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Steamships float on unsafe hulls

Fraud in Civil War expenditures was massive, and the rental or purchase of steamships was no exception.

One expert testified to a congressional committee that the government had been defrauded of $25 million in the chartering and purchasing of vessels, with details of the fraud so shocking as to "amaze and sicken a committee accustomed to ordinary political corruption."

In one of these claims, commonly referred to at the time as "dead-horse claims," a judge denounced a contractor for his "unconscionable and exorbitant rates of transportation" and for "injustice and extortion."

During the Civil War, steamships and steamboats often exploded and were involved in numerous other accidents, many of which occurred on the Potomac River. On Aug. 13, 1862, 77 soldiers, three soldiers' wives and a 6-year-old boy drowned when the steamship West Point sank after colliding with the George Peabody.

The West Point was heading north from Newport News, Va., to Alexandria with 258 wounded soldiers, the three wives and little Arthur Dort, proudly bringing his wounded warrior-father home safely from battle. The George Peabody was heading south to ferry fresh troops into battle.

A survivor of the dreadful disaster on the Potomac provided this description: "The scene which followed cannot be described. Escape seemed hopeless. Mrs. Dort, in great distress, had called me from the lower cabin to her berth, to help dress her boy. I rendered the requested aid and helped her and the child upon the hurricane deck. Nearly all were plunged into the water. I heard the surgeon tell the ladies he would do his best to save them, and I think he did, for as he was drowned and was found two days later far down the river with one of the ladies holding fast to him, it is evident that he kept his promise."

Many of the survivors believed the accident was intentional and that the captain and pilot, who immediately deserted the sinking ship, were Rebels. Perhaps the accident was caused by corrupt contractors — or, more precisely, what the contractors were responsible for: "Mismanagement and corruption, of insufficient crews and incompetent officers; of defective machinery and rotting timber; of lack of proper inspection and safeguards."

Cornelius Vanderbilt rented and sold ships in "shockingly bad condition." A congressional committee noted: "In perfectly smooth weather, with a calm sea, the planks were ripped out of her, and exhibited to the gaze of the indignant soldiers on board, showing her timbers were rotten. The beams of the vessel [did not have] the slightest capacity to hold a nail."

An expert testified about rotten ships palmed off on the government:

"Q: 'Did [Marshall O.] Roberts sell or charter any other boats to the Government?'

"A: 'Yes sir. He sold the Winfield Scott and the Union to the Government.'

"Q: 'For how much?'

"A: 'One hundred thousand dollars each, and one was totally lost and the other condemned a few days after they went to sea.' "

Most of the vessels were of such poor construction that no one would buy them at any price. "That they survived voyages was perhaps due more to luck than anything else, year after year vessel after vessel had gone down to the bottom of the ocean," Gustavus Myers wrote in 1907 in his "History of the Great American Fortunes."

On the Potomac River on Aug. 13, 1862, the luck simply might have run out for the crew and passengers of the West Point.

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