Nantucket History & People

Civil War Shipwreck

• by Amy Jenness – author of On This Day in Nantucket History •

On June 10, 1865 a ship carrying soldiers who had fought for the North in the Civil War under General William Tecumsah Sherman went aground on Smith’s Point. The ship, SS Satacona, grounded in a thick fog near the head of Hither Creek. For some of the ship’s passengers, this would be their second wreck in two days. Their troop ship Admiral Dupont had collided with the Satacona and sank off Cape May, New Jersey, two days prior.

The first word Nantucket citizens had of the June 10th Madaket grounding was when the soldiers marched through town at 8 a.m. and boarded a steamship that was preparing to sail for the mainland. Citizens scrambled to provide food and clothing for the soldiers before they departed and returned to Fort Monroe.

Although the Civil War ended on May 9, 1865, the soldiers were still on active duty at the fort and had been on leave when the collision occurred. Located in the Chesapeake Bay, Fort Monroe was a pivotal Union stronghold throughout the war and also became a symbol of freedom when commanders used it to house refugee slaves. They escaped southern slavery and went to the fort after a Union Army decree that all slaves behind their lines would be protected. The policy was called the “Fort Monroe Doctrine.” On May 10, 1865 former Confederate president Jefferson Davis was captured and taken to Fort Monroe where he was jailed awaiting a bail bond issue.

Davis would wait two years for the hearing and his long imprisonment in harsh conditions made him a martyr in many people’s minds. He was indicted for treason in May 1867, but was never tried—the federal government feared that Davis would be able prove to a jury that the Southern secession of 1860 to 1861 was legal. Later that month Davis was released on bail, with several wealthy Northerners helping him pay for his freedom.

The island had remained mostly neutral during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, with many citing their Quaker beliefs (which condemned the violence of war) as the reason, but nearly 400 Nantucket men fought for the North in the Civil War and 70 ultimately died in combat. Many Nantucketers opposed slavery and the island hosted several anti-slavery conventions in the 1840s. As during previous wars, the Civil War disrupted the island as dozens of whaling vessels were put into service by the Union, or sunk in southern harbors to blockade Confederate vessels. In addition, Nantucket’s already suffering whaling industry declined further as able men left to fight and as other whaleships were destroyed by Confederate raiders. When the war ended in 1865, Nantucket whaling would never be able to recover.

The island celebrated the end of the war. The April 15, 1865 edition of the Inquirer & Mirror reported, “Considerable excitement was manifested in our usually quiet town, on Thursday afternoon last, upon the reception of the glorious news of the surrender of Gen. Lee and his army. Salutes were fired, flags were displayed from public and private buildings, and the bells on various churches were rung in honor of the glorious event. In the evening Young America collected its materials, and kindled a huge bonfire on the centre of Main Street, fireworks were displayed, the room of Engine Co. No. 8 was brilliantly illuminated, and several of our citizens made speeches in front of the Customs House (Pacific Club); the demonstration closing by the singing of patriotic airs.”

In the same issue, the editor wrote, “Richmond has fallen! This stronghold of rebel treason, with its manifold forms of pretended nationality, its bogus system of finance, its mock legislation, has yielded to our advancing armies. For four long years, it has menaced the North; its formidable intrenchements, sheltering a powerful military force, have baffled the generalship of our officers, and severely tested the endurance of our loyal troops. But it has surrendered at last, and black soldiers – negroes – of whom Chief Justice Taney once famously declared: “They have no rights which a white man is bound to respect!”

What an astonishing picture to hold up before the aristocrats of the Old World! What a revolution of ideas in the New? The nucleus of the rebellion invested and throttled by Gen. Weitzel’s colored brigades! Governor Andrew speaks truly, in his congratulatory dispatch to Secretary Stanton, “The colored men, received late, got in first, and thus is the Scripture fulfilled.” The nation is glad of it.”

Articles by Date from 2012