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Ask Rufus: The Rebel Tombigbee Squadron

 

The Steamer Magnolia as she appeared in the London Illustrated News of May 4, 1861. Before the Civil War, the Magnolia was in the Upper Tombigbee-Mobile trade. During the war she became a transport steamer as part of the Confederate Tombigbee Squadron at Demopolis.

The Steamer Magnolia as she appeared in the London Illustrated News of May 4, 1861. Before the Civil War, the Magnolia was in the Upper Tombigbee-Mobile trade. During the war she became a transport steamer as part of the Confederate Tombigbee Squadron at Demopolis. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

This engraving which was published in 1861 shows the appearance of Mobile's St Louis Wharf at the time of the Civil War. The pre-Civil War river trade steamboats that made up the Confederate naval squadron at Demopolis transported troops and supplies between the Upper Tombigbee River and Mobile.

This engraving which was published in 1861 shows the appearance of Mobile's St Louis Wharf at the time of the Civil War. The pre-Civil War river trade steamboats that made up the Confederate naval squadron at Demopolis transported troops and supplies between the Upper Tombigbee River and Mobile.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Rufus Ward

 

 

Two weeks ago I wrote of the poem the Blue and the Gray and Friendship Cemetery on the banks of the Tombigbee River. I quoted the beginning verses of the poem: 

 

 

 

"By the flow of the inland river,  

 

Whence the fleets of iron have fled." 

 

 

 

I have heard that verse questioned for little has been written or said about the Civil War and boats on the Tombigbee. However, there was activity on the river and "Surrender of the Rebel Fleet on the Tombigbee River" was a headline in the May 23, 1865, New York Herald.  

 

Commercial steamboat traffic on the Tombigbee River, between Columbus or Aberdeen and Mobile, was all but ended by the Civil War. The winter high water of 1859-60 saw nine different steamboats making 53 trips from Columbus to Mobile. Then in 1861 the Civil War erupted.  

 

During the 1861-62 winter season only two boats, the William S. Barry and the Lily, were left in the Aberdeen commercial trade. Two additional boats, the James Dellet and the Georgia Sykes, were in the Columbus trade. By the 1862-63 season, only six steamboats made 10 commercial trips to Columbus and none to Aberdeen.  

 

Steamboats still traveled the Tombigbee but they had become Confederate military transports. The steamers Warrior, Cherokee, Gen. Robert E. Lee, William S Barry, Reindeer, Alice Vivian, Lily, Marengo, Waverly, Magnolia, Ariel, Black Diamond and Cremona, all of which had been in commercial trade on the upper Tombigbee, had begun transporting military personnel and goods. 

 

As such, they faced dangers in addition to the normal hazards of the river. Among the wartime steamers in the Tombigbee/Alabama River trade, the Swan was captured in 1862, while the Alice Vivian, James Battle and the W.S. Barry were captured in 1864. The steamer Lily sank in May 1863, but was raised and again used as a Confederate transport boat. The steamer Henry J. King was burned at Montgomery by Union troops in 1865, and the steamer Dick Keyes exploded near Demopolis in January 1865.  

 

The steamer Cremona, which before the war had been the first steamboat with a calliope to arrive at Aberdeen, was filled with bricks in 1864 and sunk at the Dog River Bar by the Confederates to obstruct the Mobile Bay ship channel.  

 

Military records from 1864-65 provide accounts of steamboat activities on the Upper Bigbee. O.F. Hamblin of the 2nd Michigan Calvary was wounded and taken prisoner on Oct. 30, 1864. He was sent to a Confederate military hospital in Columbus. After his recovery he was taken by steamboat from Columbus to Cahaba, Alabama (near Selma), to a prisoner of war camp known as Castle Morgan.  

 

In January 1865, a Confederate artillery battery camped at Columbus was ordered to Columbus, Georgia, by way of Montgomery. The soldiers and guns were to be transported by steamer while the horses were sent overland. On Jan. 25, the steamboat Lily left Columbus carrying the troops and guns to Mobile. There the troops and guns were transferred to the steamer Reindeer for passage to Montgomery. While camped near Columbus, Mississippi, the Confederate artillery battery had reported hearing the whistles of steamers in the distance announcing the arrival or departure of boats at the Columbus landing. 

 

At the close of the Civil War in 1865, the New York Herald of May 23 carried an account under the headline of "Surrender of the Rebel Fleet on the Tombigbee River." The newspaper reported the surrender of 12 Confederate steamboats and said: "The formal surrender of the rebel naval squadron in the Tombigbee River took place at Nanna Hubba Bluff (35 miles north of Mobile) on May 9. ... The following rebel vessels were surrendered: - Jeff Davis, Robert Watson, Magnolia, Marengo, St. Charles, Commodore F_ _ _d, Gen. Beauregard, Duke, Sumter, St. Nicholas, Reindeer, Admiral." Union Army records indicate the Confederate steamboats were actually at Demopolis at the time of the surrender. Other steamboats that surrendered on the river included the Cherokee, Baltic, Waverly, Southern Republic and Black Diamond. 

 

The boats became federal property, and when no longer needed for transportation of troops were auctioned off as property seized from the Confederate government. The fleets of iron and wood had not fled they had surrendered and then returned with new peace-time owners. 

 

A correction - last week I wrote of Eight of May and Emancipation Day. I had discounted the tradition that it was the day federal troops arrived in Columbus at the end of the Civil War and quoted former Confederate officer E.T. Sykes that May 8, 1865, was celebrated as it was the day of the official surrender of the Confederate army in Mississippi. I had also found that the U.S. Army orders to occupy Columbus were not issued until May 10. All that seemed to make sense but I was wrong. That was not the basis for May 8 being the day to celebrate freedom. At the MSMS Eighth of May Emancipation Day ceremony in Sandfield Cemetery, Chuck Yarborough told me I had missed the key account. Cyrus Green, a Quaker educator who had come to Columbus with Federal troops after the war ended, recorded in his diary that Federal troops had entered Columbus and thereby brought freedom, on the morning of May 8, 1865. A diary can be a much better source than a later newspaper article. 

 

There was a good size crowd at the MSMS event. It was a mixture of students portraying historic figures from Columbus' past and related musical performances. It was extremely moving and well done. I would highly recommend that anyone interested in history and heritage attend next year's celebration and commemoration of the day freedom arrived in Columbus.

 

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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