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Freedom Steamboats in the American Civil War: The John D. Simonds

Milestones Vol 29. No. 2

By Roger Applegate
Based on the Research
of Ron Ciani


From its founding in 1832, the town of Freedom, Pennsylvania, was known throughout the country as one of the top riverboat building centers in the Ohio River Valley, and not surprisingly, boats built in its yards helped to play a vital role on both sides of the American Civil War. The first of these was the John D. Simonds, built in 1852. The largest riverboat built above the Ohio Falls, the Simonds was a sidewheel packet boat with a wooden hull, measuring 295 feet long by 40 1/2 feet wide with six boilers and a weight of 1,024 tons.(1)

Fate nearly destroyed the Simonds during the initial launch. The Reverend H.D. Fisher, who was on deck at the time, recalls the boat sliding down the launch ramp and into the river where she parted the cables holding her and drifted as far as Beaver before the crew could land her safely on shore there. Fortunately, this near disaster didn't mar the beauty and majesty of the John D. Simonds. According to a description in Transportation in the Ohio Valley: "She had two upper cabins extending her entire length, seventy state-rooms, and a steerage cabin below for the accommodation of deck passengers. Cincinnatians, then as good judges of steamboats as their neighbors in Kentucky were of horse flesh, pronounced her the largest and the finest boat that had ever stopped at their levee.(2)

Celery vase from the John O. Simonds
Steamboat circa 1864.

In the years prior to the Civil War, the Simonds ran a Mississippi River route carrying passengers between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee. In 1853, the cost of transporting a group of Mormon immigrants between New Orleans and St. Louis was two dollars and twenty five cents for an adult, half price for children between three and fourteen, and free for children under the age of three. (3) Over the intervening years, her beauty did not diminish. According to the memoir of Mrs. D. Giraud Wright, then a young lady traveling from New Orleans up the Mississippi River aboard the John Simonds in 1859: "Then the week on that old river palace, the old John Simonds, one of the famous boats of the day. Such luxury of living, even in these times, could not be excelled. And the delicious leisure of it, the lack of huffy and bustle. It takes a week to go from New Orleans to Memphis. (4) In 1859, she was under the command of Captain J. F. Smith. Other captains following him were Captain Newman Robbirds and Captain J. F. Hicks.

During the war, steamboats played a major role in carrying troops and supplies, while others were armed and served as naval gunboats. In 1862, the Northern strategy involved capturing the vital Mississippi River and thereby cutting the South in half. Control of this waterway would deny the South direct communication between its eastern and western states, while giving the North the ability to quickly and easily move troops and supplies along its waters. To foil the Northern plan, the South gathered its own -, small riverboat navy, built forts and placed cannon in naturally defensible locations along the river. One such place was at Island #10 - so named because it was the tenth island in a chain of islands stretching the length of the Mississippi. Island #10, located near the Kentucky/Tennessee border, was a strong defensive position situated at a point where the Mississippi River formed a series of horseshoe bends. Navigating this series of bends was a very "tricky" affair since it required any boat trying to pass the island to slow down and expose itself to the heavy Confederate batteries.

The John Simonds began its career in the Confederate service in the days before the battle for Island #10. It ferried guns and ammunition in preparation for the defense of the island, and was later used as a troop transport and hospital boat. (5) The Simonds was mentioned in a dispatch written by Confederate General Leonidas Polk to Colonel Kennedy at Island Number 10 (6):

Hdqrs. First Division, Western Department, Columbus, Ky., February 26, 1862

Colonel Kennedy:

Your note by the Admiral received I have caused the Simonds to be dispatched by telegraph from this place to come forward as rapidly as possible to you with the guns. I will send you some guns also from this place, together with an ample supply of ammunition ... ... ... ....

Respectfully, your obedient servant,
Major General, Commanding.

In March of 1862, the Northern commander, General John Pope, launched a combined army and navy operation to capture the island and open the river to Union shipping. Marching south with 12,000 Union soldiers, Pope captured New Madrid on the Missouri side of the river, forcing the confederates to evacuate to the Tennessee side. The island and its defenses remained unaffected as long as the small Confederate gunboats prevented the Federal infantry from crossing the Mississippi below the island. Although they were no match for the Union ironclads anchored north of the island, the rebel gunboats were adequate to frustrate any infantry crossing without the protection of their armored gunboats.

The balance of power on the river changed dramatically on the stormy night of April 4 , when one of the Union ironclads, the Carondelet, slipped past Island #10 batteries and, in doing so allowed their infantry to cross. Early on the seventh, with Union troops in their rear, the Confederate defenders abandoned their defenses and began a hasty retreat, during which they tried to block the Northern advance by sinking their steamboats in the river channel. The John Simonds, along with another Freedom boat, the Winchester, and five others were sent to the bottom.(7) It was during this action that we believe the Simonds was commanded by William Champe Page. Page, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, was in the Confederate transport service, dating back to at least August of 1861. Shortly after the fall of Island Number 10, William received the following letter from his brother, John Page, then a Confederate soldier at Corinth, Mississippi: (8)

Corinth Miss April 18, 1862

Dear Brother I was quite uneasy about you after the evacuation of Island 10 - but hope you are safe. If you possibly can I wish you would come over here and see me as I am anxious to see you, do come if possible and bring me some draws undershirts & socks if you come as we had lost all of our clothing & everything else in the battle and it is impossible to get anything from home on account of the distance. Come over anyhow as I am anxious to talk to you about our prospects & write me immediately what you think of affairs & about yourself

Your Brother Jno L. Page

Through the kindness of his granddaughters we have received the above letter as well as the accompanying pictures of some of the artifacts that were on the Simonds, which were believed to have been removed by him prior to sinking the boat at Island Number 10. (9) Page went on to be licensed as a pilot by the Union army and worked for them through the end of the war.

Fortunately, the career of the John Simonds did not end with her sinking at Island Number 10, as the Union raised the sunken boats and put them back into service. During the coming siege of Vicksburg in 1863, she saw action carrying supplies and troops for General Grant, and later resumed her role as a hospital boat. This time, she was carrying sick and wounded Northern troops to hospitals in St. Louis while under the command of the Rev. H.D. Fisher of Freedom. (10) Ironically, it was the same Fisher who participated in the near disastrous launch of the Simonds from the Freedom boatyard in 1852.

Unfortunately, we can find no record as to what finally happened to the John D. Simonds, and even Captain Page stayed quiet on the subject. The Simonds and the era of steamboats have long since passed before us never to be seen again. But then again..... maybe on a warm star filled night while standing in the soft mud on the river bank and listening quietly as the water gently laps against the shore, if you close your eyes very tightly, you may be able to imagine that majestic old Freedom riverboat silently steaming the timeless waters of the mighty Mississippi.


1 Way, Frederick, Ways Packet Directory 1848 - 1994, Ohio University Press, Rev. 1995.
2 Ambler, Charles Henry, A History of Transportation in the Ohio Valley, (California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1932), pg. 178.
3 Larson, Gustave 0., Prelude to the Kingdom, (New Hampshire: Marshall Jones Co., 1947), pages 128-143.
4 Wright, Mrs. D. Giraud, A Southern Girl in '61 - The War-Time Memories of a Confederate Senator's Daughter, (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1905), page 21.
5 War of the Rebellion, P. 758.
6 Ibid. p. 758.
7 Ibid. P. 153.
8 Letter John Page to William C. Page, April 18, 1862. Copy received by the BCHR&LF from Mrs. Virginia Woods, granddaughter of William C. Page.
9 Information and pictures courtesy of Mrs. Virginia Woods, granddaughter of William Champe Page. Information in the possession of the Beaver County Historical Research & Landmarks Foundation.
10 Old Boys' and Girls' Reunion Pg. 51-55.