SS Republic Historical Overview
By the time the SS Republic sank in late October 1865, she claimed a remarkable seafaring legacy including heroic service for both the Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War. The Republic was an industrial marvel, built in Fells Point, Baltimore, by the John. A. Robb Shipyard at the blooming of the steam age. She was equipped with a vertical walking-beam steam engine, twin return-flue boilers and other machinery constructed by Baltimore’s Charles Reeder and Son. Her two 28-foot sidewheels were driven by a massive single piston. The sturdy 210-foot long vessel was originally built to transport 100 passengers and store 5,000 barrels of cargo in her hold.
Christened the SS Tennessee in 1853, the ship began service with a lucrative route between Baltimore and Charleston. Yet, when business lagged, her owners put her up for sale. When no buyers responded, they sent her to England on a speculative voyage in hope of some profit. The gamble succeeded and she returned with cargo from Havre, France, to become the first Baltimore steamship to complete a transatlantic voyage. During her journey home, the Tennessee sailed into the first of the four hurricanes she would encounter during her lively maritime career.
The ship was sold twice by 1856, and would soon embark on another pioneering voyage as the first steamship to provide regular service between the United States and South America. After that venture also failed to profit, she was sold to Charles Morgan's Southern Steamship Company. Her new owner added more passenger space and at times crammed the vessel with more than 500 travelers. Many were "Californios" heading westward to seek their fortune with the Gold Rush, while others were soldiers of fortune going to fight in Nicaragua for the famed filibuster William Walker. On Christmas Day 1856, the vessel was greeted by yet a second hurricane with some 300 of Walker's militia aboard ship.
When the fighting in Nicaragua shut down the country, the Tennessee called instead at the port of Aspinwall, Panama, where many of her passengers were California gold hunters bound for the rivers and mines of the Sierra Nevada.And ironically, after Walker was ultimately defeated and his band of recruits driven away, Tennesse carried home the last of these wounded and weary men. The ship was then re-assigned to travel regularly between Havana, Vera Cruz, and New Orleans, carrying cargo, immigrants and Mexican silver.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, the Tennessee was impounded by the Confederacy to prevent the possibility of her going north. After almost a year tied up on the New Orleans' dock, Tennessee was commandeered for a price of $100,000 to serve for the Confederate Navy as a blockade runner. But she failed to penetrate the Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico.
When the Union captured New Orleans on April 25th, 1862, the ship was converted into a powerful gunboat and served in various roles in the Union Navy, including periodic assignments as Admiral David G. Farragut’s flagship. Farragut was aboard the USS Tennessee when word came of three important Union victories: The defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg and the capture of Port Hudson, Louisiana.
During the Battle of Mobile Bay, the Tennessee fought valiantly against Confederate forces stationed at Fort Morgan, directing cannon fire on this massive stone fortress at the mouth of the Bay. And with the Union’s victory in this most important naval battle of the Civil War, the Tennessee was renamed USS Mobile.
The ship's military career ended abruptly in October 1864 when her hull was damaged in a third storm. A New York shipping magnate bought the crippled ship in 1865 and renamed her SS Republic. After an extensive refit, she was then chartered to service shipping lines operating on the route between New York and New Orleans. On her fifth voyage, the SS Republic departed New York with 80 passengers and crew and an enormous cargo of goods including barrels of money bound to help fuel New Orleans' expanding post-Civil War economy.
On the fifth day of her journey a storm blew in from the south, and by nightfall the Republic was stalled without power in a fierce hurricane. Battered by gale-force winds and relentless seas, her paddle boxes and deck fittings were swept off deck and the ship rolled and tossed throughout the night. Passengers labored for hours bailing out water and cargo. But their efforts proved futile. On October 25th, the auxiliary engine stopped working. With water rising rapidly in the hold, the crew and passengers abandoned ship on four lifeboats and a hastily-built raft. At 4:00 p.m. the SS Republic disappeared beneath the waves, taking her precious cargo down with her to the bottom of the deep, cold Atlantic.
Thanks to the courageous and skilled efforts of her captain, Edward Young, and the crew, all the passengers managed to evacuate the sinking ship, even in the howling midst of the hurricane.
Historical Highlights - SS Republic
1853: Launched in Fells Point, Baltimore as the Tennessee August 31
1853: In commercial service transporting passengers and cargo
1855: First transatlantic passage by a steamer from Baltimore
1856: Inaugurated steamer service between U.S and South America
1856-57: Sailed the Nicaragua route with adventurers: Gold Rush "Californios" and soldiers of fortune following William Walker
1857: In commercial service transporting passengers and cargo from New York to New Orleans, and also from New Orleans to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and Havana, Cuba with occasional voyages between New York and New Orleans
1861: At the outbreak of the Civil War in April, Tennessee was trapped in harbor at New Orleans. Early the next year she was purchased for service in the Confederate navy
1862: April 29 - Captured by Union forces in New Orleans and pressed into service
1862-64: Notable Civil War naval service included participation in the Mississippi River campaign, the Gulf Coast Blockade, the Battle of Mobile Bay, and service off and on as the flagship of Admiral David Farragut.
1864: Name changed to USS Mobile after the Union’s Victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay to avoid confusion with the captured confederate ironclad also named Tennessee
1865: Bought at auction by Russell Sturgis and investment group; repaired and refitted, then renamed the SS Republic and returned to a New York-New Orleans run in May
The Last Voyage of SS Republic:
October 18, 1865:
The SS Republic leaves its New York pier bound for New Orleans loaded with a reported "$400,000 in specie."
October 23 1865:
In the morning, the SS Republic encounters a gale which turns into a “perfect hurricane” before night, when the steamer was possibly off Carolina.
October 24, 1865:
The paddlewheels stall and can't carry the engine past dead center. The SS Republic is left powerless, drifting and at the mercy of the elements. Steam is raised on the donkey boiler to start the pumps.
October 25, 1865:
At 9am, the "donkey boiler" fails and water pours into the hold. The crew begins work on a makeshift raft and prepares the lifeboats. At 1:30 pm the lifeboats and raft begin launching. At 4:00 pm, when all but 21 people were in the boats, the SS Republic sank suddenly. All passengers and crewmen safely make it into a lifeboat or raft except for two men who are last seen trying to swim through the ship's floating debris. Captain Young is pulled down with the sinking ship, but he narrowly escapes and swims to the safety of a lifeboat.
October 26, 1865:
Lifeboat #1, under the command of the Republic's captain, is rescued by the brig John W. Lovitt.
October 27, 1865:
Lifeboat #2 is rescued in the afternoon by the schooner Willie Dill. Lifeboat #3 is spotted and rescued late on the 27th by the barkentine Horace Beals.
October 29, 1865:
Lifeboat #4 rescued after four nights at sea by the schooner Harper.
November 2, 1865:
The raft, which departed with 14 to 18 people aboard, is spotted off Cape Hatteras by the U.S. Navy steamship, USS Tioga. Only two people remained on the raft to be rescued. The others disoriented by thirst and heat, leaped into the sea and drowned swimming toward what they falsely envisioned to have been land.
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