Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The World’s Largest Troopship

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on September 29, 2014
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.​


Amazing story.




15 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Bob Nelson said, on September 30, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Thanks for sharing. Very interesting story. For her day, she was an unbelievably huge vessel. 5 stacks, 6 masts, 2 side wheels, five steam engines (four for the side wheels and one for the propeller) capable of producing 8,000 horsepower, able to transport 4,000 passengers, longer than 2 football fields (692 feet) and a beam of 80 feet. She was taken out of service before the opening of the Panama Canal. Had she not been, “Great Eastern” (too deep a draft) could not have made it through.

  2. Will Hickox said, on September 30, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Very interesting. We hear a lot about the British show of force during the Trent Affair; I had no idea they shipped reinforcements to Canada earlier in the war.

  3. Reed (the original, accept no substitutes) said, on September 30, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    Numbers, shumbers. I won’t understand how big it is until I see an Andy Hall graphic with a yellow school bus next to the ship for reference!

    Full steam ahead!

  4. H. E. Parmer said, on October 1, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Dugan’s The Great Iron Ship is full of amazing stories, a lively and fascinating account of a unique ship in a unique era. Jules Verne wrote a fictionalized account of his voyage on this ship from Liverpool to New York with his brother Paul in 1867, under the title A Floating City, which also has some very interesting detail about The Great Eastern from a passenger’s point of view.

    • Andy Hall said, on October 1, 2014 at 2:32 pm

      I like Dugan a lot. His history of the Royal Navy’s Great Mutiny of 1797 is very readable. He casts the event not as an insurrection to military disciple, but as mass labor strike, with ships as factories and the officers as managers/supervisors. It’s a neat argument. I first read it many years ago, and I think it was the first time I was consciously aware of an historian framing events in a specific interpretive way, rather than a straightforward recounting of events.

      • H. E. Parmer said, on October 2, 2014 at 1:13 am

        It’s been ten years or more since I read The Great Iron Ship — having found a copy in a used bookstore in a small town in western Minnesota of all places — and definitely decided it fit into that category of books I hold on to, because I know I’ll want to read them again. This might just be the time to do that. Sounds like The Great Mutiny would be right up my alley, too. Thanks for the recommendation: that is an interesting analogy. From what little I know of the event, it sounds pretty reasonable.

    • Bob Nelson said, on October 1, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Financially, the “Great Eastern” was a total disaster. She made her maiden voyage across the Atlantic in 1860 with only 35 paying passengers and a crew of more than 400 and the trip took almost eleven days. With all her power and engines and masts she was unable to compete speed-wise with other vessels already in service. On one voyage from England to the U.S. in 1862 she did carry 1,500 passengers. On another, only 138. On three voyages in 1863 she carried only 2,700 westbound and 970 back to Britain. No wonder the company went belly up. BTW, how do you insert italics into your messages H.E.? I tried the old tried-and-true CTRL I but that doesn’t work (brings up a list of favorites). CTRL B (bold), CTRL U (underline) don’t work either.

      • H. E. Parmer said, on October 2, 2014 at 12:57 am

        Yeah, the G.E. ruined more than one set of investors. And had some very bad luck, like when they discovered that previously unknown rock in New York Harbor, because she was the first ship with a deep enough draft to hit it. (Good thing Brunel designed her with a double hull, or there might have been one heck of an interesting undersea archaeological site right on NYC’s doorstep.) Although I can feel some sympathy for the people who lost their money, you have to admit her story would have probably been a lot less interesting if she’d been a resounding success.

        As for the italics, what you have to do is use the old standard HTML tags to demarcate the phrase you want italicized. For example, typing <I>The Great Eastern</I> will give you The Great Eastern. (I can’t reveal how I got it to display the less than and greater than characters. This is an awesome secret known only to initiates to the upper levels of HTML Monkey-dom,.)

  5. Stephen Hall said, on January 29, 2016 at 10:55 am

    Would anyone know how to locate the passenger lists of the troops for the Great Eastern’s voyage to Canada in 1861? All help gladly received. Thanks.

    • Andy Hall said, on January 29, 2016 at 11:42 am

      Interesting question. I’m not sure they would be part of a passenger list per se; it might be easier to first identify the regiments or units, and then locate the Army rolls for those units at time.

    • Bob Nelson said, on January 29, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      If this troop movement to Canada happened in July 1861, then it was not in response to the “Trent Affair,” which occurred later. Right??

      • Andy Hall said, on January 30, 2016 at 6:23 pm

        Right, this was months before. the Trent incident.

  6. Bob Nelson said, on January 30, 2016 at 2:31 pm

    Here’s a link to a Wiki site that has about twenty photos of the “Great Eastern.” Just scroll down and click on “Gallery.” Amazing photos.

  7. Bob Nelson said, on January 30, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    Be sure to check out the photo of her lying in the harbor at Milford Haven, Wales. She’s riding so high in the water that the bottom of her port paddle wheel is above the surface of the water. The troop transport mission, BTW, was in June 1861 when she carried some 2,150 British soldiers and officers from Liverpool to Quebec. They amounted to about half of all the British Regulars in Canada (estimated at 5,000) during the “Trent Affair.”

    • Andy Hall said, on January 30, 2016 at 6:18 pm

      That Milford Haven shot is an interesting image, in particular. The church of St. Katherine’s and St. Peter’s, oh the hill in the center of the image in the distance, still stands. The sport where Great Eastern was in now a small pleasure boat marina. She would completely dominate the harbor (as she did then), but she couldn’t fit through the present-day locks to get into the harbor in the first place:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: