Monday, November 28, 2011

The Tulip Disaster

November 11, 1864

In Memory of Those Who Perished in the Explosion of the U.S.S. Tulip November 11, 1864
A Sacrifice of Lives In Discharge of Duty and in the Interest of Achieving Peace and Scientific Advance ~
Erected June 15, 1940 ~ Under an Act of Congress of the United States of America June 15, 1937

The 1940 stone monument with the stylized eagle emblem at Cross Manor in St. Inigoes, Maryland, marks the burial place of eight unknown sailors who died in a boiler explosion on the Tulip.

A bronze interpretive plaque was placed here in 1958 by Admiral A. M. Pride of the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center.

The Tulip Disaster
On November 11, 1864, U.S.S. Tulip
converted lighthouse tender gunboat,
acting master William H. Smith, U.S. Navy
commanding, departed this area for
Washington for boiler repair. When
off Piney Point, she blew up and sank,
presumably due to the defective boiler.
Of her total company of fifty-seven
officers and enlisted men, only ten
were saved and two of those died later.
Eight, whose remains were among
those recovered but could not be
identified, were buried on this site.
The Tulip was a steam screw gunboat in the Potomac Flotilla, the Union Navy's Civil War defense force on the Potomac. Her steam-driven propeller and the metal strapping that reinforced her wooden hull were cutting edge technology in the 1860's. The National Register form says that "Tulip is more significant for its role in the changing technology of American warships than for its engagements, marking the period when steam engines overtook sail power, and specifically the development of screw steam vessels." 

This sign placed by the Patuxent Naval Air Station describes how the Tulip began her career as the Chi Kiang, 浙江, a lighthouse tender intended for the Chinese Imperial forces, during the Taiping rebellion.
The Potomac Flotilla's USS Tulip
Originally built in 1862 for the Chinese Ever-Victorious Army, the Chi Kiang's hull was laid by Master ship builder James C. Jewett of New York. Her hull was of semi-composite construction, which included iron strapping for support.
Daniel Mcleod supplied a single horizontal direct-acting (compound) engine and two horizontal return tubular boilers without steam drums. This lack of steam drums would ultimately lead to the ship's destruction.
On June 22, 1863, the Chi Kiang was purchased by the US Navy, classed as a screw steamer fourth rate gunboat, and commissioned the USS Tulip. Her profile was altered to help evade detection by the enemy, and she was fitted with two 24-pound howitzers, two 12-pound smooth bore cannon and one 20-pound parrot rifle. The Tulip was assigned blockading duty with the Potomac Flotilla's First Division. 
The caption on the photo in the sign above reads, "While no known photos of the US Tulip exist, she was reported to be similar in appearance to her sister ship, the USS Fuschia, {Kiang Soo, 江蘇} pictured here, ca. 1863-65."  Here's that photo:

Because the estuarine Potomac is brackish all the way up to Indian Head just below Washington, salty water was used in the Tulip's boilers. Those boilers should have been periodically cleared of salt scale, a task the crew of her sister ship the Fuchsia did, but Tulip's crew ignored. Another Naval Air Station sign describes the Tulip's boiler problems and eventual explosion.

In August of 1864, Jeremiah Riddle and John Buckley, engineers on the Tulip, were suspended and reassigned for refusing to fire the boilers which they declared unsafe. In November 1864, the Tulip was ordered to the Washington Navy yard for repairs. She set out from the flotilla base at 2:00 PM on November 11 using only the port boiler. The National Register form says, "The starboard boiler was considered unfit and Captain William H. Smith was advised by the Flotilla Base's engineer to use only the port boiler." The Tulip was moving so slowly that Capt. William H. Smith ordered the starboard boiler fired up at 6:20.  As the New York Times reports, "The first intimation of danger was a cry from Mr. Gordon, who was the engineer on watch, to run to the safety-valve, and he made his way to the engine-room, but scarcely had he gone through the door when the explosion took place." The boiler exploded at 6:30 near Ragged Point. The Times continues:
At this time Capt. Smith, the pilot, James, Master's Mate Hammond and the Quartermaster were on the bridge over the boilers, and must have been blown to atoms. The only trace left of Capt. Smith was his hat. As just 10 persons were picked up, fifty-nine persons must have lost their lives instantly, and two of those saved died before the [the rescue ship] Ella left St. Inigoes. Two or three others of the ten saved are not expected to live, among them Engineer Teel.
Barbara Stewart illustrated the event this way on the NAS sign:

Eight bodies, too burned to identify, eventually washed up on the Potomac shore. They were buried in two rows of four in a locust grove on the Flotilla base at Cross Manor. The spot was neglected until 1929. The National Register form tells how the monument came about:
In 1929 Captain Wm. Ellicott, grandson of the owner of Cross Manor while it was the Potomac Flotilla Base, Dr. C.M. Jones, requested a monument from the Secretary of the Navy. The burial site was purchased by the U.S. government in 1939 and the monument was erected on June 15,1940 per act of Congress of June 15, 1937.

The Pax River Fire Chief, George Kennett, advocated for the Naval Air Station Annex at Webster Field to adopt the monument. Memorial Day services have been held here since 2007. In 2008 a lighted flagpole  was placed at the sight. Large interpretive tablets explain the monument in context and detail.

This site demonstrates the direction of development in historical markers: from the 1936 commemorative stone through the more informative 1958 bronze plaque to the detailed history-book text and illustations of the 21st century tablet markers.


  1. Hi, I am Peter Collins from the UK and I am the G/Grandson of John Davis who was a crew member and survivor of the explosion and sinking of the USS Tulip. My wife and I will be attending the US Naval ceremony being held at the memorial on 06/11/2014, which is 150th year since the terrible event. John Davis returned to the UK after the civil war and became member No.1 and first secretary of the the 'London Branch of American Civil War Veterans' and assisted other veterans to receive pensions for their war service from the US Government. I would be pleased to meet anyone with connections to the 'Tulip' and will be staying in the St Mary's area from the 3rd November.

    1. Peter Collins
      The NAS event is 7 NOV from 9-9:30 a.m..
      US Navy will hold a ceremony at the USS Tulip memorial on 11/07/2014 from 9-9:30 a.m. I am G/Grandson of James R Jackson, ( Pilot, USS TULIP ). I, and a few of my family will attend and we would hope you could attend and meet us.
      email me, John Jackson

  2. Hi John,
    I have tried to contact you on the email shown above but it just bounces back? If you read this prior to the ceremony I will be in the area from pm on the 4th. Please contact me on
    Many thanks, Pete.

  3. My friend Tony, his wife Ethel Hilda Edith Davis, is the great grandchild of John Davis, and has a photo of him wearing his medals. Brin

    1. Brin, If you or your friend could send me a scan of the photo of John Davis, I'll add it to this post.