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While most of the vessels that saw Civil War action from Madison were leased by the Federal government or impressed into service from the private and commercial markets, several were built here under government contract. One of these was the unfortunate City of Madison.
Built for the United States Mail Line, the City of Madison was put to work hauling war supplies after the Civil War broke out. It followed the front through Tennessee and on August 19, 1863,footnote 1 just after taking part in Ulysses S. Grant’s expedition against Vicksburg, the City of Madison was peacefully moored at the docks of that town, preparing to steam downriver. Rounding off her full load of gunpowder with a shipment of percussion shells, the crew of the City of Madison stoked her engines and directed the workers securing the last of the cargo. What happened next is described by an eyewitness who, with some others of his unit, were detailed to pick up a load of hay near the docks that morning.
The Christie Account
“[A]bout noon, as we were leaving the levee, I saw a great cloud of smoke, flame, and steam, and a loud, prolonged roar as if a great gun had burst. But we soon learned that it was the City of Madison, a government transport, that had nearly completed her load of ammunition. I left the wagons and hastened in the direction of the scene of disaster, having about sixty rods to run.footnote 2 What a sight when I got to the boat, or where she had been, there she lay or what was left of her. A small portion of [the] upper deck and the stern besides the right hand wheelhouse, she was at the time of the horrible accident getting up steam so that she might proceed to Natchez. But as her load was not complete there was a large detail of as many as eighty men at work getting aboard the boxes of fixed ammunition, when unfortunately some careless or thoughtless person let a box of percussion shell fall, and it fell points down and then men and boat went up in one great cloud of smoke and flame. Men mangled, were thrown as much as one hundred yards from the boat, and ceased to breathe, boxes of ammunition were thrown up to a great height and fell among piles of the same that were on the levee. Tis said the captain’s family were on board, besides the deck hands, one hundred negroes were in the hold, stowing away the loading, and in fact I suppose there are over a hundred lives lostfootnote 3 […] The Edward Walsh,footnote 4 a very large boat lying outside the City of Madison, is a total wreck as far as her upper works are concerned, there were a number of people hurt on her also.”footnote 5
“Blowed to Atoms”
Another account of the explosion is given by a soldier who was loading her at the time of the accident. “On Aug. 19th, a lot of us were detailed to load a boat (the City of Madison) with ammunition at the Vicksburg wharf and while loading it we were placing boxes of percussion shells on hand barrows and carrying them onto the boat and some careless one dropped a box of shells and exploded them which ignited the powder and blowed the boat to atoms. A great many were killed and a great many others badly hurt and a good many other boats that lay near it was badly injured. I was on shore at the time and escaped unhurt.”footnote 6
The Conspiracy Theory
As an accident, the explosion of the City of Madison is a tragic event, but information contained in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion may point to a far more sinister cause for the disaster. According to a letter dated April 25, 1865 from the Provost-Marshal-General of Missouri, J.H. Baker, to C.A. Dana, Assistant Secretary of War, the City of Madison, along with at least a dozen other cases of burnt vessels, were the work of covert Confederate arsonists. The letter cites a confession of one of the saboteurs who states that Confederate Secretary of State J.P. Benjamin agreed to pay him and his conspirators $50,000 for their actions “provided those claims of the Louisville matter (burning of Government medical stores last year) were all right.” The report goes on to list nineteen of the arsonists by name and residence with additional remarks for some such as “Supposed to be in rebel lines”, “In Gratiot Prison”, “Can arrest him any time”, and “Came voluntarily and exposed the others; afterward left suddenly; am looking for him.”
Though the destruction of the City of Madison is often claimed to have been an accident and local papers even cite conversations with eyewitnesses, many of the sources seem to have inferred the ultimate cause of the disaster from reports they heard later. Few of the eyewitnesses were in a position to view the fateful slip that all believe doomed the vessel. A more interesting and certainly more controversial theory is that Confederate saboteurs planted on the vessel several pieces of “loaded” coal, large chunks of coal that had been sawed in half, hollowed out, and packed with explosives. These deadly bombs would have been indistinguishable from the rest of ship’s fuel supply and as the City of Madison was “getting up steam” at the time of the explosion, her loaders would have been shoveling coal into the engines at a furious rate. Pending this historian’s perusal of the court documents relating to the trial of the man who allegedly confessed to destroying the City of Madison, the issue will have to remain unsolved.