The Kaskaskia was a forty-nine-ton sidewheel steamboat built in 1859 at Cincinnati, Ohio, and initially operated on the Ohio River out of Evansville, Indiana. After the Civil War began, the vessel was employed by the Confederacy, and by the summer of 1863, it was serving as a troop transport and towboat on the White and Little Red rivers in Arkansas. Following the July 4, 1863, Battle of Helena, the Kaskaskia was sent to Clarendon (Monroe County) to remove supplies from there in the event that Federal forces moved against Little Rock (Pulaski County), and then was ordered to collect flatboats on the White River and deliver them to Des Arc (Prairie County).
The Confederates were correct about a Union campaign to capture Little Rock and on August 9, Brigadier General John Wynn Davidson’s cavalry division arrived at Clarendon, joined two days later by a small U.S. Navy flotilla under Lieutenant George M. Bache. On August 12, Bache, bolstered by part of a battalion of the Thirty-Second Iowa Infantry, steamed up the White River intent on capturing the Kaskaskia and Tom Sugg, the last two Confederate steamboats operating on the White. The USS Cricket, under acting volunteer lieutenant A. R. Langthorne, separated from the gunboats Lexington and Marmora at the Little Red River, steaming up that river in pursuit of the steamboats while the other warships continued up the White toward Augusta (Woodruff County).
The Cricket caught up with the Confederate steamboats at Searcy (White County) and placed prize crews aboard after creating makeshift breastworks on them from seized cotton bales. The three vessels were heading back downstream when they were attacked at West Point by part of Brigadier General Joseph O. Shelby’s Iron Brigade. A man named Morehead who was piloting the Kaskaskia was shot twice, and the steamboat began careening uncontrolled down the narrow river. Iowa infantrymen repelled Confederate attempts to board it until the Cricket affixed a towrope to the Kaskaskia. The Missouri Confederates attacked again fifteen miles farther downstream but were scattered by cannon fire from the Cricket and Lexington.
Bache, who described the Kaskaskia as “a side-wheel, though a somewhat older boat, still has a good hull,” pressed it and the Tom Sugg into Federal service, writing “the capture of the two boats, the only means of transportation the rebels had on this river, is a severe blow to them, and at this time can be made of service to us.” The steamboats were used to transport forage, men, and horses as Major General Frederick Steele’s infantry division crossed the White River during its to approach Little Rock, then were sent to the U.S. naval base at Cairo, Illinois.
The Kaskaskia was designated a prize vessel at Cairo on October 19, 1863, though not appraised for government use. It might have been under private ownership when it sank in the Grand Chain on the Ohio River on February 20, 1864.
For additional information:
Christ, Mark K. Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle for a State. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.
Edwards, John N. Shelby and His Men, or The War in the West. Cincinnati, OH: Miami, 1867.
Huddleston, Duane. “White River Steamboating during the Civil War January 1, 1862 to July 1, 1865” The Stream of History 17 (January–April 1979): 3–42.
“Kaskaskia.” Dictionary of American Fighting Ships. https://www.hazegray.org/danfs/csn/k.txt (accessed July 12, 2018).
Way, Frederick, Jr., comp. Way’s Packet Directory. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994.
Mark K. Christ
Little Rock, Arkansas
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