Massachusetts And Black Diamond Collision
By James Donahue
Among the deadly river crashes that happened during the days following the Civil War was the collision
between the steamship Massachusetts and the picket boat Black Diamond on the Potomac River during the early morning hours
of April 24, 1865. An estimated 70 people, most of them soldiers returning home from war duty, perished.
The accident occurred just nine days after the death of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15 from
an assassin’s bullet, so it did not receive much attention by the newspapers.
Details of the accident are sketchy. From the best we can learn, the Black Diamond, with an estimated
20 soldiers commanded by Captain J. M. Holmes of the Third Veteran Reserve Corps, was anchored on the river, just off Blackstone
Island (Now named St. Clement Island) with a single light burning. There was no moon.
The larger 1,155-ton naval steamship Massachusetts, carrying an estimated 300 freed Union prisoners
of war, slammed into the Black Diamond’s port side, sinking the smaller steamer within three minutes.
The Massachusetts’ bow was crushed and the steamer was taking on water, but the ship managed
to remain afloat. But the solders on her decks panicked and many of them jumped or were thrown into the water where they drowned.
The Massachusetts lay at the site of the disaster throughout the night, picking up swimmers and the
bodies. Passing ships, the Marion and the Warrior, stopped to take on some of the survivors. The Massachusetts eventually
limped on to Port Lookout, Maryland. The ship was decommissioned in September and sold to private owners in 1867. It operated
under the name Crescent City until 1892.
The Black Diamond sank with its pilothouse and smokestack still showing above water. The barge was
considered too old and too damaged to salvage.