Friday, May 18, 2012

The Robert E. Lee and the Natchez

In 1870, the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez were involved in a much-heralded steamboat race. The race extended for a total distance of 1,154 miles on the Mississippi River and was more than just a friendly competition. In fact, it was a spirited battle between two rival captains that attracted the attention of folks across the United States and Europe.

Owned by Captain John W. Cannon, the Robert E. Lee (above) was built in 1866 in New Albany, Indiana. As might be imagined, some Hoosiers took offense to the name of the boat (it was, after all, just one year after the Civil War), so the lettering for the Robert E. Lee was actually applied across the river on the Kentucky shore. Capt. Cannon named her the Robert E. Lee because the route would be between New Orleans and Vicksburg and he must have figured the name was good for marketing purposes. Born in Hancock County, Kentucky, in 1820, Cannon (right) was described by the Harbor Master in New Orleans as a “mild-mannered, extremely polite person, approachable at all times and never happier than when exploiting the good qualities of the Lee, which was his idol.” Since becoming a steamboat man, Cannon had built on his reputation and operated a very successful line of steamboats, the pride of which was the Robert E. Lee.

Also chartering a boat for the exact same route was Thomas P. Leathers, a rival riverboat captain. Although Leathers and Cannon were supposed to have an agreement regarding freight charges, Cannon somehow felt that Leathers’ new boat, the Belle Lee, which appeared in 1868, violated the agreement. As mild-mannered as Capt. Cannon was, he was matched by the equally stormy T.P. Leathers, who the Harbor Master described as “more than six feet tall, a giant in stature, [who] wore a ruffled shirt with a large cluster diamond pin and always dressed in Confederate gray.”

T.P. Leathers (right) and a gold watch 
belonging to Leathers, recently sold on auction.

According to the same witness, Leathers was a completely unreconstructed Confederate. “Woe be to him who referred to the late unpleasantness,” he wrote, “as Capt. Leathers did not recognize that the war was over…” Because of the disagreement over the terms of the charter of the Belle Lee, the mild-mannered Capt. Cannon confronted the imposing Capt. Leathers and the two engaged in a “knock-down” fight in New Orleans, one that  Cannon apparently won. The altercation was perhaps a precursor for the contest yet to come.

In 1869, Captain Leathers purchased a new boat and named it the Natchez. The Natchez was one of a long line of steamboats with the same name, several of which were also owned by Leathers. The Natchez built in 1853 burned after just six weeks on the river. In the fire, three people died, including Leathers’ brother James, who was asleep on board. Yet another Natchez was used as Confederate mail boat, and was the vessel used to carry Jefferson Davis, who was a friend of Leathers, from Brierfield Plantation to Vicksburg and thence to Montgomery to be sworn in as the Confederate president. That boat was scuttled and burned in the Yazoo River in 1863. The Natchez involved in the race was built in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 1,547 ton steamer (below) was supposed to be the fastest on the river (speed was important to anyone involved in the river trade) and in 1870, the Natchez proved it by running a record time between New Orleans and St. Louis. At the time, a newspaper in Cincinnati noted how slow the Robert E. Lee was by comparison, and indicated that the Robert E. Lee seemed to be propelled by mules on a treadmill rather than steam. Naturally, this did not set well with Captain Cannon. On the other hand, a newspaper reporter in Natchez, upon seeing the Natchez for the first time, noted that, despite advance billing, she was “decidedly plain and ungainly. She lay looped-up over against the shore like a sick mule to a board fence, looking anything but graceful.” No doubt, this did not set well with Capt. Leathers either.

On June 30, 1870, the Robert E. Lee was scheduled to go upriver from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky. Departing on the same day and exactly the same time was her rival the Natchez. Although everyone assumed that a race was afoot, denials were all around. In fact, the week before, Captain Leathers published a notice in the New Orleans papers which stated that reports that the Natchez was leaving the next Thursday for the purpose of racing was not true. “All passengers and shippers can rest assured,” he wrote, “that the Natchez will not race with any boat that may leave here on the same day with her…” Cleverly, of course, he had just given notice regarding the date of departure, and despite the denials everyone knew precisely what was about to happen. As a result, hundreds gathered on the river banks to watch the two vessels depart and bets were placed on the probable winner, and news of the event went out far and wide by telegraph. The U.S. inspectors even put official seals on the safety valves to prevent tampering. At 4:58 p.m., the Robert E. Lee pulled out into the river, followed closely by the Natchez at 5:02 p.m.

And the race was on.


Photo sources:
(1) Robert E. Lee:
(2) Cannon:
(3) Leathers:
(4) Watch:
(5) Natchez:

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