An Unlikely Blockade Runner
The subject came up yesterday on another forum about the CW history of a particular vessel, the sidewheel riverboat William Bagaley (or Bagley, as it’s often given in contemporary records). It’s an interesting story.
William Bagaley was built at Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania in 1854. She was 170 feet long, 32 feet 9 inches wide (not including the sidewheels and deck overhang), and had a depth of hold of 7 feet. Her measured tonnage was 396 30/95 tons. She was initially registered at Pittsburgh on November 28, 1854.
Abstract register of the steamboat William Bagaley, 1855.
The boat was re-enrolled about year later at New Orleans, on December 7, 1855. Her owner at that time was listed as Ralph Bagley (Bagaley?) of Pittsburg, and her master was John C. Sinnott. At some point in the following years it appears that Bagley may have sold his interest in the boat, because April 1861 the boat is advertised as being part of the Cox, Brainard & Co. line of steamers running between New Orleans and the Alabama River, as high up as Montgomery. Dick Sinnott is listed as master at that time; it’s not clear how he is related to John C. Sinnott, although they appear to be different individuals.
April 1861 advertisement for the steamboat William Bagaley, running from New Orleans to Mobile, Selma and Montgomery. From Huber.
Sometime in mid-1862 or later, William Bagaley was taken into Confederate service, probably for use as a tender or supply vessel supporting the military outposts around Mobile Bay. On at least one occasion, in early March 1863, the steamer was used as a flag-of-truce vessel for communicating with the Union blockading fleet off the entrance to the bay.
That spring and summer, Confederate officials in Mobile began hiring vessels to run the blockade to Cuba. Most of these, like Bagaley, were shallow-draft riverboats. The Confederate government would split the profits of the venture with the boats’ owners, and reimbrse them half the value of the vessel if she were lost. On the night of July 17/18, 1863, William Bagaley ran the blockade out of Mobile Bay, passing under the guns of Fort Morgan and keeping along the Swash Channel to the east of the entrance. Her cargo consisted of 700 bales of cotton, 3,200 barrel staves, and 125 barrels of turpentine. She was under the command of Captain Charles Frisk, with 29 other crewmen on board. Running with her was the steamer James Battle, both headed for Havana. The two ships were spotted by the blockaders U.S.S. Aroostook and U.S.S. Kennebec. The division commander, Captain Jonathan P. Gillis also slipped his cable and gave chase in Ossipee. The Union vessels quickly overhauled James Battle, and Gillis ordered the commander of another blockader that had arrived on the scene, W. M. Walker of U.S.S. De Soto, to put a prize crew aboard and send the steamer on to New Orleans for adjudication. Gillis, in Ossipee, continued on after William Bagaley.
U.S.S. Ossipee in a postwar image, c. 1900. Library of Congress.
(It should be noted here that Kennebec, Aroostook and Ossipee were part of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, under the overall command of David G. Farragut, while De Soto was part of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, under Theodorus Bailey. This divided command structure probably helped precipitate what happened next.)
By sunset that evening, Gillis could clearly make out the steamer up ahead. By 11 p.m. Ossipee was close enough to test the range with her 30-pounder rifle, at which the steamer immediately stopped her engines and hove to, waiting to be boarded. At that point they were about 176 nautical miles south-southeast of the entrance to Mobile Bay, more than a third of the distance to Havana. As Gillis was preparing to send a prize crew aboard, U.S.S De Soto churned up out of the darkness, stopped between Ossipee and her prize, and Walker began transferring his own prize crew. Gillis, who believed he had just made a solo capture – and thus making Ossipee and her crew eligible for the full award of prize money, was clearly incensed. He wrote in his report that he “doubted whether [De Soto] saw her, but had followed in our track, knowing we were in pursuit [and] seized clandestinely the opportunity in the darkness to throw on board a prize master and receive [the] steamer’s papers.” Gillis clearly saw Walker as poaching a share of a prize that was rightfully his. Gillis had Captain Frisk write out a statement that he had been chased by Ossipee since noon that day, that he had stopped in response to Ossipee’s gun, and “surrendered to the U.S.S. Ossipee.” Walker, for his part, formally reported to Gillis his taking possession of the prize, closing with the notation that “at the time of taking possession of the William Bagley the U. S. steamers Ossippee [sic.] and Kennebec were in sight.”
U.S.S. De Soto at anchor in Puerto Rico, 1868. Naval Historical Center.
Walker’s notation about Ossipee and Kennebec being “in sight” at the time of capture is tremendously important, because U.S. Navy prize rules specified that all ships in sight or within signaling distance of a capture were entitled to a share of the proceeds, whether they had actively played a role in the capture or not. Not only did Walker dash in between Ossipee and Bagaley to claim the prize first, his mention of Kennebec being “in sight” at the time would effectively split the prize money three ways, reducing Gillis’ and Ossipee’s share by about two-thirds. Walker almost certainly believed that his own squadron commander, Rear Admiral Bailey, would defend Walker’s actions, particularly since a capture by one of the East Gulf Squadron’s ships would put prize money in Bailey’s own pocket.
Map showing the approximate location to the capture of the steamer William Bagaley.
Like James Battle, William Bagaley was sent in to New Orleans for adjudication at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Bagaley arrived at New Orleans first, on July 23. The court heard the case and condemned the steamer and its cargo on August 17, 1864, ordering them to be sold at public auction by the U.S. marshal, with De Soto and Ossipee listed as the official captors. A monition order was published in the local press giving ten days’ advance notice of the sale in the event there was a challenge, but none was forthcoming and the sale went ahead as scheduled.
Almost immediately after the auction, though – in fact, before the marshal could deposit the proceeds with the district court – a challenge to the sale was filed by a man from Indiana named Joshua Bragdon (1806-1875). Bragdon claimed to be a former resident of Mobile and a partner in the firm of Cox, Brainard & Co., that had owned the steamboat before the war. Bragdon claimed that, as a Union man, he had left Mobile and returned to his old home in Indiana at the outbreak of the war, while his partners remained in the South. More than a year after he went north, he said, the Confederacy had unlawfully seized his share in the boat, of which he claimed to hold a one-sixth interest. Bragdon insisted that he had never supported the rebellion and played no active role in it, and asked the court to award him one-sixth of the proceeds from the auction of both the steamer and her cargo, as being property that was rightfully his.
The district court in New Orleans rejected Bragdon’s claim and eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court (The William Bagaley, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 377). Remarkably, at this point Bragdon’s former partners also filed a motion with the Supreme Court, asking they be awarded the other five-sixths of the value of the ship and her cargo. They explained that while they had been Confederate citizens, they had subsequently been pardoned by President Johnson and were now ready to recover their lost investment, too.
In an opinion authored by Associate Justice Nathan Clifford (right, 1803-81), the court rejected both Bragdon’s and his former partners’ claims. The court held that Bragdon had effectively walked away from his property in Mobile and made no effort to remove or recover it for more than a year before it was seized by the Confederacy, effectively abandoning it. Bragdon claimed to have been loyal to the United States throughout the war, but Clifford wrote that with that loyalty came an obligation to break with his Confederate business partners and recover whatever interest he had in the boat. Ships, Clifford wrote, have a peculiar national identity that other forms of tangible property don’t, because they are formally registered, fly a national flag, and carry official government papers licensing their activities. By abandoning his vessel in what amounted to a foreign port during wartime, Bragdon had effectively handing over his interest in the vessel to the enemy government:Open war had existed between the belligerents for more than two years before the capture in this case was made, and yet there is not the slightest evidence in the record that the appellant ever attempted or manifested any desire to withdraw his effects in the partnership or to dispose of his interest in the steamer. Effect of the war was to dissolve the partnership, and the history of that period furnishes plenary evidence that ample time was afforded to every loyal citizen desiring to improve it, to withdraw all such effects and dispose of all such interests. . . . Personal property, except such as is the produce of the hostile soil, follows as a general rule the rights of the proprietor; but if it is suffered to remain in the hostile country after war breaks out, it becomes impressed with the national character of the belligerent where it is situated. Promptitude is therefore justly required of citizens resident in the enemy country or having personal property there, in changing their domicil, severing those business relations or disposing of their effects as matter of duty to their own government and as tending to weaken the enemy. Presumption of the law of nations is against one who lingers in the enemy’s country, and if he continue there for much length of time without satisfactory explanations, he is liable to be considered as remorant, or guilty of culpable delay, and an enemy.
For his part, Joshua Bragdon spent his remaining years in New Albany, Indiana, where he invested in a rolling mill. The 1870 U.S. Census identifies him as a manufacturer of T-rail — a high-demand item in the railroad-building boom of the postwar years — with a combined worth in real and personal property of $100,000. Bragdon died in 1875.
Federal troops at Point Isabel, Texas, as shown in a Febraruary 1864 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. At left are two riverboats, similar to William Bagaley, serving as Union army transports. Library of Congress.
By the time Justice Clifford wrote his opinion in 1866, though, the steamer William Bagaley was only a memory. The ship had been purchased at auction by the U.S. Quartermaster Department and outfitted as a transport for Nathaniel Banks’ expedition to the Texas coast. Bagaley was one of fourteen transports that sailed from the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi on October 26, 1863, bound for the anchorage at Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the Rip Grande. A little over three weeks later, after offloading at Brazos Santiago, Bagaley was wrecked on the bar at Aransas Pass, near Corpus Christi, on November 18, 1863.
Map from the OR Altlas showing the wreck location of Bagaley at Aransas Pass, Texas.
I don’t know if the wreck of William Bagaley has ever been located or identified, but if it survives it presumably lies in Texas state waters and, on that account, should be considered a protected archaeological landmark under the Texas Antiquities Code.
 Works Progress Administration, Ship Registers and Enrollments of New Orleans, Louisiana, Vol. V: 1851-1860 (Louisiana State University, 1942), 272; Frederick Way, Jr., Way’s Packet Directory, 1848-1983 (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University, 1983), 487.
 Works Progress Administration, 272; Leonard V. Huber, Advertisements of Lower Mississippi River Steamboats, 1812-1920 (West Barrington, Rhode Island: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1959), 68.
 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies (hereafter cited as ORN), Volume 19, 656-57.
 The William Bagaley, 72 U.S. 5 Wall. 377 (1866, hereafter cited as Bagaley Case), (http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/72/377/case.html).
 Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1988), 171-72; ORN 17:504-07.
 ORN 17:507.
 New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 24, 1863, p. 2.
 Bagaley Case.
 Charles Dana Gibson and E. Kay Gibson, Assault and Logistics, Union Army Coastal and River Operations, 1861-1866 (Camden, Maine: Ensign Press, 1995), 336; ibid., 339; Charles Dana Gibson and E. Kay Gibson, Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels, Steam and Sail, Employed by the Union Army, 1861-1868 (Camden, Maine: Ensign Press, 1995), 338.