By the time the SS Republic sank in late October 1865, she claimed a remarkable seafaring legacy including heroic service for both the Union and Confederate navies during the American Civil War.
The Republic 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. She sent her to England when no buyers responded on a speculative voyage in hope of some 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 home, the Tennessee sailed into the first of the four hurricanes she would encounter during her lively 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 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,