Month: August 2016

“…fired across her bow…”

The opening shots of the War between the States were fired in Charleston, South Carolina upon Fort Sumter  in April of 1861 or so the history books tell us. This event did provoke the war, but they were not the first shots fired.

Earlier in December of 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the union prompting other southern states to begin proceedings to do the same. The United States Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, formerly Governor of Virginia and a southern sympathizer, sent an order to the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh for a shipment of 124 cannons to be sent down the Ohio river to New Orleans for several U.S. forts being built on the gulf. The steamers SILVER WAVE and MARENGO were engaged to convey these cannon south. Upon hearing of these developments citizens of Pittsburgh formed committees to protest this action knowing these guns would be used to build up the arsenals of the southern states, sent telegrams to Washington. The commandant of the arsenal, John Symington, attempted to obey orders to ship the cannon. The guns and their military escorts, were halted on the streets by angry crowds on Christmas Eve and in one case delayed for several hours, though no violence occurred. Thirtyeight were on board the SILVER WAVE before the orders were countermanded.

“Fireeaters” in the south were enraged by the actions of the citizens of Pittsburgh. In early January of 1861 Louisiana seceded followed by Mississippi. Louisiana in order to build up its arsenal used state troops to capture the Baton Rouge arsenal with its U. S. troops without bloodshed. Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi soon responded upon; “Being advised by the Governor of Louisiana that he had reason to believe that an expedition would be sent down the Mississippi river to reinforce the Garrisons of the Forts and Arsenals of that State, I sent Capt. Kerr with sixteen of the Jackson Artillery Company, and ordered Capt. H. H. Miller to call out the Volunteer Companies of Vicksburg, and take such position as would enable him to prevent any hostile expedition from the Northern States descending the river.” (Message of the Governor John J. Pettus to the Senate and House of Representatives of Mississippi, Jan. 15, 1861, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, Jackson, 1861, p. 6.)

At Vicksburg four guns were placed at the “foot of the bluff, a quarter of a mile above the wharfboat.” It was reported that “blank cartridges were fired to bring to and cause to land the GLADIATOR, the IMPERIAL and the A. O. TAYLOR, and that it was understood that if the summons was not attended to, the next gun fired would be shotted” (Memphis Appeal, Jan. 17, 1861).

Other reports differ as to blanks being fired. The IMPERIAL “passed there during the night, and was forced to land at the behest of a twelvepound shot fired across her bows” (Memphis Avalanche, Jan. 17, 1861).

“The A. O. TAYLOR disobeyed the first injunction delivered by a sixpound shot, and a twentyfour pounder was loaded with chain shot, and aimed at the boat. Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, the gun misfired, and the boat got beyond the range of the battery. The TAYLOR landed at Butler’s wharfboat, was boarded by a detachment of military, and made to go back to the encampment, where she was thoroughly overhauled and then permitted to go on her way” (Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

New Orleans papers reported that the “Mississippians are in ‘dead earnest’ making all ‘foreign’ boats stop and give an account of themselves. . . . All Cincinnati boats will be stopped by the soldiers of the new Republic.” At Cincinnati and other northern river ports it was believed that the “object of planting cannon at Vicksburg was to capture the cannon expected down on the steamers MARENGO and SILVER WAVE, or any ammunition that might be forwarded South by the Government” and that it was a deliberate attempt to harass northern vessels. (Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 23, 1861, Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

Sam Clemens was also witness to these events. His fellow pilot Will Bowen wrote Clemens on Dec. 10, 1889 recalling, “with your own eyes you saw it all. Do you recall the first Gun of the war directed at you from the Vicksburg Fort, expecting to capture the Boat that had Floyd’s Pittsburg armament, going to Baton Rouge. You were on watch on the ‘Alonzo Child.’”



Printed items called memoranda were occasionally published in the newspaper river columns of the major port cities along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, customarily a brief record or log from which rivermen “might learn something of the whereabouts and late deeds” of the steamboats on the rivers. These memoranda were compiled from simple entries of some notable occurrence while on watch and usually entered into a log book. By there very nature they were composed of information that came primarily from the pilothouse and hurricane deck where the captain, mates and pilots stood their watches when underway. Periodically passenger and freight information might also be included, leading to the presumption that a steamboat clerk could have a hand in the drafting of an individual memoranda. Upon the completion of a trip these entries were sometimes collected with little or no editing for the newspapers and members of the river fraternity. As chronicles of the life and times on the western rivers surviving steamboat log books available for study are in fact very rare thereby making these memoranda valuable materials for study. Among the steamboat memoranda published in the Missouri Democrat, are several that are of a unique character and fall within the known activities of Sam Clemens.

Clemens was a steersman on the PENNSYLVANIA from late September of 1857 until her collision with the VICKSBURG on the twenty sixth of November of that year. A week later he was clerking and steering on the WILLIAM M. MORRISON under the watchful eye of the old pilot Isaiah Sellers. Sellers was one of the pilots on the J. M. WHITE in 1844 when she set the speed record for a trip from New Orleans to St. Louis in 3 days, 23 hours and 9 minutes. In February of 1858 the MORRISON was laid up and Clemens returned to his duties on the repaired PENNSYLVANIA.

In March the MORRISON was back in service and the “high water” of April “gave her a chance of spreading herself, and she proved herself very fast.” Her memoranda from the Missouri Democrat tells of her trip:

Steamer Wm. M. Morrison left New Orleans Sunday, April 4th, at 11 o’clock A. M., with the United States mail and a fair cargo of freight — having a fast rising river to Napoleon. Above Natchez the water was over the banks. From Lake Providence to Napoleon it was over the levee, and for twenty miles above Greenville the levees were washed away. Discharged freight at Lake Providence, Greenville, Napoleon, Helena, Memphis, New Madrid, Island No. 10, Hickman, Cairo and Chester.

New Orleans to 81 mile Point 7 hrs 51 min., to Baton Rouge 12 hrs 15 min., to Bayou Sara 15 hrs 45 min., to Morgan’s Bend 1 day, to Islands Nos. 98 and 99 2 days, to Islands Nos. 62 and 63 3 days, to Island No. 21 4 days, to Devil’s Island 5 days. Whole time from port to port 5 days 14 hrs. Deducted. Running time 5 days 1 hr.

In May the PENNSYLVANIA had a fast trip too. The following memoranda is from the St. Louis Evening News of May 27, 1858.

Memoranda–Steamer PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In Port for St. Louis, steamers R. J. LACKLAND and RR. packets A T LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st — Met RR. packet HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge. 22d — Met CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence, T L MCGILL head of 93. 23d — Met NEW UNCLE SAM at 71. 24th — Met GOLDEN AGE, CORA ANDERSON at 37, IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th –Met EDITOR at Island No. 4, WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth Bend; passed J J ROE at Lane’s Landing. 26th — Met L M KENNETT at Cape Girardeau. Time six days from port to port. Lost 32 hours by storms and fogs.

The following day, May 28, 1858, the Missouri Democrat also published a memoranda from the PENNSYLVANIA, but this one was a little unconventional, a slight bend from the norm, and quite possibly written by cub pilot Samuel Clemens.

MEMORANDA — The PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In port for St. Louis, R. J. LACKLAND, A. T. LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st, met HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge, CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence; T. L. MCGILL at head of 93; NEW UNCLE SAM at 71: CORA ANDERSON at 37; IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th, EDITOR at island 4; WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth bend. Time from port to port 3 days and 72 hours. Only once before has a trip been made in 3 days and some hours.

The reference to “only once before” has such a trip been made is a poke in jest directed at Isaiah Sellers as he was one of the pilots of the fleet J. M. WHITE in 1844. The “Only once before” item was published in the Democrat, the same paper the memoranda from Isiah Seller’s log had been published a few weeks earlier. It is likely Sam Clemens was the author of the memoranda. Clemens would later recall how the “Oldest Pilot” was “full of strange lies & worldly brag” and probably bored the steersman with his boasting of the exploit.

In his personal notebooks for 1881-82 Clemens penned a similar river joke: “Trip up Missouri river 3300 miles made fastest time on record viz. 3 days 9 hours and 4 months” (Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, vol. 2, p. 574).