction of those boilers. After these three fatal explosions they were taken out of all steamers using them and replaced with the old style of boiler. They were en experiment on the lower Mississippi. They had been used with some success on the upper Mississippi, where the water at all times is clear and not liable to make sediment or scale. As I said before, those boilers were an experiment on the lower Mississippi, and had not been long in use there, and it was the opinion of experts that it would have been only a question of time for all steamers using those boilers to have gone the way of the ‘Carter,’ ‘Missouri,’ and the ‘Sultana’ went, had they have not been taken out and replaced by others.”62

Witzig assigned at least three different causes to the explosion, at least one of which Salecker himself refuted.

One of the things that bothers me most about this whole Sultana sabotage question I’ve ended up immersed in is the image of Sultana as somehow existing in a bubble of uniqueness, isolated and untouched by all surrounding events and activities. This is why Mason’s connections to the Confederates and to Louden come as a surprise to so many. You can see this attitude in many of Mr. Salecker’s arguments. Sultana could not possibly have had a saboteur sneak on board because of the amazing security and guarding it had. No, it didn’t. It was a commercial transport in Union service. It wasn’t the only one. It was far from being the only one. If there had been only 200 people on board Sultana instead of 2000… there would be no controversy. There’s no controversy about Louden destroying the Ruth. Salecker’s not disputing that one. Does he know—do you know—about the Campbell with its individual tales of death as horrific as any on the Sultana? How about the Champion, the Imperial, the Hiawatha, the Post Boy, the Jesse K. Belle, the Forest Queen, the Chancelor, the Glasgow, the Welcome, the Sunshine, the E. M. Ryland, the Sam Kirkman, the James Wood, the Minnetonka, the Sally Wood, the Skylark, the Catler, the Mussellman, the W. H. Sidell, the D. A. Taylor, the A. J. Sweeney, the Venus, the West Wind, the J. W. Cheesman, the Allen Collier… do you know these names and remember them as reverently as you do the Sultana?

60 dead on the Champion. 26 dead on the Ruth. Over 100 dead on the Robert Campbell. As many as 156 dead on the City of Madison. Do you remember these lives lost as you do those on Sultana?

In summary, it was a number of factors that caused the destruction of the Sultana, including poorly designed boilers, top-heaviness, lack of ballast in the hold, careening, and low water in the boilers. However, it most definitely was not sabotage! In spite of all of Rule’s statements that “it is possible” or “may have been” or “probably” or “seems to have been,” it still remains that her only concrete evidence to suggest that it was sabotage that caused the destruction of the Sultana is the statement of a questionable “loyal Union man” reporting the drunken ramblings of a convicted murderer and arsonist. When all of the facts and the eyewitness accounts are taken into consideration, the case for sabotage simply falls apart.Dismissed. Next case please… Bear in mind this all took place during a war; a vicious, mercilessly fought war. Despite the popular—and inaccurate14—notion that the Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender it did not. The Mississippi River was still a war zone at this time. The Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi had vowed to fight on, and did. This was Louden’s department. Louden, McCoy, Tucker… and numerous other known steamboat saboteurs were unsurrendered and still fighting a war on the Mississippi River. Moreover, in April 1865 they were fighting a last-ditch, desperate war, a war which they would not be allowed to quit; not be allowed to go home.15Mr. Salecker can fling away the cautious “probably” if he likes in favor of his “most definitely”. Ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit his multiple theories doesn’t prove his case, nor disprove mine.

1) D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 78.
2) Ibid., 78, 82.
3) St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888.
4) Rule’s own Website, Civil War St. Louis.
5) D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 79-81.
6)  Ibid., 78; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888.
7)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 81.
8)  Ibid., 78, 84; St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888.
9)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 87, n. 61.
10)  Ibid., 85; Rule’s own Website, Civil War St. Louis.
11)  “Transcript of Court-Martial of Captain Frederic Speed, (hereafter Speed Court-Martial), 369-71; U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion, 1st ser., vol. 48, pt. 1. 217-18.
12)  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888.
13)  Ibid.
14)  Rule’s own Website, Sabotage Scenario
15)  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888; D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 84.
16)  Walter G. Porter’s statement in Chester Berry,  Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, (Lansing, MI: 1892), (hereafter Berry, Loss of the Sultana), 287; Hosea C. Aldrich, Cahawba Prison: A Glimpse of Life in a Rebel Prison, (Jerome, MI: n.d.), 15.
17)  Nathan Wintringer’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 26.
18)  Charles E. Compton’s testimony in Speed Court-Martial, 147-48; “The Chicago Opera Troupe,” Memphis Daily Bulletin, April 28, 1865, 3; G. Monroe Lock, “Women on the Sultana,” National Tribune, May 31, 1923, 6; William D. Snow’s statement in “Records of Inquiry Conducted by Major General Washburn,” (hereafter cited as Washburn Inquiry).
19)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 80; Rule’s own Website, White Cloud Incident
20)  Chester D. Berry’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 47.
21)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 83.
22)  George Kayton’s statement in Washburn Inquiry.
23)  Nathan Wintringer’s statement in “Records of the Investigation Conducted by General William Hoffman,” Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Record Group 153, National Archives [hereafter Hoffman Investigation]; Nathan Wintringer’s testimony in Speed Court-Martial, 167.
24)  Rule’s own Website, Sabotage Scenario.
25)  Nathan Wintringer’s testimony in Speed Court-Martial, 167; Simeon D. Chelf’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 87; “River News,” War Eagle (Cairo, IL), April 14 and 15, 1865.
26)  Ken Watson, Paddle Steamers: An Illustrated History of Steamboats on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries, 37, 40.
27)  William Rowberry’s statement in Hoffman Investigation.
28)  “Caring for the Living and the Dead,” and “Two Brave Fellows,” both in Memphis Daily Bulletin, April 28, 1865, 2.
29)  J.H. Curtis, “Only Living Eyewitness Details Sultana Explosion,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, January 25, 1920.
30)  James H. Berry quoted in “Ensign Berry’s Report,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, April 29, 1902, 8; U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion, 1st ser., vol. 48, pt. 1, 225; Ira B. Horner’s and Truman M. Smith’s statements in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 178, 327-8.
31)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 78.
32)  Ken Watson, Paddle Steamers: An Illustrated History of Steamboats on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries, 66; Alan L. Bates, The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium, 42-44.
33)  Jacob Homer’s statement in George Schmutz, History of the 102nd Regiment, OVI, 245; Hugh Kinser’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 209.
34)  Quoted in “Ándrew T. Peery’s Story of the Sinking of the Sultana April 27, 1865,” Maryville [TN] Enterprise, April 30, 1975, 1.
35)  Louis C. Hunter, Steamboats on the Western Rivers, 292.
36)  D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 84.
37)  William Rowberry’s statement in Hoffman Investigation; “The Chief Mate’s Testimony,” Memphis Daily Bulletin, April 28, 1865, 1; “Chief Mate, Steamer Sultana,” Memphis Argus, April 29, 1865, 3.
38)  “Was it a Fiendish Atrocity,” and “River News,” Memphis Daily Bulletin, May 2, 1865, 4.
39)  Washburn Inquiry; Hoffman Investigation; “Records of the Commission Conducted by General Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana,” Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, Record Group 153, National Archives.
40)  William C. Postal’s statement in Washburn Inquiry.
41)  “More Concerning the Sultana Disaster,” Memphis Argus, May 13, 1865, 3.
42)  Statements of Philip L. Horn, Samuel H. Raudebaugh, and Christian Ray, all in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 177, 295, 296; James H. McCurdy, “The Sultana Explosion,” The National Tribune, August 30, 1888, 3.
43)  Statements of Otto Bardon, Wiley J. Hodges, and Albert W. King, all in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 39, 173, 201; B.F. Johnston, “Sultana Disaster,” The National Tribune, May 10, 1900, 7; “Civil War Reminiscences – J.R. Collins Tells of Sinking of the Sultana,” Plainville [KS] Times, May 28, 1908, 1; Ralph W. Stark, “The River Steamer Sultana Disaster,” Boone [IN], Your County Magazine, July 1978, 7.
44)  Erastus Winters, In the 50th Ohio Serving Uncle Sam, 165; Chester D. Berry’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 49.
45)  Statements of Simeon D. Chelf and Chester D. Berry, both in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 49, 88; Thomas Sharp, “The Sultana Disaster,” The National Tribune, November 21, 1912, 7; “Testimony of the Pilot,” Memphis Daily Bulletin, April 29, 1865, 1.
46  “River News,” Cincinnati Daily Commercial, February 4, 1863, 4; Inspector’s Certificate of Sultana, April 12, 1865; Alan L. Bates, The Western Rivers Steamboat Cyclopoedium, 42-3; Ken Watson, Paddle Steamers: An Illustrated History of Steamboats on the Mississippi and Its Tributaries, 65-7.
47)  Wintringer’s statement in Hoffman Investigation; R.G. Taylor testimony in Washburn Inquiry; Wintringer’s testimony in Speed Court-Martial, 164, 166, 169-70; Henry J. Lyda’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 28
48)  Witzig’s testimony in Speed Court-Martial, 132.
49)  Donald Cooper to author, June 17, 1993.
50)  J. Walter Elliott, “By Fire and Flood,” The National Tribune, June 30, 1887; Wintringer’s testimony in Hoffman Investigation.
51)  “Testimony of the Pilot,” Memphis Daily Bulletin, April 28, 1865, 1; Rowberry’s statement in Hoffman Investigation.
52)  “Commemoration of Heroic Deeds on Ill-Fated Boat,” Knoxville Sentinel, April 27, 1912.
53)  Wintringer’s statement in Hoffman Investigation.
54)  Witzig’s statement in Speed Court-Martial, 133.
55)  W.W.B. Richardson’s statement in Hoffman Investigation.
56)  Ibid.
57)  Isaac West’s statement in Ibid.
58)  J. S. Neal testimony in Washburn Inquiry.
59)  Wintringer’s statement in Ibid.
60)  Donald Cooper to author, June 17, 1993.
61)  Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1994, 326-7.
62)  Wintringer’s statement in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 25-6.

Footnotes1) Louden Trial transcript, 280 pages, National Archives; Louden letter in Provost Marshal records M345, roll 170, Louden was convicted of burning the Ruth and several other steamers, mail carrying, and spying.  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888

2) The original manuscript of “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” was 6600 words and included 127 footnotes of sources (for comparison, Mr. Salecker’s rebuttal here was 7800 words with 62 footnotes). The published version of the article in North & South had about 1000 words removed and the footnotes were condensed into 61 footnotes with each footnote encompassing several sources. No single source was taken at face value but was backed by at least one independent source, in many cases two or more, wherever possible using sources from both the Union and Confederate sides.

3) John B. Castleman, “Active Service,” citing an 1886 correspondence from Jefferson Davis regarding Duke’s magazine “Southern Bivouac.” In 1917 Castleman still complied with Davis’ wishes.

4) “Blockade Runners of Vicksburg,” Valley Trust Magazine, 1926; A. A. Hoehling, “Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege”; John N. Edwards, “Shelby and His Men”; Louden Trial transcripts, NARA; Provost Marshal records M345 (several rolls); numerous others

5) The White Cloud Incident (original sources for the White Cloud Incident include trial transcripts, witness depositions, newspaper accounts, witness accounts, Federal detective reports, the Official Records, Gratiot Street Prison records, and genealogical records)

6) Provost Marshal records, J. W. Tucker file, M345, roll 270

7) Boat-Burners in the Official Records (take note of the other red-highlighted sections as well)

8) M. M. Quaife, “Confederate Mail Runner” 1926 Yale University Press

9) Arthur C. McCoy

10) Additional citations: “OSS Special Weapons and Equipment: Spy devices of WWII” by H. Keith Melton. New York: Sterling, 1991, page 97. Coal bombs were also carried by the German Spies who landed on Long Island in 1942 (Operation Pastorius). “Germany’s Spies and Saboteurs” by David Allen Johnson. Motorbooks International, 1998, page 66.

11) Thomas E. Courtenay (at a website by Tom Thatcher, a descendant of Courtenay, from published article “Military Collector and Historian”, the journal of the Company of Military Historians, Vol. XI, Spring 1959 by Joseph Thatcher). Tom Thatcher will soon be publishing an article on Courtenay and the Courtenay Torpedo which will greatly expand upon the effectiveness, targets, and physical characteristics of the torpedo.

12) Jerry O. Potter “The Sultana Tragedy” pg. 157. Quoting letter of Wintringer.

13) Senate Executive Journal, Journal of the executive proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, January 22, 1867

14) In the foreword to Salecker’s “Disaster on the Mississippi” Jerry O. Potter says, “It [the war] ended when the tattered Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox.” This is a popular notion but is profoundly inaccurate, especially as concerns the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, of which Louden was a part. They had vowed to fight on-and did-not surrendering until May 26th (or June 2nd, depending on who you believe had authority to surrender the department). Gene Salecker assures us that he recognizes this fact as well.
15) Author J. M. Bundy, staff officer to General Pope. Bundy personally delivered the offer of surrender terms to Kirby Smith in May of 1865. “Thousands more were Missourians who had little expectation of being allowed to return safely to their homes”. Galaxy magazine, January 1870, “The Last Chapter in the History of the War”. Also says, “Attorney-General Speed had issued an official opinion to the effect that paroled Confederate soldiers who had come from loyal border states—like Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee—could not ‘return to their homes’.” Of course Louden had a much more specific reason—he was under sentence of death!

See also:

The Boat-Burners

A. C. Grimes

Louden Letters

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

The White Cloud Incident

The Sabotage Scenario

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

Boat-burners in the Official Records

J. W. Tucker and the Boat-burners

The Steamer Ruth

The Steamer Robert J. Campbell, Jr.

White Cloud Incident

Sabotage of the Sultana…

The White Cloud & the Rowena—the paths of Robert Louden and James Cass Mason cross:

Mason’s and Louden’s paths crossed early in 1863 in a curious intersection of events. February 13, 1863, on the river near Memphis, two steamers were stopped, searched and seized by the Federal Gunboat U.S.S. New Era. One of these was the steamer White Cloud. Found aboard was a large Rebel mail. According to witness testimony, it was Louden’s mail, bound south from St. Louis for General Price’s army. Louden escaped capture, slipping over the side of the boat and swimming away.

The other steamer seized was the Rowena with Rebel contraband on board. Captain of the Rowena, at this time, was J. Cass Mason. The boat was named for his wife, Rowena M. Dozier, and owned by her father, a St. Louis businessman in the river trade. The Rowena was confiscated by the Federal government. Apparently because of this event all business relations between Mason and his father-in-law ceased. After this date Mason became captain of the Belle Memphis and seems to have halted any smuggling work for the Confederates.

Is it coincidence that Mason had been smuggling for the Confederates and was caught at the same time and in the same place as Louden with his own contraband? Possibly. But Louden certainly would know of Mason and the Rowena incident. This would be the time at which Mason effectively switched sides and threw his lot in with the Union. There is evidence—records of arrests of disloyal citizens in St. Louis—that Dozier, Mason’s father-in-law was actively working with the Rebels. Mason may well have been viewed as a turn-coat by the Rebels of St. Louis.

Only two months after the WhiteCloud/Rowena incident, Mason captained the Belle Memphis that carried Louden’s wife into exile. Robert Louden was certainly familiar with Mason and his reputation. Louden was connected to every bit of news on the river. In April 1865 Mason with his boat-load of human gold (as Mason’s motivation for cramming so many on the Sultana was the price per head he got) would have struck Louden as a serious temptation and good target to strike at in many ways.

Sabatage of the Sultana – Survivor Remembrances

Sabotage of the Sultana…

Remembrances of some survivors:

Hodges is one of those that was immediately covered by flaming coal that must have come from the furnace.

Wiley J. Hodges

Excerpted from “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors” by Rev. Chester D. Berry, 1892

* * *

My bunk was near the boiler, and on the night of the terrible accident I lay with a blanket over me. I was awakened by an explosion an found myself covered with burning coals from the furnaces. I was not long in springing to my feet and throwing my burning blanket away and getting away from that locality.

Clearly not a big fan of William C. Streetor. One wonders if Raudebaugh knew that Streetor himself had been a Union soldier.  Neither the Memphis nor St. Louis articles on Streetor say anything about “chiseled a hole” in a lump of coal.  This seems to be Raudebaugh’s own interpretation. He’d apparently never heard of a Courtenay torpedo.

Samuel H. Raudebaugh

Excerpted from “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors” by Rev. Chester D. Berry, 1892

* * *

Now, remember, kind reader, we were on our way home from the cruel war, it being virtually over. We were on our way home from those horrid dens of cruelty and starvation. Yes, we had lived through it all, and hoped, “Yes, expected soon to see loved ones at home and enjoy at least some of the peace we had fought to restore. Home! Yes, home under the stars and stripes, once more. While thus pleasantly meditating, all of a sudden, about half-past one o’clock A.M. one of the boilers exploded and the greater part of that human load was blown into the river, while sound asleep  –some to awake in the cold water and some in eternity. Those that were not blown off at the time of the explosion were soon compelled to jump into the river so as to escape burning to death, for the boat quickly caught fire and burned to the water’s edge. About 1,750 of that homeward-bound company perished then and there, and several hundred more poor fellows died in the next ten days from wounds, burns and scalds.  I say, fearless of truthful contradiction, that the explosion of the Sultana was the greatest calamity of the war against the slave-holding rebels, and it was the greatest steamboat disaster known to history.

You will naturally ask two questions, first, “How did you escape?” and second, “How did the calamity occur?” To the latter question I can but give my opinion, and that has never changed since I got ashore and took time to think. I believe that some enemy of our Union had a hand in crowding so many of us on the boat, and that he knew when that southern sugar was taken off that the rest of the cargo and the boat would meet the fate that followed. I believe that some ally of Jeff. Davis put a torpedo in the coal, while we were at Memphis, where it would go into the furnace for the first that would be built after leaving Memphis, with the intent to destroy the boat and its mass of human heroes on their way home. I can say that in May, 1888, a man in the south, William C. Streeter, St. Louis, Mo, said that he knew the man, Charles Dale, who said he chiseled a hole in a large chunk of coal, put the torpedo therein which did the deadly work, carried it with his own hands and laid it where it must soon go into the furnace.

I will say one thing more and that is, if I were in authority I would arrest and hang the man who knew so high-handed and bloody a murderer and did not try to have him brought to justice for so gigantic a crime. [which is extremely unfair to Streetor who truly sounded upset that Louden hadn’t been hung in 1864]

Sabotage of the Sultana – Globe Democrat

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


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. . .]

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


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


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.”