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ELIZA BATTLE Part 1 > part 2


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By Emmet Calhoun in Birmingham News
From Macon Beacon Newspaper
Submitted By Site Visitor Lacy Mims

Recollections --- Eliza Battle
By Emmet Calhoun in Birmingham News

From Macon Beacon

One of the greatest catastrophes ever to occur on the Tombigbee River was the burning of the steamboat Eliza Battle on the night of March 1, 1858, in which between 80 and 90 persons lost their lives. In several accounts of this disaster different dates have been given, some writers giving the year as early as 1854. But my old friends and the historian of Columbus, Miss., Edward R. Hopkins, says that one of the victims is buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Columbus, Augustus Jones, and that on the headstone of his grave is sculptured, "Died March 1, 1858." So, then, it may be concluded that this was the exact date of the burning of the Eliza Battle.

The Eliza Battle was the largest and most palatial steamboat that plied the Tombigbee River, running out of Mobile to Aberdeen, Miss., when the water stage of the river permitted, which was about four months in the Winter and early Spring. She was a cargo and passenger-carrying steamer, her up-river cargo consisting of plantation supplies and provisions, the latter such foodstuffs as were not grown on the plantations – sugar, coffee, rice, etc. Her downstream cargo of course, was almost exclusively cotton --- large 500-pound bales, there being no steam compressors in those days by which the farm bale could be compressed to one-third in size. There was great competition on the river for the cotton cargoes that the plantations along the river supplied most plantations being regular steamboat landings.

The Eliza Battle’s owners at Mobile for weeks had sent word up and down the river that her first down-river trip in March was to be a gala event. The boat shortly before had installed a calliope, commonly called a steam piano and had engaged two string bands to provide dance music, day and night for the expected throngs of joy-seeking passengers. Came the great day – March 1, 1858 – and the boat left Aberdeen with a fair company of persons for the joy trip to Mobile and return. On arrival at Columbus on a cold day, with bright sunshine, the landing field was filled with carriages that had brought a gay company to board the boat. Ladies and their beaus, young married couples, who had awaited their opportunity for their bridal trip, planters and their wives and itinerant drummers (salesmen) and others

About 50 persons boarded the boat at Columbus and shortly after noon, the Eliza Battle backed out from the dock decorated from stem to stern with flags and bunting with the calliope giving out its music. Within an hour the orchestra began playing and dancing started in the large cabin. Arriving at Pickensville, 41 miles down the river from Columbus, the boat took on additional passengers and the dancing and merriment increased as nearly everyone living along the river knew each other. These landings and taking on passengers were repeated at Vienna, Gainesville, and Warsaw as they had been at the plantation landings until more than 200 passengers were aboard, through stateroom accommodations could provide for little more than half that number.

In making its way down the river the Eliza Battle was hailed for landings. With high water of the river many of these landings were hazardous, but had they not been made the planters would have harbored enmity and the Eliza Battle would lost business of these plantations in the future. At Demopolis, Ala., the last of the gay contingent of passengers was taken aboard. With 2,000 bales of cotton piled from the lower deck, and to the cabin deck, and with more than 200 passengers besides the crew aboard, the boat’s officers decided no more stops could be made. Night had fallen, the evening meal served and everything cleared for gaiety and dancing which continued without interruption. Ladies in their crinolines and gentlemen in their vart-colored suits --- coats, vests, and trousers being of different hues as was custom of the day—gave way to joy and merriment.

The night was gloomy and dark with a heavy sleet falling and bitter cold wind blowing. The river was many feet above normal, only the tops of the trees growing on the low banks showing above the water. Then came the alarming cry of fire. This cry was screamingly repeated when one person after another made the horrible discovery that the boat was afire. There was an immediate panic. In the brisk wind the fire spread rapidly and soon the greater part of the boat was engulfed. Men began to push bales of cotton into the river and try to get their womenfolk on them. Dozens of persons leaped into the river and tried to reach the shore. Many reached and clung to the tops of partially submerged trees. Others got ashore but could render no assistance to those in the treetops, many of whom froze to death during the night.

Captain Stone, master of the Eliza Battle, in desperation ordered the pilot into the bank, but it was found some of the tiller ropes leading to the rudders had burned in two and was almost unmanageable. However, several miles further down the river, the current veered the burning boat close to shore near Wehoeta, a near landing at this point permitting the few persons left aboard to leap off and swim ashore. Daylight coming shortly afterward, a young man, with only a skiff available sought to rescue persons in treetops up and down the river. About 50 were taken from the treetops in a half frozen condition. They were put in plantation homes and outhouses and others laid on the ground on hay and corn fodder and Negro slaves built huge fired to help them thaw out.

Those rescued, as they regained somewhat of understanding, told grim tales of hearing persons in treetops losing consciousness frozen numbness and falling into the river and drowning. At the Pettigrew plantation at Wehoeta some 80 persons were cared for who had been rescued, only one of who had succumbed from exposure survived. There were many acts of heroism in this disaster and are always in such emergencies, but it would be useless to try to enumerate them. Men died in efforts to save their loved ones and women died in their efforts to save their children, though fortunately there were few aboard the failed trip of the Eliza Battle.

Stories have been written about the origin of the fire, some that professional gamblers deliberately set fire to the boat when they were pulled off by the captain. Another said the boat’s safe was robbed by two cracksmen and that when leaving they crashed an oil burning lantern on a bale of cotton so the fire would cover their robbery. The most plausible account is that a merrymaking passenger threw a cigar sub on a bale of cotton thinking he was tossing into the river and the fire resulted. The News is thankful to Mr Will Borden (?) of Birmingham, for consider detail relating to the burning of the Eliza Battle which were gathered by Mrs. T. C. Borden of Reform, Ala. They lost relatives in the disaster. From Aberdeen, Miss., to Demopolis, Ala., there was hardly a family along the river that was not personally bereaved by the burning of the Eliza Battle.

Recollections -- Update
By Emmet Calhoun, in Birmingham News

August 14, 1942

From Macon Beacon

Two weeks ago this column gave an account of the burning and sinking of the palatial passenger and freight steamboat, Eliza Battle, on the Tombigbee River more than 84 years ago. Naturally, in the recital there were some discrepancies from the actual facts, but the story was substantially accurate. Now comes additional details of the disaster that cost 80 to 90 lives from Captain Harry E. Miller, Jr., captain of the tugboat Sylph, plying between Demopolis and Mobile, and his letter is given herewith.

Dear M. Calhoun --- The writer is a regular reader of your column, Recollections, and enjoy them for their simplicity and historical recollections. I personally think you have contributed much to the historical background of Alabama and Mississippi.

Your column of Sunday, was especially interesting as it touched interests that are familiar to me in a way, as I have followed the profession of river boat pilot out of Mobile on the Bigbee River for nearly 30 years. So you see, I have a wealth of river lore in my system, and such being the case, I’m going to make a few corrections, which I sincerely hope you will not in any way take as criticism, but merely as a friendly gesture, for after all, you are practically correct in all details except the name and landing where the Eliza Battle burned and finally sank, and the origin of the fire; also that the Battle did not stop after leaving Demopolis.

The Battle took on passengers at Demopolis. Among them was a wealthy planter, who had loaded his cotton there, and as, was the customary had received his pay was bound for Mobile with the money in a handbag. As you related there was little, if any stateroom space left. This planter, therefore, was assigned a room in the Texas (top deck crew quarters). Night had long fallen when the Battle cleared Demopolis and the planter locked his money in the stateroom and joined the crowd in the main cabin. The deck crew, or roustabouts, in those days were mostly immigrants. In this crew were two Irishmen who conspired to rob the stateroom when the opportunity presented itself, which was not long in coming. The Battle had a consignment of freight for Beckley’s Landing 32 miles south of Demopolis. While at this place the two Irishmen entered the room, took the satchel, fired the mattress and closed the door. Just as the Battle cast loose and in the confusion of departure, the two Irishmen disappeared up the bank.

The fire was discovered about 50 minutes after leaving Beckley’s Landing or when the boat was at Kenebis Creek, eight miles below Beckley’s. She then burned and floated in the strong current until one-fourth mile above Naheola Landing, which was at that time on the old Pettigrew plantation. Here the Eliza Battle sank and to this day her wreck is still submerged in 28 feet of water. Naheola is 42 miles below Demopolis in Choctaw County.

About 30 years ago, an old man lay desperately ill in the city of New York. Realizing he had little time left, he called for a priest and made a written confession that he and a friend had set fire to a boat by the name Eliza Battle on the Bigbee River after robbing a stateroom. This confession was sent to the authorities in Mobile, who, of course, verified it thus proving the origin of the most disastrous riverboat fire Alabama has ever known . . .

The Battle was in command of Capt. Stone and the pilot on watch at the time of the fire was Pilot Ples D. Tindle. These two men were considered tops in their profession. It is also interesting to know Capt. Tindle was very immaculate and was also an accomplished musician. He spent hours with his violin entertaining himself and passengers.

His son, P.D. Tindle, resides in Mobile . . . Yours respectfully, Captain Harry E. Miller, Jr., Master Towboat Sylph.

Also herewith is given a letter written from Louisville Ky., by F. B. Carpenter, Jr., which gives some data on the Eliza Battle. This letter also tells of the burial at Old Bethany Cemetery in Pickens County, Ala., of a Revolutionary War veteran, a bodyguard of Gen. George Washington. In the lapse of years I had forgotten about James McCrory. The Carpenters and the Salmonds mentioned were among the finest people of the state, and it is with sincere pleasure I am reminded of them and thank the scion of these families for his thoughtfulness in adding much to the historic interest of this column. The letter follows:

Dear Mr. Calhoun--- Although I have made my home in Kentucky for the past several years, I have never lost interest in my home state of Alabama nor my home county of Pickens, hence I usually find myself going to the newsstand for a copy of Sunday’s News-Age-Herald, and so enjoy your column of Recollections, especially those that refer to Columbus, Miss., and Pickens Country Ala., as they recall many events of my early days.

If you perchance should have any recollection of me it would be that of a boy tagging around Carrolton after his father. I am the son of F.B. Carpenter, who was elected tax assessor of Pickins in 1896 and who served two terms and who, I am happy to state, that in spite of his 82 years, is still hale and hardy and able to after his farming interest near Aliceville. No doubt you also recall that in the same election or rather at the outset of the campaign, two of my uncles (mother’s brothers), E. A. and B. B. Salmond, opposed each other for sheriff. However, B B. withdrew in favor of R. C. Long, who was elected, and my uncle became chief deputy, and upon Mr. Long’s resignation became sheriff, served out the unexpired term and was reelected.

Being unusually fond of history, it was with a great deal of pleasure I read in yesterday’s News-Age-Herald your account of the burning of the Eliza Battle. I already have two accounts of it and very duly cut yours out and placed it in my collection along with the other two, and while all three agree in the main, still each brings out some points that the other omit. I am quite sure that you have the correct date on which this tragedy happened and cite you the following: In Bethany Cemetery, the same in which our good friend, Judge O. L. McKinstry, is buried, sleeps Dr. Sterling H. Jones, from whose epitaph I quote: “Sacred to the memory of Dr. sterling H. Jones, who closed his earthly career in endeavoring to make his escape from the burning wreck of the ill-fated steamer Eliza Battle, first night of March, 1858. His body was subsequently recovered from its watery grave and laid to rest beneath this stone which is erected by one to whom he was dear.” From what I suppose that there could be no doubt as to March 1, being the correct date. My maternal grandparents were passengers on the upbound trip and I have heard my grandmother fix the date as either March 1 or 2. She was not certain which was correct, but was positive as to the year.

Did you know that one of Washington’s bodyguards, James McCrory, is buried in Old Bethany Cemetery, some four miles south of Aliceville near Sipsey River on the road leading from Aliceville to Eutaw? This is not the cemetery referred to in the earlier part of my letter: there are two by the same name, one at the old town of Bethany and the other generally referred to as Old Bethany or the old Primative Baptist Cemetery.

Hoping that you will write many more recollections---F. B. Carpenter, Jr.

In consideration with the foregoing letters this column has received dozens of others, chiefly from personal friends over Alabama and Mississippi, saying it was read with interest and appreciated. Also there have been received hundreds of telephone calls from acquaintances and others. The writer desires to take this opportunity to say he is gratified that anyone gets pleasure from the column. E. C.

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