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Ships 3

Artist's Concept of Riverboat Blaze

Sabotage Destroyed Union Riverboat Ruth

By James Donahue

The riverboat Ruth operated just seven months on the Mississippi River for the Union Army before a Confederate saboteur started a fire that destroyed the boat, about 30 passengers and crew members, livestock and iron boxes of greenbacks and gold valued at $2,600,000.

The 270-foot-long paddle-wheeler, commanded by Captain George Pegram, left Cairo, Mississippi for Helena, Alabama on the night of Aug. 4, 1863 with nine Union Army paymasters and their clerks, the strongboxes of money to pay General Grant’s army, and 31 soldiers of the Ninth Wisconsin Regiment to guard it.

Also on board were an estimated 200 civilian passengers, 100 head of cattle and 122 mules.

About an hour into the trip, when the Ruth was about 12 miles below Cairo, a fire broke out in the stern of the boat. The flames spread so fast that the riverboat was quickly being consumed. Captain Pegram ordered the wheelman to steer directly into the riverbank to give passengers a chance of escape.

The steamer struck with such force the hull cracked. Passengers and animals were wildly jumping from the burning boat. Unfortunately the wheel was still turning, causing the vessel to recoil from the river bank and start back out into the river. Now people were jumping into the    water and swimming to shore. Not all of them made it.

Among the lost were five soldiers that remained behind to continue guarding the money, several passengers, four clerks and nearly all of the livestock. Some of the cows and mules broke loose and swam for the shore.

The money, stored in iron boxes, also was consumed.

The Ruth burned until it sank.

During hearings to determine the cause of a fire that destroyed the Sultana and the loss of 1,800 lives near the end of the Civil War, it was revealed that a Confederate operative named Robert Louden may have been the person that torched the Ruth.

Louden boasted of having started fires that destroyed several Union riverboats during the war. It was said the man tried to take credit for the Sultana disaster, but it was determined that he was merely boasting.

One newspaper report, published in 1888, stated that “in truth, only the destruction of the Ruth can be positively attributed to Louden.

The Ruth, named after the Biblical character by that name, was launched on January 1, 1863. While built to be operated by private owners and a passenger and freight packet, the vessel was seized for service by Union forces almost from the start of its brief career.

She was the first of at least three Mississippi riverboats to carry the name Ruth.