This blog post is called "The Confusing Tale of two Thomas Collyers," and is about two steamboats by the same name, in operation around the same time, and the confusion that results. But in some ways it should really be about THREE Thomas Collyers - the two vessels and the man who built both of them.
Thomas Collyer began his work as an apprentice shipbuilder in the Hudson Valley of New York, building his first ship - the aptly named First Effort - in the early 1830s. His second vessel, the Katrina Van Tassel (named for the love interest in Washington Irving's "Sleepy Hollow") was completed in 1838. Building steamboats in Troy, NY and Lake Champlain, he finally settled in New York City, building such boats as the Daniel Drew and Henry Clay. And, it turns out he built two separate boats named after himself - one in 1850, and another in 1863.
A few weeks ago we shared George Murdock's steamboat biography of the steamboat Thomas Collyer, built in 1863 and Thomas Collyer's last boat he built before he died. But unmentioned in that account was that an earlier Thomas Collyer was built in 1850 in New York City, but serving the bulk of her life operating out of Georgetown, District of Columbia. She was later renamed City of Brunswick and operated out of Brunswick, Georgia, before being removed from documentation in 1896.
A Thomas Collyer served as a dispatch boat for Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. It was not uncommon for fast steamboats to be pressed into service, but it's unclear which Thomas Collyer served when! Perhaps both?
The 1850 Thomas Collyer served as one of the first steamboats to make regular trips to Mount Vernon. Tourists had been making pilgrimages to visit George Washington's tomb for decades, but in 1853 the Thomas Collyer started making regular landings at Mount Vernon itself. One reference indicates that by 1862 the Thomas Collyer was under the control of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Mary Lincoln visited the historic site and Washington's tomb in 1861, again aboard the Thomas Collyer. President Abraham Lincoln did not accompany his wife, but was an admirer of Washington.
On May 25, 1861, Naval records note that the USS Pawnee captured the Confederate steamer Thomas Collyer at Alexandria Virginia. Was this the 1850 Thomas Collyer pressed into Confederate service? Was the captured boat later repurposed?
In 1864, Lincoln tried to visit Mount Vernon again. According to the University of Michigan:
Lincoln's endorsement is written on a letter from Harriet V. Fitch, Vice Regent of the Mount Vernon Association, February 26, 1864, requesting that the steamboat Thomas Collyer be permitted to run between Washington and Mount Vernon: ``We have through much labor bought, and paid for, the, home and grave of Washington, and but for the national troubles, would long since have collected a sum, equal to its restoration, and future keeping. Now, we have no means to keep it---no revenue but such as this boat will bring us. With that we will be enabled to go on another year, at least, and at the end of that time, let us hope for brighter days, when we can add to our fund; by further collections in the States.''
Stanton's endorsement follows Lincoln's: ``The Secretary of War does not deem it expedient to allow a Steamboat to run to Mt Vernon at present.''
Although Lincoln never made it to Mount Vernon due to security concerns, it's unclear whether the Thomas Collyer mentioned here was his regular dispatch boat, or the vessel making the tourist runs. It seems likely that it was the original, 1850 vessel, given the destination, but it could have also been the 1863 vessel.
The Thomas Collyer built in 1863 was used as a U.S. dispatch boat. One source indicates she was chartered in 1863. Known as a very fast steamboat, on November 11, 1864, the Washington, DC Evening Star reported "The steamer Thomas Collyer arrived here this morning from City Point with the mails and passengers. Having been placed on the mail route in place of the steamer Manhattan. The Collyer brings no news from the war front." But it did have thirty Confederate deserters aboard, having taken the "oath of allegiance," along with several Union soldiers being dishonorably discharged.
In February of 1865, Lincoln visited Annapolis. He left Washington by train and arrived in Annapolis later that day, before boarding the Thomas Collyer to get to Fort Monroe for the Hampton Roads conference, which are held on board the steamboat River Queen just off the Union controlled fort. The peace talks ultimately failed.
On March 14, 1865, the Evening Star reported that "A party of fifty or sixty excursionists, composed principally of Congressmen and their wives, bound on a pleasure trip South, left the 6th street wharf this morning on the Government steamer Thomas Collyer." The point of the excursion was apparently to view "points South now in the possession of our troops."
Just short of a month later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the Petersen House on April 15, 1865. On April 17, a special dispatch the New York World reported that when the news of Lincoln's assassination reached Richmond, VA, "Two steamers left City Point simultaneously - the City Point and the Thomas Collyer." It is unclear which Thomas Collyer is referred to.
On July 28, 1865, the Thomas Collyer was still working as a dispatch boat for the government. A "Notice to Travellers" in The Norfolk (VA) Post announced that the M. Martin, another New York steamboat chartered for government service, along with the Thomas Collyer were available for both mail and passengers.
The end of the 1850 Thomas Collyer is unclear, but on May 16, 1866, the Baltimore Daily Commercial reported on a US District Court Case involving the Thomas Collyer (likely the 1850 one). U.S. Marshall W. Bonifant reported that the Collyer was being sued by Charles Reeder for libel "in a cause of contract." Bonifant reported he had "seized and taken the said steamer, and have the same in my custody," holding it until the owner or owners appeared in court.
After the war, the 1863 Thomas Collyer returned to New York for service. You can read the rest of her story in the George Murdock article.
Even so, the tale of the two Thomas Collyers remains tangled. I guess we can only blame Thomas Collyer himself.
If you have more definitive information on either of the Thomas Collyers and their Civil War service, please let us know! Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Her interest in steamboats used as dispatch boats by the U.S. Government during the Civil War was first piqued by the news that the Thomas Powell was chartered as a dispatch boat, leading to references to the M. Martin and Thomas Collyer. In the meantime, the quest to untangle the two Thomas Collyers continues.
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