The sidewheel steamship, the S.S. Republic, also carried the names Tennessee and U.S.S. Mobile during its brief history, before it sank during a hurricane near New Orleans in 1865.
Built in 1853 in Baltimore, Maryland, the ship was originally commissioned to the famous veteran of the War of 1812, James Hooper. She spent her early years as a merchant vessel on the Baltimore to Charleston route, taking supplies from the north to the plantations in the south.
Her first transatlantic voyage was from Baltimore to Southampton, England and then on to Le Havre in France. Later, as the Tennessee, she ran the first steamship passenger service that operated between New York and Central America.
She also served during the California Gold rush, and operated along the Vera Cruz Mexico to New Orleans route, carrying immigrants and Mexican precious metals between the two countries. However, this service ended in April 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War.
Trapped in the Port of New Orleans for a time, she became a Confederate blockade runner in 1861, although she never made it out of the harbor. Once the Union army captured the harbor at New Orleans, she became a Union ship, fighting valiantly in the battle of Mobile Bay.
In September of 1864 she was name the USS Mobile, allowing another Confederate ship to carry the Tennessee name. The ship was damaged during a hurricane near the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1865, and it was determined that it was time the ship be retired rather than undergo costly repairs.
However, she was purchased at auction, repaired, renamed the S.S. Republic, and put into service again. She made four civilian journeys before her final, ill-fated one that landed her at the bottom of the sea.
On October 18, 1865, the S.S. Republic left the harbor at New York City. She was loaded with passengers and $400,000 in coins, largely comprised of $10 or $20 gold pieces. These coins were to be used as hard currency now that the Civil War was ending and there was a need for stable coin and currency, particularly in the south.
The City of New Orleans had been captured early by the Union army, and had served as the primary hub for federal activity in the south. But the war had made it nearly impossible to get the “hard money” there, so the S.S. Republic’s trip was important to the stability in the region.
A hurricane off the coast of Georgia blew up on the fifth day of the journey. It was too strong for the old ship, and she quickly sprung a leak in the hull. Soon after, the boiler quit and the boat was quickly adrift on the high seas.
Passengers were herded quickly into four lifeboats and onto a makeshift raft, but the ship itself sank at 4 p.m. on October 25, 1865.
Most of the passengers and crew survived, but the cargo, including the gold, was lost in the sea. Recovery of the S.S. Republic gold didn’t happen until a team found the ship in 2003.