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Ask Rufus: A terrifying night


In 1858, a deckhand on the ill-fated Eliza Battle froze to death in the cold waters of the Tombigbee saving the lives of a mother and child. Painting by Uncle Bunky.

In 1858, a deckhand on the ill-fated Eliza Battle froze to death in the cold waters of the Tombigbee saving the lives of a mother and child. Painting by Uncle Bunky. Photo by: Courtesy image/Uncle Bunky


Rufus Ward



On those warm, rainy days and nights in February when the temperature suddenly drops 30 or 40 degrees and a wintry blast comes roaring out of the Delta, I think of the Eliza Battle. She was the grandest steamboat on the Tombigbee River. She caught fire and burned on a freezing flooded Tombigbee on just such a night at the close of February 1858. It is a story, portions of which I have written about before, that is full of many tales of both great tragedy and acts of heroism.  


Last week the story was doubly brought to mind. First, the squall line that passed through on Thursday night, though it lacked the freezing weather of the February 1858, storm, was still a strong storm system. Secondly, Uncle Bunky had recently read the account of the Eliza Battle I had written for my Tombigbee Steamboat book and painted a very moving image of the scene on the banks of the Tombigbee.  


On Sunday, Feb. 28, 1858, the steamboat Eliza Battle left Columbus for Mobile on a quickly rising Tombigbee River. The weather was warm and rainy. As she steamed down river the boat picked up additional passengers and cargo (mostly cotton bales) at smaller river landings such as Pickensville, Fairfield, Warsaw and Gainesville, until she was carrying between 55 and 60 passengers and 1,400 bales of cotton along with her crew of about 45. 


By the time the steamer reached Gainesville, about 60 miles south of Columbus, on Sunday afternoon, a bitter cold north wind had begun to blow accompanied by thunderstorms and hail. By Sunday night the temperature dropped 40 degrees in only two hours and the rain turned to sleet. The cold increased and icicles formed along the deck of the Eliza Battle and on the trees along the river banks. 


About 1 a.m. the Eliza Battle passed the steamer Warrior, out of whose smoke stacks not only smoke but also many sparks were flying. Apparently sparks fell on cotton bales at the Battle's stern and around 2 a.m. her stern was on fire. The almost gale force north wind fanned the flames rapidly spreading them through out the boat. The river was flooded and out of its banks leaving no place to land the boat. That left the crew and passengers with no choice but to face the flames or the freezing river water. Of about 100 people on board, probably 33 died, according to the March 12, 1858, New York Times account. All by exposure in the freezing river. 


A week after the disaster the Gainesville, Ala., newspaper ran an account based on local survivor's stories and said: "Husbands seize their trembling wives and mothers their helpless children. With piteous cries for succor, they rush to the fore part of the vessel, and clinging wildly to bales of cotton, trunks, planks, or anything which comes to hand, they cast themselves upon the mercy of the dark, swift stream. Oh! that long weary, bitter night! How much suffering did its darkness conceal...They had escaped the burning flames, but the cold fetters which the implacable Ice King threw around their hearts could not be broken. God have mercy on the poor sufferers!" 


Out of the horror, though, rose stories of great courage and heroic sacrifice. Assistant pilot Thomas Bradly placed a Miss Robinson on a cotton bale and paddled her to shore. Because the bale would catch fire from heat and burning embers, she splashed water on him all the way to the shore to keep him from being burned. S.G. Stone, the Eliza Battle's captain, saw a baby freezing in only a night shirt. He took a blanket coat, dipped it in the river and then placed the wet coat over a burning cotton bale. When it had heated he wrapped the baby in it and returned the child to its mother and placed both of them on a floating cotton bale. Capt. Stone's son, Frank, twice was able to save people by swimming to shore with them. On a third attempt he tried to save a Mrs. Turner but she froze to death in his arms on the way to the shore. 


In one act of selfless heroism an African-American deckhand who was a slave had obtained a plank that could be used as a raft to escape the burning boat. However, he observed a young mother on the burning deck huddled with her child. He placed them on his fabricated raft giving up his place. They made it to shore and survived but the kind-hearted deckhand perished. Prominent Cumberland Presbyterian minister A.M. Newman of Louisville, Ky., and his family had boarded the Eliza Battle in Pickensville, Ala. When the boat caught fire he placed his wife and child on a cotton bale and swam towards shore alongside it to prevent it from turning over. They made it safely but he froze to death.  


There were many acts of heroism and a meeting of surviving passengers held in Mobile to address the disaster had nothing but praise for the Eliza Battle's officers and crew and their efforts to save the passengers. 


The disaster attracted worldwide attention with the New York Times running articles for two days and the story even being reported in newspapers in New Zealand. Today the Eliza Battle is said to haunt the lower Tombigbee, still trying to complete its journey to Mobile and has become one of America's most famous "ghost ships."


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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