Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Short, Eventful Life of the U.S. Transport Che-Kiang

Posted in Technology by Andy Hall on January 27, 2013

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In my recent post on Private Hobbs’ passage from Brooklyn to Ship Island, Mississippi aboard the steamer Saxon, I included an image of another transport on that same expedition, Che-Kiang, which is reported to have collided (above) with a Confederate schooner off the Florida Reef, resulting in the latter vessel’s immediate demise. Che-Kiang was carrying at that time six companies of the 28th Connecticut Infantry, and parts of the 23rd and 25th Connecticut Infantry as well. All reached Ship Island, Mississippi safely, although some were perhaps a little green around the gills from the very rough weather encountered during their passage.

While poking around the interwebs for more information on this ship, though, I came across this article from the June 20, 1863 Straits Times, published in Singapore. Che-Kiang‘s rough passage to the Gulf of Mexico was just the start of her adventures.

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THE STEAMER CHE KIANG.
 
The American paddle-wheel steamer Che Kiang (so called from the name of a province in China), which arrived here last Monday night, was launched at Greenpoint, opposite New York, on the 3rd of July 1862. Her builder is Henry Steers, a nephew and not unworthy successor to George Steers, whose reputation as a skillful ship-builder has been so well established by the Yacht America and the U.S. Steam Frigate Niagara.
 
The dimensions of the Che Kiang are as follows; length 260 feet, beam 38 feet, tonnage 1264. Draught of water, when light, 5 feet forward, 5 feet 4 in. aft. Paddle wheels, 31 feet in diameter.
 
Her engines are 70 inch [diameter] cylinder 11 feet stroke of 700 horse power with return boilers; although nominally of 700 horse power yet capable of working up to a thousand. The engine and boiler were constructed at the Morgan Iron Works, New York, and cost $103,000; the cost of the hull and joiners-work was $60,000.
 
The average speed of the steamer in smooth water, is 18 knots. She made 23 knots on the Mississippi River.
 
For both a passenger and freight boat the Che Kiang is admirably adapted. As a passenger boat she combines all the requisites for a temperate or warm climate. Her after-saloon, airy and commodious, situated on the upper deck, is divided into 16 large state-rooms, each affording greater accommodation than is usually found on board steamers, and two of them, the Ladies’ saloons, are 18 feet deep and 12 feet wide each, furnished with two berths, bath-rooms and water-closets. Two passages — one containing the store-room pantry & c., and the other running past additional staterooms — conduct into a large, well-lighted, well-ventilated and comfortable dining rooms capable of seating some 30 guests. The saloons, in cold weather, are warmed by means of steam. As a freight boat, her great breadth of beam and 13 feet depth of hold offer superior advantages; and an immense amount of cargo can be carried between decks and on the wide guards perfectly protected from the weather.
 
The sea-going qualities of the Che-Kiang have been well tested in the voyages she has made since being launched.
 
In the month of November she was chartered by the U.S. Government to carry 1,600 soldiers, forming part of the expedition under Major General Banks, to New Orleans; and during her voyage to that city, although meeting with very rough weather, she gave universal satisfaction, which was in no manner diminished when the vessel began to develop her true capabilities on the swift current of the Mississippi, where, being employed as a transport, she conveyed soldiers, army stores, munitions of war & c., between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which latter place General Banks was then making his base of operations prior to the attack on Port Hudson; and also, for similar purposes, plied between New Orleans, Fort Pickens and Pensacola — occasionally making a short trip to the Passes of the Mississippi and towing off vessels aground on the mud of that shifting bar.
 
In February, she was released by the Government and returned to New York, whence on the afternoon of the 30th of March she started for her original destination — Shanghai; to ply between that place and Hong Kong on the Yang Tse River.
 
Very heavy seas were encountered after leaving New York, but the Che Kiang rode them all with ease and safety; and having put in for coal at St. Vincent’s, Cape-de-Verds; Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope and Port Louis, Mauritius; at last dropped anchor off Singapore at 10 o’clock on the evening of June 10th 1863. [1]

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In his History of American Steam Navigation (1903) author John Harrison Morrison explains that Che-Kiang was one of several big steamers built in and around New York, to run in Chinese waters. Most were patterned after boats running on Long Island Sound, with the addition of a sailing rig. Although Che-Kiang herself apparently did not, Morrison notes that several of these ships that were built during the war, following the same route as Che-Kiang to the Far East, stopped first at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they took out British registry in case they were intercepted on the high seas by a Confederate raider. [2] It was not an imaginary threat; the most famous Confederate raider, Raphael Semmes’ Alabama, did in fact follow a similar route and ventured as far east as Singapore in late 1863.

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CheKiangChart
Track chart showing the known travels of the American steamship Che-Kiang, 1862-64. Original map via National Geographic.

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Che-Kiang even played a sad, tiny footnote role in the aftermath of the Battle of Galveston. In late February 1863, U.S. Admiral David Farragut reported to the Navy Department the desertion of Acting Master Leonard D. Smalley, at that time assigned to the gunboat Estrella. Smalley had been one of the officers aboard U.S.S. Westfield when that ship was blown up by her captain, William Renshaw, at the end of the battle on New Years Day 1863. Renshaw and several of his men had been killed in the blast, which Smalley almost certainly witnessed from a short distance. Immediately after, Smalley was called on to serve as pilot to guide the transport Saxon, followed by the rest of the Union squadron, safely out of Galveston harbor. Smalley, it seems, may have been suffering the post-traumatic effects of this incident, for Farragut writes that

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Mr. Smalley was surveyed at different times since the loss of the Westfield by three different medical boards, and the enclosed report is almost a duplicate of either of the other two. At his own request, I ordered him outside on the blockade, but he neglected to obey my orders, saying he was too unwell to do so, and I have now received information that he left for New York per Government transport Che-Kiang, which sailed about the 23d instant.
 
I regret to state that I have reason to believe that other officers from the Westfield have pursued a course similar to Mr. Smalley. [3]

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Acting Master Smalley was dismissed from the service soon thereafter.

In her first few months of service, Che-Kiang had seen and done some remarkable things, but her eventful life would not be a long one. She caught fire and burned at Hankou (now Wuhan), about 670 statute miles up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, on August 7, 1864. There were no reported fatalities in the disaster. [4]

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[1] “The Steamer Che Kiang,” The Straits Times, June 20, 1863, 1.

[2] John Harrison Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (New York: W. F. Sametz & Co, 1903), 511.

[3] D. G. Farragut to Gideon Welles, February 26, 1863. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 19, 634.

[4]  C. Bradford Mitchell, ed. Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790–1868 (The Lytle-­Holdcamper List), (Staten Island, New York: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1975), 249.

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