Is it possible that he would have been impeached?
Now, before you get all up in arms with your pitchforks at my attempts to vilify one of our country’s most beloved presidents (and in fact, one of my favorites) let me share with you all a well-kept historical secret: the worst maritime disaster in US history.
The explosion of the steamboat SS Sultana.
On 28 April 1865 at 2am, the SS Sultana, a steamboat carrying around 2,300 people on board – most passengers were released Union prisoner of wars – exploded and sank in the waters of the Mississippi River, taking some 1,700 souls with her. What caused the explosion? Was it Confederate sabotage? Faulty mechanical work? Operator error?
The Civil War had ended earlier that same month on 9 April 1685 at Appomattox. President Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April (died of wounds 15 April) and his killer, John Wilkes Booth was killed on 26 April after an extensive manhunt. (Or was he? Read more about that here.) Sadly, it’s easy to see how the steamboat explosion was pushed from history and forgotten. With so many painful events happening at once, it must have been easier to bury the pain of the past and look to the future.
When the war came to an end, Union POWs were released and gathered together in Vicksburg, Mississippi, waiting to board steamboats to take them up the river and to their families. The Sultana was one of many steamboats that arrived to carry the soldiers home. However, when one of the Sultana’s boilers sprung a leak that really needed to be replaced entirely, an operation that would’ve required 3-4 days, the captain ordered that it simply be patched. He wanted his ship to be ready to carry as many soldiers as possible. Because the government was paying $5 a soldier for transportation, it meant there was money to be made. But where there was greed, corruption quickly followed.
With the boiler patched, the captain, his crew and the local army officers quickly filled the boat to the brink. Soldiers were packed in so tightly they could find no space to lie down. When the steamboat left Vicksburg at 9pm, she was carrying 2,300 souls.
Legally, the SS Sultana was registered to carry only 376.
When the Sultana left Vicksburg, she was entirely top-heavy. The Mississippi River was in near flood-like conditions and the waves beat against the Sultana, rocking her to and fro. With the added weight of the soldiers on the above decks, the steamboat boilers – one with a temporary patch – took a beating. As the ship rocked from side to side, the heated water inside the boilers rolled along with her. When the water drifted to one side, the opposite wall of the boilers became increasingly hotter until the pressure of the water shifting became too much for the patched boiler to bear causing the ship to explode and killing over 1700 soldiers.
Who allowed the Sultana to leave Vicksburg with her passenger capacity over loaded by 6x her legal limit?
Enter Lieutenant Colonel Rueben Hatch.
Hatch was the chief quartermaster for the Department of the Mississippi, and responsible for finding passage for the Union soldiers returning home. However, Hatch had a shady past, one that was full of corruption. And as such, he was not above accepting bribes from ship captains, kickbacks that ensured their ships were filled to capacity in order to make more money.
Hatch began his career as an assistant quartermaster in Cairo, Illinois. It was there he was discovered to be accepting bribes during purchases of military supplies. He was arrested and although the evidence of his guilt was insurmountable, the case brought against him never saw the light of day. With assistance from his brother, Ozias Hatch, who was the Secretary of State for Illinois, as well as help from Illinois Governor Richard Yates and Jesse K. Dubois, the state auditor, all of whom wrote letters to President Lincoln requesting his aid and professing of Reuben’s innocence.
President Lincoln received the letters and appointed a civilian commission to investigate the claims brought against Reuben. The case was subsequently dropped. But Reuben’s greed was far from diminished.
He continued his military career, quickly rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. And, even though a military commission tested Hatch on his ability to perform his job as quartermaster, a test in which he failed, he was promoted again the chief quartermaster and stationed in Vicksburg. No doubt with help once again from his brother.
It could be argued that the blame for the Sultana sinking lies entirely upon Lincoln’s shoulders. Hatch began his career in Cairo, Illinois. His brother, Ozias was Secretary of State in Illinois. Lincoln also began his political career in Illinois. And, at the time that the bribery charges against Hatch were dropped, Lincoln was in the middle of campaigning for his second inaugural term. He had to do whatever he could to keep his constituents happy. Unfortunately for Lincoln, and for the victims of the Sultana, that included dropping charges against a corrupt and greedy man who would’ve done well to pay for his crimes rather than have his brother virtually blackmail politicians to protect Reuben Hatch.
But therein lies the issue. The Constitution states:
The Constitution, Article II, Section 4:
The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.
What, exactly, were Lincolns’s reasonings for creating a commission that found Reuben Hatch innocent, even though the prosecution had evidence stating otherwise? Was it simply a matter of giving the benefit of doubt to a fellow Illinoisan? Or, did Lincoln intervene on Hatch’s behalf with a promise from Reuben’s brother Ozias and other Illinois statesmen of support for his second campaign?
We’ll never know.
What is obvious, is that Lincoln’s situation was a catch-22. Had he allowed the prosecution to continue it’s case against Hatch, he faced the possibility of losing the support of his home state of Illinois, and possibly losing the 1864 election as a result. People were quickly losing faith in his ability to retain the union and were growing disgusted with the war. How could Lincoln have known then that by dropping the charges against Hatch, that Hatch’s greed would lead to the worst maritime disaster our country had ever faced?
Following the Sultana disaster, of which he is partly (
mostly entirely) to blame, Reuben Hatch was relieved of his duties in Vicksburg. In June 1865, he boarded a northbound steamboat carrying nearly $15,000 of government money. However, a thief aboard the steamboat robbed the safe in which the money was being held. For obvious reasons, the thief was caught before the steamboat docked in St. Louis, Missouri, and the money was recovered. Except for $8,500 in bonds which Hatch claimed to have stashed in the safe. But he was found to have violated military regulations and was held liable for the missing money.
Although there was a military tribunal held, no one was found guilty of the Sultana disaster.
If you’d like to learn more, check out this episode of the History Detectives. It’s where I first learned of the Sultana, the explosion.
History Detectives: Civil War Sabotage.
Season 11, Episode 1