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Ask Rufus: The Tragic Story of the Eliza Battle


Rufus Ward



When warm wet weather in early March is suddenly followed by storms and rapidly dropping temperatures, I can not help but think of the ill-fated Eliza Battle. In the 1850s the Eliza Battle was one of the most palatial steamboats on the Tombigbee River carrying at times 60 passengers and 2,000 bales of cotton from the Aberdeen and Columbus area to Mobile. Today she is the subject of numerous ghost stories and her name has become synonymous with famous ghost ships such as the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste. 


The story of her loss by fire on a freezing, flooded Tombigbee River on March 1, 1858, is one of the most horrific stories I have ever heard. On February 28th she had departed Columbus for Mobile and after stopping at river landings including Pickensville, Warsaw, and Gainesville she steamed south carrying about 60 passengers, 1,400 bales of cotton and a crew of about 45. Her captain was S. Graham Stone, one of the most beloved and respected steamboat captains on the Tombigbee. As she proceeded to Mobile, on a river flooded from warm heavy rains, the temperature dropped 40 degrees within two hours. There were thunder and hail storms followed by a winter sleet storm. Ice formed where ever water splashed onto the boat and large icicles hung from the boat's sides. 


Around 1:30 AM about 40 river miles below Demopolis, Alabama, the Eliza Battle caught fire. The fire was probably caused by sparks from the smoke stacks of the steamer Warrior which she had passed a little earlier. Captain Stone ordered the crew and male passengers to save the women and children first. The steamer's lifeboat and yawl were both at the stern and were quickly enveloped by the flames. Because of the flooded river the Eliza Battle could not make a landing and the passengers and crew were left with a choice of death by fire on the boat or freezing in the icy water. Most accounts list 33 as the number who perished and the disaster was extensively covered by newspapers from New York to New Zealand.  


An investigation of the disaster followed, with a report being made to Congress. The investigation found that the inability to use to the lifeboat was a major contributor to the loss of life. The report concluded that there was a need for lifeboats on boats to be available and "in such manner that they may be of ready access in case of accident." This was one of the several amazing similarities between the Eliza Battle disaster and the Titanic which sank 64 years later.  


While I was working on my book, The Tombigbee Steamboats, I had discussed the Eliza Battle story with Pulitzer Prize winning historian Walter McDougall who said all the story needed was a romantic element. I had to agree with him that no story of a disaster as apocalyptic as that of the Eliza Battle is complete without a romantic twist. Then a couple of weeks later while going through some material in old copies of the Birmingham Age-Herald and the Macon Beacon, I found that the Eliza Battle's story actually had a subplot that you could not make up.  


Mary Taylor was young, beautiful and the heiress to a large estate in west Alabama. Everyone assumed that she would marry Phillip Saunders, her childhood sweetheart. However, that was not the case, for she fell in love with and married another. Saunders graciously accepted his loss but still maintained his affection for Mary. The wedding was in late February 1858, and the entire wedding party, including the rejected Saunders, was to travel to Mobile to attend more festivities. On February 28, the festive party boarded the steamer Eliza Battle at Warsaw, Alabama (a Tombigbee River landing southeast of Macon). 


When the Battle caught fire, the new bride and groom embraced and leaped together into the freezing swirling river. Both sank, but Mary appeared again on the surface gasping for air. Saunders saw her and dove in, grasping her hand. He swam with her to a tree, where he pulled her up and tied her to a limb to await rescue. For days after they were rescued, Mary "lay lingering between life and death" and Phillip tended to her needs. After her recovery, she entered a state of depression over the loss of her husband and would have no part of society or Phillip Saunders. 


With the outbreak of the Civil War, Saunders enlisted in the Confederate army. His love for Mary had never abated, and he had never married. He was always found in the thickest of fighting and rose to the rank of colonel. During the fighting around Vicksburg, he was seriously wounded while heroically saving the life of another. His wounds were life threatening and he seemed to possess no desire to live. Carried to a private home for treatment hope was almost gone. It was then that a carriage arrived carrying the lost bride of years past. She had come to return and did return the lifesaving favor of five years earlier. Two lives separated by lost love and disaster were reunited.


Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]


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