The grave of Thomas Carrodine who froze to death when the steamboat Eliza Battle burned on March 1, 1858. History became more than just a story when I visited his grave, located near West Point, with his descendants.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
A painting by the late Uncle Bunky of the Eliza Battle a Columbus-Mobile packet boat in 1858. Stories have passed down in area families of her burning and sinking on a freezing flooded Tombigbee River on March 1, 1858.
Photo by: Courtesy photo
March 16, 2019 10:00:38 PM
Last fall I was on an outing with friends in Clay County to visit an old cemetery in the Kilgore Hills northwest of West Point.
There at the edge of an overgrown wooded ridge were several old gravestones. One large monument caught my eye. I walked over to it and read "Thomas L Carrodine, died March 1, 1858." The grave brought the reality of real people to a story I have often written about. You see it is the grave of one of the poor suffering souls of the Steamboat Eliza Battle, which burned and sank on a freezing, flooded Tombigbee River on March 1, 1858.
The story of the Eliza Battle is very much a local story. During the winter of !857-58 the Eliza Battle was a Columbus - Mobile packet boat carrying both cargo and passengers on a regular schedule. Known as a palatial, fast running boat, she was 200 feet long and 33 feet wide. In mid-December 1857, the steamer carried 2,036 bales of cotton from Columbus to Mobile on one trip and then the first week in February 1858, she carried 2,012 bales of cotton from Columbus. On Feb. 18, only 10 days before she burned, Elizabeth Weir of Columbus traveled on the Eliza Battle downriver to Tuscohoma Landing.
Who were the lost, who was saved and what were their stories on that night of horror? On her fateful trip the Eliza Battle carried about 55 passengers and a crew of around 40. Of these poor souls, 29 died. Fourteen of the lost were crew members and fifteen were passengers, including two from present-day Clay County and one from Columbus. Carolyn Kaye has been helping me identify those people and their stories.
Lists of the passengers who survived and those who died or were missing were published in Mobile newspapers within days of the disaster. The spelling of the names is as given in the newspapers and is not necessarily correct.
Those passengers who survived:
Ira W. McCee
Mrs. J.K. Newman
Dr. R.S. Seblatter
Miss L. Robertson
Berriea Cromwell and son
Cromwell family's Irish nurse
Bird C. Carodine, Jr.
Benj J. Mitchell
Miss Sallie Turner
Mrs R.S. Seblatter
Dr. E.F. Bowchelle
The following is a list of those ascertained to have been lost:
Mrs. Berriea. Cromwell and child, frozen, Sumter County;
Mrs. H. G. Turner and child, frozen, Washington County;
Mr. W.T. Smith, frozen, Greene County;
Mr. Caradine, frozen, Chickasaw County;
Mr. Willis, frozen, Chickasaw County;
Mr. Augustus Jones, Frozen, Columbus;
Mr. Martin, frozen, Kentucky;
Mr. John Powell, barkeeper, frozen, Eliza Battle;
Dr. S.W. Clanton, frozen, Warsaw, Alabama;
A young man, unknown, frozen, Fairfield, Alabama;
Negro man belonging to B. LK. Turner, frozen;
Negro man, "Jackson," barber, frozen, Eliza Battle;
Barnett, cook, frozen, Eliza Battle;
Nancy, chambermaid, belonging to S.G. Stone, master of the Eliza Battle, frozen;
Robert, cabin boy, belonging to Col. T. Buford;
Dick, cabin boy, belonging to Judge R.C. Torrey;
White boy, (3d cook) name unknown;
Sam, deck hand, belonging to J.A. Mooring;
Peter, deck hand, belonging to J.A. Mooring.
Jack, deck hand, belonging to J.A. Mooring;
Bill, deck hand, belonging to R.G. McMahon;
Allen, deck hand, belonging to John Bowen;
Ben, deck hand, belonging to Dan Raine;
Rev. Mr. Newman - frozen - from Louisville, Kentucky;
M.A. Galloway - never seen - Gainesville, Alabama;
Three white deck hands - never seen;
P. Kirkland - died after getting ashore - Greene County, Alabama;
Mrs. Cromwell and her child, died from cold, in her husband's arms, in a tree;
Dr. S.H. Jones - never seen - Greene County, Alabama.
In the midst of the horrors people stepped forward. Frank Stone, the 19-year-old second clerk and son of Capt. S. Graham Stone, was one of the true heroes. (He later married Mary Hawkins whose father was a physician who had resided in the Waverly community). First, he saved a child of Bat Cromwell by swimming to shore with the child. He then returned to the burning boat and ... "placed Miss Turner on a cotton bale and safely landed her on shore. She said to him, 'You have saved my life; do save my mother, and my sister.' He then swam off and rescued her sister, who afterwards froze to death in his arms. Her mother froze to death on a tree, which was the fate of almost all who perished."
In 1951 Mrs. Lillie Borden recalled stories her mother had told her about the Eliza Battle. Mrs. Borden's grandfather William Stanton had survived the "ill-fated boat," but her great aunt, Mrs. Henry Turner, and a daughter froze to death. Stanton had managed to swim to a tree and his family physician, Dr. S.W. Clanton, made it to a nearby tree. Mrs. Borden wrote:
"My grandfather, as I told you, was in a tree near his physician, they could talk to each other, and the doctor said he was freezing, and my grandfather said he was too. So he told the doctor he had two plugs of tobacco. The doctor told him to chew it and swollow every bit of the juice he did this and lived to tell about his harrowing experience, said next morning they had to prize his foot from the fork of the tree, his limb was almost frozen, had to come home on crutches. The doctor who was with him froze and Grandpa said he heard him when he dropped in the river frozen to death, he was Dr. Clanton ..."
Such were the indelible impressions of horror left by the disaster that families still retain oral traditions about it. Most of these traditions concern family members who lost their lives by freezing after escaping the burning steamer or survivors who had escaped death by tying themselves onto trees above the freezing water. The late Mrs. Lucille Friday of West Point recalled one such family tradition: "A Mr. Dexter of near West Point used his belt to strap a friend to a limb." Dexter and his friend both survived.
Oral traditions also survive in the Caradine family of Clay County. On my visit to the old Clay County cemetery where Thomas Caradine, who froze to death when the Eliza Battle burned, is buried, I was with Caradine descendants Judy Buck and Mary Ruth Carradine. Judy is a descendant of Thomas Caradine and Mary Ruth of Bird C. Carradine. Mary Ruth and Judy both recall family stories about their ancestors being on the Eliza Battle. Thomas and Bird C. Caradine would ship cotton down river to Mobile. They were on the Eliza Battle when she burned. Both dove into the river and swam to nearby trees. They were in different trees but were able talk to each other during the night. After a while Thomas stopped answering his brother's call. He had frozen to death before help could arrive. Viewing the grave of Thomas, with Judy and Mary Ruth made the accounts which had passed down through their family came alive.
History lives in the stories passed down within families. We should all strive to record and preserve the stories remembered by our parents and grandparents. They bring reality to what otherwise is just a story.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]
3. Editorial cartoons for 4-19-19 NATIONAL COLUMNS