150 Years Ago This Week: A terrible scene at sea

November 1864

The Australian packet Royal Standard narrowly escaped destruction following a collision with an enormous iceberg off Cape Horn.
The Australian packet Royal Standard narrowly escaped destruction following a collision with an enormous iceberg off Cape Horn.

The 1864 election, rather than the war, commanded the most attention in the North as November 1864 unfolded. For the first time in history, the armies of a major nation would vote during a war.

Rampant electioneering involved not only politicians but military officers as well. President Lincoln was still anxious about the outcome, but the October state elections had given him some confidence. Maj. Gen. George McClellan, Lincoln’s opponent for the presidency, remained very popular with those who were discontented with the progress of the war. Union victories at Atlanta, in the Shenandoah Valley, on the Atlantic coast and in Missouri apparently quieted some of the opposition to the Lincoln administration.

Southerners also followed the campaign with interest. Some favored Gen. McClellan, as he might seek peace and an end to the war, while others were in favor of Lincoln’s election, since they knew where they stood with him. He had said on many occasions that he simply wanted to bring the Southern states back into the Union as if they had never left. Gen. McClellan might try to restore the Union, but many Southerners did not want any part of the old nation and what it had become to the Southern states.

In Tennessee, Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest had just captured two Union river vessels, and now he and his command moved up the Tennessee River with his “navy” and were headed to Johnsonville. On Nov. 2, Venus, one of Gen. Forrest’s makeshift naval-cavalry command, was driven to the banks of the Tennessee by two Union gunboats. The other of Gen. Forrest’s vessels, Undine, was damaged in the salvo but escaped. The same day, Sec. of State William Seward told Mayor Fernando Wood of New York that there were rumors from Canada that Confederate agents planned to set fire to the city on election day.

From South Africa came word of a terrible scene at sea, when the Australian packet Royal Standard narrowly escaped destruction following a collision with an enormous iceberg off Cape Horn. In scenes reminiscent of the Titanic disaster in April 1912, the vessel was cruising in thick, heavy weather under a good breeze. Dense fog was suddenly encountered, and almost immediately the lookouts broadcast the alarm about ice off the starboard bow. Sails were trimmed and everything was done to avoid a catastrophe, but in vain.

Suddenly the ship collided with the enormous iceberg that towered at least 600 feet above the surface of the water. The sails and masts collapsed from the impact, and tons of huge ice blocks dropped onto the decks, pitching the ship violently one way and then another. Now torrents of seawater cascaded into the vessel, threatening to sink her without delay.

As described by an English journalist on board as a passenger, the ship “was a helpless log, crippled and disabled, with all of her masts, sails, chains and other seagoing appliances dangling about in the most dangerous condition.” By some miracle, the ship managed to continue straight ahead until the iceberg was half a mile to the stern. No one aboard the ship was seriously hurt, and, after an hour’s sailing, the ship stopped and religious services were offered for all passengers and crew to give thanks for their deliverance. These services, the journalist reported, continued daily until Royal Standard managed to reach Liverpool.

At Johnsonville, Tenn., Gen. Forrest, still with his naval-cavalry force, attacked and destroyed the large Union supply base there. Maj. Gen. William Sherman wrote, “that devil Forrest was down about Johnsonville and was making havoc among the gunboats and transports.” Confederates estimated the damage to the supply base at about $6.7 million. The Union officers there were heavily censured for their negligence in protecting the base. Gen. Forrest and his command, unscathed, headed south by way of Corinth, Miss., then to northern Alabama to meet with Gen. John B. Hood’s Army of Tennessee.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.