As part of the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron, the steamer Commercial served as an auxiliary vessel on the Mississippi River and its tributaries, including expeditions on the White River during the ongoing battle for control of significant interior rivers in the Trans-Mississippi Department during the Civil War.
Specific details about its construction and acquisition by Union forces are not known, but the Commercial displaced between 295 and 500 tons and may have served at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee, after the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862 and regularly served under charter on the western rivers. Between March and May 1863, the Commercial served in conjunction with the steamer Tycoon transporting refugees from Memphis, Tennessee, to Cairo, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri.
After the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, to Union forces in the summer of 1863, the Commercial served as a transport ferrying Union troops between Vicksburg and Memphis. In the late summer of 1864, the Commercial served as the lead vessel on the second attempt of a joint army-navy expedition up the White River.
In late August 1864, Brigadier General Christopher Columbus Andrews, commanding the Second Division of the Seventh Army Corps headquartered at DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), ordered an expedition up the White River to locate and pursue the commands of Brigadier General Joseph Orville Shelby and Colonel Archibald Stephenson Dobbins. The initial phase of this expedition embarked from DeValls Bluff on August 30, aboard the steamer Kate Hart and Gunboat No. 30, with a contingent of twenty-two officers and 515 soldiers from the Twelfth Michigan Infantry and the Fifty-fourth and Sixty-first Illinois Infantry regiments. Low water levels below Augusta (Woodruff County) forced its return to DeValls Bluff before it could rendezvous with Brigadier General Joseph R. West’s cavalry division.
Andrews immediately ordered a second attempt, with reinforcements under Colonel Lyman M. Ward of the Fourteenth Wisconsin Infantry. The additional regiment increased the expedition’s strength to 1,000 troops, and it embarked on the morning of September 3 onboard the Commercial, as well as other lighter draught steamers Nevada and Celeste. Soon afterward, the steamer Dove joined the expedition, with a detachment of another 200 men from the Ninety-fifth Illinois Infantry.
While serving with the second phase of this expedition on the morning of September 4, Confederate pickets under Captain Rufus D. Anderson of Dobbins’s command observed the expedition from the banks above Peach Orchard Bluffs (Woodruff County). At 4:00 p.m., 300 or 400 Rebels fired on the Commercial from bushes on the left shore near Gregory’s Landing (Woodruff County), killing one man instantly and wounding eight (including Col. William H. Graves of the Twelfth Michigan). A second volley, fired almost immediately from the right shore by forty or fifty Rebels, mortally wounded one soldier on the Celeste and wounded another on the Nevada. After initial confusion, the Commercial returned fire and, supported by heavy fire into both shores from the other vessels, forced a Confederate withdrawal. Graves disembarked at the shore and prepared for an attack that did not materialize.
On September 5, the expedition steamed to Augusta. It met no resistance but reported Dobbins near the Cache River and Shelby near Jacksonport (Jackson County). Low water levels prevented further pursuit, and Andrews ordered the immediate return of the expedition. It arrived at DeValls Bluff on September 6 without further incident. Combined Union casualties numbered nine wounded, one killed in action, one mortally wounded, and one accidental death. No Confederate reports or casualty figures exist for this incident.
The Commercial continued to serve under charter with the Mississippi River Squadron on the western rivers until the end of the Civil War. Afterward, the Commercial served for several years as a packet transport on the White River.
For additional information:
Executive Documents Printed by Order of the House of Representatives during the Second Session of the Forty-First Congress, 1869–1870. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1870.
Gibson, Charles Dana, and E. Kay Gibson. Dictionary of Transports and Combatant Vessels Steam and Sail Employed by the Union Army, 1861–1868. Camden, ME: Ensign Press, 1995.
Huddleston, Duane, et al. Steamboats and Ferries on the White River: A Heritage Revisited. Conway: University of Central Arkansas Press, 1998.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1, Vol. 41, Part I. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1893.
Robert Patrick Bender
Eastern New Mexico University–Roswell
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