The Charles River Was Cleansed: But A Foul Odor Remains In Boston

pearl harborLearning about the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. History prior to Pearl Harbor brought to mind Whitey Bulger’s brother, Billy, and John O’Brien, the probation commissioner presently on trial. The disaster was the explosion and sinking of the steamship Sultana on April 27, 1865, on the Mississippi River where over 1,800 Union Army soldiers who had been captured during the Civil War died on their way home from prison camps. You probably never heard of it.

One survivor wrote: The men who had endured the torments of a hell on Earth, starved, famished from thirst, eaten with vermin, having endured all the indignities, insults and abuses possible for an armed bully to bestow upon them, to be so soon forgotten does not speak well for our government or the American people.” Like the attack on the USS Liberty it was something better hidden than remembered.

Had President Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated 12 days earlier, his involvement in this disaster may have undermined his presidency. For had it not been for Lincoln, those young men going home after years in Confederate prisons might have done so safely. For it was Lincoln’s patronage activity that made it possible for an incompetent, Lieutenant Colonel Rueben Hatch, to be in charge of putting those soldiers on the SS Sultana.

The best evidence is the SS Sultana sank because it had been overloaded with men for its trip up the Mississippi. This ship was authorized to carry about 400 passengers and it had as many as 2,300. The ship received payment for each soldier it carried so the more bodies then the better it was financially for the ship owners. The top heavy ship rocked in such a manner that its boilers exploded.

Rueben Hatch was in the position to overload the ship because of Abraham Lincoln. Rueben’s brother, Ozias Mather Hatch, was the secretary of state for Illinois and a friend of Lincoln’s. When Rueben was caught stealing from the Army in 1862 the court marshal against him was cut short after Lincoln intervened at the behest of Ozias; Rueben went AWOL a year later for three months and when he came back he wanted to be reinstated to the same position he was in before he left. The Army refused but Lincoln intervened to get that done.

When he wanted a promotion or to get into the quartermaster corps, even though the Army tried to prevent that, Lincoln intervened. Lincoln was running for reelection and needed all the help he could get. Ozias could raise money and get him votes so Lincoln did all he could to keep him happy.

Lincoln actively engaged in patronage.  He was involved in the patronage game of helping someone out who had helped him. He relied upon the representations of Ozias concerning Rueben relying on Ozias not to deceive him. Oziaa believed the charges against Rueben were politically motivated. He couldn’t accept his brother was a rogue.

It’s a simple example of one brother standing by another. Standing by one’s sibling and political patronage have been understood and universally accepted as part of the human condition.

I thought of Billy Bulger. He never did anything to help Whitey but he was damned for not turning on his brother. Billy Bulger refused to believe the rumors about his brother so he did not abandon him; for that he was condemned and lost his high position.

I thought of John O’Brien. He got jobs for friends of powerful people. Like Lincoln, O’Brien relied on those who sponsored people to give him good candidates. O’Brien played the usual game of patronage trying to please as man powerful people as he could; for that he stands indicted and faces the likelihood of prison.

There is something rotten in Boston.




  1. A journalist named Ambler who wrote a book ” Don’t sell your coat” claims that the ice in Antarctica is at an all time high, almost a million square kilometers larger than normal. He also says that the temperature at the South Pole has been decreasing for the last 40 years. Are his assertions believable? 2. The only way to stop abusive prosecutors is to send them to prison.

  2. Wasn’t the meeting of Billy Madden’s son some coincidence. He’s about 15 years younger than me, but I recall hanging around with some crazy younger guys from Savie during my Hey Days. He looked very familiar and was and was a gentleman, a very nice man, who obviously knew how to handle himself. You could tell from his demeanor, easy grace, toughness, and good self-deprecating sense of humor that he’d gone a few rounds or more in his time. A good guy. A great guy like his dad.

  3. tt, as you know we (Tom Kiander, John Farrow and I) wrote in “Shots Heard round the World: Americans Answer the Call to Arms” about the sinking of the Sultana. We wrote about a Pennsylvania village boy who (1) won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his battlefield heroics (2) was captured by the Rebs and survived a year in the Hell Hole, Andersonville Prison, Georgia and (3) survived the sinking of the Sultana by swimming to shore on his own. (4) HE then, injured and lame, walked back to Pennsylvania on his own. When he wandered into the local tavern he had some mighty tall but true tales to tell. And everyone believed him, even though he was still only 19 years old. We called him “The remarkable survivor.” Of course, he was an Irish-American lad. I’ll post his name later when I find a copy of the book lying around the house somewhere. Peace. Take it easy. Do good and fear no man. fight the good fight.

    • William:

      I didn’t know yu had written about it. It’s a very interesting tale. There were so many killed during those years of the Civil War that another 2,000 didn’t seem to make much difference. Also, the tragedy being right after the assassination of Lincoln much of the nation’s attention was on getting his assassins.