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Freedom Steamboats in the American Civil War
Part III ­ The Cornie

By Roger Applegate;
Based on the tireless research
of Ron Ciani
Milestones Vol 33 No. 3

Freedom, Pennsylvania was once a busy steamboat building town famous for its small draft vessels that were especially needed to navigate the shallow rivers and bayous of the American southwest. One such steamboat was the Cornie, which was ideally suited for moving goods and materials on the bayous of Louisiana and eastern Texas. Once the Civil War erupted, vessels like the Cornie became invaluable to both sides for their ability to move supplies and troops where regular draft steamers could not go.

The Cornie was a sternwheel paddleboat built in Freedom in 1860, shortly before the outbreak of the war. Originally built as a packet or mail boat for Mississippi River trips to the New Orleans area, she weighed only 69 tons and measured 100 feet long by 23 feet wide, with a depth of only three feet from her deck to her bottom.

With the beginning of the Civil War, the Cornie was confiscated from a Mr. Smith of Louisville and put into Confederate service moving troops and supplies along the bayous of Louisiana. Her first action came on Sunday morning, April 12, 1863, when Union troops attacked Fort Bisland, located on the banks of Bayou Teche (between Franklin and Brashear City, Louisiana). Against overwhelming odds, the fort held for two days until the Confederate forces abandoned their works and retreated. Contrary to orders, commanding General H.H. Sibley, CSA, failed to evacuate his casualties overland; instead electing to load his sick and wounded on board the Cornie, which was shortly thereafter captured by Federal troops.

Under Federal command, the little Freedom built steamboat performed several different duties in addition to ferrying supplies and troops. In April, 1863, the Cornie saw her first action for her new masters when she was a part of a force of gunboats and infantry during a successful attack on Butte-A-La-Rose. A year later, she was in danger of being re-captured by the Confederates during a raid on Lake Verret to destroy a group of small boats used by enemy guerrillas. A letter dated November 26, 1864 from Union Brigadier General Robert Cameron to Lieutenant Colonel G. B. Drake described the action:

"The steamer Cornie was sent from Brashear a few days ago to destroy boats on Lake Verret intended to be used by guerrillas. They got aground on account of the north wind driving the water out of the lake. A gun-boat sent to her assistance also got aground. I then sent two companies of cavalry to protect them. The boats have returned to Brashear in safety after destroying twenty-seven small boats"

In addition to her military duties, she also once served as a flag of truce boat to help carry relief supplies and rescue some local civilians during a flood in May of 1865.

Lieutenant W.H. Stillman, U.S.A., who commanded the rescue mission, stated in his report:

".I embarked with the above detail.and proceeded to the plantation of Mr. John Bertram Blanco, situated on Sand Bayou, about three miles from Brashear City, where we found the estate submerged, about four feet of water in the shallowest places. Being obliged to cut away the rafters of the cattle shed in order to place sufficient gang planks for the cattle to come on board the steamer, we were detained some time at this plantation, where we received on board about twenty-five head of cattle, twenty hogs and shoats; also the family of Mr. BlancoThen we received at Mr. Valgrand Verret's two beef-cattle, which we landed at Brashear Monday night, and crossed the river to Berwick, where we landed stock belonging to Blanco; thence took him and family to Felright's place"

Probably one of the saddest duties that the Cornie performed was in July of 1863 when following a desperate but successful Union defense of Donaldsonville (Near Baton Rouge, Louisiana), the major commanding was murdered by one of his own men. Following the murder, the Cornie was charged with transporting the corpse of Major J. D. Bullen, the hero of the battle along with his killer, Private Francis Scott of the First Louisiana Volunteers to New Orleans. Scott was placed on board in double irons and closely guarded to prevent any hope of escape. A month later, he was found guilty of murder before a military courtmartial and executed by a firing squad in New Orleans.

The little Cornie continued performing her duty through the war's end and was finally returned to private ownership on February 2, 1866. She was last owned by four local stockholders in New Orleans and disappeared from history in 1867.