October 15, 1865, Washington City, Excerpts from Report by the Army's Chief of Rail and River Transportation
WASHINGTON CITY, October 15, 1865.
Bvt. Maj. Gen. M. C. MEIGS,
Quartermaster-General U. S. Army:
For the first three years of the war, while I was in charge of river transportation at the West, there was no accident to any boat in Government service resulting in any material loss of life. The three principal accidents have occurred within the last six months of the last fiscal year, as follows:
First. The steamer Eclipse, destroyed at Johnsonville, Tenn., January 27, 1865, by the explosion of her boilers, and resulting in the loss of 27 soldiers killed and 78 more or less injured, which is believed to have been occasioned by the use, in an emergency, of an unsafe boat.
Second. The destruction of the steamer Sultana, on the Mississippi River, near Memphis, on the 27th of April last, also occasioned by the explosion of her boilers and burning of the boat, and resulting in the loss of more than 1,200 officers and soldiers, a loss greatly increased, I think, by the improper and unnecessary overloading of the boat. A strict investigation of the circumstances connected with this accident is now progressing under the direction of the Secretary of War.
Third. The sinking of the steamer Kentucky, on the Red River, in the month of June last, was attended with the loss of a number of paroled rebel soldiers, the exact number of which is not yet known, though believed not to exceed thirty lives. I would respectfully submit whether the adoption of a general rule in the case of such accidents that an immediate and strict examination by court-martial or military commission should be had, would not tend to produce a greater degree of caution on the part of officers having boats under their control, and be more satisfactory to the public, by fixing the blame upon the parties responsible, or, if resulting from causes beyond the control of human agencies, by relieving the officers and department from responsibility. When we consider the great extent of Western river navigation, the many dangers incident thereto, and the frequent occurrence of accidents from collisions, fires, and other causes in time of peace, often resulting in great loss of life; when, too, it is known that boats have been frequently ordered into service in great emergencies by officers ignorant of their safety or fitness for the duty required and often greatly overloaded; still further, when it is recollected that thousands of miles of this navigation has been along rivers, the banks of which, except at a few fortified points, have been in possession of the enemy, where batteries or guerrilla bands were almost daily brought into action for the destruction of transports--I repeat, when these facts are considered, I think it will not only appear extraordinary that so few accidents and losses have occurred, but remarkable that navigation under such circumstances could be at all maintained. Herewith I transmit a tabular statement of all boats, barges, and other means of transportation, owned by the Government, on the 30th of June, 1865, on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, numbering 114 boats propelled by steam, and 486 barges, nearly all of which have, under your orders, been already sold at very satisfactory rates, and a stop put to the large daily and unnecessary expenses of keeping them in service. By the 1st of December next there will, I trust, be no Government boats in service upon our Western rivers. Thus far I have spoken chiefly of river transportation, not because of its greater magnitude or importance, but because of the greater danger and difficulty attending its management.
LEWIS B. PARSONS,
Brig. Gen. and Chief of Rail and River Transportation.
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