The Life and Death of a Steamer: SS Republic

A Sidewheel Steamer Courtesy Library of Congress

In 1853 in a busy Baltimore shipyard, a sidewheel steamer destined to live through much history was born. The SS Tennessee’s beginning didn’t get off to such a roaring start. Her launch, set to take place on August 13th, was delayed until August 31st when she got stuck going down the ramp.

By March 1854 the Southern Packet Company had put the Tennessee up for auction after a brief stint, operating along the East coast. No buyer would have her though and instead the steamer was sent to Europe. The Tennessee got a job hauling cargo from La Havre, France to the New World. Enroute a storm damaged the vessel and she had to stop off in Halifax before continuing on to New York. By the next year she had again been sold and was placed on the South American run. But profits were less than lucrative and she was sold to the Nicaragua Stemaship Company. The Tennessee found herself carrying loads of people westward to the goldfields of California. She was also just in time to find herself overloaded with ‘soldiers’ headed West to join filibuster William Walker’s ‘army’.

CSS Tennessee(?) Courtesy Library of Congress

When the Civil War started the Tennessee was in New Orleans. She was seized by Confederates and put into service as a blockade runner.When David Farragut captured New Orleans, the Tennessee was loaded with up with cargo and flying a neutralist flag (a French flag). A puny attempt to avoid capture and one that was easily seen through. After being outfitted for service in the Union navy she was ready to go to war. (Note: The ship would later become a favorite with Farrgaut) When the Rebel ironclad CSS Tennessee was captured, the USS Tennessee’s name was changed. This time to Mobile. Keeping the CSS Tennessee’s name was a propaganda tactic on the part of the United States.

After a hurricane damaged the Mobile she was in major need of repairs. Rather than go through all of the expenses, the Mobile was auctioned off in March 1865. In a month’s time the war would be over and the Republic, as she had again been renamed, would be plying her peacetime trade. She was put on the New York-New Orleans run. Her third run came on October 18, 1865. She would be carrying about 77 crew and passengers, plus a valuable cargo of gold and silver coins worth $400,000.

On October 20th a gale harassed the Republic, but eventually passed. But on October 23rd a storm far worse than the gale pummeled the Republic. Her captain, Edward Young, could do nothing but wait it out. The storm made it, literally, impossible to eat. The ingredients would have spilled out onto the floors before it was ever prepared. By October 24th, the vessel was taking on water. So much that the boilers were soon extinguished by the incoming water. The pumps couldn’t keep the water in check and crew, as well as passengers, began throwing cargo overboard to lighten the load. Then they began bailing the water out for many hours. It was all in vain, however.

Young realizing their desperate situation and that there were not enough seats in the four lifeboats for everyone, had his crew construct a raft. When the time came people calmly stepped into the lifeboats. Once in the water the lifeboats had to be bailed out as waves crashed down overhead. (Note: It is my amateurish opinion that one of the reasons they didn’t make a great clamber for the boats because they may have been trading their trouble for another. The boats probably would have bee the equivalent of toothpicks were being put out in a stormy sea. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? It’s something to ponder. Please note, I’m not saying that the people on board weren’t trying to do the right thing, but this may have influenced their decision a tad bit).

Those left behind on the sinking steamer jumped into the treacherous sea. Captain Young found himself carried down with the ship but eventually surfaced. He was picked up by Lifeboat No. 1. Other lifeboats would also pick up swimmers and haul them aboard. While the plan had been for the lifeboats and raft to rough it together the insurmountable sea made this impossible.

At 4 PM on 25 October 1865 the Republic went down. Now it was the waiting game. While the survivors had indeed escaped the Republic, would a rescue vessel sight the small boats  in time as they bobbed around in the sea? Radio had not yet made it’s debut aboard ships, or land for that matter. No one knew the Republic had sank and she was quite incapable of calling for help.

A Shipwreck Courtesy Library of Congress

On October 26th Lifeboat No. 1 under Captain Young was picked up by the John W. Lovitt. On the 27th Lifeboat No. 2 under the Republic passenger Captain Hawthorne, was picked up by the Willy Dill. Among the boat’s survivors was Hawthorne’s wife and two children. Lifeboat No. 3 was under Captain Young’s son and 1st Mate, Sarsfield Young. On the outset of the boat’s journey Young had been completely worn out and so Republic passenger Captain George McNear had taken charge. McNear rigged up a sail and tried to head for land. He also made sure the preserves aboard the boat were rationed (they still didn’t last as long as needed). Once the occupants sighted a sail but were unable to catch up to it. A second sighting proved more fruitful. The Horace Beals picked up the survivors on October 28th. Lifeboat No. 4 under 2nd Mate Edward Ryan was picked up on October 29th by the Harper.

The raft was the only one unaccounted for. There had been 12 or more souls aboard when the wreck took its final plunge. By early November there were only two survivors left. James Noolan and Oliver Martin were both crewmembers. Ships sent out to locate the raft had never found the two who had been carried hundreds of miles away from the wreck. But finally on November 2nd, the USS Tioga sighted the pair adrift and rescued them.

In 2003 the wreck of the SS Republic was discovered. And yes the coins were still sitting there.

Source: Vesilind, Priit J. Lost Gold of the Republic: The Remarkable Quest for the Greatest Shipwreck Tresure of the Civil War Era

22 thoughts on “The Life and Death of a Steamer: SS Republic

    • Yes they were lucky. I’m surprised that the two men on the raft lasted as long as they did.

      I looked and looked but I couldn’t find any exact number of deaths. I’m going to have a look at old newspaper archives today and see if it yields anything. Thanks for your comment!


    • Like the author of the “Lost Gold of the Republic” said, throughout her life the Republic was at the right places at the right time. I guess even with all of the history wrapped around her and had she not sunk, the Republic would have ended up scrapped. Too bad. Thanks for your comment!


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