Among the passengers aboard the SS Republic on its final journey was Col. William T. Nichols, a Civil War veteran who saw action at Gettysburg. In a letter to his wife, Thyrza, he described in detail the "perfect hell" that emerged on board the ship as it was overtaken by the hurricane.
Rutland Weekly Herald
Transcribed by Don Wickman, Rutland, VT
Letter of William T. Nichols to wife Thyrza Nichols in Rutland
Atlanta, Ga., Nov. 2, 1865.
I give you below a short synopsis of the fortunes which have happened to me by sea and land since we left home.
Wednesday, Oct. 18. -- We went down to take the steamer, in company with our friends, Mr. Royce, Mr. Robbins and Mr. Wardwell; shook hands and parted with them at the gangway. Found the arrangements on the ship good; had state room No. 13, and having stowed away our baggage and made ourselves as comfortable as we could, we awaited with patience the sailing of the ship. At 3:30 P.M. she cast off from her moorings, and our voyage was begun.
Thursday, Oct. 19. -- The ship came out as far as Staten Island, and the weather being heavy outside of the harbor, we laid to till this morning, and started at 9 o'clock. The weather was not very bad, but was far from being fine. Passed the Hook early, and during the day, several ships inward bound. Got somewhat acquainted with some of the passengers, and among others with Captain Geo. W. McNair, late of the ship Inspector, and his brother.
Friday, Oct. 20. -- During the night the weather grew heavy, and in the morning was blowing a gale, which continued all day, and caused considerable anxiety to the passengers, and I think some to the captain of the ship. But she rode out the gale all day long, and at midnight the storm abated.
Saturday, Oct. 21. -- The storm has abated, and the sea gradually subsides. In the afternoon the sea become conspicuously smooth, and we were making good headway. Became quite well acquainted with several of the passengers this evening, and really the voyage began to assume a pleasant and agreeable aspect.
Sunday, Oct. 22. -- The weather is beautiful, and the ship bounds on her way like a thing of life. The passengers are all in first-rate spirits and dressed in their best attire. The porpoises are playing and sporting around the ship in the very exuberance of animal life.
Monday, Oct. 23. -- The weather was fine in the morning, but at 9 A.M. it began to blow strong, and kept increasing all day. At dinner at 2 P.M. the dishes slipped off from the table so, that pies, meats, vegetables, condiments, etc., became mixed in strange confusion over the floor. The ship began to labor heavily, and during the night shipped heavy seas, so that we were wet in our berths and did not sleep a wink.
Tuesday, Oct. 24. -- This morning we had no breakfast, as the ship was rolling so heavily that it was impossible either to cook anything or set a table. It was as much as a man could do to walk from one side of the ship to the other, by hanging on to anything he could get hold of. Still the gales kept increasing, and the ship sprung a leak at 9 A.M., but the passengers did not know it. The fires in the boilers of the ship were put out only by the water in the hold before noon.
The first time we knew that we were in trouble was about 1 o'clock P.M., when we were told that if the gale did not abate, we must begin to throw the cargo overboard at 2. The news caused considerable consternation, and at half past one we were set to throwing the cargo overboard. The scene at this time and forward beggars all description. One gang were set to bailing the ship and another to breaking up the cargo. We put out everything that could be got hold of--silks, block tin, liquors, dry goods, vegetables, tobacco, oil, varnish, white lead, and in fact everything of which the cargo was composed. Men worked as only men can work when their lives are [at] stake.
When the cargo was put out, we found that the water, had gained on us. And all hands were set to work bailing the ship. I thought I could not stand, I was so tired from lifting out cargo, but I went into the hold of the ship and took my station to pass water in the buckets, and there I stood for twelve and one-half mortal hours, passing at the rate of from 25 to 50 pails of water per minute all that time.
I supposed I had seen something like confusion in battle, but the scene at this time was sublime. The ship had 300 tons of coal, and as she lurched from side to side, the roar of the coal and water sounded like Niagara, and the water on the outside dashing against the ship was another distinct sound and horrid enough of itself. The wind was howling through the rigging like the demons of the sea, and to make it a perfect hell, the men, excited and yelling to each other, begrimed with black smut and engine grease, and their eyes glaring through the dim light of the ranging lamps, made it a scene fit for a painter. I cannot describe in words the impression which it made upon my mind. It was desperation intensified. No man stopped to think what was the fate impending in a few hours, and yet but few hoped for anything but life, and none expected anything but death. At that time had the ship gone down, it would have been impossible to save a life, as the boats could not have been launched in that sea and in the dark.
Wednesday, Oct. 25. -- The ship is still afloat, and has been kept afloat simply by the efforts of the passengers in bailing, as the pumps were all out of order, and, strange to say out of the chaos of the occasion, something like order has grown up. It was desperation, but men were just on the eve of exhaustion. We were laboring to keep the ship afloat a few hours longer, as the sea was subsiding, and making our preparations to leave the ship in the boats. At half-past one in the afternoon we stopped bailing as it was evident that she could not float much longer. The boats were launched and a raft made, and at two the men began to get into the boats. It was such a scene as I never expected to see under such circumstances. No confusion, no panic -- people shaking hands and bidding each other adieu with all the calmness that they would exhibit if parting upon any ordinary occasion; no trying to get into the boats first, but one saying to another "You go in this boat, and I will go in the next."
The ladies and children were all put into the boats first, and then the men were allowed to take their chances. Henry and I were in boat No. 2, though it was the last boat lowered into the sea. We had 13 in her, and by a singular good fortune, Capt. McNair, an old sea captain was with us, and to him under God, we owe our lives, as he knew how to steer the ship by sun and stars.
At four o'clock P.M. the ship sunk to the bottom with $300,000 in gold and much other treasure on board. The four boats and raft now started on their cruise for life. It was a magnificent sight. They happened to form in the shape of a pentagon, and with the sea rolling 40 feet high, the boats would rise and fall like our hopes and fears. Our boats got filled with water within 15 minutes after we started out, but we took off our hats and caps and soon bailed her out, and during the remainder of the night we kept her head on the sea, and waited with patience and anxiety for daylight.
Thursday, Oct. 26. -- At last it came, and availing ourselves to the general fact that land was to the west, we steered in that direction and rowed for our lives. A little after noon Capt. McNair rigged up a sail out of a table-cloth which was on board, and with that we made rapid progress till nearly night, when the wind died away, and we had to take to the oars, and all that night we had to pull, and were looking, anxiously looking for a sail or land, but neither came in sight.
Thirst, more terrible than anything else I ever suffered, was added to our other calamities. We had not one drop of water, and with all the labor we had performed it seemed impossible to live without water. But we said little to each other in regard to it, and kept hard at work.
Friday, Oct. 27. -- Morning came, and with it no sail--no land. It was water everywhere. Our throats began to swell from thirst, and I took out May's gold chain and put it in my mouth, to keep it moist, and gave Henry a coin for the same purpose. His jaws began to set themselves, but the poor fellow worked without saying anything, and did his part like a man. At 9 a.m. a sail hove in sight, and we began to pull for her, and pulled till we were exhausted, and had to give up in despair, as she had gained on us, instead of our gaining on her. At this point we were on the point of despair, and took off our clothing and jumped into the sea, to absorb moisture externally, which alleviated our suffering very much for the time being. Just after we got into the boat again, a sail hove in sight in the opposite direction, and though, almost dead, we took to the oars again, and after pulling over an hour we got to the ship, which proved to be the Horace Beals, Capt. Joseph Blankenship, and he treated us with all the civility and politeness which a trueborn gentleman could bestow upon us. We could not stand at first when we got on the deck, but water, coffee and something to eat, together with a night's sleep, restored us.
Saturday, Oct. 28. -- We were on the ship during the day, and rested what we could.
Sunday, Oct. 29. -- The steamer General Hooker, which was sent out by the Government to search for us, came up and took us on board about 5 P.M., and we headed for Charleston.
Monday, Oct. 30. -- We arrived in Charleston this morning, and once more are upon land. To a kind and over-ruling Providence, I return my sincere and profound thanks.
I have given you a simple narrative of a terrible suffering, and when I have more time I will give you a similar history of our adventures on the land. Henry and myself are both well, and on our way to New Orleans.
(William T. Nichols)
William T. Nichols wrote the above letter to his wife, Thyrza, unaware that she was dying of typhoid fever in their hometown of Rutland, Vermont. His beloved young daughter May, had already died of the fever. The Nichols brothers, William and Henry, did finally reach New Orleans and destinations beyond. Both lived to be successful and influential civic leaders. William founded the Chicago suburb of Mayfield, Illinois, which he named for his deceased child. He built a factory that produced farm implements and fueled Mayfield's economy for over a century.