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.
New renders of the Morgan Line steamship Harlan (seen previously here), that ran a coastwise route between New Orleans, Galveston and Indianola, Texas in the late 1860s and 1870s. New renders of the Morgan Line steamship Harlan, that ran a coastwise route between New Orleans, Galveston and Indianola, Texas in the late 1860s and 1870s. When she began the route in mid-1866, Harlan ran with three other steamships (Harris, Hewes and Morgan) on a 12-day cycle: New Orleans to Galveston (2 nights); after a brief stop at Galveston, on to Indianola (1 night); overnight at Indianola (1 night) then back to Galveston (1 night); a brief stop again at Galveston and back to New Orleans (2 nights). Fives nights at New Orleans, and then cycle repeats. A published schedule for the line (Galveston Daily News, June 13, 1866) gives the following for one of Harlan‘s voyages:
Depart New Orleans, June 5 Arrive Galveston, June 7 Depart Galveston, June 7 Arrive Indianola, June 8 Depart Indianola, June 9 Arrive Galveston, June 10 Depart Galveston, June 10 Arrive New Orleans, June 12
Harlan would depart New Orleans again on June 17. By running four ships on a schedule like this, there was a steamer departing each port every three or four days. Recall that at this time, there was no rail connection between Texas and the rest of the United States — that came later. The trip between Galveston and New Orleans is a long car ride now, but 150 years ago, a two-night trip aboard a coastal steamer like Harlan was both the fastest and most comfortable way to make the journey.
Harlan was the last of seven ships built to the same design by Harlan & Hollingsworth for the Morgan Line between 1861 and 1866. The first of these ships, St. Mary’s, was purchased new and converted into the Union warship U.S.S. Hatteras. In 1880, Harlan transported former President Grant and his party from Clinton, on Buffalo Bayou near Houston, to New Orleans.
Full-size images available on Flickr.
U.S. Army chartered transport Saxon, 1862.
Alexander Hobbs was a private in Company I of the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry. It would be Hobbs’ and his messmates’ misfortune that Company I was one of the three companies of that regiment that eventually occupied Kuhn’s Wharf on the Galveston waterfront, and came under attack by Confederate forces in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 1863. Hobbs kept a diary that encompassed his experiences, which is now part of the collection at the Woodson Research Center at Rice University.
In an earlier post, we traveled along with Hobbs as he and his messmates boarded the chartered transport Saxon  at Brooklyn, and made the rough passage down the eastern seaboard, around the Florida Reef, and into the Gulf of Mexico to Ship Island, Mississippi. After a brief stop there for coal, Saxon continues on to the mouth of the Mississippi:December 16 7 A.M. arrived at the entrance of the Mississippi after a very stormy and disagreeable night back lay-too for some hours waiting for day light to take a pilot the entrance of the river is through low land which extends for (I think) twenty miles from the entrance the river is about three quarters of a mile wide and is very
Pilot Town at the mouth of the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi. Harper’s Weekly via SonoftheSouth.net. We see the remains of many of the few rafts sent down by the rebels to burn Butler [‘s] fleet passed forts St Phillips & Jackson which our gun boats took on way New Orleans the marks of our shot could be plainly seen on the [fort’s] walls it is now by a Massachusetts  [and we] stopped the medical officer came on he found us all well and allowed us to proceed came to anchor at dark within twenty yards of the bank and within twenty miles of the city of New Orleans the scenery on the banks of the river for the most part has been delightful groves of orange trees which hung full of the golden fruit looked to us very inviting December 17 Started this morning and arrived at the city at we was all eager to see the “ City”and enjoyed a fine viewfrom the deck of our is little to see as is but little business done now we had scarcely anchored before boats came off with fruit, pies, cake & bread the city is under Law but the poor are much better off than before it was taken by the Federals Flour which than sold for forty five dollars now sells from seven ten dollars and others then as in proportion we expected to land here but orders came for us to go up the river nine miles to a town called  accordingly in the evening we ran up the river but not knowing when to stop we went two miles further than we intended and stopped for the night beside a river Steamboat made to carry cotton with a saloon for passengers in the second story She is now laid up to dry and is used as a hospital
New Orleans, 1862 December 18 Left and steamed down the river two miles and landed at at 12 marched half a mile and our tents on a low wet pieces of land bounded on two sides by one a rebel and the other the last resting place of Union Soldiers who had been camped in that vicinity was near four hundred from Maine, , , New York, New Hampshire and some other states were two hospitals in the town, full of sick soldiers and it was a sad sight to see some each day carried to the grave without a friend to shed a tear over remains doubtless many tears will be shed when the sad tidings are wafted across the ocean to the home they left so lately I have wandered through grave yards before but never see so sad a place as this the graves are dug two or three feet deep and immediately fill with water the poor people praise Butler and well they may some of the Ladies say all manner of bitter things about us “Yankees” and scoff at the idea of the Union ever being restored December 19 Friday gave all our clothes to the Washer women not expecting to leave here soon a few hours afterward the order came to strike our tents and go again on the transport we did not know where to find our clothes butafter hunting all over the town we returned to camp in the order was countermandand we again our tents afterward some of our boys found clothes and before we left they were all recovered December 21 Broke camp at day light and marched to the bank and embarked on the good ship Saxon who was along side the bank stopped a few hours at New Orleans and than proceeded down the river on our way to the day was fine and we had a fine view of the twenty miles passed in the night time on our way up a anchored at night in the river and proceeded toward and morning on our voyage after three days sail with a fair wind and a smooth sea We arrived off Galveston [December 24] and was brought by a shot across our bow from a United States Gun boat who spoke us and signaled for a pilot At 2 P.M. The pilot came on but we were obliged to wait two or three hours for the tide to rise toward night we stood in across the bar and struck several times but got across in safety we found in the harbour three Gun boats the largest of which was the Harriet Lane who carried six guns also two Ferry boats [Westfield and Clifton] fitted up with some heavy guns and calculated for the harbour service as she drew only six or seven feet of water The town is built on an Island connected to the main land by a about two miles long the town form only contained about fifteen thousand inhabitants but nine out of ten have gone away since it has been occupied by by [Illegible: hily] by our gun boats
 Saxon was a relatively small, 413-ton screw steamer, built at Brewer, Maine, opposite Bangor on the Penobscot River in 1861. She was first registered at Boston, but would spend much of the Civil War under charter to the U.S. Army as a transport. She would continue in civilian for almost three decades after the war, before being abandoned in 1892. Mitchell, C. Bradford, ed. Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States, 1790–1868 (The Lytle-Holdcamper List), (Staten Island, New York: Steamship Historical Society of America, 1975), 196.  Probably the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.  Carrolton was a town upriver from New Orleans from 1833 to 1874, when it was annexed to become part of New Orleans. During the Civil War, Carrolton was somewhat infamous for its various forms of vice, particularly liquor, that caused ongoing discipline problems for the Union military governor, Benjamin Butler. The general’s civilian brother, Andrew, was widely believed to be engaging in all manner of shady business dealings, operating mostly out of Carrolton. ____________
Saxon illustration by Andy Hall
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.
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. 
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.  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.
Track chart showing the known travels of the American steamship Che-Kiang, 1862-64. Original map via National Geographic.
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
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. 
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. 
 “The Steamer Che Kiang,” The Straits Times, June 20, 1863, 1.
 John Harrison Morrison, History of American Steam Navigation (New York: W. F. Sametz & Co, 1903), 511.
 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.
 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.
Ron Coddington, blogger and author of the Faces of the Civil War series, has a new post up on Union General Benjamin Franklin Butler. Coddington rightly notes that the general “is not remembered especially well by history.” That’s certainly true. Between his ineptitude as a field commander and the vilification of him resulting from the sharp hand he used in the occupation of New Orleans, Butler gets pretty short shrift in most popular accounts. But as Ron points out, Butler — a former Democrat who at that party’s national convention in 1860 supported Jefferson Davis for president of the United States — was transformed by his war experience into a radical Republican and an ardent champion of civil rights for African Americans. He drafted the Ku Klux Klan Act, signed into law by President Grant in 1871, and (with Charles Sumner) wrote the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The latter legislation was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court, and many of its key provisions were never enacted until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — nearly eighty years after they were first set out. As Ron observes, “Butler was a man ahead of his time.”
Butler is often cited as the most infamous example of the Union’s “political” generals, men with little or no military experience who were appointed to senior commands based on their political influence in civilian life. His reputation, at least in the South, is defined by his tenure in New Orleans, where he attained the sobriquet “Beast” Butler for his intolerance of any show of disrespect for his occupying soldiers, and his vigorous enforcement of the rules of occupation. (He infamously hanged a Confederate sympathizer for tearing down the Federal flag from the U.S. Mint.) What’s less known, unfortunately, is the remarkable success Butler’s administration of the city had in reducing its infamously-high toll from that scourge of the South, yellow fever. As Andrew McIlwaine Bell explains in Mosquito Soldiers: Malaria, Yellow Fever and the Course of the American Civil War, New Orleans had a long and horrific history with the disease in the decades before the war, particularly in the 1850s, resulting in the deaths of over eighteen thousand people. The vomito negro was particularly hard on immigrants and visitors to the cities from Northern states; the illness was often referred to as the “strangers’ disease.” Butler was well aware of New Orleans’ reputation as a sickly city, and immediately set out to do something about it.
After consulting with his medical staff and a few local doctors (some of whom were openly hostile), Butler decided that yellow fever was an imported malady that required local unsanitary conditions to survive. As a result, he chose to implement simultaneously the two strategies best known at the time for preventing the spread of the disease-a strict quarantine and fastidious sanitation measures. A quarantine station was set up seventy miles below the city and its officers given firm orders to detain any potentially infected vessels for forty days. In addition, a local physician was appointed to inspect incoming ships at the station and was threatened with execution if any vessels known to be carrying yellow fever were allowed to proceed upriver. These new rules caused a minor diplomatic row with the Spanish; who believed that their ships arriving from Cuba (where yellow fever was endemic) were being unfairly targeted for lengthy detentions. Butler assured Senor Juan Callejon, Her Catholic Majesty’s consul in New Orleans, that he was not imposing “any different quarantine upon Spanish vessels sailing from Havana.” To the relief of the State Department, Spain eventually dropped the matter but not before firing off a few strongly worded communiques.
In town Butler put an army of laborers to work round the clock flushing gutters, sweeping debris, and inspecting sites thought to be unclean such as stables, “butcheries;’ and New Orleans’s many “haunts of vice and debauchery.” Steam-powered pumps siphoned stagnant water from basins and canals into nearby bayous. The northern press picked up the story and ran articles praising Butler’s methods. “He will probably demonstrate before the year is out that yellow fever, which has been the scourge of New Orleans, has been merely the fruit of native dirt, and that a little Northern cleanliness is an effectual guarantee against it,” predicted the editors at Harper’s Weekly. The magazine published a cartoon five months later which featured the general holding a soap bucket and scrub brushes in front of an approving Abraham Lincoln.
In addition to cleaning up the place, Butler also imposed a strict quarantine. How effective were Butler’s efforts? According to Bell, during the fever season of 1862 — the hottest months of late summer and early fall, ending with the first cold front — the number of fatalities to yellow fever in the Crescent City were two.
Such a small number is hard to credit, but it appears to be true. Furthermore, deaths remained astonishingly low during the next three years of Federal military occupation. A total of eleven New Orleanians died of yellow fever between 1862 and 1865. The year following the war, when the city was reopened to trade and immigration and local control was returned to civilian authorities under Reconstruction, 185 died. The following year, 3,107. New Orleans quickly slipped back into its old, antebellum pattern of mild years punctuated by terrible epidemics; over four thousand died in 1878, and the following year the disease famously claimed the life of former General John Bell Hood, his wife and one of his eleven children.
Today, Ben Butler is too often viewed as a curious admixture of ogre and buffoon, something of a cross between William Tecumseh Sherman and Oliver Hardy. But the reality is, as always, more complex. Whatever else one may say about his hard-handed rule in New Orleans, there’s little doubt that his efforts in both enforcing a quarantine and cleaning up the city made a tremendous difference, and saved many lives that would have a been lost otherwise even in a “mild” year.
Image: Harper’s Weekly, 1863, via Abraham Lincoln’s classroom; tomb of Sercy (newborn), Mary Love (22 months) and Edwin Given Ferguson (4 years), who died of yellow fever in New Orleans on August 30 and 31, 1878, via NOLA Graveyard Rabbit.