History of the Kentucky 

The Early Years 

“The Kentucky was constructed as a side-wheeled steamboat in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1856 and was first enrolled there on July 28 of that year. The vessel was recorded officially as having a length of 222 ft with a capacity of 375 tons. 

The Kentucky was built as a large, elegant packet for use on the Ohio and Mississippi Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and was similar in layout to hundreds of other steamboats that worked on those waters. The main deck, where the boilers and engines were mounted, was fitted with guards that extended the deck out from the hull to protect the paddle wheels. The main deck served as the principal cargo deck. Above the main deck was the boiler deck, where the passenger accommodations were located. A long, narrow cabin was centrally located with staterooms opening onto it from the sides. The Kentucky had 52 staterooms. The sexes were typically segregated aboard packet boats, with the gentlemen’s salon located forward and the ladies aft. Above the boiler deck was the hurricane deck and the crew quarters. The officers were quartered in the texas deck on the next level. The pilothouse was atop the texas, aft of the chimneys. 


The War Between the States 

The Kentucky was in her homeport of Memphis at the outbreak of the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, the vessel was purchased by Preston Lodwick. With tensions increasing, Lodwick, wanting to return north, boarded the Kentucky and tried to slip past the authorities in Memphis. Lodwich miscalculated the vigilance of the Confederates at Memphis who turned him back. Finally abandoning the boat just above Island No. 10, he escaped on foot to Illinois. Confederate authorities ordered the boat to be burned, but the chief, engineer, James Keniston, assumed the duties of captain and ran it “under duress” as directed by the Confederates.  

Both sides commandeered a large number of civilian vessels for use as transports. The Kentucky was instrumental in ferrying Major General Leonidas Polk’s troops between Columbus, Kentucky and Belmont, Missouri. The timely arrival of reinforcements allowed the Confederates to surround Union forces under Ulysses Grant. The Kentucky again served the Confederacy well by rushing reinforcements to Brigadier General J.P. McCown as he sought to hold Island No. 10 in March 1862. 

However in June 1862, Memphis fell to Federal forces. The Kentucky had been taken as a prize of War and was used by the united States Army as an express mail boat, carrying freight, passengers, and produce from Memphis to Cairo, Il. The boat was returned to its owner, preston Lodwick, on February 5, 1863. The U.S. Quartermaster Corp then chartered the vessel from him and operated it in the Red River and lower Mississippi River until the end of the War in 1865. 

Kentucky’s Last Voyage 

At 6: 30 p.m. on the evening of June 9, 1865, the Kentucky left Shreveport bound for New Orleans and eventually St. Louis, overloaded with 900 passengers, 250 horses, baggage and provisions. For the most part, the passengers were paroled Confederate prisoners, weary veterans of the Missouri regiments that had defended the city of Shreveport – the last Confederate capital to surrender. 

The Red River was a treacherous, meandering river. It was not a river to be navigated at night. However, the captain, being paid by how many people he could transport, did not want to wait until the next morning when there would be another ship available for the passengers. Some two or three hours into the voyage, the vessel struck a snag, one of the partially submerged logs that made the Red River notorious. The vessel ran about four miles after she began to leak, and by the time the captain finally turned for shore, the Kentucky had settled so much that he could not get near enough to the bank to put out his landing stage. A stern line was run to shore, but it snapped immediately and the boat swung out into the swifter, deeper part of the river. The Kentucky sank instantly, the water washing over the hurricane deck forward while the stern remained above water. As the boat heeled over, pandemonium broke out in the over-crowded decks below as passengers rushed for the stern. Adding to the confusion, the texas deck caught fire as coal oil lamps spilled their contents. A large number of passengers were trapped in the forward cabin and drowned. 

Word of the disaster quickly spread to another steamer, the Col. Chapin that had tied up for the night some 5 to 7 miles upstream. Captain Stephen Webber was aboard the Col. Chapin when the news was received. He immediately ordered steam to be raised and set out to render assistance to the survivors. The vessel arrived on the site about 11:30 p. and found some 400 to 500 people crowded onto the elevated portion of the Kentucky. Webber succeeded in getting two lines from the shipwreck to shore and began ferrying the survivors ashore in two small boats. 

Captain Webber was furious with the officers of the Kentucky, charging that their reckless decision to run the boat at night brought about a needless disaster. He later wrote to the New Orleans Times (June 16, 1865) that: “If I had the power, I would hang the captain and pilots to the first tree that I could find.” A subsequent investigation by Union Major General Frances J. Herron, commander of the Northern Division of Louisiana, found the officers innocent of any wrong doing, but resulted in an order prohibiting transports on the Red River (from) running at night.  

Reports of the losses range from 75 to 200 drowned. The official U.S. military report listed 75 drowned. 

Account of the Disaster from the Captain of the Chapin 

“To Capt F.W. Perkins, A.Q.M. of transportation: 

Captain – I left Shreveport in obedience to orders from Major General Herron, thirty minutes past seven o’clock, June 9th. Finding it impracticable to travel after night, I landed the boat. The steamer Kentucky left previous to me about one hour. I presumed that all the boats would lay up together for the night. On proceeding down the river, I found the Kentucky against the bank, turning the point, and of course thought she was landing for the night. I therefore proceeded a short distance from her and laid the boat up.  

After being there a short time the Kentucky passed under a head of steam, at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, (to the best of my judgment) and had passed us somewhere between five and seven miles when she sank. I had the fire banked with the intention of remaining until daylight. After remaining about one hour and a half hours I was notified from shore that the Kentucky had sunk, and that the assistance of the boat was required to prevent further loss of life (a great many having already been drowned) and destruction of property. I immediately raised steam and got under way, arriving at the wreck about half-past eleven p.m. 

I found everything in confusion, and endeavored with all available means on board to secure men and women. I immediately lowered the boat and went in person to the boat; found no boats yet at work. I at once stretched a trail line to the shore, to run boats by, the current being too strong to use sweeps or oars. My first mate directly afterward stretched another from the starboard after cabin guard, when we set two boats to work, having procured one from the neighboring plantations. We eventually got everyone off who wished to come, some remaining on onboard – for what purpose I know not.  

The whole affair is very disastrous, involving a great loss of life, and in the opinion of all high minded and honorable men, as well as some who were on board with these officers of the boat, and also in my opinion too, the disaster could have been avoided, and that it only resulted from inattention and ignorance, as an investigation of the same will prove. During the rescue of the people on onboard, and while running my small boat in person, I made use of the following language: “if I had the power, I would hang the captain and pilots to the first tree that I could find,” an assertion that I am prepared to maintain. 

Having ascertained indirectly that the officers of this boat intend reporting me for the use of the above language is the cause of my making this statement, as I know that they are wholly incompetent to command or have charge of anything regarding transportation, where human life is concerned.” 

Stephen J. Webber

Captain Commanding Transport

June 10, 1865 

Recent Controversy with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers 

The Red River is today, as it always has been, major thoroughfare for transportation. However, its changing meandering nature is a major concern for river traffic as well as a cause for riverbank erosion. It is this changing nature that had not only buried the Kentucky underground, but has now exposed the stern to the river once again. A treasure hunter discovered her during a low period of the river. 

In an attempt to stabilize the riverbank and keep the Red River from changing and shifting, the Corp decide that they would have to do revetment work. It was at this time that the Kentucky controversy started. The stone revetment would have to be placed at the site of the shipwreck destroying up to 50% of the Kentucky.  

The Sterling Price Camp was notified about the situation at the 1996 National Convention in Richmond. Our immediate reaction was to contact the Corp to a) find out what exactly they were attempting to do, b) find out as much information about the ship, the passengers, and the night of the disaster, c) express our completed opposition to their plan. The Corp’s reasoning was that it could not place the dike anywhere else and while they would have to destroy a significant portion of the wreckage, they would be preserving the rest of the wreckage forever. This did not seem reasonable. Why did it have to go there? Why couldn’t a ring dike of some sort be placed at the site to protect it all? Their answers were complicated and seemingly vague. 

Their work was to proceed. By law they had to investigate the ship for human remains. Teams of archeological divers went down on the stern of the ship and entered it as far as they could. This was not too far due to the majority of the ship being underground and the stern portion being encased in root mat. The likelihood of finding human remains was not great for that reason. The drowning victims were all sleeping in the bow of the ship. However, many horse bones were found as well as pots, personal items, the bilge pump, and the ship’s anchor. 

Once this investigation was done, the revetment work was to begin. During this period of investigation, the Sterling Price Camp and others engaged in letter writing campaign to politicians, historians, descendents of passengers, and fellow SCV members. Many phone calls were made to plea for the Corp’s work to be altered. There was no difference between this shipwreck and that of the U.S.S. Arizona. Both are and should be treated as military gravesites. 

Upon a personal visit to the wrecksite last September, the Corp showed us exactly where the stone revetment was to be placed. It was at a place in the river where there will be absolutely no impact to the Kentucky! The Corp had decided to move their work away from the ship. 

Current Status and Future Plans 

The Kentucky is now 100% buried under 25 feet of southern soil. It cannot ever be easily disturbed. It is completely safe from treasure hunters and looters. The Corp has now moved on to another project. By land, she lies in a remote area. However, by river, she is at a bend that is highly traveled by both commercial and recreational boats. 

It would be well-deserved tribute to these Missourians to place a monument of some sort at this site. If you can place yourself in their shoes – after four long years of war and all, the hardships that go along with it, they finally are on their way home to the State that they love, only to have their lives taken away from them when the least expected it. We, as their descendants and fellow Missourians, must see to it that we honor them as the heroes they are. 

There will be opposition as usual. The State of Louisiana owns the ship and land. They can say what the monument can or cannot be. The logistics of placing a monument in an area that is a 10 hour drive from St. Louis will be difficult. Also, getting to the wreck by land is not that easy. These are just some of the concerns and difficulties that we will face. However, this is what the SCV is all about.” 

Source: From the files of Neil Block, Commander, William T. Anderson Camp #1743, SCV; transcribed by Lisa Perry.