Robbing the Belle of Saint Louis 27 Oct 1864138, 10/10/2010
Robbing the Belle of St. Louis, 27 October 1864
The steamboat, Belle of St. Louis left Memphis, Tennessee and headed north on the Mississippi River on the evening of 27 October 1864. Among her passengers were six US Army Paymasters (Majors Abraham Beeler, David Dickson, William Jameson, William Patrick, DeWitt Smith, and Richard Whiting). They had just finished paying Federal Troops in the Memphis area and were headed to St. Louis to deposit what remained of their payroll, about $40,000 federal greenbacks.
Near Midnight, the boat docked at Randolph Landing (near Fort Randolph, Tennessee) to take on cargo and supplies. As the crew began the task of loading and unloading the ship, Confederate Guerrillas laying in wait sprang their ambush. Perhaps as many as 100 Confederate Soldiers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Jessie Forrest fired at the boat and rushed the docks. The ship’s captain, Alexander Zeigler, quickly reacting to the attack, reversed the engines and withdrew to the safety of deeper waters. But in all the confusion and commotion, and before the ship retreated, a small squad of bandits boarded the Belle of St. Louis.
The squad of rebels quickly divided into two groups; one group went to rob and harass the passengers; the other group headed to the engine room to take control of the ship. Failing to force the engine crew to turn the boat back to shore, the second group headed towards the wheelhouse and Captain Zeigler. Majors Beeler and Smith, with pistols drawn, encountered this group of attackers before they reached the boat’s pilot. During the initial exchange of gunfire, the bandits critically wounded Major Smith. Major Beeler returned fire, killing one rebel and mortally wounding a second but was struck in the chest during the second volley. Sadly, both Paymasters would die of their wounds the next day.
The remaining guerrillas aboard the ship, seeing the futility of their raid, jumped into the river and swam back to shore. The official US Army report of this attack credited both Beeler and Smith with “a display of coolness and bravery which saved the boat and passengers from capture.” The heroism and self-sacrifice displayed by Paymasters Beeler and Smith pioneered the Personal Courage and Selflessness of today’s Army values.
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 email@example.com