Civil War steamer believed found in Yazoo|[08/30/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 30, 2007

After nearly 150 years, the whereabouts of a Confederate vessel, described as ‘one of the more significant of the Civil War steamers, ‘appears to have been confirmed’ all due to a low river stage and some curious locals.

Bob Harston of Silver City, a town about six miles from Belzoni, has heard as long as he can remember that remnants of a vessel, presumably Civil War-era, could be spotted when the water in the Yazoo River was low enough. The river’s stage this week, so far, has been between 5.9 and 6.1 feet as near-drought conditions have prevailed in the lower Mississippi Delta.

According to local lore, that vessel, the Natchez, was one in a line of Confederate steamers. Many riverboats have had that name.

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‘It’s common knowledge,’ Harston said. ‘People have been seeing it forever.’

Documents at the First Baptist Church in Belzoni, about a mile from the vessel’s wreckage, back the story, Harston said.

An entry in church records says that a bell from the vessel was recovered and placed on the church’s steeple, he said.

It was an extra dose of curiosity that led Harston to call specialists to seek verification.

He phoned Vicksburg National Military Park historian Terry Winschel, who traveled to the site Monday with Jim Wojtala, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District.

The two immediately spotted what appeared to be a sidewheeler packet vessel, used by Confederate troops to navigate through narrow channels.

Peeking from the mud and silt was a pitman arm, used to crank the wheel. The outer walls of the vessel were fully exposed, showing charred white oak burned to its water line, which showed that the vessel had been afire, Winschel said.

Upon inspection, the vessel appeared to be 32 feet wide and about 140 feet in length, which fit the locals’ predictions.

‘That’s typical of packet vessels’ Winschel said.

Winschel said the next step was to investivate the Natchez name. Wojtala came across a Corps of Engineers report conducted by Harry P. Owens in March 1979 that gives an assessment of cultural resources along the Yazoo River between river miles 75.6 and 273.

That report describes a vessel, called the Natchez No. 5, a sidewheel steamer built in Cincinnati in 1860.

Winschel said all information proves that what he saw was the fifth in a series of seven boats of the same name, all owned by Thomas P. Leathers of Vicksburg.

‘Where the official reports claim where the vessel went down is the exact area,’ where it was found, he said.

George ‘Bubba’ Bolm, curator of the Old Court House Museum, said Leathers was known for his elaborate vessels.

‘He had some of the finest floating buildings on the river,’ he said.

The steamer, which is said to have weighed 800 tons and was 290 feet in length and about 38 feet in width, was a predecessor of the more famous Natchez No. 6, which raced the Robert E. Lee.

The earlier Natchez does have at least one claim to fame. One report claims that Jefferson Davis traveled on the vessel in 1861 on a portion of his journey to Montgomery, Ala., where he was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America.

In Confederate services, the steamer then went up the White River to transport troops to Memphis. After the fall of New Orleans and Memphis, the boat was reportedly taken up the Yazoo River and used as transportation there.

In 1863, the Natchez No. 5 was loaded with 2,000 bales of cotton from Tchula and Yazoo City and converted into a cotton clad gunboat.

On March 13, 1863, the boat is believed to have accidentally caught fire, which caused it to sink near the left bank of the Yazoo.

‘The steamer served as a cotton clad for only eight days before it accidentally burned and sank,’ the 1979 report says.

Lamar Roberts, curator of the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum, said a report, called the ‘Way’s Packet Directory,’ what he referred to as ‘the steamboat Bible’ claims that Leathers burned the boat on purpose.

‘He burned it himself to keep from’ having Union control over it, Roberts said. ‘He burned six or eight of his vessels for that reason.’

Roberts also said documents he has read describe many of the Natchez boats as having paintings of Indians on the sidewheels and in the inside.

‘They weren’t named for the city,’ he said. ‘They were named for the Indians.’

Winschel said any treasures that might have once adorned the boat are long gone now.

The report goes on to say that a salvage company from St. Louis salvaged the wreck under orders of the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

An earlier report, recorded in ‘Waterways Journal’ in December 1963, refers to the Natchez No. 5 as ‘the more significant of the Civil War steamers sunk in the Yazoo River system.’

‘Every effort should be made to locate the wreck, to identify it and to determine the extent of the wreckage remaining,’ the report urged.

That remaining wreckage is shown in pictures Winschel took upon his visit to the site.

They show a portion of a sidewheel, three to five spindles, an iron block in which the shaft rested and the ribs of the vessel.

Originally, Winschel thought the boat matched reports made by Gen. William Sherman in November 1862, where he described vessels that had traveled up the Yazoo.

According to Sherman, the Natchez was among about 17 other vessels that were scuttled, or burned, by Confederates ‘to prevent getting into federal hands,’ Winschel said. But, Sherman’s account can’t be true ‘ if the Natchez burned the following year.

Where the boat was found, however, is in about the same location where many of those vessels were believed to have been sunk. Roberts said 29 vessels were scuttled on the Yazoo River and its tributaries during the war.

The last time Civil War vessels that sank were spotted in this area, according to Winschel, was in 1988 when the Big Black River suffered a severe drought. Four vessels,

Winschel said nothing from any of those vessels, including the most recent discovery, can be salvaged ‘ mainly because removable items were salvaged before the boats were destroyed.

‘All that’s there is rusted, twisted metal,’ he said.

Still, he said, the findings are crucial to history.

‘It provides a documentation of events that transpired almost 150 years ago,’ he said. ‘Having the wreckage finally appear will help us know the exact location where the Confederates scuttled a good portion of their fleet.’

The H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine used during the Civil War, and the USS Cairo, a Union gunboat, are the only two vessels that were sunk during the war that have had portions raised and put on exhibit.

The Cairo, the most complete of the two, was found in the Yazoo River near where the U.S. 61 bridge crosses the river. Its restored remains are on display at the military park in Vicksburg.