February 18, 2012

Historical Document, 1863: Mississippi Steamboat"The Ruth" Burns, 1863

How the New York Observer Story looked
After the American Century

Here are two accounts of a steamboat accident, the first from the New York Observer and Chronicle, August 13, 1863, the second an eye-witness account from The Philadelphia Inquirer  which supplements the first story in many interesting ways. The disaster occurred in the midst of the Civil War, just five weeks after the North won the battle of Vicksburg and thereby gained control over the entire Mississippi Valley.

Steamer Burned and Great Loss of Life
from the New York Observer and Chronicle, August 13, 1863,
A despatch from Cairo dated Cairo Wednesday August 5: The steamer Ruth, valued at $10,000, was burned last night at midnight at the foot of Island No. 1  She was bound for Helena [Arkansas], and had on board eight paymasters and their clerks, with $2,600,000 in "greenbacks" to pay General Grant's army. There were about 200 persons on board, of whom 30 were lost. The captain, the first and second officers, and all the rest of the crew were saved. The papers and all the books of the boat were lost. Thirty-one soldiers of company I, North Wisconsin, acted as a guard to the paymasters, under the command of Lieut. Courrier. Of these one corporal and four privates were lost, and three kills by a stage plank falling on them while in the water. The boat had aboard 99 head of beef cattle, 120 mules, 400 tons of commissary and settlers' stores, and about 100 tons of private freight, which were lost.

The fire broke out in the aft part of the boat; some say between the decks others in the nursery rooms. As soon as the fire was discovered the boat was headed for the shore on the Missouri side, and struck the bank with full force, the fire having driven the engineers from their posts, and the engines, consequently, continued to work. As soon as she struck, a number jumped ashore, but her stern soon swung round down stream, and as the engines were still working her bow was burned from the shore and she again started down the river. When she left the shore about thirty persons were aboard, nearly all of whom must have perished. The soldiers are said to have acted heroically, and to have stood by the boxes containing the money until it was certain that all was consumed. The boxes were bound and too heavy to be removed, besides, the flames spread all over the boat in less than five minutes.

This image from The Police Gazette, 1888, does not depict the disaster described but a similar incident.

THE DISASTER ON THE MISSISSIPPI.; Destruction of the Steamer Ruth.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer August 14, 1863

CAIRO, Ill., Aug. 5, 1863.

I am one of the sixteen members of our department who left St. Louis on the evening of the 3d inst. in the ill-fated steamer Ruth for Vicksburgh, and now, through the blessing of Almighty God, am able to write you this brief statement of the dreadful termination of our voyage. Our trip was a quiet one and peculiarly pleasant -- as so many of us were familiarly acquainted with each other, and the boat was not crowded, having but a few passengers -- in comparison to my experience on former journeys on this river. Under the Major's charge was the sum of two millions six hundred thousand dollars, and the corps of paymasters.

As a guard, we had a company of the Ninth Wisconsin infantry, under command of Lieut. COURIER. We reached Cairo at 9 P.M., and most of us remained conversing upon the front deck until the boat departed, which was at 11 o'clock. Feeling fatigued, I retired to my state-room at this hour, but not to sleep long, for I was suddenly wakened by the Major at 12 o'clock, who stated that the boat was on fire, imploring me to get up immediately. I sprang from my berth, took my watch from under my pillow, placed it on a chair, and hurriedly drew on my pants. Looking from my state-room door upon the guards. I saw that the fire was in the stern of the boat, which was making rapid progress to the shore. I therefore thought that the advance of the flames would be slow. Vain conceit! I had only time to throw on my vest and coat, draw on my socks and one boot, having the other partially on, when the fire burst into my stateroom door. I seized my watch in one hand, and my carpetsack (which was by the chair) in the other, and dashed through the smoke and fire for the front of the boat. At this moment there was a terrible crash and jar, rolling the smoke in blinding clouds, and spurting the flames through the entire vessel. I knew we had struck the shore, and felt I was safe. Seeing the front portion of the cabin free from fire. I took a rapid glance of our money and property stored there, and went to the head of the stairs on the outer deck, which I found filled with men struggling to get precedence -- among them four of our guard with one of our smaller boxes. I will here leave myself and tell you of Maj. BRINTON's movements. Upon leaving me, he informs me, he went to the front upper deck, and there gave directions to the guard, who were cool and obedient. He leaned over the railing, as the soldiers were on the the deck below, not being aware that the boat was close to shore, when she struck. The blow had all the force that two powerful engines could give it, and the boat felt to me like a telescope that was being closed up. As the vessel struck, the Major was precipitated head-foremost to the deck below, but, fortunately for him, struck some one beneath with his shoulder, which broke the fall, and he was only severely bruised. Some poor fellow, name unknown, came down with him, but he struck solidly upon deck and never stirred afterward. For a second the Major was unable to move, but upon recovering found that the boat had not remained upon the bank, but was rapidly receding to the middle of the river; the gang plank had been shoved on shore and was just falling when he sprang upon it and reached the shore as it fell. It was fortunate he did so, as he was too severely hurt to swim. In the fall of the plank three of the soldiers I had seen carrying the box of money were struck beneath the water, never to rise again.

All this time I was unconscious of the boat's movements, and when I found the stairs clear and had reached the deck, I discovered, to my dismay, that we were some distance from the shore. A group of men stood with me on the receding vessel, debating upon the chances of a jump and swim for life. Every one seemed calm, and I heard men speaking, but not a sound of excitement could be defected in their voices. Major JAMESON and Major WHITE were standing talking with poor LAMSON, who was lost, (Maj. JAMESON's clerk, the only child of a Boston clergyman,) persuading him to jump with a shutter, he being unable to swim. I went to the bow of the boat, put my watch in my pocket, took off my coat, vest and boots and laid them on my valise. While doing this, Maj. JAMESON had jumped overboard with his trunk, which was light and buoyant, and saved his life. Maj. WHITE followed immediately after, and struck out for shore. As I was taking off my last boot the steam drum burst with a terrible explosion, and the next instant I was under water, and soon engaged in the most terrible struggle for life that I have ever dreamed of. It will give you some idea of my position when I tell you I was nearly as far from the shore as from Market to Chestnut-street, an easy distance fur one to swim who was prepared for it; but with heavy clothing, and muscles relaxed from sickness, I found it a dreadful task. The engine of the starboard wheel had stopped, but that of the larboard was in motion, and this gradually threw the stern of the boat round, so I was obliged to swim with all my power against a strong current to avoid the burning stern. I passed it, but my head felt as if it was being toasted, and I several times went under water to avoid its intensity.

After this I swam more slowly, but felt my strength was almost gone; the shore seemed dark and distant, I looked back at the boat; just then some poor fellow sprang for his life; as he touched the water a bullock (the boat was loaded with them) jumped upon him; the bullock swam away; the man never rose again. I was now near the shore, but had not strength to reach it. Mr. GREVES, seeing me, and how exhausted I was, caught a cotton-wood tree, which is long and slim, and held it to me. I used my only remaining strength, and, reaching, seized it, and was drawn to shore. I cannot express what my feelings were when I reached that beach. I saw but a few men scattered here and there out of two hundred we started with, and Maj. BRINTOM not among them. My strength was gone. I thought I was dying. When I recovered a little. I found those who came off the boat first had clambered up the bank, which was very steep and overgrown with cotton-wood. The heat of the burning vessel was too severe for any to remain below.

Among those thus saved was the Major. You may imagine my delight. This takes some time to relate, but you will scarcely credit it, when I assure you, that from the breaking out of the fire up to the time when I jumped overboard was three minutes, and then the fire was bursting from the windows of the office in the front of the boat. Not a soul could have lived five minutes from its commencement. The boat was a new one, and had the most perfect apparatus for subduing fire of any on the Western waters, but so rapid was the progress of the flames that it was impossible to make use of it.

I need not tell you that I saved nothing but what I swam to shore in, and found myself without coat, vest, boots and hat. We kindled a fire, and, having arrayed myself like Adam in Paradise, I dried the few clothes that remained to me, and was soon again comfortable. I am thankful to several unknown persons for acts of kindness. At four in the morning the steamer Shinglis came from Columbus, and took all that remained to Cairo, where we were soon comfortably located, but will proceed by next train to St. Louis. The loss by this disaster is greater than any that ever occurred in river navigation, not only a large amount of money being destroyed, but a very valuable cargo and vessel. To the members of the Pay Department it is irreparable, as all the papers accumulated since entering service are destroyed. I arrived at Cairo at 6 o'clock, and after writing some letters and sending telegrams, I went with Maj. BRINTON on board the Ravina, to view the wreck and see if we could find any trace of bodies or valuables. We found it three miles below where she first struck, in deep water -- only a few timbers, pieces of the machinery, and the side of a wheelhouse being left to mark its resting-place. Floating on the surface of the water, tied to timber, were the charred and swollen remains of cattle and mules.

We found no trace of any of the lost, and returned to Cairo too late for to-day's train. I start for St. Louis to-morrow, and will again write. We seem to be reaping nothing but sorrow in this district. I have just learned of the death of Maj. M.K. HAZELTON, at Memphis. He was a gentleman and a fine officer, and as great a loss to the Government as to his friends. Nine others are very ill; we can't stand the climate. HARRY.