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Eight Paymasters, Loss of Funds in the Steamer Ruth Fire

137, 10/10/2010

FIRE ABOARD THE STEAMER RUTH, 4 – 5 AUGUST 1863.

At 11:20 PM on 4 August 1863, Major Nathan S. Brinton, US Army Paymaster departed Cairo, Illinois aboard the Steamer Ruth. Accompanying Major Brinton were another seven Paymasters, eight pay clerks and an escort of 31 Soldiers from Company I, 9th Wisconsin Infantry; with them they carried $2,600,000 in Union Greenbacks. Their mission was to head south on the Mississippi River to Vicksburg, Mississippi and pay troops assigned to Major General U. S. Grant. But it wasn’t to be.

Shortly after their departure from Cairo, around midnight, an alarm was sounded; a fire had broken out in the aft portion of the ship and was quickly spreading forward. The ship’s captain steered toward the western bank of the river and grounded the Ruth. There, most of the passengers dashed ashore and escaped the inferno before the ship broke free and drifted down river. The Ruth continued to burn and sank six mile further down river.

Through all the commotion and excitement, the Soldiers stayed their post and continued to guard the money until the deck gave way. All the money, the safes and their baggage fell through the floor and was consumed by the fire below.

Twenty-six people died during this incident, including Major Theodore D. Greenwalt (Paymaster), three pay clerks (Mr. D. D. Martin, Mr. S. G. Sampson and Mr. H. C. Fletcher) and five Soldiers of Company I, 9th Wisconsin Infantry. Additionally, all the money and pay records were lost in the blaze.

A Military Board of Inquiry meet in October 1863 and determined the fire aboard the Steamer Ruth was caused by an incendiary device; ruling it as an act of sabotage.

Furthermore, they found “no government officer or agent of the funds have been to blame for misconduct or neglect of duty in the premises.” The court further assessed the Confederate saboteurs targeted the Steamer Ruth not because of the Paymasters or their currency, but simply as a Union transport vessel. The Paymasters and their cash were an added bonus.

The eight Paymasters aboard the Steamer Ruth were: Major John W. Bridgdon, Major Nathan S. Brinton, Major Theodore D. Greenwalt, Major William H. Jameson, Major Washington B. Mendenhall, Major Isaac Meeks Pumphrey, Major Josiah Tilden and Major William Wallace White.

If you have any questions about this information, please contact the Museum Curator, Mr. Henry Howe, at (803) 751-3771 (DSN 734-3771) or send an email to henry.howe@conus.army.mil