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Entered 04/08/09

ELIZA BATTLE Part 1 > Part 2


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Excerpt From
Autobiography of a Little Man
Dr. Rufus R. Wiley
Submitted By Site Visitor Lacy Mims



February 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 Tombigbee river.

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.

There 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.
Four miles 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 passengers.

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.

On the 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 band.

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 furnished.

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 gale.

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 cold.

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 talk.
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.

I 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.

To 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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