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COMMODORE MONTGOMERY

THE CONFEDERATE NAVAL HERO

AND  HIS ADVENTURES

FROM THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE APRIL 5, 1896

There are few men, if any, in this country whose lives have been filled with as many exciting incidents and events of national and historical Importance as have fallen to the lot of Commodore Joseph Edward Montgomery. The old Confederate naval Hero who is now living In Chicago at No. 342 East Ohio street. Publishing houses and Eastern magazines have sent agents to Chicago for the purpose of securing from the Commodore the facts necessary for a publication of his story. The veteran has turned a deaf ear to them all, and said If it seemed worthwhile to publish a history of his life it could be done after he was gone: he would leave his reminiscences with his grandson. The Commodore has always shrunk from newspaper notoriety, so few of his personal experiences and deeds of valor have ever appeared in print, except several of his great naval coups d’états which appear in histories of the war.

A few, days ago Commodore Montgomery consented to relate to a representative of the Tribune a few of the most interesting and important occurrences in his career. In the days before the war Montgomery was probably the most widely known and esteemed Captain and pilot on the Mississippi. Among the many prominent personages who took long trips on the boats of which he was Captain, and with whom he became well acquainted, were Charles Dickens, Prophet Joseph Smith with Brigham Young and the other eleven apostles, Gen. Santa Ana when he was a prisoner of Gen. Sam Houston and most of the well- known public men of the day. Soon after the breaking out of the rebellion Montgomery was made a Commodore in the Southern navy and while an officer he played the most prominent part on the rebel side in the conflicts on the Mississippi. Commodore Montgomery was the inventor of the submarine ram which was responsible for the loss of so many fine Union men-of-war, and he fitted the first ram ever put on a warship to the Merrimac, which was enabled thereby to execute such work of destruction as startled the North and practically inspired the construction of the Monitor.  With the steamer Webb, Montgomery himself sunk the magnificent Union battleship Indianola and the Montgomery Fleet created by a special act of the Confederate Congress and commanded by Commodore Montgomery, gave battle to Northern ships in all the Important conflicts on the Mississippi in the first half of the war.

Still Hale and Hearty

Although the Commodore is now nearly 80 years of age he is hale and strong and his heart is as young, he says, as when he used to pilot steamboats on the old Mississippi twenty years before the war. His scanty hair and short beard are as white as snow, the face is a little wrinkled, his step has perhaps lost in elasticity, but the old soldier grows young again when he talks of the thrilling river conflicts of the war and the adventures of the days long gone before. His enthusiastic descriptions of hot engagements have fascinated many a listener at his fireside. As the veteran recounts the stirring scenes his age seems to vanish, his voice has the vigor of man not half his age, and when he tells of the humorous incidents of the war his laugh has the ring of a school boys. Nearly every day, cane in hand, the Commodore walks down town, and his figure is a familiar one on the streets in the heart of the city.

Joseph E. Montgomery was born May 6, 1817, In Kentucky on a farm near the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers, not far from Port William.  He is of an old, old family, and on one side of his house traces his ancestry back to William the Conqueror.  Joseph was taken out for many river trips by an older brother, who was a Captain on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Joseph learned the Mississippi in nine trips to New Orleans, made on flat and steam boats, and when only 17 years of age he was made the pilot on the steamboat Lexington, running between Louisville and New Orleans.  A year later he became the pilot of the Kentuckian, the biggest boat that had ever been floated on the Mississippi.  When only l9 years old he was made Captain of the Cinderella, which position he occupied for Years, leaving it to become Captain of the Little Rock.

Montgomery’s experience and ability always enabled him to command good salaries. By saving his wages and by clever trading in provisions he had laid up enough money by 1840 to a boat.  He was constructing his steamer when William Henry Harrison, a clerk in the United States Court at Cincinnati, was nominated by the Whigs for the Presidency.

“The William Henry Harrison”

The boat was being built at Cincinnati, and one day a young man named Duffield came down to the yards and asked Montgomery what he was going to call his boat. Montgomery hadn't decided. Duffield was then leader of the Harrison club and he suggested that the steamer be named the William Henry Harrison, promising if it was to take onboard the vessel for a trip to New Orleans the entire club and a band of fifty pieces. That settled it and the handsome new boat was named for the future President.  In the bow of the steamer two twelve-foot supports were erected and between them at the top was hung a great round copper ball, twenty-five feet in circumference.  On the ball was, in big black letters, a negro, a cabin and William Henry Harrison."  By connection with the machinery of the boat the ball was kept revolving as the steamer proceeded down the river. The trip of the steamer was heralded far and near, and at every Wharf along the river great crowds were gathered to see the William Henry Harrison with the shining revolving ball go by and hear the club band rend the atmosphere with campaign airs.

Montgomery sold the Harrison and bought the Walnut Hills with which he cleared a fortune in passenger and freight traffic between New Orleans and Cincinnati. It was while he was running this steamer that the Mormons started for their new home at Nauvoo, Ill.  There was a goodly number of the Mormons and several boats were bidding for the contract to transfer them from Pittsburg down the Ohio River to Cairo and up the Mississippi to Nauvoo.  Capt. Montgomery agreed to transport them for $16.50 per passenger to their destination.  On May 8, 1841, the Walnut Hills left Pittsburg with Prophet Joseph Smith, accompanied by his twelve apostles, among them Brigham Young and 250 followers on board.  Eight days later the Mormons were landed at Nauvoo. In 1842 the Captain built Queen of the West.  It was on this steamer that Charles Dickens, then on his famous visit to this country, made the trip from New Orleans to Cincinnati. The great novelist wanted to learn all he could about everything peculiar to America. Every day he followed Capt. Montgomery about the steamer asking hundreds of questions.  The two thus saw much of each other and became great friends before Dickens was landed in Cincinnati.  Another noted passenger, who was also a prisoner on the Queen of the West, was Gen. Santa Ana of Mexico.  Gen. Sam Houston had in charge the Mexican celebrity and was escorting him to Washington.  It was during the first trouble between the United States and Mexico over Texas and Santa Ana was taken to the capital to sign an agreement for his country with the authorities at Washington.

Next Montgomery built the Oregon, which was at that time the finest boat ever floated on the Mississippi. The Oregon ran a celebrated 1,400-mille race with the steamer, Alexander Scott, from Louisville to New Orleans, beating the Scott by 8 hours and 40 minutes. On its nineteenth trip, a defective flue caused a fire that burned the Oregon to the waters edge. The boat sank and everything was lost. The Insurance company that had issued a policy on the boat declined to settle. A lawsuit followed. The suit was carried to the Supreme Court of the United States. Chief Justice Taney heard the case the last day he ever sat on the bench and decided the controversy in favor of Montgomery. The Captain then built and sold the James Robb, noted for Its magnificent cabin, the Belle Sheridan, named for the belle of Louisville and the Republic. Capt. Montgomery captained these boats himself for a short time before selling them. While running the latter he had a narrow escape from death at the hands of a drunken mate, whom he had refused a position. Slipping up behind him the mate raised a Bowie knife to plunge it into the Captain's back. Someone saw the act from a distance and shouted. Montgomery turned as the blow descended and threw up one hand while he drew a revolver the other. His arm but turned the dagger, which cut straight down: through his breast, completely severing three ribs. The point of the knife was broken off in a fourth rib. As the Captain fell he shot down the mate. For three days Montgomery was unconscious, but his great physical strength enabled him to recover from the terrible wound.

Brothers Parted by War

Although convinced that the rebellion was a great mistake, Capt. Montgomery was a Southerner, and his sympathies were so strongly with the South that he Joined the southern forces soon after the beginning of hostilities.  He was at once commissioned Captain by Gen. Leonidas Polk, and did expert scout duty at first.  In the battle of Belmont, his first conflict, Montgomery captured Gen. Grant's horse when the Union forces were routed.  As the Northern soldiers rushed down the bank of the Mississippi and boarded a steamer in waiting, Capt. Montgomery saw, to his surprise, his brother was Captain of the boat. The two older Montgomery brothers had gone with the North while the youngest had gone with the South. Capt. Montgomery shouted from the bank to his brother on the boat that they would have to bring more soldiers than that to whip the South. The day following Belmont there was a truce to exchange prisoners, and Montgomery gave back Grant's horse to him. The two men were old friends having lived across the street from each other in St.. Louis, and despite the fact that the war found them on opposing sides, they always remained the best of friends.

Just before- Belmont Montgomery filed charges of cowardice and incompetency against Commodore Hollins of the Mississippi fleet for failing to capture a fleet of Union boats in the process of construction at Cairo. He was called to Richmond shortly after Belmont by Secretary of State Benjamin of the Confederacy. The night he arrived he had a private consultation lasting several hours with President Davis and Secretary Benjamin.  They wished him to go to the Clyde, Scotland and have built six large warships.  Montgomery then explained for the first time his submarine ram. He convinced Davis and Benjamin that the scheme of going to Scot- land was a poor one, and persuaded them to make warships, fitted with submarine rams, out of the ordinary steamers at New Orleans.  In operating this fleet Montgomery asked to be made entirely Independent of both army and navy.  Davis and Benjamin agreed to this and signed their approval of the special act passed by the rebel Congress, providing for the fitting up of sixteen men-of-war, soldiers to man them, and creating Capt. Montgomery Commander.

At this time the Merrimac was lying almost entirely under water at Norfolk, and Montgomery was sent down by Davis and Benjamin to see if she could be raised. The Commodore raised her and put on her prow the ram that caused the destruction in a few minutes of three fine Union vessels. The construction of the Montgomery fleet was begun at once, and in thirty days four boats, the Arazaba, Mexico, John Breckinridge, and William Whan were completed and sent to Fort Pillow, eighty miles above Memphis and six miles below Plum Point.  Meanwhile, Commodore Montgomery learned that Admiral Farragut was approaching the mouth of the Mississippi by way of the Gulf of Mexico. The Commodore at once took his flagship, the Gen. Van Dorn, and went to Fort Jackson, seventy-five miles below New Orleans, and the night of Feb. 28, 1862, he rammed the ship Preble of the fleet and sank her.  Soon-after this the remaining boats of the Montgomery fleet were completed and sent to Fort Pillow to prepare for battle with the Union fleet at Plum Point. May 9, at 3 o clock in the morning, eight ships started up the river for Plum Point.  Two miles nearer them were anchored the Cincinnati and a mortar boat. These were captured without a struggle. While the transfer of prisoners was being made, Commodore Montgomery paroled the officers of the Cincinnati but the Captain broke his parole and Montgomery at once sank the Cincinnati. The rebel boats then proceeded up the river and a hot engagement with the Union fleet took place. Both sides poured out a hot fire with telling effect. In the thick of the tight from first to last, the escape of Commodore Montgomery was marvelous. His coat-tail was shot away and thirty-six bullet holes perforated his clothes, but not a bullet entered his body. The Commodore in his flagship sank the Mound City and the rebel boat Sumter sank the Pittsburg.

His Exciting Adventures

The Union fleet came down and joined battle with the rebel fleet again on June 5 near Memphis. Here a peculiar accident happened to the rebels. The steamers Jeff Thompson and Sumter were attacking a Union boat, the two boats coming down swiftly toward either side of the Northern boat. By a clever turn the Union boat pulled out of the way and the two Confederate ships came together with a frightful collision. The Thompson sank at once and the Sumter was badly disabled. The Lancaster, another disabled Union boat, ran up a flag of and gave signals of distress, as it seemed the boat might sink. Commodore Montgomery, who was on the Little Rebel, which he was using as a flagship, hastened to the Lancaster and began transferring the men. Suddenly and without warning Capt. Ellert of the Lancaster began firing at Montgomery. The first shot pierced the upper part of the Commodore's cap in front and glancing on his forehead tore open the scalp for several inches. The Commodore fired the shot which fatally wounded Ellert just as a second bullet from Ellert's revolver shattered the small wrist bone of the hand in which Montgomery held his revolver. The fight was ended by the Thomas Benton, the Northern flagship, firing a cannon ball clear through the Little Rebel, sinking the boat on a bar. Despite his disabled wrist, Montgomery managed to swim to the Arkansas side of the river. As he climbed up the bank bullets peppered all around him, but failed to bring him down. Five buckshot entered his leg, but he made good his escape.

It was not long after Montgomery built the great Nashville man-o'-war which sank seven of Farragut's fleet one morning in Mobile Bay. The Nashville after the war was the training ship until within the last few years at Annapolis. While constructing the Nashville at Montgomery, Ala., the Commodore went to Vicksburg to get some machinery. Just then the Indianola ran down the river below Vicksburg one night and endeavored to cut off the supplies that were being sent to Vicksburg.  Montgomery saw the great boat and determined to try and sink it. He went up Red River to get the Webb for that purpose. The boat was secured, and with a crew of only twenty-eight men, it-was brought to the Mississippi.  In the night-time it gave the Indianola a dig with its ram that split its side open. The boat was sunk and the entire crew captured.

Only once during the war was Commodore Montgomery captured. He was camping alone on the bank of the Mississippi when he was surrounded by a band of guerrillas, composed, he says, of men from both sides who were out for plunder. They chained him on a boat deck, hand and foot, and robbed him of all he possessed. In a belt around his waist found $380,000 in Liverpool cotton bonds. One of the men was sharp enough to see they were valueless unless signed by Montgomery. Two of the guerrillas took the Commodore alone to a room and threatened to take his life If he did not sign the bonds. The captive refused, one of the men whipped out a knife and putting the point against Montgomery's neck, swore he would cut his throat in a second if he did not sign. The brave old Commodore told them to cut away. Through the intervention of a superior officer the bonds were afterward returned.

Near the close of the war many thousands of bales of cotton and a number of boats were, so the Commodore claims, taken from him unlawfully by the government. The Commodore now has a claim for over $1,000,000 pending In Congress.

Commodore Montgomery is at present interesting Chicago capitalists in a great scheme to establish a line of boats to ply between Chicago and New Orleans when the drainage canal is opened.

 

 


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