The Strange Tale Of The Steamer Magnolia
The steamer Magnolia was a wooden, seagoing, sidewheel steamer built at Greenpoint, N.Y., in 1857 by Charles Morgan's Southern SS Co. The South's original plan to arm her as a ram was dropped in favor of turning her into a blockade runner, and a great blockade runner she was! Magnolia made at least two successful runs to nearby British islands in 1861 carrying large cargoes.
The success wouldn't last however. On February 19, 1862, Union vessels South Carolina and Brooklyn caught the sneaky Magnolia and chased her in the gulf after the steamer had slipped away from the Confederate coast carrying a large cargo of cotton. It was also loaded with several secret letters containing valuable intelligence concerning Confederate plans to import arms and to assist the blockade runner Tennessee to escape through the blockade. In an effort to destroy the cargo, Magnolia's crew exploded one of her boilers, set her afire, and attempted to escape; but South Carolina captured the Southerner's boat, boarded the flaming steamer, and put out the fire. Reportedly the prize for catching the notorious Magnolia was $173,955.77, quite a lot for the times.
After the capture and now under a different flag, Magnolia was set to the task of capturing other blockade runners. She also spent a brief period as a floating hospital recovering wounded soldiers from the battle lines. One interesting story has it that Grant, frustrated at his failure to capture Vicksburg (he had attacked the city six times), locked himself in the former ladies' cabin of the steamer Magnolia while he pored over maps pondering the situation. He refused to see anyone until he had derived a plan.
So what's all this have to do with boats on the Ohio River?
Over a decade after it was first commissioned, and long after the cannons of the Civil War went cold, the battle worn steamer Magnolia met its end on the Ohio River not too far from Maysville Kentucky. In what could only be called irony for a boat whose crew once exploded its own boilers to escape capture, on March 18, 1868, one of the boilers on the Magnolia burst, catching fire to and destroying the ship. By some accounts, the explosion ignited gunpowder the boat was carrying. According to the Maysville Republican thirty-five people were killed (though by some accounts it was as many as 70); others were horribly disfigured for life.