Black Diamond: Civil War shipwreck on the Potomac River

Right: George Hollands, a solider with the 101st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, was onboard the Massachusetts when it struck the Black Diamond April 22, 1865, and lived to give his account of the tragedy afterward.

In the 1860’s, instead of the calm, open waters of today, the Potomac River was the frontline of battle. It was the main lifeline out of Washington D.C. and for the federal government it was the dividing line between the warring sections of the North and South. For the people of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, it was their source of livelihood; and for some, their final resting place.

For Southern Marylanders, trade, communication, and even marriages had been focused on Virginia for centuries, being closer and more accessible than much of Maryland. Men of both states shared the waters, working side by side, and finding that they shared sympathies including the desire to avoid involvement in national affairs. When federal troops occupied cities in Maryland, and prevented the secession vote, people in Southern Maryland paid little attention. The Commander of the Potomac Flotilla wrote: “From all I can see and learn of the people of Maryland I am convinced that along the shores of the Potomac there is not one in twenty who is true to the Union…” So, when President Lincoln was assassinated, Southern Maryland became the focus of the manhunt.

On April 22, 1865 the coal barge Black Diamond received orders to join the Potomac Flotilla at St. Clement’s Island and prevent John Wilkes Booth from crossing the river. That same night, the Massachusetts set out from Alexandria, Virginia, carrying approximately 300 federal soldiers, and travelling downriver “quite nicely” until a strong wind began to blow, causing the river to become rough. It was just after midnight when the sleeping men were awakened by a jolt and loud noise.

The Massachusetts had struck the Black Diamond on her port side, opening her hull down to the waterline. The bows of the Massachusetts were stove in, leaving a hole “large enough to take in five or six men abreast”, but she remained afloat. All on board were ordered to the stern to raise the damaged bow out of the water. Some complied; others jumped. According to the survivors, about 150 men jumped, and approximately half of them drowned. The Black Diamond sank in less than three minutes.

One survivor, George Hollands, Company B, 101st Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, wrote in his account of the collision that he was among the first to jump from the Massachusetts onto the deck of the Black Diamond as she swung around. Once on board he realized that she was severely damaged and that he had “jumped out of the frying pan into the fire.” In running towards the stern, he grabbed a stepladder, hoping it would help keep him afloat once he went overboard. At the last moment he realized “that the river was not deep enough to engulf the masts and all, so [I] threw down the ladder, grabbed one of the guyropes and began climbing up toward the mast.” And so, he was saved.

Many newspapers of the day contained reports of the collision and gave the presumed number of dead as 50 (the final count was 87) but the killing of John Wilkes Booth on April 26 ensured that the focus on the crash was fleeting and thus its story has been all but forgotten.