J. S. McCune [Steamboat]

aka: Brilliant (Steamboat)
aka: USS Brilliant (Tinclad Gunboat)

The J. S. McCune, originally the Brilliant, was a sternwheel paddleboat that served as a Union tinclad gunboat during the Civil War before carrying cargo and passengers on the Mississippi and White Rivers. The vessel caught fire and was destroyed on the White River on December 6, 1867, with the boat’s steward perishing in the blaze.

The Brilliant was a 226-ton sternwheel paddleboat built for $21,000 at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in July 1862. The vessel was 157 feet long and thirty-one feet wide and had a four-and-a-half-foot draft. The U.S. Navy bought the boat on August 13, 1862, at St. Louis, Missouri, and refitted it as a tinclad gunboat armed with two rifled 12-pounder cannon and two smoothbore 12-pounders. Still named Brilliant, the gunboat joined the Western Flotilla on October 1, 1862, and would see action on the Ohio, Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers during the war. A Captain Espy of St. Louis and Captain James H. Duffer bought the Brilliant at Mound City, Illinois, on August 17, 1865, and renamed the steamboat the J. S. McCune before returning the vessel to the river trade.

The McCune entered the St. Louis and White River trade in June 1866. In September 1867, the J. S. McCune, described as a “magnificent Passenger Steamer,” advertised the beginning of regular service from Memphis, Tennessee, to DeValls Bluff (Prairie County), Des Arc (Prairie County), Augusta (Woodruff County), Grand Glaize (Jackson County), and Jacksonport (Jackson County) on the White River.

On December 6, 1867, the J. S. McCune was heading down the White River with ten tons of cargo, 1,032 bales of cotton, and a handful of passengers, bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. The vessel ran aground on Little Island, but the crew soon freed it. Shortly afterward, near Prairie Landing about twenty miles above the mouth of the White River, the McCune caught fire. The blaze spread rapidly, but most of the passengers and crew escaped. Only the ship’s steward—John Riley of Columbus, Kentucky—failed to make it off the McCune, dying in the flames.

The J. S. McCune burned to the water’s edge before the hull sank into the White River. The steamboat, valued at $16,000, was insured for $10,000, and the cargo was apparently insured.

For additional information:
Huddleston, Duane, Sammie Cantrell Rose, and Pat Taylor Wood. Steamboats and Ferries on the White River: A Heritage Revisited. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998.

“Latest by Telegraph.” Arkansas Gazette, December 10, 1867, p. 2.

“Memphis and White River Regular Thursday Packet.” [Advertisement], Memphis Daily Post, December 9, 1867, p. 5.

Mooney, James L. “Brilliant (Sternwheel Gunboat).” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/b/brilliant-i.html (accessed June 22, 2023).

“The Steamer J.S. McCune Destroyed.” Memphis Public Ledger, December 10, 1867, p. 3.

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System


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