By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the November 2011 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Sometimes connections to the Civil War are convoluted and unexpected. For example, if Civil War enthusiasts hear “General Slocum,” probably most of them think of Union General Henry W. Slocum, a corps commander during the Civil War. But there is another General Slocum, and this one italicized her name because she was a passenger steamboat. The PS General Slocum was built in Brooklyn, New York in 1891 and was used for pleasure excursions in New York City. A group from St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in the German district chartered the General Slocum for an excursion that took place on June 15, 1904. This excursion was an annual event for the parishioners and involved a trip up the East River to a picnic area. Because the event was on a weekday, most of the 1,400 passengers were women and children. A half hour into the trip, a fire broke out in the forward part of the ship, probably from a discarded cigarette or match that ignited a fire in a cabin used to store lamp oil. Because of the lamp oil, as well as paint and other flammables that were being stored in a nearby locker, the fire spread very rapidly.
Once the captain and crew became aware of the fire, attempts were made to extinguish it. However, the boat’s hoses had become rotted, and they broke apart when the crew tried to use them. The crew, which had never had a fire drill, found that the lifeboats were inextricably tied up. Some survivors claimed that the lifeboats had been painted in place and could not be freed. Passengers discovered that the life preservers were rotted and fell apart. The life jackets were defective and dragged the people who wore them underwater rather than keeping them afloat. In spite of all these problems, the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service, which had inspected the General Slocum five weeks prior to the disaster, certified that the boat was in good condition.
The ship’s captain, William Van Schaick, contributed to the disaster by not grounding the boat quickly. Instead he continued into headwinds and thereby fanned the blaze. Eventually the General Slocum sank in shallow water. By that time over a thousand passengers had died. To put the disaster in perspective, the percentage of those on board the General Slocum who died is similar to that for the Titanic. After the disaster, a Federal grand jury indicted seven people: the boat’s captain, two inspectors, and four officials of the company that owned the General Slocum, including the president. Inexplicably, Captain Van Schaick was the only one convicted. The company paid a small fine.
The youngest survivor of the General Slocum was Adele Liebenow, who was 18 months old at the time. Shortly after the disaster, her parents, both of whom survived the disaster, changed their daughter’s name to Adella. About a year after the disaster, Adella pulled the cord that unveiled a monument to the 61 unidentified dead. Adella, who became Adella Wotherspoon by marriage, lived to 100 and died less than six months before the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
Fans of James Joyce might recognize the date of the disaster as the day before Bloomsday, June 16, 1904. In fact, the General Slocum disaster is mentioned in the book Ulysses. “Terrible affair that General Slocum explosion. Terrible, terrible! A thousand casualties. And heartrending scenes. Men trampling down women and children. Most brutal thing. What do they say was the cause? Spontaneous combustion: most scandalous revelation. Not a single lifeboat would float and the firehose all burst. What I can’t understand is how the inspectors ever allowed a boat like that.”
The name of the steamboat is not the only connection between the General Slocum disaster and the Civil War. Another connection is the person who was the mayor of New York City at the time of the disaster. That person was Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. By some accounts, Mayor McClellan performed forcefully and decisively during the disaster and in its aftermath. If this is so, then he must have inherited these traits from his mother.
Not only are there connections between the General Slocum disaster and the Civil War, but an examination of this tragic event leads to the recognition that there is also a connection between the General Slocum disaster and our times. Too often nowadays we become exasperated or even infuriated about dysfunctional and negligent government agencies or about irresponsible and uncaring companies or about injustices in the judicial system. But one lesson from the General Slocum disaster is that these are not new phenomena. That realization is both reassuring and troubling.