Main deck looking towards stern, S.S. Great Eastern, Quebec City, QC, 1861. McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec.
On another forum we got to talking about Great Eastern, the ginormous British iron steamship of the period. Great Eastern was the largest moving, man-made object on earth, the first ship to surpass the biblical dimensions of Noah’s Ark. Great Eastern was too big, really, because she never fitted her intended role as a passenger vessel. Her greatest success came in the mid-1860s when she was pressed into service laying transoceanic telegraph cables.
Great Eastern made a visit to New York just after the outbreak of the Civil War in the spring of 1861, but I’d forgotten that immediately after her return to the UK she was refitted as a troop ship and used to ferry a huge contingent of British soldiers to Canada. From James Dugan, The Great Iron Ship, 97-101:[In the spring of 1861] the ship returned [from New York] to England to find Whitehall taking steps about the American situation. The government was planning a large show of the flag for the benefit of the Yankees — and the Irish Fenians in the States — who were talking of raids into Canada. The War Office had indeed taken a decision to charter the Great Eastern to carry an unprecedented number of reinforcements for the Canadian garrison. The shareholders rejoiced. At last Her Majesty’s ministers had seen the ship’s value as a war vessel and her financial troubles were over. The ship was closed to visitors while artisans from the Birkenhead Iron Works made her ready as a troop ship.
Interior of Great Eastern, Quebec City, QC, 1861. McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. For the single voyage, a new skipper was borrowed from the Liverpool, New York and Philadelphia Steamship Company, thirty-year-old Captain James Kennedy, who had an impressive record in steam. He had never navigated a ship up the St. Lawrence to Quebec City, but the Great Eastern did not scare him. I’ll handle her in just the same way as an ordinary vessel,” he declared. Captain Kennedy boarded 2,144 officer; and men of the Royal Artillery, the Thirtieth Regiment, the Sixtieth Rifles, and components of three more rifle regiments. They were accompanied by 473 women and children and 122 horses. The mounts were stabled on deck with the ship’s livestock, while the soldiers were confined to the cargo holds. With his crew of four hundred, Kennedy was entrusted with over three thousand lives, not counting horses — twice as many people as had ever sailed on a ship. Not until the troop voyages of the Kaiser War, over a half-century later, were as many persons carried on a vessel. Captain Kennedy, however, found himself one hundred short in the crew. He did what was usually done in those times: he sent for the crimps. The press gang raided the boardinghouses and dives of Liverpool and filled the shortage. Military bands blew on deck as the Great Eastern glided down the Mersey in view of the customary masses on shore. At sea on the first morning there was a mutiny by the impressed seamen. The affair received no publicity from Captain Kennedy or the military commander, Colonel J. T. Mauleversee, at the time, but years later, when he was a famous commodore of the Inman Line, Kennedy would tell the story at captain’s table. All hands were ordered out to scrub down. The “hard cases” obtained by the crimps refused to scrub. Kennedy borrowed a company of soldiers from the colonel and the men were brought on deck at bayonet point. To emphasize his wish, Captain Kennedy sent the mutineers into the yards, at the urging of bayonets. He kept them aloft all day in the smoke of five funnels, which was heavy enough to turn the sails black. After that there were no disciplinary incidents on the crossing. At sea there was great fun in the holds as five female stowaways were liberated to the arms of their warriors. Two babies were born on the passage. In the last days of the voyage people were still discovering friends they had not known to be aboard. A sailor named James Pollard was killed in a fall, and a benefit was held for his widow, in the “Atlantic Theatre, by permission of Neptune.” A young officer delivered Hamlet’s soliloquy, another recited “The Death of Nelson” and there were two ambitious production numbers, a treble hornpipe by the “corps de ballet” and a tum by the “Great Eastern Minstrels.” The widow received $260 and a $100 pledge by the Great Ship Company. Captain Kennedy goaded the mighty ship as though the Fenian were scaling the Citadel at Quebec. On July 2 he encountered a dense fog, but did not reduce speed. He logged 320 miles in the first twenty-four hours of fog. For two days the lookouts called out icebergs, which suddenly materialized from the pearly gloom. The impetuous Kennedy dodged them without slacking speed. The only casualties were two horses which took fatal chills from passing too close to icebergs. The fog grew even thicker off Cape Race. There the bow lookout saw emerging from nowhere a huge and dreadful figurehead, the famous Arab chieftain of the Cunard liner Arabia. His scimitar was held ready for the clash. The Great Eastern missed the red-stacker “by the length of the bowsprit she did not carry.” There were 3,400 people on the two ships: the Great Eastern narrowly missed a disaster that might have set the record for that ship-wrecking age. Hotrod Kennedy slowed down off Cape Pine light, where many ships were bellowing in the fog. He had made the world’s record crossing of eight days and six hours. “Le Great Eastem est al’ancre dans le port de Quebec!” caroled the Journal de Quebec. C’est un grand fait. Il y est dans toute sa maieste, dans ses proportions gigantesques, flottant et se mouvant al’aise dans le fleuve, sous les murs du Gibraltar americain. [It is a great fact. There is in all its majesty, in its gigantic proportions, floating and moving at ease in the river under the walls of the American Gibraltar.] Canada forgot the bitter betrayal of the Grand Trunk Railroad in 1860. The Mayor of Quebec and the councilors rushed on board and handed Captain Kennedy a hundred pounds. The Sixtieth Rifles unpacked the silver claret jug that had been trustingly engraved in Liverpool with a tribute to Kennedy for a safe crossing. The reverberations swelled to Upper Canada, where Captain Smyth of Toronto advertised a nine-day excursion in his “superior upper cabin steamer Bowmanville” to take folks to see the great ship. Several enterprising Lake Ontario skippers turned a pretty penny on cruises to Quebec.
Visitors come and go from a steamboat alongside Great Eastern. Quebec City, QC, 1861. McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec. It took Quebec ferries two days to empty the Great Eastern of her men, women, children and horses. Lumber schooners lay about, begging for hands, but none of the big ship’s crew jumped. The mutineers had become transformed by Kennedy’s heavy hand, or the flattering welcome of Canada. Colonel Mauleversee sent fulsome praise of the ship to her directors.
Great Eastern at anchor off Quebec City, QC, 1861. McCord Museum, Montreal, Quebec.
Young Kennedy was the lion of the hour. He gave out interviews praising the fine anchorage at Quebec, which he declared was superior to any port at which the Great Eastern had called. He had handled her in but one other port, Liverpool, but it was not the moment for quibbling. Quebeckers threw out their chests and predicted they had the future American Liverpool. The great ship carried a generous cargo of daffiness and always left some behind. She made for home early in August with 356 passengers and Godspeed from the Montreal paper, La Minerve, which said she would return “bientot a Quebec avec huit a 10,000 hommes de troupes” ["soon in Quebec with eight to 10,000 troops"]. It was a prediction with the true Brunel ring. [But] the Great Eastern never returned to Quebec. When she got home the War Office ended the charter and demolished the daydreams of the stockholders.
I use Ancestry all the time, not only for my own genealogy, but for researching lots of individuals. Ancestry is extremely valuable for easily accessing all sorts of basic records — census rolls, birth and death records, and so on.
The weakness of using Ancestry, though, is in relying on the family trees compiled by other users, a great many of whom are inexperienced and not very careful about what they compile and post. Some of these user-compiled records are genuinely useless, and contain data that is clearly incorrect. Nevertheless, it’s out there, and can easily lead you astray in your own research.
I came across this example today. It’s an entry for a woman who, according to this tree, was born in about 1520. The users lists her father born in 1537, and her mother in 1525. Her son was born in 1530, when she was ten:
There’s a lot of this foolishness floating around on Ancestry, so be careful, and look closely at what you import into your own family tree.
On Tuesday, October 14 at 7 p.m., Amy Borgens and Fritz Hanselmann will discuss the recent deep-water shipwrecks expedition to investigate the wrecks of three sailing vessels, believed to have been overtaken by a catastrophic event with a presumed loss of all on board. These vessels were lost to history until 2011, when they were detected as three unknown sonar targets during a Shell Oil seafloor hazard and archaeological survey. A deep-water remotely operated vehicle investigation by NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research unveiled a copperclad shipwreck with collections of small arms and six cannon lying at a depth of approximately 4300 ft. A team of underwater archaeologists from several federal and state organizations returned to the site in July 2013 and recovered a small collection of artifacts to help identify the shipwreck. An investigation of the two nearby Shell Oil targets confirmed these were indeed shipwrecks – one a merchant vessel transporting hides among its cargo and a third vessel of unknown purpose believed to be a three-masted ship. The archaeological team continues to research the video and photographic documentation of the sites and learn more about the artifact assemblage as conservation continues.
Free to the Public
This stretch of seaweed-strewn beach is near where the blockade runner Acadia went aground in February 1865, in a pea-soup fog. That was a bad time for runners off the Texas coast, with the loss of two big steamers and the near-loss of a third.
The runner Acadia ended her brief life on the Gulf beach about forty miles south of Galveston. Acadia had been launched at Sorel (now Sorel-Tracy), Quebec, on the St. Lawrence River in May 1864. She was a large side-wheel steamer, 211 feet long and registered at 738 tons. There was little infrastructure for the construction of iron-hulled vessels in Canada at the time, so Acadia was built of timber. Acadia was registered at Montreal on the last day of October 1864 by Jacques Felix Lincennes of Sorel and William McNaughton of Montreal, but her true ownership remains unclear. Acadia’s owners evidently intended to run her through the blockade or otherwise dispose of the ship to make a quick profit because they took the step of noting on her registry papers that her master, Thomas Leach, was empowered to sell the ship with “no minimum price named, at any place out of the province of Canada.” Acadia sailed from Halifax for Nassau on December 6, 1864. Among her passengers was a group of men who the local U.S. consul reported were part of a “piratical gang” of Confederates traveling to Vera Cruz, Mexico, from there to go overland to California with the intent of seizing a U.S. Mail steamer on the Pacific coast. Acadia made a brief stop at Nassau, where she took on cargo for Texas, and then another at Havana, loading more inbound cargo. After a stop at Vera Cruz to land the Confederates bound for California, Acadia sailed again, this time setting a northerly course for the Texas coast. Acadia ran hard aground in the surf between San Luis Pass and the mouth of the Brazos River around dusk on February 5, 1865, in the same heavy fog conditions that led to the loss of Will o’ the Wisp. Captain Leach—who by some accounts was trying to enter the mouth of the Brazos River at Velasco (an ill-conceived plan if true, given the large size of the steamer) — later claimed that he had intended to reach the coast much farther north, about fifteen miles south of Galveston, but had been pushed off course by a strong current. In fact, Acadia’s failed attempt to run the blockade seems in retrospect to have been almost doomed by incompetence. The ship’s sailing master, frustrated at his inability to get his bearings in the fog, had reportedly given up charge of piloting the vessel before the ship struck bottom, and the steamer’s magnetic compass had allegedly never been properly secured or adjusted, “no regard being had for quantity of iron and iron nails closely connected with the needle, in fact, not a binnacle in the ship, the compasses not even fixed on deck when leaving Havana.” The destruction of the ship was made complete the following morning, when she was discovered and shelled by the blockader USS Virginia.
Excerpt from Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast.
In the introductory lecture to his course on the coming of the Civil War, Eric Foner discusses the nature of historical revisionism, and why so many people are deeply uncomfortable with it:
In one of my favorite books of history of a kind, The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien, he writes about the hobbits quote “hobbits like to have books filled with things that they already knew set out fair and square with no contradictions.” Of course this is a joke. The hobbits didn’t actually know anything. They knew virtually nothing about the world around them but they were satisfied because they had a familiar view of their own history. People like familiar stories. That’s why the term revisionist historian is a term of abuse out there in the public. Didn’t Governor Christie the other day accused his critics of being revisionist historians? But to us that’s what we do. That is our job as historians to be revisionist. That is to say, to rethink the past, to think about new perspectives, to add new approaches. That’s what historians are supposed to do. But the point is familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.
One needs always to keep in mind that the whole secession-wasn’t-about-slavery thing is itself revisionist, deliberately nurtured and embedded in the public consciousness in the decades after the war as the foundation of Lost Cause orthodoxy by people like Jubal Early and Mildred Rutherford. But the fact that it existed long before its modern-day advocates were born doesn’t make it any more true.
“Familiarity is not the measure of the truthfulness of historical accounts.” That kinda gets to the core of things, doesn’t it?
At the west end of Galveston Island lies San Luis Pass, a half-mile-wide channel between West Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Deep-draft vessels could not get safely over the bar across its entrance, but it was a popular spot for smaller, mostly sailing vessels running in and out of West Bay. And consequently, it was a headache for the U.S. Navy, that never seemed to have enough ships to watch every part of the coast continuously.
A little after noon on April 5, 1862, lookouts aboard the screw steamer USS Montgomery spotted a large schooner anchored inside San Luis Pass. Montgomery’s commander, Lieutenant Charles Hunter, decided on a ruse and hoisted a British ensign at the peak and a Confederate flag at his foremast, making as if he wanted to communicate with the Confederate battery on shore. In due course, a boat from the nearby fort set out for the “British” ship anchored off the bar; Hunter had the nine men aboard quickly hustled down below as prisoners. Around sunset, he sent the captured boat, along with Montgomery’s whaleboat, across the bar with orders to capture or destroy the schooner. The boats tried to get in past the Confederate battery in the darkness without being seen, but they were spotted, and the troops on shore opened fire. None of the Union sailors was hit, and now they began pulling hard at the oars to get alongside the schooner. They succeeded in taking the schooner’s seven-man crew completely by surprise, despite the gunfire from the fort. The schooner turned out to be Columbia, of Galveston, loaded with cotton and ready to sail for Jamaica. As the Union sailors were preparing to get Columbia under way, a sloop appeared out of the darkness and came alongside. In it were Columbia’s master and seven passengers from Galveston, who intended to sail in her to Jamaica. These, too, became prisoners. The officer in charge of the expedition, Acting Master Thomas Pickering, now had to deal with other problems. Both tide and wind were streaming against them, making it difficult or impossible to get the big schooner safely past the Confederate battery. Pickering ordered his men to set fire to Columbia and, with the sloop in tow, began pulling hard for the channel in their boats. They exchanged shots with the fort but succeeded in getting past it without injury. Pickering had his little flotilla anchor just inside the breakers on the San Luis Pass bar to await daylight. At dawn, the surf was still roiling, so Pickering, fearing the loss of the sloop in rough water with all on board, released the sloop and his prisoners to return to the safety of the bay. Pickering and the other two boats made it safely back to USS Montgomery. In exchange for the loss of one crewman seriously injured by the accidental discharge of another sailor’s carbine, Pickering had destroyed a large schooner and her cargo of cotton that, by daylight, was seen to be “burned to the water’s edge.”
I was coming back from Quintana this afternoon and snapped this image (top) from the bridge that now spans San Luis Pass. It’s a beautiful day here, but windy, and the water is rough. About a half mile away, you can see an almost continuous, horizontal white line of surf, with green water inside and blue water outside — those are the breakers on the bar that forced Pickering to release his prize and prisoners.
In three weeks, I’ll be giving a couple of talks, one in Arlington, that I’ve mentioned before, and one in Houston, that I haven’t.
On Friday evening, October 10 at 7:30, I’ll be speaking on “Civil War Blockade Running on the Texas Coast” at the University of Texas at Arlington Central Library, Sixth Floor. There will be a reception and a book-signing after. This event is open to the public and everyone’s invited. To RSVP, please call 817-272-1413 or email LibraryFriends@uta.edu. This will be my second trip to North Texas in the last few months, and it should be great fun.
Then, on Saturday the 11th, I’ll be participating in the Fourth Annual Houston History Conference. The conference will be held at the the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library, 550 McKinney.The theme this year, in recognition of the centennial of the official opening of the Port of Houston. My presentation is “Charles Morgan and the Genesis of the Houston Ship Channel,” a wonderful little story of economic boosterism and Gilded-Age avarice. Space is limited so advance reservations are recommended, but not required. The cost of the conference is $50 per person before October 3; $40 for seniors, presenters and exhibitors; and $25 for teachers not covered by scholarships from their respected school systems. If space allows, on-site registration will be available. All tickets include lunch and admission for a full day of activities. For more information or to enroll in the conference, visit www.houstonhistoryassociation.org or email email@example.com.
The full listing for the Houston History Conference follows below the jump. Hope to see y’all there!
Cuckoo’s Bakery in Edinburgh has been tracking support for Scots independence based on sales of cupcakes emblazoned with Scots and Union flags (above). As of today, the “no” vote is running about four points ahead of the “yes,” a figure that seems to be reflected in actual polling. By this time tomorrow, we’ll know how accurate both the bakery and the polls are.
Regardless of the outcome, it’s important to note that the Scots have not gone about achieving independence by laying siege to the Royal Navy base at Faslane.
Having most of my own lineage come from every part of Great Britain, I have no great stake in this fight, or notion as to whether an independent Scotland is a good thing or not. But if independence encourages sartorial atrocities such as this, it’s just not worth it. No one needs that.
Building off a post by Kevin Levin, one of the best (and least-heralded) CW blogs out there thoroughly dismantles the notion of a “good” slaveholder, making it clear that even masters who saw themselves as benevolent patriarchs relied on the threat of intimidation and violence to maintain their authority — and did not hesitate to use it when they needed to. (You know, benevolent patriarchs like Bobby Lee.)