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SS Kentucky Disaster

On June 9, 1865, the SS Kentucky capsized in the Red River south of Shreveport, marking the second deadliest inland maritime disaster in US history.

SS Kentucky Disaster

Photo by Thomas W. Bankes, Library of Congress

The SS Sultana, a ship similar in design to the SS Kentucky and which also sank with great loss of life.

Tn the night of June 9, 1865, the SS Kentucky, a side-wheeler steamboat carrying a large number of paroled Confederate soldiers and their families, capsized in the Red River south of Shreveport after hitting a snag at Eagle Bend. Although the exact count is unconfirmed, hundreds of passengers drowned after an attempt to ground the vessel failed once it began filling with water. The wreck of the Kentucky marked the second deadliest inland maritime disaster in US history, exceeded only by the 1,647 deaths associated with the explosion of the SS Sultana troop ship on the Mississippi River eight weeks earlier.

Construction and Service

The Kentucky was built in 1856 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 375-ton, 22-foot-long, 32-foot-wide steamboat served as a mail packet boat on the Mississippi River until 1861 when it was pressed into service for Confederate troop transport. In November of that year it saw action at the Battle of Belmont, Missouri. In March 1862 the Kentucky was at the Battle of Island Number Ten near New Madrid, Missouri. Taken as a prize by Union troops at Memphis, Tennessee, the Kentucky was commandeered for use in the Western Gunboat Flotilla of the US Army/Navy.

In February 1863, the Kentucky was returned to private service but shortly thereafter was leased to the Quartermaster Department of the US Army for $80 per day. The boat again saw service as a troop transport and cargo vessel on the Lower Mississippi and Red Rivers in areas occupied by Union forces.

Wreck

At 6:30 p.m. on June 9, 1865, the Kentucky departed from Shreveport’s Commerce Street wharf, bound for New Orleans. Most of those on board were Confederate veterans from Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, with the largest contingent being Missourians who had defended Shreveport, the capital of Confederate Louisiana and the last major command center to lay down arms at the close of the Civil War. The boat was so congested that many parolees slept wherever they could about the bow or in the forward cabin on the floor. An unknown number of civilians, including the wives and children of the parolees, and between fifty to one hundred African Americans were also among the passengers. The forward deck was also packed with 250 horses that the decommissioned soldiers had been allowed to keep after surrender.

Two hours into the boat’s journey down the Red River, approximately fourteen miles south of Shreveport, the forward hull struck a snag, one of many partially submerged logs that had made the waterway particularly treacherous. In earlier centuries, the river had been completely blocked by a massive logjam known as the Great Raft until Henry Shreve was hired by the federal government to make the river navigable in the 1830s.

A New York Times story published on June 24, 1865, reported on the Kentucky’s demise:

The passengers on board, chiefly Confederate soldiers from Missouri, were lying about the boat and forward cabin on the floor soundly asleep, when about 9:30 p.m. it was discovered that the boat had two and a half feet of water in her hold. No alarm was given. At first an attempt was made to run her ashore, but as the boat proved unmanageable, this failed. The stern line was then got out and fastened to the shore, but not in time to do any good, for the boat swung out into mid-river where the current was strong and the water deep, and the bow was carried under. She careened over on her side, slowly at first, and then suddenly the bow went down and only about twenty feet of the ladies’ cabin remained out of the water, this too standing at an inclination so nearly perpendicular that it was with great difficulty any one could climb out …

For some reason yet to be explained, the soldiers were permitted to remain asleep in fancied security, while the boat was thus careened and was sinking. Thus nearly all of them were carried under. Some who were outside or could easily extricate themselves, rose to the surface and swam out. Some clambered up the side and floor of the boat, and thus escaped, but about 200 of them were undoubtedly lost. As the boat careened, a great rush took place on the hurricane deck. Many of the passengers were in their berths and were saved.

James T. Wallace of Pindall’s 9th Battalion of Missouri Sharpshooters later stated the following in his testimony about the disaster: “The scene was painful in the extreme. It seemed especially hard that this sad thing should happen just when we were on our way home.”

Slightly downriver, the troop transport SS Colonel Chapman heard the commotion and turned around to assist the Kentucky, but it was too late by the time the Chapman reached the wreck. Although an official inquiry cleared the Kentucky’s officers and crew of wrongdoing, the captain of the Chapman blamed them anyway. On June 16, 1865, he wrote a scathing letter to the New Orleans Times that read: “If I had the power, I would hang the captain and pilots to the first tree that I could find.” The Kentucky’s Captain Anthony Walton and one of his young sons were among the victims. Federal authorities thereafter prohibited nighttime travel on the Red River.

Aftermath

An unconfirmed number of passengers and crew perished. Official accounts were low, suggesting 200 fatalities, but based upon newspaper accounts of the day and reminisces of the survivors, the number is possibly two or three times that count. At the time many survivors protested that the federal government had purposely kept the number of deaths not only low but also vague, a form of damage control in the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War. Indeed, many even suggested that the occupying Union government had a hand in the disaster.

As an informal memorial, the plantation of William Crowder at Eagle Bend, where the Kentucky sank, was later renamed “Kentucky,” honoring the boat buried just off his land.

No organized attempt to salvage the Kentucky was mounted, though the boat’s hull continued to be visible at low water until as late as 1947. In 1994 the wreck was discovered and documented. In July 1997 a formal archaeological investigation of the Kentucky began under the auspices of the State Division of Archaeology and continued until the following October. The exposed stern of the boat was re-buried and the riverbank stabilized by the US Army Corps of Engineers to prevent further tampering of the site, which belongs to the state under the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987. A number of artifacts retrieved by scuba-diving archaeologists were brought to the surface and are now on display at the J. Bennett Johnston Waterway Regional Visitor Center in downtown Shreveport.