• 3 •
From the after end of the Robert E. Lee’s hurricane deck, Captain John Cannon, standing with his friend Doctor Smyth and the Louisiana governor, could see across the boat’s stern and above the turn of the river the towering columns of black smoke rising from the Natchez’s chimneys, about a mile behind the Lee. Pounding and splashing toward them, the Natchez was slowly but steadily closing on the Lee, having gained a minute on it after eight minutes into the race, despite having to plow through the rough water of the Lee’s turbulent wake. Gamblers taking bets from onlookers along the riverbank began to lower the odds given on the Robert E. Lee.
Cannon and his vessel were making good time, though. They reached Carrollton, at the western tip of the giant curve the river makes at New Orleans, about eight river miles above St. Mary’s Market, in twenty-seven and a half minutes.
Some of the race’s observers, standing with their watches on the levee at Carrollton, reported the time difference between the Lee and the Natchez at three and a half minutes, others as much as four minutes. At Thirteen Mile Point, the difference was reported variously at three and a half minutes, three minutes and fifty-four seconds and four minutes. By the time the two steamers passed Twenty-two Mile Point the difference was reported to be four to four and a half minutes. At that point the streaking Robert E. Leehad wiped out whatever gain the Natchez had made and was lengthening its lead. Captain Cannon and his friends were breathing easier.
Giving his account of the early hours of the race, the Picayune’s reporter wrote, “The purser of the B.L. Hodge informs us that he met the steamers thirty miles from the city, and that it took the Hodge four minutes to run from the Lee to the Natchez. The Hodgewas believed to be going about fifteen miles per hour, and the racing steamers about eighteen miles.” Hopeless of computing the time difference between the racers himself, the reporter allowed,
The Robert E. Lee takes the lead. Observers watching the race from the levee at Carrollton, some eight river miles above the official starting point, reported the Lee’s lead to be as much as four minutes over the Natchez (Library of Congress).
“Those of a mathematical turn of mind may figure out the difference of time for themselves.”1
Then, also about thirty miles out of New Orleans, an emergency struck the speeding Robert E. Lee. The news came to Cannon from his chief engineer, William Perkins, and he immediately left Governor Warmoth and Doctor Smyth and rushed down to the main deck and then into the hold to reach the scene of the problem. Through the hold, empty of freight, Cannon followed Perkins and Tom Berry, the first assistant engineer, to where a five-inch pipe that fed heated river water into the Lee’s eight boilers had come apart at a joint, shaken loose by the vibration of the boat’s huge, pounding engines. The vibration was so severe, according to the St. Louis Republican reporter traveling aboard the Lee, that he found it difficult to write with a pencil on paper as he attempted to complete a dispatch to his newspaper. “At her highest speed,” he remarked, “they [the engines] cause such a vibration that it is almost impossible to write on the tables of her saloon.”2
Hastily the engineers, their hands protected with heavy gloves, forced the separated ends of the pipe back together, inserted packing material into the joint and tightened the sleeve over it with their wrenches, reducing the escaping flow to a seeping trickle that could be tolerated. Perkins pronounced it good enough. A perfect repair would require the Lee to stop and shut down its machinery while the repair was made. The race precluded that. Instead, Perkins ordered two crewmen to station themselves beside the pipe and tighten the connection whenever the engine vibration threatened to separate it again. He also ordered the bilge pumps kept running to remove the leaked water from the hold.3
According to one account, Perkins two weeks earlier had advised Cannon to put the Robert E. Lee in the drydock at Mound City, Illinois, and have its machinery undergo maintenance, but Cannon had put him off and delayed taking his advice, apparently at that time not intending to agree to the race.
Now relieved that a crisis had been averted, Cannon climbed back up to the hurricane deck to rejoin Warmoth and Smyth, smiling reassuringly into their anxious faces as he strode toward them. No sooner had he resumed his conversation with the two men than the boat’s carpenter, John Buist, approached him to report another problem. The boat was too rigid, Buist announced, and the hog chains needed to be loosened to allow the boat to sag a little and lie as flat as possible in the water to offer the least possible resistance to the oncoming stream. (Hog chains were wrought-iron rods that extended from one end of the hull to the other, creating stiff braces that prevented the hull from hogging — that is, arching up like a hog’s back, thus giving the device its name — and from sagging. The effects of using hog chains were to allow hulls to be built longer, shallower and with lighter timbers, thereby increasing the boats’ payloads. They had been introduced into steamboat building sometime between 1835 and 1841 and were considered a major technological improvement.) Cannon strode off with Buist, but apparently did not agree to the adjustment of the hog chains.
Scores of spectators still stood waving and shouting from the east and west riverbanks, now a mile apart, as the steamers continued their march, the sun slipping below the trees on the west side of the river. As darkness came on, bonfires sprang up along the levees, providing a lighted path for the boats to steer upon as they sped into the evening, and spectators fired guns and cheered as the Robert E. Lee passed them.
When Warmoth and Smyth decided it was bedtime, they made their way down from the darkened hurricane deck to the cabin and found the stateroom they would share. And there was more than the stateroom to share. All furniture except one double bed had been removed from the room when Cannon ordered the Lee stripped, and the two men would have to sleep together in that one bed. They were political allies and close friends, though, and apparently didn’t mind. Warmoth took the occasion to point out to Smyth, an Irish immigrant, the wondrous opportunities of America. “If you had not come to this country,” he told him, “but had remained in Ireland, it would have been a long time before you could have slept with a governor.”
Quick to reply, Smyth in his brogue gave Warmoth a not-too-subtle gibe for his carpetbagger’s advantage. “If we both had lived in Ireland,” Smyth said, “it would have been a damned sight longer time before you would have been a governor!”4 It was all in fun, though.
Other passengers lingered for a while on the promenade of the deck and in the grand saloon, then they, too, ambled off to their staterooms for the night. Cannon, though, kept his post on the hurricane deck, his eyes often turning aft, where in the distance on straight stretches of the river he could occasionally see the glow of the Natchez’s fires when the furnace doors were opened.
The Lee reached Donaldsonville, about two-thirds the distance from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, after four hours and fifty minutes. The Natchez reached Donaldsonville after five hours and five minutes. The Lee’s lead had increased to fifteen minutes. Around midnight the Lee passed Conrad’s Point, at the beginning of a long, straight stretch below Baton Rouge, and was nine miles ahead of the Natchez, still lengthening its lead.
Shortly before midnight more bad news came to Cannon, and he hurried down from the hurricane deck to see for himself the latest thing to go wrong. One of the boat’s eight boilers had sprung a leak, and water was escaping from it faster than the boat’s intake pump could replenish it. The gauges showed the steam pressure dropping, and as the water level in the leaking boiler fell, the danger of an explosion fearfully rose.
Doubtless remembering the disastrous explosion of the Louisiana’s boilers, Cannon ordered the furnace doors opened and he stared into fiery chambers to see if he could spot where the leaking water was entering the furnace from the boiler above it. The site of the leak would have to be found quickly and once it was discovered, repairs would have to be made immediately. If the leak were not stopped, water would drain away from the leaking boiler and the boiler’s quarter-inch-thick iron plates would become overheated and burst apart, their fragments smashing into and bursting the other boilers, which would erupt in a devastating explosion and spread the furnace fires to the entire vessel.
Ordinarily in such an emergency, the vessel would immediately put into shore and tie up to a tree while the furnace fires were doused with water and the boilers allowed to cool before a crewman would crawl into the boiler to find the leak and patch it. That procedure would take hours, perhaps days. The Robert E. Lee would be sitting idle while the Natchez steamed triumphantly past it and on to victory at St. Louis. Captain Cannon hated that thought. From the open furnace door, he and his engineers could see a spot where the furnace fire had been extinguished and where steam rose from the bed of the furnace and they guessed that the leak was from a connection just above that point. The connection was from the No. 4 boiler, which must be where the leak was, they reasoned. Somebody would have to crawl under the No. 4 boiler to find the exact spot and devise a way to patch it. In the meantime, the slowed Robert E. Lee would continue its course toward St. Louis. And all concerned would hope for the best.
Chief engineer Perkins, though willing, was too old and not nearly limber or dexterous enough to squeeze himself into the hot, cramped, two-foothigh crawl space beneath the furnace and boilers to find the leak and make the repair. Tom Berry, the first assistant engineer, was too large a man to fit into the space, and while four other assistants stood deciding whether to volunteer, assistant engineer John Wiest stepped up and said he would try it.
The leak was found to be actually in the mud drum, the long, cylindrical, troughlike device below the boiler and connected to it. Its function was to collect the sediment that was suspended in the water that was pumped from the river into boilers. The No. 4 boiler was the fourth boiler from the right side of the row of eight boilers. Its position between the other boilers made the underside of it probably the hottest spot beneath the boilers. In an attempt to cool off the bottoms of the boilers as best they could, crewmen brought out one of the boat’s hoses and sent a stream of water onto the bellies of the boilers.
Wiest stripped off his clothes and put on a set of heavy, protective overalls. He tied a handkerchief around his head to protect it from the heat and pulled on a pair of thick gloves to protect his hands. Equipping himself with a hammer, a cold chisel and a poker borrowed from the firemen who manned the furnaces, he lowered himself to the deck and on his stomach wriggled his way into the space beneath the No. 4 boiler’s mud drum, then twisted his body to lie on his back. Not knowing whether he would be scalded or suffocated, he braved the searing heat and with the cold chisel in one hand and the heavy hammer in the other, he pounded away at the rivets until he had forced out enough of them to pry back a section of the iron plating. Through the opening he had created he was able to stab with the poker and widen a hole in the tile bed of the glowing furnace, close to the mud drum. Peering through it, he could see that it was not one leak but many and they were in the top flange of the mud drum, where the No. 4 boiler connected to it. Water was spraying from a number of small, rusty perforations.
Then suddenly he blacked out, overcome by the stifling heat. Cannon and two other steamboat captains, anxiously watching him, saw his body go limp, and immediately crawled into the space, grabbed Wiest by the legs and hauled him out, then placed him on the starboard guard, the extension of the
The Currier & Ives imaginative depiction of the race. The Robert E. Lee’s lead was threatened, although not to the extent shown in the Currier & Ives print, when one of its boilers sprang a leak below Baton Rouge and Captain Cannon had to reduce the boat’s speed while dangerous, makeshift repairs were made (Library of Congress).
deck that projected past the boat’s hull. In the fresh night air, Wiest soon regained consciousness and when his head cleared, he reported what he had discovered in the one good glance that he had got.
One of the group that was gathered around him suggested putting small pieces of hemp, a little at a time, into the No. 4 boiler’s water line — a trick that probably had been performed in engine rooms before. The bits of hemp packing, suspended in the water that was leaking through the perforations, would lodge themselves in the holes and stop them up. All agreed it was worth a try.
The engineers forced the fragments of hemp packing, which they chopped into small bits, into the intake suction valve, then restarted the intake pump, sending the hemp fibers coursing through the water line. They switched off the pump and inserted more hemp into the line and again started the pump, fixing their eyes on the gauges. After several applications of hemp into the water line, the gauges finally showed that the pressure in the boiler had stopped falling and had gradually begun rising. The hemp fibers had become minuscule fingers in the dike.5
The Lee was now just above Plaquemine, Louisiana, a community on the west bank of the river, and was steaming for Baton Rouge. Although the hour was past midnight, excited spectators had climbed into skiffs and put out from the riverbank at Plaquemine, battling the Lee’s wake to hail and cheer the grand steamer and its crew. They would soon also be cheering the Natchez, which could be seen from the stern of the Lee by the glow of its furnaces when their doors were opened. It was only about four hundred yards behind the Lee, which was increasing its speed to regain the time it had lost during the latest emergency.
Beset by worry over the condition of his vessel, Captain Cannon was having doubts about continuing the race. Still on the hurricane deck, he called his old friend John Smoker over to him and asked him what he thought about ending the race at Baton Rouge and declaring the Robert E. Leethe winner to that point. Smoker didn’t think much of the idea. “As long as we’re ahead,” he responded, “we’d better keep so.” Thus encouraged, Cannon gave up the thought of stopping, for the present anyway, although he continued to worry.
With the Natchez hot on its heels, the Lee passed Baton Rouge, on the east bank of the river, about three o’clock in the morning on Friday, July 1. Beneath the lights on the wharf clumps of bleary-eyed spectators watched as the two boats steamed past, first the Robert E. Lee and minutes later the pursuing Natchez. By the time the Lee reached Bayou Sara, just above Baton Rouge, it was ten minutes ahead of the Natchez, having made it that far in ten hours and twenty-six minutes.
The reporter from the St. Louis Republican on board the Robert E. Lee was as wide awake as its captain, recording the events of the race and the passing scenes observed from the vessel’s decks:
The scene from time of departure till dark ... baffles description. As we steamed along the watery race track, the whole country on both sides of the river seemed alive with a strange excitement expressed in a variety of gestures, the waving of handkerchiefs, hats, running along the river shore as if to encourage the panting steamer, and now and then far off shouts come cheeringly over the waters, and were plainly heard above the roaring of the fires, the clatter of machinery, the dashing of the waters and the rushing of steam. All the life in the vicinity of the river appeared to be thoroughly aroused into the unusual activity by this struggle of two steamboats for the palm of speed. The settlements and plantations along the coast as we passed turned out their whole forces, and seemed to have taken a holiday in honor of our flying trip.
Up to and beyond Plaquemine men and boys in skiffs came out almost in our track to hail us with warm welcome and get a word, if possible, with one of the officers or crew. This is but a moment. They are struck by the swells and dashed and rocked away off towards the shore, far in our wake. As long as they are in sight they wave us adieu. The inhabitants all appear to live out of doors, or are crowded in the windows or on the housetops as we approach. The most lively interest is depicted in every countenance and is uttered in every voice.
At Baton Rouge, which we reached about 1 o’clock, this morning, there were still people on the wharf, but silence had nearly been restored on shore, and during the rest of the night nothing was to be noted but the still, anxious groups on board.6
By the time the sun had risen on the new day, the Robert E. Lee was pulling farther ahead, and its unsleeping captain, unable to shake his worry over the boat’s machinery, went down into the engine room and asked Perkins to slow down, telling him they were well in front of the Natchez, that there was no need to run at full speed. Perkins replied that it wasn’t the Natchez he was thinking of. Rather it was the speed record for a trip from New Orleans to Natchez, which had been set by Leathers’s fourth Princess in 1856 and which he intended to beat. The Lee’s chief engineer was not concerned about the boat’s performance so far, and Cannon, apparently reassured, returned to his post on the upper deck.
On board the Natchez, another reporter from the St. Louis Republican, offering a different perspective of the race, observed that “The captain [Tom Leathers] is sleepless on deck, the pilots are nervous yet confident at the wheel, the engineers stand by their engines watching every movement of the machinery, and the firemen work like Trojans, and look like demons in the red glare of the furnaces.”7 The anonymous reporter took time to notice the spectacle of the steamer racing through the darkness, “cleaving the river wide open,” as he put it. “The effect at night is simply grand,” he wrote. “The steamer plows on her watery way, puffing white clouds and streaming a constant current of fiery sparks from her chimney tops, bounded by blackness on either side. But the people on shore are sleepless, too, and send their greetings through the darkness as we pass.”8
Leathers had been given a gold pocket watch as a trophy for his recordbreaking run from New Orleans to St. Louis less than two weeks earlier, when he had made the trip in three days, twenty-two hours and forty-five minutes, mere minutes faster than the old J.M. White had made it twenty-six years earlier. On that occasion, addressing an audience of well-wishers, Leathers had proclaimed with satisfaction, “Gentlemen, none of we older men will live to see this time beaten, and probably few of the younger ones.”9Now at about eleven-thirty P.M., standing on the boiler deck, staring over the Natchez’s bow, straining to see if the distance between the two boats was closing, he checked the watch as the Natchez passed the one-hundred-mile point upriver from New Orleans and concluded that the Lee, which had passed the hundredmile point six minutes earlier, had gained no more than half a mile on the Natchez after running for a hundred miles. Leathers’s boat had not reduced the Lee’s lead, but it had not let the gap substantially widen either.
Leathers checked his watch again as the Natchez reached Plaquemine, one hundred and thirteen miles from New Orleans. Making good speed, his boat then had covered thirteen miles, from the one-hundred-mile point, in forty-five minutes. Yet, as it raced toward Baton Rouge, it had not closed on the Robert E. Lee. At Baton Rouge Leathers looked at his watch once more. Eight hours and twenty-eight minutes had elapsed since he had passed St. Mary’s Market. And the Lee was still ten minutes ahead of him. The St. Louis Republican’s reporter, observing the Natchez’s captain, described the scene and the mood:
There was not much conversation. Capt. Leathers remained but a short time on the roof and then sat on the boiler deck absorbed in thought. The engineers watched carefully every movement, the firemen worked like Trojans, and looked like demons in the red glare of the furnaces....
Heavy swells from the Lee are still striking the shores, and, to confess it, impeding our progress. But the Natchez still plows on her way, puffing white clouds and streaming a myriad of sparks from her chimneys. A wide breadth of the river is lighted up in front of the boat.10
Beyond Baton Rouge, the Lee’s lead diminished slightly. When the boats reached the mouth of the Red River, the next checkpoint above Bayou Sara, their traveling times from St. Mary’s Market were identical — twelve hours and fifty-six minutes — although the Lee, having started ahead of the hardcharging Natchez, remained in front. By the time it reached Stamps’s Landing, upstream of the Red River’s mouth, the swift Robert E. Lee had increased its lead again, gaining four minutes on the Natchez. It was two miles ahead. Two checkpoints later, at Briar’s Landing, the speeding Lee had widened its lead still more.
It was mid-morning on Friday when from the decks of the Lee the city of Natchez was sighted, standing atop the high bluff that rose from the river’s edge. It was at the Natchez waterfront that the six-prong gilded antlers, mounted on a carved deer’s head, were kept, the speed trophy awarded to the steamboat that made the fastest time between New Orleans and Natchez, then estimated at 296 river miles. Leathers had won the antlers — the horns, as they were called — for his record-setting run fourteen years earlier. He had made the trip in seventeen hours and thirty minutes, a time that many along the river believed impossible to beat. The Robert E. Lee was about to prove them wrong. Aboard the Lee, the St. Louis reporter wrote : “In a few minutes we will be opposite Natchez. The morning is beautiful, and everything is lovely.”11
The Lee, slowing down to take on fuel, approached the levee, “thronged all morning,” as one reporter wrote, “by immense and enthusiastic crowds of all colors and conditions,” and came abreast of the Natchez wharf just about 10:15 A.M. The band that had been assembled at the waterfront, expecting to hail the city’s favorite in the race, the Natchez, as it glided in first, was so dismayed by the Lee’s arrival ahead of the Natchez, that it refused to play a note for Cannon and his boat. The spectators massed at the river’s edge were more sportsmanlike, though, breaking out into loud cheers. “Great crowds on the wharf,” the St. Louis newsman aboard the Lee reported, “and when we left, the wildest shouts went up. Every heart on board was touched with excitement. The tension of the nerves is continual and almost painful at times. Truly the Lee is a thing of life.”12
The Robert E. Lee had made Natchez in seventeen hours and eleven minutes, beating the Princess’s record time by nineteen minutes. Bettors who had put their money on the Lee in this first important phase of the race were exultant. In Natchez, though, “betting immediately fell to zero,” the St. Louis reporter observed, “everybody wanting odds on the Natchez.”13
The Lee slid by the wharf boat, a floating, covered dock moored in the river, without stopping, and the Lee’s Natchez agent, responding to shouts of “Take down those horns!” coming from passengers and crewmen aboard the Lee, jumped aboard with the horns, prettily trimmed with flowers and ribbons. The antlers made a handsome trophy, attached to a polished wood plaque with an inscription, apparently dictated by Leathers, that read: “Why Don’t You Take The Horns? Princess’ Time To Natchez, 17 Hours and 30 Minutes.” Cannon took the coveted horns and blew the Robert E. Lee’s steam whistle in acknowledgment.
But he didn’t land. The Lee merely slipped up between two barges loaded with sacks of coal and had the barges tied to the Lee as the sacks were unloaded onto the Lee while it continued upstream, all done by a prior arrangement made by the Robert E. Lee’s canny captain. Once the coal was aboard the Lee, the barges were cut loose and allowed to drift back to the Natchez waterfront.
By the time the Natchez arrived, eight minutes behind the Lee, and tied up to the wharf boat, Cannon and the Lee were steaming away in the distance, leaving the Natchez and its disappointed fans, some of them openly weeping, far behind. The Natchez did manage to beat the old record of the Princess, by eleven minutes, reaching the Natchez shore in seventeen hours and nineteen minutes from the starting point at St. Mary’s Market. But its time was not good enough to prevent the horns from passing into Cannon’s hands. And the trailing Natchez lost another eight minutes as it put ashore twelve dejected Natchez-bound passengers and took on fuel.
Leathers then rushed the Natchez back out into mid-river to resume the race. Try as desperately as he might, though, to close the distance between him and the Robert E. Lee, he was finding that the Natchez, with its thirtyfour-inch cylinders, lacked sufficient drive to outrun the Lee, powered by forty-inch cylinders, on the river’s long straightaway.
News of the Robert E. Lee’s record-breaking feat quickly spread by telegraph to New Orleans and elsewhere and was made public . The Picayune reported, “At an early hour ... a large crowd of eager persons gathered around the Picayune Office to hear the news, and all over the city the most intense interest was manifested. What with the shouting of the news boys — each of whom had something staked on the result — and the cheering whenever a new dispatch from up the river came in, one was forcibly reminded of the war times just after some tremendous engagement.”14
Leathers, outraced to Natchez, now conceded that he had misjudged the Lee’s ability. “I’ve underestimated her power,” he confessed, but then seemed to grow more determined than ever. Above Natchez the Mississippi narrowed and became more twisting. The Lee may have had an advantage on the broad, straight sections of the river below Natchez, but the sleeker, more maneuverable Natchez, Leathers believed, would have the advantage now in channels studded with small islands and sand bars and salients thrusting out from the banks. Besides, the Natchez, he was certain, had the two best pilots on the Mississippi, Frank Clayton and Mort Burnham. The race now would be not simply a contest of speed but of piloting skill. It was far from over.
Up ahead were the towns of Cole’s Creek, Waterproof, Rodney and St. Joseph, spotting the riverbanks in Louisiana and Mississippi. St. Joseph, Mississippi, a frequent stop, was the home of Ed Snodgrass, a merchant who held the distinction of being a friend of both Cannon and Leathers, and loving a bit of mischief, he delighted in passing on to each the insults of the other when their boats tied up at the St. Joseph landing. Leathers had recently had a painful, bothersome carbuncle develop on his back, suffering so severely that he brought his doctor along with him on the Natchez. Seeing him in his torment, Snodgrass had sympathized, but after the Natchez departed and Cannon arrived on the Robert E. Lee, he eagerly informed Cannon of Leathers’s condition.
“A carbuncle, huh?” Cannon responded.
“Yes,” Snodgrass answered.
“Well,” Cannon said, “you tell the old blankety-blank-blank that I had
a brother — a bigger, stronger man than I am — and he had one of them things and died in two weeks.”
When Cannon took a misstep aboard the Robert E. Lee one time, he fell to the deck and broke his collarbone. That news reached Snodgrass and was passed along to Leathers, who instructed Snodgrass to tell Cannon, “I wish it had been his blankety-blankneck.”15
After passing St. Joseph, despite its best efforts to catch up, the Natchez was still more than eight minutes behind the Robert E. Lee. To make matters worse, it had to make a stop at Grand Gulf, Mississippi, while the Lee would be able to keep up its steady pace. At Grand Gulf, which it reached a little past 5:15 P.M. on Friday, the Natchez took on ten passengers who were Captain Leathers’s regular customers and who were making their annual trip north. They had booked passage on the Natchez on its previous trip, and Leathers, true to his word and the notice he had placed in the Picayune, was taking care of his customers. But he lost another eight minutes in getting the passengers and their trunks and other baggage aboard, which could only have further distressed him, having learned that the Lee had steamed past the landing twenty minutes earlier.
For all his braggadocio, gruffness and intimidating manner, Tom Leathers had a heart that could be touched, and his faithfulness to his Grand Gulf passengers was but one example. His generosity showed in the number of times he had given free passage to ministers, priests and nuns and to individuals who were desperate for transportation but unable to pay. Sometimes he even put them in staterooms aboard the Natchez. The professional gambler George Devol, a frequent passenger on Leathers’s boats, once came upon a woman who needed passage for herself and her six children but was unable to pay the price of the tickets. Moved by the woman’s plight, Devol doffed his top hat and passed it among the Natchez’s passengers and officers while the boat was docked. According to Devol, all of them put something in the hat except for one man. Devol then took the hatful of bank notes and silver coins to Leathers, standing on the hurricane deck, showed it to him, told him about the poor woman and said what he had collected should be enough to pay for tickets for the woman and her kids. Leathers, though, refused to take the money. “Give the money to the woman,” he told Devol. He then instructed the Natchez’s chief clerk, Samuel Ayles, to book the family into a stateroom and treat them as if they had paid the full first-class fare.
Devol made his way back to the woman, gave her the money he had collected and returned to the Natchez’s saloon, where he took over a table and opened up a game of three-card monte. One of the first players he attracted was the man who had declined to contribute when Devol passed his hat. Devol took him for eight hundred dollars, to the delight of the other passengers, who taunted him, one of them asking, “Aren’t you sorry you didn’t give something to the woman before you lost your money?”
The man complained to Leathers, to no avail. Leathers refused him both help and sympathy.16
After Grand Gulf came Hard Times, Louisiana, and then Vicksburg would be next. The St. Louis reporter on the Natchez narrated the voyage :
The scenes on board, as we witness the crowds and hear the shouting, cannot be portrayed. At this hour we are approaching Vicksburg, the Lee being still considerably ahead. But we are surely, though slowly lessening the distance.
Sometimes in a long stretch of clear river she is plainly in sight, then a bend shuts her out, all but her smoke, which hangs away off northward like a dense cloud; then an island or a sudden projection of woodland hides all traces of our lively rival from our view. We feel safe but keep wonderfully busy, because we know she is there going like lightning. There is life and wakefulness and speed and determination in the swiftly following vessel, which will give us the victory before we are done with her. These occasional glimpses of the Lee seem to give the Natchez more muscle and force her to her very best.17
The Natchez had to make another stop at Vicksburg, to discharge seventeen passengers and take on more coal. On reaching Vicksburg, Leathers checked his watch and marked his time from St. Mary’s Market at twentyfour hours and forty-two minutes. He had gained time on the Lee, but was still at least eight minutes behind. Like Cannon at Natchez, Leathers had barges loaded with coal waiting for him at the Vicksburg wharf and he tied them to the Natchez, pulling them alongside as he swung his boat back into the current. When the coal, packed in hundred-pound sacks, had been transferred to the decks of the Natchez, he cut the barges loose and resumed full speed, stalwart in his confidence that he could catch up to and overtake the Robert E. Lee.
The Lee had made Vicksburg in twenty-four hours and thirty-eight minutes from St. Mary’s Market and had refueled on the run as it had done at Natchez and as the Natchez was to do behind it. Evidently now feeling a sense of triumph, Captain Cannon himself penned the message to be telegraphed to New Orleans, giving the elapsed time from St. Mary’s Market and noting that the Lee was “16 minutes ahead of Natchez.”
News of the Lee’s continuing lead was received in New Orleans with jubilation. The Picayune published a special edition, an extra, to keep its readers up to date. “When the extra Picayune was issued,” the newspaper’s reporter wrote, “with the announcement of the position of the steamers at Vicksburg, the excitement, if possible, increased, and cheer on cheer went up for the ‘Bobby Lee,’ till it seemed as though the people were holding a grand jubilee.... The friends of the ‘Natchez’ still hope that she may recover her lost time, and lead at Cairo, but there can be no doubt the chances are now in favor of the ‘Lee.’
“The next point from which they will be telegraphed is Helena,” the Picayune writer continued warily, “and there is no telling what may occur before that point and Memphis are gained.”18