Excerpt from Lost Gold of the Republic
(from Chapter 6, “The Perfect Hurricane”)
by Priit J. Vesilind
Shipwreck Heritage Press (Sept. 2005)
© 2005, All rights reserved.

For permission to reprint, contact the publisher (www.lostgold.net).

In early October of 1865, the New York Times carried repeated ads for the fifth voyage of the SS Republic, the restored side-wheeler formerly known as the Tennessee (and for a short while, the Mobile): “For New-Orleans Direct, passage with unsurpassed accommodations.” Among the passengers booked for that trip were Colonel William T. Nichols, recently retired from the army, and his younger brother, Major Henry Nichols. On October 18, the brothers each put down their $60 and stepped off Manhattan pier #9 onto the New Orleans–bound steamer. They found stateroom No. 13, stowed their baggage, and awaited the 3:30 p.m. cast-off. But the weather was heavy outside the harbor, so the steamship lay over until next morning at Staten Island, and embarked again at 9 a.m. on October 19. The voyage was scheduled to take eight or nine days.

At 36, William Nichols was a war-weary veteran, a man who had seen much and suffered for it. Born in Rutland, Vermont, on March 24, 1829, he was descended from 17th-century Welsh immigrants to Rhode Island. His brother, Henry, age 21, had also tasted too much killing. With a reputation for gallantry, young Henry had worked his way through the trenches of the Civil War to reach the rank of captain. He was among the officers present at Appomattox Court House when the Confederacy surrendered, and soon after he reached the rank of major. Both brothers, like countless numbers of young soldiers fortunate enough to survive the bloody War Between the States, had been shocked into early maturity.

Of the two, William Nichols became the greater over-achiever. As an admirer reflected later, William had “the advantage of starting poor,” but he rose to work his way through preparatory school to become class valedictorian, then studied law and became an assistant clerk to the Vermont House of Representatives. But the legislative life didn’t satisfy his ambitions; he had a hankering for the thrill of business pursuits.

A biographical article about Colonel Nichols published in 1895 in the Maywood Herald, a newspaper in a small Illinois town where Nichols later lived, described a man of action: “His genius was cast in a mechanical and business mold and naturally led him into different walks of social usefulness . . . his judicious investments in real estate brought large returns, and enabled him to execute many of the building improvements he had projected. . . .” In other words, the self-made William Nichols made his bundle early; he became wealthy from bold investments in real estate, initially in and around his hometown of Rutland.

In pre–Civil War America, Nichols and his generation saw a boundless unfolding of opportunities across the expanding nation for those ambitious and starry-eyed enough to cash in. Even as a young man, Nichols realized that railroads would quickly make inroads into the West. So he traveled to Chicago, perhaps reaching it by steamer up the Mississippi by way of New Orleans, and purchased a quarter section of government land in the new state of Illinois. For the next several years he bought and developed western lands, turning his New England real estate earnings into investments that would assure a lifetime of wealth for his descendents.

In December 1855, when William Nichols was 25, he became enmeshed in the struggle of anti-slavery agitators against the pro-slavery forces in Kansas Territory — a tumult that produced the fiery abolitionist John Brown and planted the seeds for the Civil War. In the Kansas conflict, Nichols had chanced upon the camp of pro-slavery “border ruffians” preparing for a raid on the town of Lawrence, and brazenly entered their camp at the ford of the Waukaruso River. He coolly assessed their numbers and resources, then left to carry his warning to the town of Lawrence.

But Nichols was at his most heroic at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He had been elected colonel of the 14th Vermont Regiment, a post he had modestly declined, claiming “insufficient competency,” but he was overruled by the unanimous affirmation of the other officers. In July 1863, with the Rebel army on the move in Pennsylvania, Nichols and his troops were attached to the Union’s First Corps under General Reynolds when the armies met on that now hallowed field below Cemetery Hill.

When the Union line began to falter under the Rebel onslaught, relates the Maywood biography:

. . . The Vermont Brigade was ordered up in haste. Advancing over a stone wall and past some bushes on the left at the creek, Nichols rode to and fro in front of his men to keep them in close and compact order. Neither he nor they comprehended the critical character of the situation. . . . Asking a brigade general how the battle was going, he received no direct reply. The officer only bit his lips and shook his head. An inspiration came to Nichols. Wheeling his horse he galloped to the front of the column and shouted: “Boys! Give the cheer! We are whipping them!”

Nichols’ historian says that the rallying call spread throughout the entire Union ranks, which yelled so loudly that the Confederates thought heavy reinforcements had arrived and fell back. When General Robert E. Lee sent Pickett’s troops into one last bloody sacrificial charge, Nichols was among those waiting.

As the rebels came within easy range, the Vermonters sprang to their feet and poured into the rebels, who moved by the left flank, such a withering battalion and file fire that they were thrown into utter confusion. The 13th and 10th Vermont then swept around the dismayed force and captured the whole. A second attacking body met with a similar fate. Thrown into chaos by the destructive volleys of the 14th, it also threw down its arms and surrendered.

Since Gettysburg, though, fate had not been kind to William Nichols. He left the military in 1864, but the war’s jarring disruption nearly ruined his business; in the waning days of the conflict he lost a fortune: some $100,000 in stock and wool investments. According to his obituary, “This calamity he met with heroic honor and fortitude, disposed of all his available assets, and eventually paid every dollar of his obligations. . . .”

But he had also been disabled for months with inflammatory rheumatism. Then, just before his and brother Henry’s voyage on the Republic, William’s daughter May died of typhoid fever.

So Nichols was going south not only to seek new investments, but also with hopes to recover his health and heal his mind. He took heart from the beginning stages of the voyage. “The weather is beautiful, and the ship bounds on her way like a thing of life,” he later wrote to his grieving wife, Thyrza, who stayed home in Rutland, Vermont.

No pre-voyage manifest of the ship has been found, but later news accounts revealed that among the passengers on the Republic were families with children, army officers headed for new assignments, and a share of northern speculators. The first-class cabins were filled by the wealthier class of Americans; $60 was not a price the man on the street could easily produce. Dressed in top hats and silk, they breathed the warm salt air, played cards and dominoes, and drank wine, happy like the brothers Nichols to have survived the war. Porpoises gamboled in the ship’s wake.

Newly refitted from a warship into a cruise liner, the SS Republic was a veteran as well. She was captained by Edward Young, whose son, Sarsfield, was also on board as first officer. Besides the paying passengers, the steamship carried 500 barrels of freight and a reported $400,000 — at least some of that money coming from the Bank of New York. Not surprisingly, the cash being shipped was all in the form of specie, or coins. In the mid-19th century, gold and silver coins, not bills, were the standards of exchange. When the Lincoln administration in 1862 and 1863 first authorized its famous “greenbacks,” prototypes of our paper money today, to pay for the war effort, the public was skeptical. In everyday transactions, greenbacks were often discounted, sometimes commanding as little as half as much as their equivalents in gold coin.

Hard money was even more scarce in the former Confederate states. When the war ended, Northern bankers were eager to ship gold and silver coins by the keg-load on southbound ships such as the Republic to take advantage of the money’s inflated purchasing power. They knew that in New Orleans, a $20 gold coin would buy twice as much as in New York. New Orleans was at this point the only large Southern city still able to function as an economic center, but she was largely broke — Union forces occupying the city for three years had paid for labor and supplies mostly in paper and I.O.U.s.
On the morning of Friday, October 20, the weather grew heavy. A gale was blowing in the morning, and it continued all day. “It caused considerable anxiety to the passengers,” Nichols wrote in a letter to his wife, “and I think some to the captain of the ship. But she rode out the gale all day long, and at midnight the storm abated.” The winds gradually subsided the next day, and by the Saturday afternoon “the sea became conspicuously smooth, and we were making good headway. Became quite well acquainted with several of the passengers this evening, and really the voyage began to assume a pleasant and agreeable aspect.”

Also on board was a young army officer, Lt. Louis V. Caziarc, from Boston, who must have been good company for the Vermonters. On this October voyage of the steamship Republic, the lieutenant was returning to New Orleans to serve as Adjutant General for the Army Department of Louisiana. Caziarc had wheedled his way into the army at the age of 16. Three years later, in the spring of 1865, the young soldier had distinguished himself in the Union siege of Mobile, serving as aide-de-camp for a fellow officer from Massachusetts, Gen. George L. Andrews. Caziarc’s assignments were with units of the U.S. Colored Troops, including the 73rd Infantry USCT.

The 73rd was one of the Civil War’s first African-American units. First formed as the Louisiana Native Guards, and later known as the Corps d’Afrique, the several regiments from New Orleans included free-born “men of color,” many of mixed ancestry, as well as some runaway slaves from surrounding plantations. Although many African-Americans rose in the ranks of the regiments, they served under white commanding officers and staff throughout the war.

But what distinguished the curious history of the Native Guards from that of other African-American regiments of the Civil War is that this remarkable unit served on both sides. The Louisiana Native Guards had first been a Confederate regiment, the only authorized black regiment raised by the South, but it was given little to do. After New Orleans was captured by the Union in April 1862, the unit was soon remustered as three regiments of Union troops. Given a chance to fight for the Union cause, they did, with great valor.

The Native Guards represented a varied mix of racial heritage and politics. “More than 80 percent of the free black population in New Orleans in 1860 had European blood in their veins,” writes James Hollandsworth in his book, The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Experience during the Civil War. “The [Native Guards] were men of property and intelligence, representatives of a free black community in New Orleans that was both prosperous and well-educated. There were even slave-owners among its ranks.” Still, it seemed their sympathies leaned more to the Union cause, and after they switched sides, they earned much respect in subsequent actions. At the Battle of Port Hudson in May 1863, 1,080 men of color fought on behalf of the Union. Of their performance, General Nathanial P. Banks had only praise. “Their conduct was heroic,” Banks wrote. “No troops could be more determined or daring.”

The Native Guards who served with such distinction in the war were also represented on the steamship Republic by one of their own officers. Traveling to New Orleans was Captain Charles S. Sauvinet, who in July had mustered out of the military as the longest-serving African-American officer in the Union army. Sauvinet, a court translator of German, Spanish, and French, had entered the war as a captain in the Confederate version of the unit; as he later testified, “If we had not volunteered, they would have forced us into the ranks.” He later helped General Butler reorganize the new Union regiments of African-American troops, and was appointed a lieutenant in the 2nd Regiment (later, the 74th Infantry USCT). He was now heading home on the SS Republic to take a post as the cashier of the Freedman’s Savings Bank of New Orleans, an institution that would play a role as one of the most important financiers of the coming reconstruction of the South.

Below the main deck, the second-class passengers made do with less space and stale air. Perhaps they passed around a flask of whiskey or two as antidote to the constant movement of the ship as it churned against the Gulf Stream. Endlessly throughout the hours and days since leaving New York, the coal furnace below heated water into steam pressure, the massive single piston drove back and forth, the tall walking-beam on deck rocked up and down, and the two great paddlewheels revolved to bite into the sea and pull the ship through the waves.

Sunday, October 22, passed as another fine day at sea. “The passengers are all in first-rate spirits and dressed in their best attire. The porpoises are playing and sporting around the ship in the very exuberance of animal life,” reported Col. Nichols. None on board had any inkling the ship was sailing straight into a great vortex of a storm, spinning its way northward to intercept their path.

Undoubtedly the conversations were brisk, often trenchant, buoyant with hopes of a peaceful, prosperous future. As the passengers mingled on the deck to enjoy the last warm days of autumn, the steamship chugged around Cape Hatteras and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, that necklace of barrier islands that forms the continent’s easternmost bulge into the Atlantic. After Cape Hatteras, the Republic’s route would steam past the coast of South Carolina and Georgia to head doggedly into the stiff Florida Current. It was a long haul for the vessel, which had seen a recent cosmetic upgrade but whose hull was weakened by past years of work on the high seas and previous damage in storms.
Next morning, Monday, October 23, dawn broke as a calm day, but by 9 a.m. the wind began to blow from an east-by-northeast direction. The Republic was off the Carolina coast when the gale increased in ferocity. The storm now lashed furiously against the struggling, rocking side-wheeler. The cross chop waxed into towering swells that rushed violently across her white-pine decks. Passengers cowered in their cabins, gripping the furniture as the vessel lurched and pitched at the mercy of the seas. Those who escaped nausea, wrote William Nichols, tried to finish a late lunch at 2 p.m., but the ship sustained a roll that cleared the dinner table of its “pies, meats, vegetables, and condiments.”

Steaming furiously south, Captain Edward Young could not outrun it. Before nightfall the wind shifted to the northeast, and the gale grew into what the ship’s captain described in awe as the “perfect hurricane.” A “cross sea” — choppy and running in contrary directions — roiled the Atlantic above 22 fathoms of water, and the winds howled at full strength. Now there was nothing to do but hang on and pray.

That night the soaked passengers huddled in their berths, sleepless, as the merciless storm grew even more intense. Finally Captain Young was obliged to abandon the course, turn the steamship’s bow back into the fierce gale, and attempt to ride out the storm. New Orleans never seemed farther away.

Perhaps the first pangs of real fear arrived on Tuesday, October 24. “This morning we had no breakfast,” wrote Nichols, “as the ship was rolling so heavily that it was impossible either to cook anything or set a table. It was as much as a man could do to walk from one side of the ship to the other, by hanging on to anything he could get hold of. Still the gales kept increasing. . . .”

Wrote Captain Young in a later report, “At 6 a.m. on Tuesday it was impossible to turn the engine over by hand; the ship fell off in the trough of the sea and became unmanageable, after trying for an hour and a half to work the engine by hand with 31 pounds of steam which was six pounds more than was allowed to be carried, consequently lost all use of steam pumps. The main spencer [a triangular sail] was blown to ribbons, paddle boxes, part of the house and everything on deck washed away. The gale was now at its height.”

The ship’s great piston had stopped operating, frozen at deadcenter, halfway through its stroke of nine feet. The SS Republic was now without propulsion. With the 28-foot-tall paddlewheels stalled, she was utterly adrift, at the mercy of the waves and wind. Soon, the ship was rolling helplessly in the troughs created between the crests of the waves.

At 9 a.m. the ship sprung a leak from the fierce pounding of the waves, and water rose in the hold. By noon, the flooding had squelched the boiler fires, a disastrous occurrence for a large steamship in high waves. Without the main boiler, there was no hope of restarting the steam engine to get the paddlewheels going again, and the ship’s pumps would not be able to keep pace with water leaking in through the weakened hull or splashing in from waves breaking across the deck. Captain Young fired up the donkey boiler, a small auxiliary source of steam, but it produced little pressure — just barely enough to keep the ship’s pumps sucking at the water sloshing in the hold, giving hope that leaks might not overcome the Republic.

In desperate straits, passengers and crew divided into three work gangs at the fore and aft hatches, struggling for hours to dump as much of the cargo as they could bring up. If they could lighten the ship it might be able to ride out the storm, but the water continued to rise ominously. Rank and class had no more meaning. Colonels and waiters stood shoulder to shoulder and labored, all of them soaked, numbed by the cold, wind-lashed in the howl of the storm. The war veterans among them must have recalled the recent past, when men had closed ranks in battle and asked few questions. Into the sea went bolts of silk, ingots of tin, liquors, tobacco, varnish, foot lockers, and other heavy goods — “Every soul on board doing their utmost to save their lives,” related Captain Young.

Their strenuous efforts were to little avail in the face of the perfect hurricane, which shrieked against the flow of the Gulf Stream with a relentless and mocking fury. The water was still rising in the hold. “When the cargo was put out,” wrote Nichols, “we found that the water had gained on us.”

Excerpt from Lost Gold of the Republic
(from Chapter 6, “The Perfect Hurricane”)
by Priit J. Vesilind
Shipwreck Heritage Press (Sept. 2005)
© 2005, All rights reserved.

For permission to reprint, contact the publisher (www.lostgold.net).

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