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A Tale of Two Steamers

Government steamers played an important role in the Civil War, particularly on Western waters. Yet, little is known about the contribution of these workhorses to the war effort. These two spectacularly tinted images, which show shipping activities along the Mississippi River, shine a light on the stories of two of these vessels.

The Edward Walsh: In Confederate and Union Service

The Edward Walsh appears moored at the far end of this row of steamers. An unidentified side-wheel gunboat and an Eads gunboat, so named for wealthy St. Louis industrialist James Buchanan Eads, lie just off shore. Several laden wagons approach the camera. Sixth-plate tintype (reversed) possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La. 
The Edward Walsh appears moored at the far end of this row of steamers. An unidentified side-wheel gunboat and an Eads gunboat, so named for wealthy St. Louis industrialist James Buchanan Eads, lie just off shore. Several laden wagons approach the camera. Sixth-plate tintype (reversed) possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La. 

A state of confusion existed along the Mississippi River during the first months of war. The Provisional Confederate government wished to maintain free trade between St. Louis and New Orleans. Pro-slavery factions in St. Louis and other border state cities supported the passage of a law to this effect. Unionists demanded that all river trade with the South be closed, but President Abraham Lincoln delayed any action until he secured the support of the Border States. Finally, on July 14, 1861, Congress authorized him to end commerce with the seceded states. Lincoln issued a public declaration to this effect on August 16, 1861.

One of the steamboats at the center of this controversy was the Edward Walsh. Possibly named for a St. Louis merchant of this name, it operated out of New Orleans under Capt. John H. Burke, whose allegiance lay with the South. Two days after the opening shots were fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the steamer lay at St. Louis preparing to return south with freight and passengers.

According to the pro-Southern Louisville Daily Democrat of April 20, “Crowds were attracted to the Ed. Walsh, which was about to leave for New Orleans, by the report that Captain Burk had been informed by the United States Marshal that if he attempted to go past the Arsenal, his boat would be fired into and sunk…” The same report concluded, “In view if this, one thousand armed Minute Men had been offered to the boat for protection during her passage to Cairo.” River traffic reports indicate that the Edward Walsh left St. Louis without further incident, and passed Vicksburg on April 23, reaching New Orleans several days later.

While moored at the Crescent City, the Walsh was loaded with 964 kegs and 572 half kegs of gunpowder, which it transported to Memphis for delivery to forwarding merchants John D. Morton & Co. Another Confederate newspaper commented, “This looks like providing for the evil days which Lincoln has thrust upon us. The powder will shortly be reshipped for Nashville.”

At some point during the next month, the Walsh was found laid up about 20 miles below St. Louis, presumably abandoned by the crew.

“Her splendidly furnished rooms are large and airy; and everything that is required by law pertaining to a first-class packet, are to be found on board. The exterior view of the Walsh, at a distant point, with the golden ball on her pilot house, reminded us of bygone days.”

Burke joined the Confederate navy with a captain’s commission and an assignment to the Mississippi River Defense Fleet. He commanded the cotton-clad side-wheel ram General M. Jeff Thompson, and participated in the naval engagements at Plum Point Bend and Memphis during May 1862. Following the sinking of his vessel in the latter action, he returned to the Southern river trade and for several months worked as clerk of a steamer running between Vicksburg and the Red River. A late-war account noted that he resided along the Red River as “one of the wealthiest persons in Rebeldom.”

Meanwhile, by February 1862, the Walsh had returned to service this time under the Stars and Stripes. A Capt. McGinnis commanded the vessel, which was described about this time as “a commodious and staunch steamer.” The ship and crew operated in the vicinity of Cairo, Ill., and along the Paducah and Tennessee rivers.

In May 1862, it became a government transport and carried troops on at least three occasions. Perhaps the most notable occurred during the early stages of the Vicksburg Campaign, when the steamer transported troops from the 113th Illinois Infantry during the Yazoo Pass Expedition.

The Walsh remained in the Vicksburg area through the rest of the campaign and after the fall of the city. On Aug. 20, 1863, the steamer came close to destruction, not from enemy activity but as the result of an explosion of the City of Madison anchored beside it. The Walsh suffered the loss of its cabin superstructure.

The steamer returned to action by February 1864 with a return trip to New Orleans, its first visit to the city since 1861. The New Orleans Times reported, “Her splendidly furnished rooms are large and airy; and everything that is required by law pertaining to a first-class packet, are to be found on board. The exterior view of the Walsh, at a distant point, with the golden ball on her pilot house, reminded us of bygone days.”

By mid-March 1864, the Walsh returned to St. Louis. Here, it became one of many vessels contracted by the city’s quartermaster of transportation, Capt. Charles Parsons, for service along the St. Louis-New Orleans corridor for war’s duration. The Walsh carried various loads of cargo, including homebound veterans from at least three infantry regiments, the 16th and 45th Iowa and the 68th Ohio.

In peacetime, the Walsh continued to run regularly between St. Louis and New Orleans for the Atlantic and Mississippi Steamship Company. The vessel’s end came in May 1867, when the company ordered it demolished and its machinery installed in another steamboat. Thus the career of a transport that served the Union and the Confederacy ended.

The Hamilton Belle: Good Ship Gone Bad

The Hamilton Belle is moored nearest the camera. In the middle distance is a vessel with the designation “U.S.N. DESPATCH” on the paddle box, one of at least three such ships operating on western rivers. The familiar box shape of an Eads gunboat is visible further midstream. Sixth-plate tintype (reversed) possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La. 
The Hamilton Belle is moored nearest the camera. In the middle distance is a vessel with the designation “U.S.N. DESPATCH” on the paddle box, one of at least three such ships operating on western rivers. The familiar box shape of an Eads gunboat is visible further midstream. Sixth-plate tintype (reversed) possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La. 

On Oct. 13, 1858, the stern-wheel ferryboat Hamilton Belle pulled up to the docks at Quincy, Ill., and dropped off spectators headed to the sixth of seven debates between Illinois U.S. senatorial candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

This excursion provided a diversion for the crew, who regularly carried passengers and freight along a 200-plus-mile route on the Mississippi River between Keokuk, Iowa, and St. Louis. The Belle was owned and captained by Scottish-born John S. McCune, the president of the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company. He served as one of the most respected steamboat men in antebellum times.

The outbreak of war altered the Belle’s routine. The vessel carried Iowa troops, supplies and dispatches between Keokuk and Hannibal, Mo., from June 1861 through early 1862.

Everything changed again in June 1862, when the Belle began service as a government transport in Helena, Ark., about 100 miles south of Union-occupied Memphis, Tenn. Over the next two years, the ship carried soldiers and munitions into action on at least 13 occasions, including several noteworthy small-scale expeditions. A number of these events included the 24th Indiana Infantry, a battle-hardened regiment that fought at Shiloh, Vicksburg and elsewhere in the Western Theater.

“Immediately afterwards, between thirty and forty guerrillas were seen running down the bank. They began firing volleys at the boat, running along the shore to keep up with her.” 

Captured Confederates and cotton bales figured prominently in some actions. On July 26, 1862, the Belle transported elements of the 24th up the St. Francis River and following operations at Alligator Bayou, returned with 20 prisoners and about 50 bales of contraband cotton. On March 5, 1863, the vessel departed Helena and proceeded 220 miles up the St. Francis River with Company K of the 24th, a platoon of the 3rd Iowa Cavalry and a section of the 2nd Ohio Battery. In operations that followed, 46 enemy troops and much valuable property, including 60 bales of cotton, were captured.

The Belle was also subjected to guerrilla activity. On Nov. 14, 1863, the vessel left Helena with elements of the 10th Illinois Cavalry in search of guerrillas as far as Islands No. 67 and 68. But leaking boilers ended the mission prematurely, requiring the steamboat Cheek to tow it back to Helena for repairs. In an action on Aug. 20, 1864, guerrillas fired on the Belle while it transported cannon from Cairo to Memphis. According to the report of the vessel’s pilots, the Belle ran close to the shore at Cottonwood Point when the pop of a single musket shot shattered the air. “Immediately afterwards, between thirty and forty guerrillas were seen running down the bank. They began firing volleys at the boat, running along the shore to keep up with her, until over one hundred and fifty shots were fired, when they retired … Fortunately no one on the boat was hurt, although many balls struck the cabin and other parts.”

Another hazardous duty involved sweeping waterways for obstructions. On Feb. 20, 1863, the Belle departed Helena to clear the way from the Yazoo Pass to the Coldwater River with the assistance of Company C of the 24th Indiana.

The Belle also transported sick soldiers. In October 1863, the vessel transported 106 patients from Memphis to St. Louis under the care of Cordelia Harvey. Harvey became known as the ‘Wisconsin Angel” for her efforts on behalf of Union soldiers in need of aid. After her husband, Wisconsin Gov. Louis P. Harvey, drowned while visiting wounded soldiers in the South in April 1862, she determined to continue his work, and arranged for casualties to be transported north to recuperate in specially built hospitals.

The Belle’s last recorded role appears to have taken place during Sept. 1-3, 1864, when it carried Company M of the 1st Missouri Light Artillery along the White River to Devall’s Bluff, Ark.

At this point the Belle disappeared from military and civilian channels until Feb. 26, 1865, when it was reported involved in illicit trade with the Confederacy. According to a dispatch in the Chicago Tribune, 50 bottles of quinine were found aboard the Belle, packed in barrels of flour at a New Orleans dock. As Civil War soldiers were five times more likely to die from malaria than from being killed in battle, quinine was much needed to treat the disease.

Due to the effectiveness of the Union blockade, the prevention of such valuable medical supplies reaching the Confederacy by 1864 had encouraged the smuggling of such goods through the lines. Unscrupulous steamboat captains, including that of the Belle, which does not seem to have been John McCune by this time, saw this as a means of making extra money from river trade. Eight days later, military authorities stopped the Belle at Memphis and arrested everyone on board after the discovery again of contraband goods.

Where and When Were These Rare Tintypes Taken?

Sixth-plate tintypes possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La.
Sixth-plate tintypes possibly by Andrew D. Lytle of Baton Rouge, La.

Considering the high volume of gunboats, dispatch vessels, transports and other traffic plying the great rivers during the war, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact location and timeframe for these images.

After a careful review of each image, author Ron Field suggests, “If these images were produced in the lower Mississippi and possibly by Andrew D. Lytle, it would have been impossible until after the beginning of September 1864 as the Hamilton Belle spent all the time before that period in the upper Mississippi, mostly operating out of Helena, Ark. By that time the Edward Walsh had been steaming down to New Orleans since February 1864. Hence the window of time for when these two vessels could have been photographed together would be from September 1864 through April 4, 1865.”

Dave Batalo, the owner of the photographs, observes, “Both images are identically matted with the same protector around them. They are both in the same double sixth-plate case. They are both similar river scenes. They were therefore most likely taken by the same photographer. One small leap of faith would be that they were taken at the same location, but from different angles.”

References: Coulter, “Effects of Secession Upon the Commerce of the Mississippi Valley,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (December 1916); Daily Picayune (New Orleans, La), Jan. 29, 1861, and Feb. 26, 1865; Cincinnati Daily Press, April 16, 1861; Louisville Daily Democrat, April 20, 1861, Texas State Gazette (Austin, Texas), May 25, 1861, Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.), May 25, 1861; Nashville Daily Union (Nashville, Tenn), March 6, 1864; Daily Missouri Democrat (St. Louis, Mo.), Oct. 27, 1863, and March 26, 1864; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies; Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, April 12, 1861, Aug. 25, 1863, and March 6, 1865; Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 23, 1863; Daily True Delta (New Orleans, La.), March 26, April 1 and Nov. 26, 1864; New Orleans Times (New Orleans, La.), March 12 and 15, 1864; Chicago Tribune, March 8 and 24, 1864; Pittsburgh Daily Commercial (Pittsburgh, Pa.), May 12, 1864; Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, N.Y.), Aug. 5, 1864; Pittsburgh Commercial (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Feb. 13, 1865; Memphis Daily Avalanche (Memphis, Tenn.), May 5, 1867; Daily Gate City (Keokuk, Iowa), June 18, 1861 and April 14, 1862; Supplement to the Official Records; War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Natchez Daily Courier (Natchez, Miss.), August 30, 1864.

Ron Field is a Senior Editor of MI.

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