- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

The explosion of the Sultana while traveling up the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865, resulted in the deaths of more than 1,700 prisoners of war who were returning north once the war had ended. Just three days earlier, a similar, if smaller, naval disaster occurred downriver from Washington. Unlike the Sultana disaster, which is fairly well remembered, this other tragedy has slipped into oblivion.

At 12:30 a.m. on April 24, there was a collision between two ships, the Massachusetts and the Black Diamond, with the latter sinking. It took place 50 or 60 miles down the Potomac River, where the river empties into Chesapeake Bay, about a mile from Blackistone Island, or Blackstone, as the newspapers spelled it. The island is still there, although it has been renamed St. Clement Island. Nautical charts of the day show a water depth ranging from 17 feet up to 47 feet.

Although the night was clear on the 24th, there was no moon. The Massachusetts was a 1,155-ton naval ship that had spent the war on blockade duty and was returning with 300 freed Union prisoners. The Black Diamond was a barge with a crew of 20 acting as a “picket boat” and keeping watch on the river. The Massachusetts had a few lights burning, but the Black Diamond had only one.

The Massachusetts was severely damaged, with the bow of the ship crushed in. Nevertheless, it somehow managed to stay afloat. The Black Diamond didn’t have a chance and sank within a few minutes.

The fate of the Black Diamond was not apparent at first. Some of the soldiers of the Massachusetts had tumbled onto the Black Diamond from the force of the collision. Others panicked and jumped onto the Black Diamond or into the water, where they clung to debris. Then those on the little ship soon found it sinking beneath them.

The Massachusetts did what it could and managed to rescue about 100. Seventy were lost, however, four of them from the Black Diamond’s crew. Later in the morning, a ship named Warrior took some of the survivors. The Massachusetts then limped its way to Point Lookout, Md.

As for the Black Diamond, its smokestack and the upper level of the pilothouse were still above water. The barge was considered too old and damaged to salvage. The Massachusetts was decommissioned in New York City in September. It was sold in October 1867, renamed the Crescent City, and worked in private business until 1892.

After a few days, the story dropped out of the press, as did the Sultana disaster. Perhaps the country was in no mood for bad news just then, after the war and the Lincoln assassination. Or perhaps the hunt for assassination conspirators and the subsequent trial drove everything else out of the news.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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