The Burning of the Steamboat Mazeppa

Operating a steamboat on western waters during the Civil War could be incredibly dangerous.


As I explain in my new book, Murder on the Ohio Belle, steamboats faced the risk of fires, explosions, underwater snags, guerrilla attacks, and more. In late 1864, however, the steamboat Mazeppa encountered its own formidable challenge: Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates.

Union transports, Tennessee River. Library of Congress.

On October 29, 1864, the Mazeppa was traveling the Tennessee River, bound for a massive Union supply depot at Johnsonville, Tennessee. It was a brand-new vessel that was owned by a salt and coal dealer named R. C. M. Lovell. Valued at more than $40,000, the Mazeppa was hauling a barge crammed with goods and supplies. This was the steamboat’s first journey. It would also be its last.


When the Mazeppa neared Fort Heiman, an abandoned Confederate fort constructed in 1861 on the west bank of the Tennessee River, the crew had no idea that they were falling into a trap. More than 400 Confederate soldiers led by the Kentucky-born Brigadier General Abraham Buford lay in wait with four artillery pieces. Buford’s men were part of Forrest’s command, which had moved to the Tennessee River to upend Federal lines of communication as Union troops pressed into Georgia and Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s Confederate army advanced into Tennessee.


Nathan Bedford Forrest. Library of Congress.

As part of this effort, Buford’s command took over Fort Heiman to disrupt river traffic. Confederate artilleryman John W. Morton later remarked that the general had found a perfect spot, writing that the location was “admirably suited to entrap any passing boat from above or below.” Southern cavalryman James Dinkins concurred, noting that “There is a long stretch of river in each direction at both places, which enabled General Buford to observe any movement of the boats.”


When the Mazeppa appeared, the rebels waited for the boat to pass between their two batteries. They then unleashed a barrage of musketry and artillery that tore into the Mazeppa’s engine, disabling it. As the vessel drifted to the opposite side of the river, a reporter wrote, “A continued fire was kept up upon the boat by both artillery and small arms, completely demolishing the pilot house, and otherwise injuring the boat.” The crew tried to tie the Mazeppa to the shore, but the gunfire drove them off. The boat’s captain was seen “running up the hill from the boat while balls fell like hail around him.”


When the Confederates pulled the Mazeppa to their side of the river, they were elated. On board were a thousand barrels of flour, eighty cook stoves, dozens of bales of hay, hundreds of military coats, a thousand sacks of grain, hardtack, and other supplies. The rebels immediately began unloading the boat, piling up boxes and sacks on the shore. The Union coats were reputedly dumped in the river.


Buford was especially pleased because he found a jug of Kentucky bourbon. When soldiers asked for a drink, the officer wagged a finger and replied, “Plenty of shoes and blankets for the boys, but just whisky enough for the General.”


Union Gunboat Gen. Grant. Library of Congress.

Several hours later, a Federal gunboat appeared and shelled the Confederates crowded around the captured steamer. Outgunned, the rebel troops ran into Fort Heiman. To keep the Mazeppa out of Union hands, Buford ordered that the steamboat be put to the torch. Soon, the entire vessel, and the remaining cargo that had not been unloaded, was destroyed. The gunboat shelled Fort Heiman for two hours. It finally withdrew when it ran out of ammunition.


The Confederates remained at Fort Heiman, hoping to capture more Northern quarry. The next day, the Anna steamed into Buford’s trap. “Her pilot house . . . and cabin were completely riddled with shot of every size,” a reporter wrote. “Her steam pipe was partially severed.” Another correspondent wrote that “She was literally riddled with musket balls, cannon shot and shell. Thirty bullets and one cannon ball struck the pilot house.” A chimney was destroyed, and a rebel shell sheared off part of the cabin roof. Another solid shot “passed nearly her whole length from stem to stern.”


Supply depot, Johnsonville, TN. Library of Congress.

Despite the withering fire, the Anna escaped. Later, Forrest’s men captured more steamboats and the gunboat Undine. On November 4, the Confederates attacked Johnsonville. After an artillery duel, Union troops burned several transports to keep them out of Southern hands. The fire spread to nearby warehouses and the supply depot went up in flames, causing more than $2.2 million in damages.


The capture of the Mazeppa reputedly supplied John Bell Hood’s army as it moved through Tennessee prior to the Battle of Franklin. For Forrest’s command, this was the zenith of their military service. As Confederate veteran Bennett H. Young later wrote in Confederate Wizards of the Saddle, this operation in Tennessee was “the most successful and aggressive period of General Forrest’s remarkable exploits.”


The Mazeppa certainly fell victim to this aggression, and the incident highlights the dangers that Union vessels faced on western waters during the conflict.


Stuart W. Sanders is the former executive director of the Perryville Battlefield Preservation Association. He is the author of four books, including “Perryville Under Fire: The Aftermath of Kentucky’s Largest Civil War Battle,” “The Battle of Mill Springs, Kentucky,” “Maney’s Confederate Brigade at the Battle of Perryville,” and “Murder on the Ohio Belle.”

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