The fate of the valiant Captain John Wilson

Week III

We get an idea of the perilous position at sea that confronted Captain John Wilson of the Minnie Schiffer, his two-masted brigantine, laden with a full cargo of fruit and wine, as he was sailing from Marseilles to Boston, from this dramatic painting.

Following a number of engine mishaps, the PS Connaught, about one hundred miles out from Boston on its return voyage to Galway, was battling against a fire which had broken out in its engine room, and which was rapidly spreading across the deck out of control. Furthermore a leak in the ship’s bow was letting in a greater quantity of water by the hour. By the afternoon of Saturday October 6 1860, it became clear that the PS Connaught, the flagship of the Galway Line, and one of the finest paddle-steam liners of its day, was facing ruin.

Captain Robert Leitch fired a series of distress rockets which were fortunately seen and answered by Capt Wilson’s brigantine. He tried to come alongside, but was driven back by the flames. He began the slow, torturous work of ferrying the 591 passengers and crew, in his two life-boats, from the burning vessel to his brig. Despite the gathering darkness, the rescue, lit by the ghostly flames, continued until, miraculously, late into the night, all passengers and crew, ‘many of whom must have been stressed, disorientated and terrified,’ were hauled to safety. The gallant Minnie Schiffer set out for Boston loaded to its gills with grateful men, women and children. Wilson passed around the fruit and wine.

The painting, by a well known maritime artist, Sir Oswald W Brierly, was part of a gift paid for by the business merchants of Boston and New York in grateful acknowledgement of Wilson’s courageous, and magnificent rescue.

Galway astounded

‘The brig Minnie Schiffer arrived at the foot of India wharf at 1 o’clock on Tuesday afternoon’, the New York Times tells us, and her arrival was greeted by ‘ shouts of applause by the crowds of people who had assembled upon the wharf, and filled all available positions upon neighbouring vessels….

‘The roughly clad, unwashed, but comparatively joyful-looking passengers feebly acknowledged the kindly sentiments..’ Remarkably the mails, the only articles saved from the Connaught, and a valuable source of revenue for the Galway Line, were also landed.

Many of the passengers, probably with friends or family in New York, boarded a train that afternoon. For those who remained received ‘very liberal donations of clothing, food and other necessaries’, and it was reported that they will be forwarded to the places of their destinations ‘without charge.’

It would be another 11 days before the first American boat, on its way to Liverpool, arrived off Cobh with letters and newspapers outlining the sinking of the Connaught, and the miraculous rescue of all on board her. Galway was astounded when it read the news.

Impoverished circumstances

I mentioned last week that the painting, which now hangs in National Maritime Museum, Greenwich,

in addition to ‘an elegant service of silver plate’, also gifted by the grateful survivors and investors, and made by the famous Tiffany’s of New York, were never presented to the brave Capt Wilson.

In April the following year Civil War broke out between the North and the Southern states. Wilson was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1812, but since his marriage he had made his home in New Orleans, Louisiana. When war was declared he opted to serve the southern, Confederate, cause.

The South, however, did not possess a regular navy, and its president Jefferson Davis invited ship owners to engage in privateering and blockade running. Wilson tried both with mixed success, but as the war wore on the risks of ‘running the blockade’ of Southern ports became too great.

The obituary of his wife (she died in impoverished circumstances ), which was published in the New York Times, October 20 1892, states that ‘all the silverware etc, which was held in the north, was confiscated, and he (Wilson ) was declared an enemy of the United States. At the close of the war, Capt Wilson again entered the mercantile marine.’

But even back on his old familiar ground, Wilson was not successful. In an effort to heal the terrible wounds of the war, a general amnesty was declared restoring civil rights to all who had participated, directly or indirectly, on the Confederate side. There were exceptions however. No amnesty was extended to anyone who engaged in the destruction of the commerce of the United States upon the high seas.’ Wilson’s sea-faring days were over.

Capt John Wilson, who predeceased his wife, died aged sixty-five years on September 20 1867 in New Orleans. An obituary in the Daily Picayune commented that Wilson died ‘surrounded by his maimed wife, and a few devoted friends. Every impulse of manhood revolts against the obscurity of his death and the poverty which surrounded it.’

The newspaper recalled his famous rescue by observing that ‘every soul would have gone down had it not been for his heroic valour and manhood.

It concluded: ‘The memory of his heroism, however, will not soon perish, nor the recollection of his spotless life and peaceful death.’

Next week: The end of the Galway Line


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