“WAR” proclaims the letters scrawled across the face of a silver coin found on the wreck the SS Republic. The stark declaration mirrored the headlines in Union North and Confederate South newspapers across the nation over 150 years ago. By the time the SS Republic sank in late October 1865, she claimed a remarkable seafaring legacy, including heroic service for both navies during the war.
The ship was built in Fells Point, Baltimore, by the John. A. Robb Shipyard at the blooming of the steam age. She was equipped with a vertical walking-beam steam engine, twin return-flue boilers and other machinery constructed by Baltimore’s Charles Reeder and Son. Her two 28-foot sidewheels were driven by a massive single piston. The sturdy 210-foot long vessel was originally built to transport 100 passengers and store 5,000 barrels of cargo in her hold.
Christened the SS Tennessee in 1853, the ship began service with a route between Baltimore and Charleston. When business lagged, her owners put her up for sale. When no buyers responded, they sent her to England on a speculative voyage in hope of profit. The gamble succeeded and she returned with cargo from Havre, France, to become the first Baltimore steamship to complete a transatlantic voyage. During her journey the Tennessee sailed into the first of the four major storms she would encounter during her maritime career.
The ship was sold twice by 1856 and would soon embark on another pioneering voyage as the first steamship to provide regular service between the United States and South America. After that venture also failed to turn a profit, she was sold to Charles Morgan's Southern Steamship Company. Her new owner added more passenger space and at times crammed the vessel with more than 500 travelers. Many were "Californios" heading westward to seek their fortune with the Gold Rush, while others were soldiers of fortune going to fight in Nicaragua for the famed filibuster William Walker. On Christmas Day 1856, the vessel was greeted by yet a strong northeastern gale with some 300 of Walker's militia onboard.
When the fighting in Nicaragua shut down the country, the Tennessee called instead at the port of Aspinwall, Panama, where many of her passengers were California gold hunters bound for the rivers and mines of the Sierra Nevada. After Walker was ultimately defeated and his band of recruits driven away, the Tennesse carried home the last of these wounded and weary men. The ship was then re-assigned to travel regularly between Havana, Vera Cruz, and New Orleans, carrying cargo, immigrants and Mexican silver.
The Civil War
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 the Tennessee was trapped in port in New Orleans. Early the next year she was purchased for service by the Confederate Navy to penetrate the Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico. Confederate Commander W.H. Hunter described the ship as a “very strong and fast going vessel". Loaded with cargo, the Tennessee was to set sail for Havana, with her decks adapted to military specifications, including heavy guns. Her deep draught and the vigilance of Union warships outside the delta of the Mississippi doomed every attempt to send her to sea, however.
Yet rumors of this noted vessel abounded. On January 22, 1862, the Union Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, received a telegram from the U.S Consulate in Havana reporting that the Tennessee and eight other ships in the Confederate Navy had either broken their blockade or would do so shortly. A furious Welles sent his fleet into the Gulf, demanding the ships be captured or sunk. Union ships were sent to hunt down the Tennessee as it was suspected she would attempt to return to a Southern port from Havana. Ultimately, Gulf Blockading Squadron Commander David G. Farragut reported back to the Union that the Tennessee had not been successful in slipping out of the harbor.
Later, unbeknown to the Union, the Confederacy devised a complex plan to send the Tennessee to France, swap her cargo for war materials, and transfer ownership of the vessel to the French. The ship would make a dash for the ocean as soon as her escort of gunboats distracted the Union blockade. But the gunboats never showed, and theTennessee finally returned to the New Orleans docks. On April 25, 1862, Union forces took over the city and its ports.
Miraculously, the Tennessee escaped the horrific destruction caused by the retreating Confederates who blew up and burned large parts of the harbor. Farragut, in his formal report of the battle for New Orleans, on May 2 wrote to Secretary of the Navy Welles that he had “seized all the steamboats and sent them down to Quarantine (a bay within the New Orleans harbor area) for General Butler’s forces. Among the number of these boats is the famous Tennessee, which our blockaders have been so long watching, but which you will perceive never got out.”
The Tennessee was formally enrolled in the Union Navy on May 8, 1862. Days later, the Tennessee began her service by delivering soldiers and supplies up the Mississippi River in a battle to cut the South in half.
The ship subsequently became Admiral Farragut’s flagship during the Mississippi operations; it was in fact, aboard the Tennessee that Farragut received word about some of the important Union victories, including the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, the fall of Vicksburg and the capture of Port Hudson, Louisiana.
As the Mississippi battles subsided, Farragut sent the Tennessee out on blockade duties in the Gulf of Mexico in order to stop commerce between the South and foreign ports. Prize ships taken alone or partially by the Tennessee also included the steamships Jane and Friendship and the sailing ships Allison, Annie Verden, Louisa, and Emily.
The Tennessee continued to perform courageously in the face of danger. Off the coast of Galveston, Texas, and the Mexican border, she saw action on blockade duty. During the famous Battle of Mobile Bay, she participated in the reduction of Fort Morgan, the massive stone fortress at the mouth of the bay. With her speed and powerful armament, the ship fought vigorously in the conflict, which resulted in one of the greatest naval victories of the Civil War.
After this battle, in September 1864, the Tennessee was renamed the USS Mobile, allowing the Union to reap a propaganda victory with the capture of the powerful Confederate iron-hulled ram ship named CSS Tennessee, which upon her surrender was re-named USS Tennessee.
The ship’s role in the fight between North and South is best symbolized by one particular coin that caught the attention of the Odyssey crew recording its wreck among thousands of incredible artifacts. It was an 1858 silver half dollar minted in New Orleans with the hand-carved inscription “WAR!” and 1861 on the front and “E C” on the reverse side. Although it may never be known who “E C” was - perhaps a soldier heading off to war - or how the coin found its way aboard the ship, it’s a remarkable discovery that captures the spirit of the era and the legacy of the Republic.
Soon after the Battle of Mobile Bay, the ship’s military career would come to an end. In October 1864, the Mobile was caught in a storm near the mouth of the Rio Grande. With a damaged hull, she sailed north for repairs, arriving in New York before the end of the year. On March 30, 1865, a board of surveyors concluded that the USS Mobile was too badly damaged for military service. In an auction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she was sold to steamship entrepreneur Russell Sturgis and a group of other investors for the relatively cheap price of $25,000. Sturgis sent her out for refit and repair and renamed the ship the SS Republic.
The Republic now began a new career transporting passengers and cargo on the New York - New Orleans route. Sturgis chartered the comfortable ship to William H. Robson’s line and after an extensive refit she made her first postwar departure on May 13, 1865.
On her fifth voyage, the SS Republic departed New York with 80 passengers and crew and an enormous cargo of goods including barrels of money bound to help fuel New Orleans' expanding post-Civil War economy. On the fifth day of her journey a storm blew in from the south and by nightfall the Republic was stalled without power in a fierce hurricane. Battered by gale-force winds and relentless seas, her paddle boxes and deck fittings were swept off deck and the ship rolled and tossed throughout the night.
Passengers labored for hours bailing out water and cargo, but their efforts proved futile. On October 25, the auxiliary engine stopped working. With water rising rapidly in the hold, the crew and passengers abandoned ship on four lifeboats and a hastily-built raft. At 4:00 p.m. the SS Republic disappeared beneath the waves, taking her precious cargo down with her to the bottom of the deep, cold Atlantic.
Thanks to the courageous and skilled efforts of her captain, Edward Young, and the crew, all the passengers managed to evacuate the sinking ship, even in the howling midst of the hurricane.
Click here to read an account of the final voyage by shipwreck survivor Col. William Nichols.