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Freedom Riverboats in the American Civil War
Part II - The Lucy Gwin

Milestones Vol 31 No. 1

By Roger Applegate
Based on Research by Ron Ciani

Riverboats built in the town of Freedom, Pennsylvania played a major role on both sides of the American Civil War. Initially built as cargo vessels and/or passenger boats, these river steamers were converted from their peacetime pursuits into transports and gunboats to help move troops and supplies quickly along the contested rivers. Each of these boats has its own interesting tale to be told. Such is the story of the Lucy Gwin as she not only served on the Confederate side during the war, but nearly caused the United States to enter Mexico, thereby igniting a war with France.

Charles W. Batchelor commissioned the Lucy Gwin to be built by McCaskey & Kerr in Freedom in 1859 for Captain Andrew W. McKee for use in the cotton trade on the Brazos and Trinity Rivers in Texas. She was a stern wheel paddle boat with a wooden hull weighing about 152 tons. This boat was built with a shallow draft - a hallmark of Freedom boat building that would serve her well on the rivers of the southwest.

Who was Lucy Gwin?

This Freedom boat received its name from the daughter of United States Senator William McKendree Gwinn of California, who served two terms in 1850-1853 and 1857-1861. A former Mississippi Marshal, Congressman, lawyer and medical doctor, Gwin was one of the early proponents of the Pony Express. Interestingly enough, Gwin was a southern sympathizer and advocate of slavery, who was imprisoned several times during the Civil War for his outspoken support of the Confederacy. In 1863 Gwin hatched a failed scheme with French Emperor Napoleon III, to settle the Mexican province of Sonora with southern sympathizers. Daughter Lucy, an excellent dancer and described as "spirited", also shared her father's views. Her coolness and courage were demonstrated by a story of Lucy on board of the R. E. Lee, a Confederate blockade-runner carrying a cargo of gold that was badly needed for the Confederate war effort. Spotted by a Union blockade ship, the U.S.S. Iroquois began pursuit and started to gain on the R.E. Lee. According to Captain Wilkinson of the R.E. Lee:

"The Iroquois appeared to be gaining. [Captain] Wilkinson ordered kegs of gold brought up to be distributed among the crew. A female passenger, Miss Lucy Gwin, offered to fill a purse and keep it on her person until the danger had passed. Twilight turned into darkness as the officer atop the paddle-wheel housings at last called out: 'We have lost sight of her!"
"I remained on deck an hour," Wilkinson continued, "and then retired to my stateroom with a comfortable sense of security. We had fired [the steam boilers] so hard that the very planks on the bridge were almost scorching hot, and my feet were nearly blistered.
"I put them out of the window to cool, after taking off slippers and socks. While in this position, Miss Lucy came on the bridge in company with her father. Tapping my foot with her hand, she said, 'ah, captain, I see we are all safe, and I congratulate you!"

So it would seem that this particular Freedom Riverboat was aptly named for the events that were to follow.

Southern Service


In 1860, the Lucy Gwin began her career hauling bales of cotton to market on the Trinity River in southeastern Texas, but the gathering storm of the Civil War would cut short her civilian service. Along with numerous other river steamers, the Lucy Gwin was commandeered by the Texas Marine Department of the Confederate Navy to help to protect its bays and inland waterways. She was assigned to Matagorda Bay on the eastern side of the Texas coast, near Galveston, and used as a transport for military personnel and supplies.

Under the command of Major D.D. Shea and in her role as transport and supply boat, she supported the Confederate attack on Galveston, Texas in January of 1863. In this battle, Confederate forces under the command of Major General John B. Magruder launched a major land and sea attack at 2:00 a.m. on New Year's morning to recapture the important seaport. The result was a sound defeat for the heavily armed union flotilla, and the restoration of Galveston to the Confederate cause.

Although her purpose was never as a gunboat, there were several times during the war in which there were orders to arm her for action:

Special Orders, No. 140 Hdqrs. Dist. Of Tex., N. Mex., and Ariz.,
Steamer Lucy Gwin, May 23, 1863

"..Major D.D. Shea, commanding Lavaca [Texas], is charged with the duty of placing a gun and gun crew for this purpose [to protect the Lucy Gwin] on board the steamer Lucy Gwin. She will be used, if occasion requires, in conjunction with the steamer Cora in making an attack on the enemy"

By Command of Major General Magruder:

E.P. Turner
Assistant Adjutant General

On another occasion, she was used to attempt to decoy some local Union ships into the harbor at Galveston:

Special Orders , No. 35 Hdqrs. Dist. Of Tex., N. Mex., and Ariz.,
Galveston, Tex., January 5, 1863

".Colonel Cook will send 10 men with the steamer Lucy Gwin this afternoon with flags he will get at the house of Colonel Nichols, and place them with the United States flag always flying; also take a Confederate flag with him, but not to use it until further orders. Occupy the fort on Pelican Spit until the enemy, if any appears, is decoyed within the harbor"

By Command of Major General Magruder:

E.P. Turner
Assistant Adjutant General

Apparently, when the Union danger had passed, Lucy Gwin resumed her duties as a supply vessel and continued as such until she was surrendered to Union forces in Matagorda Bay at the end of the war in 1865. As the final chapter of the Civil War was being written, the Lucy Gwin nearly became a part of the pretext for an American invasion of Mexico.

Looking Toward Mexico

In 1862 while the United States was pre-occupied with the Civil War, Emperor Napoleon III of France took the opportunity to invade Mexico and overthrow the legally elected government of Benito Juarez. Arch Duke Fernando Maximilian of Austria-Hungary was installed as Emperor of Mexico, precipitating a bitter war between French soldiers and Mexican patriots that was to last for the next five years. Too busy with their own problems, the United States was unable to address this flagrant breach of the Monroe Doctrine.

As the American Civil War came to an end in 1865, many Confederate officials and soldiers fled south across the border into Mexico to avoid Union retribution. Once there, they enlisted in either French or Mexican service, or simply passed through on their way to other countries. Along with them, they carried off military supplies, vessels, weapons and most importantly, cotton. Very shortly following the Confederate surrender, the Lucy Gwin was apparently stolen by a group of Confederates fleeing to Mexico, who escaped in her to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River. There the Lucy Gwin was seized and held by Imperial French forces.

Seen as a French provocation for encouraging the theft of American property, an American reaction was fast in coming as General Phil Sheridan wrote to U.S. Grant, explaining the situation and what his response was to be:

New Orleans, La., July 1, 1865

Lieutenant General U.S. Grant:

"The Lucy Gwin, a small steamer, was surrendered at Matagorda, but was carried off and is now anchored at Bagdad, on the Rio Grande. There is no doubt in my mind that the representatives of the Imperial Government along the Rio Grande have encouraged this wholesale plunder of property belonging to the United States Government, and that it will only be given up when we go and take it
I will direct General Steele to make a demand on the French authorities at Matamoras for a return of the property. The Lucy Gwin is a tangible case"

P.H. Sheridan,
Major- General

At this point, the United States had begun massing troops and material along the Rio Grande with an eye toward entering Mexico to drive out the French. Several days later, in a slightly more conciliatory tone, General Sheridan sent an order to the general commanding the District of Texas instructing him to issue a demand for the return of all American property while attempting not to provoke an outright war.

New Orleans, La, July 5, 1865

Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger:

Commanding District of Texas:

"GENERAL: Get your troops on the Rio Grande in readiness for active service. Caution them, however, against provoking hostilities, and demand the surrender of all public property run across the Rio Grande since the first surrender. This will embrace batteries of artillery, means of transportation, cotton, &c. Make this demand, or cause it to be made at once, and furnish the reply to these headquarters promptly. Countermand the instructions given to General Steele about seizing the Lucy Gwin until further orders.
I am general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,"

P.H. Sheridan,

On August 1st, tensions along the border had eased as Maximilian's government, realizing the seriousness of the situation with the United States and the growing pressure from the Mexican army, had hastily withdrawn from the Rio Grande and retreated into southern Mexico. Undoubtedly, at this point, the Lucy Gwin along with other U.S. property was returned to American authorities by the victorious Mexicans. However, the Mexican struggle for independence would continue for several more years, resulting in the withdrawal of all French troops from Mexico. Through blind courage or bad judgment, Maximilian remained with his own local Mexican forces in a hopeless fight that ended in front of a firing-squad in 1867, thereby signaling the end of foreign rule in Mexico.

Following the end of both the Civil War and the near invasion of Mexico, the real Lucy Gwin lived on into old age as Mrs. Evan Coleman, and was still noted for her fire and spirit by fellow San Franciscans, while the steamboat that was her namesake returned to more peaceful pursuits along the rivers of eastern Texas, and both quietly faded from history.