Bits and Pieces
Life on the River
Civil War Boats
Wheeling W. Va.
of a Little Man
Dr. Rufus R. Wiley
By Site Visitor Lacy Mims
NEAR DEMOPOLIS, ALA., ON THE TOMBIGBEE RIVER IN 1858.
28th, 1858, was a day never to be forgotten by the people of Alabama, and especially
those in that portion of the State marked by the flow of the beautiful and romantic
It was on the night of that memorable day that the beautiful
and palatial passenger steamer, "Eliza Battle" was destroyed by fire
near Demopolis, Alabama, in which about forty of her crew and passengers perished.
Aberdeen, Miss., is the head of navigation of the Tombigbee, and on the evening
of February 26th the Eliza Battle backed off from her moorings there with the
largest passenger list ever carried by a steamer in that day and time on that
river. This steamer was the pride of the people of the entire Bigbee valley. It
was noted for its excellent management, the elegance of its furnishings, its speed,
and for the fine music of its calliope, brass and string bands.
was to be a grand occasion of some kind in Mobile on March 7th, and it seemed
that everybody wanted to go, and that all had preference for the ever popular
steamer Eliza Battle as the conveyance.
No steamer ever steamed out from
a city with a gayer crowd. The aristocracy and wealth, the chivalrous and fair
were on board. Planters, some of them worth millions, with their wives and daughters
were along, and the whole made up one of the most elegant gatherings of the high
society that ever graced the deck of a steamer with their presence.
down the river the people could hear the flutter of the paddle-wheel and the puffing,
telling them that the Eliza Battle was coming, and the banks all along were lined
with eager crowds who gave back wave for wave with their handkerchiefs to the
At Pickensville, Warsaw, Vienna and Gainesville the passenger
list was augmented until people had to be turned away. At all these places great
piles of cotton were taken on, until the weight sent the guard rails to level
with the water. The manifest, both as regards passengers and freight, was the
largest by far ever exhibited by a steamer on that river. The time of which I
write marked a prosperous era in the history of the South. The crop just harvested
was enormous. Everybody had plenty, everybody was liberal and the influence of
these things permeated the crowd on the Eliza Battle, for people in their joys
spent their money liberally, and forgot for the time their differences, if there
ever were any, and devoted the while to the passing pleasures.
evening of the din, about 8 o'clock, Gainsville Alabama, was passed and the whole
town was at the landing. The steamer looked even grander now than at any other
time on the trip, because the night was extremely dark and the lights gave a more
beautiful effect-The next place of note to be passed was Demopolis. Between Gainsville
and Demopolis the bottoms are rich, and dense swamps line the banks on either
side. Out where the lands begin to rise are plantations, and the noise made by
the passengers, the music, and the puffing caused the plantation Negroes to gather
on the banks along to see the sight. The steamer rounding the bends. With her
great headlight, with its effect changing with the swaying, caused the huge trees
to look like so many spectres. The boat itself with its gloomy surroundings environing
the banks "looked like the picture of some dreadful monster plowing the waters,
bent upon destruction." The river was extremely high and about 10 o'clock
a cold, stiff north wind arose, driving the people from the balconies and hurricane
deck into the hall and parlor.
The fever of enjoyment was too high for it to
be cooled so suddenly into slumber. "Partners for a cotillion." rang
through the crowd, and quickly following came strains from the excellent string
By 12 o'clock what had been a lively scene merged into one of revelry.
Men in the dazzling effulgence forgot themselves and imbibed too freely in the
passing brandy and wine, while the ladies were on the animation that the gay surroundings
It was in the midst of this revelry and royal banquet when
the startling words "Fire," "F-i-r-e", came like a thunderbolt
to cruelly transform the scene into one of terror. Unlike Belshazza of old they
had not the warning and advantage of the handwriting on the wall. Little did they
dream of the awful doom that was to come upon the heels of such entrancing enjoyment
to send them so soon into eternity. The elements, fire, wind and water, it seemed
had combined to do their deadly work.
Every heart quailed. Women screamed
and fainted, and men who looked but a few moments ago as though nothing could
give them fright, became paralyzed and as helpless as babes. Roaring of the north
wind, the crackling of the flames, the rushing of the mad turbulent waters, and
the screams of the frightened and doomed passengers conspired to make it one of
the most appalling calamities that ever took place on Southern waters. The night
was bitter cold, and to add to the awful picture, the wind was blowing a terrible
Nearly every passenger was lost. Many were drowned and some froze
to death, and a few were rescued from floating bales of cotton. The pilots stood
nobly at the wheel until the flames began to leap up over the Texas of the boat
and seeing that the hope was a forlorn one they abandoned their posts, and left
the boat to drift with the tide. The night was so cold that the clothes on the
bodies of those who had sought safety in the trees would freeze into sheets of
ice within a half minute from the time the water was left. There were perhaps
as many as twenty-five who were lucky or unlucky enough to swim to and climb trees,
and of this number not more than five lived through the night because of the intense
A Mr. Frank Mauldin, who is now living at Macon, Noxubee County,
Mississippi, is perhaps the only living survivor of that terrible event. He sought
safety in a tree into the limbs of which three others had climbed for safety.
They were on the limbs above him. Mr. Mauldin owes his life to a small bottle
of brandy and a plug of tobacco he had in his pockets. After drinking all the
brandy, he could feel his doom in the sheets of ice that encompassed him unless
something was done quickly. His appetite called for stimulants and the plug of
tobacco was to him a Godsend. Piece by piece he bit from it and swallowed the
juice as he chewed. All this time he could hear the pitiful wails of those above
and around him in their cries for mercy and help. He could discern the voice of
those were fast sinking into death's embrace under the biting torture of their
ice stiffened clothes, and occasionally he could hear the thud when some poor
unfortunate's body fell to the water from the trees. More than all, he could hear
the heart rending appeals of those above him for aid until one by one they dropped
by him and on into the water below.
At daylight the next morning he was
rescued, more dead than alive, by some negroes in a skiff. They were not a minute
too early for as the skiff landed against the tree in which he was perched, his
strength failed him and he fell unconscious from his hold and landed across it
in the water. They rowed to bank as soon as possible and there, by wrapping him
in warm blankets and rolling him over and over on the ground for an hour or more,
they gradually brought him to.
Imagine the thoughts of those in the trees
on that dreadful night. Many of them had brought their families along and but
a few moments ago were surrounded by all that was near and dear to them. In the
consternation, devoted husbands and brothers and sons had to perform the task
of shoving from the guards of the boat their loved ones that they might escape
the more torturing death from burning. It was death to remain and death to jump.
Perhaps in taking to the water there was a chance in a hundred to escape death,
but to remain was entirely hopeless. One by one the screaming children, frantic
young ladies, and distracted mothers were pitched on to floating debris and left
to the merciless, angry waters. The flames from the burning decks of the steamer
lit up the surroundings for hundred of yards. Down the river as far as your eyes
could see and out in the timbers were to he seen here and there some poor mortal
clinging to a floating something all struggling for a place of safety. Occasionally
a bale of cotton or a piece of timber to which some unfortunate was clinging would
revolve or strike a tree abruptly and there would come a shriek and another poor
soul would go down forever. The prayers, the moaning and groaning of the burning,
drowning and freezing fairly caused the earth to tremble.
Until this day
Mr. Mauldin, whom the writer knows well, will give way to emotion in telling of
his experience and suffering on that terrible night.
Dr. S. B. Canton,
of Warsaw, with whom I was personally acquainted, boarded the steamer for Mobile,
and as he made the fatal leap and took to a tree, he tied himself fast with his
suspenders to the tree and there he swung, and administered advice and encouragement
to the freezing and dying around him as long as he had strength and breath to
Many a soldier has faced death at the cannon's mouth and on the battle
field; many a brave man has gone down under the pestilence that has raged in the
night and walked at noonday. But few have died like him, giving comfort and encouragement
to the dying while staring death in the face himself. He was a bachelor some thirty-five
years old; and while he left no wife or little ones to mourn his death, he left
a community in sadness and tears. He had so endeared himself to the people by
his kindness and devotion at the bedside of the sick and dying, that everybody
loved him and all mourned his loss.
Many were picked up by a steamer next
day, some nearer dead than alive, and floating on cotton bales. A little child
was found on a. bale of cotton, wrapped in a blanket safe and dry with no one
left to claim it. A lady and her daughter were rescued by a Negro and safety landed
on a bale of cotton and they gave him a fine gold watch and chain for his kindness.
have written from memory thirty-four years back and if there is anybody living
who remembers the calamity and sees that I have made an error or have failed to
picture it in full, they will be kind enough to look over it as it was long ago.
Those who were saved, like autumn leaves, are now scattered, some here, some there
and some peacefully sleeping where the daisies bloom and the ivy creeps.
the living, if this should reach the eye of any of them, it will tend to revive
in their memory recollections of one of the most heart-rending occurrences that
ever went into song and story, and to the dead it will not disturb the serenity
of their slumbers.
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