Friday, April 29, 2016

Histories Mysteries - St. Clement's Island Maryland, John Wilkes Booth, and the Black Diamond Mystery


History Ceremony Honors Firefighters Remembering those who died in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth.

By Brad Penney

A Memorial Service was held on Sunday, April 24, honoring the soldiers and firefighters who perished the night of April 23, 1865 during the collision of the steamship Massachusetts and the canal barge Black Diamond. Among the casualties in the maritime tragedy were four Alexandria firefighters who were assigned to the Quartermaster Corps in search of John Wilkes Booth, following the assassination of President Lincoln. The Black Diamond was on picket duty on the Potomac, in pursuit of Booth, at the time of the collision, which claimed a total of 87 lives.

The service was held at the St. Clements Island Museum; the collision occurred just one mile off of the island in southern Maryland, where military intelligence expected Booth to undertake a night-time crossing of the Potomac into Virginia.

The Alexandria Fire Department Honor Guard participated in the ceremony, which was attended by a number of city firefighters who laid a wreath at the museum overlooking the site of the collision. The four Alexandria firefighters are buried in the Alexandria National Cemetery at 1450 Wilkes St.

The story of the pursuit of Booth by civilian employees of the Alexandria Fire Department has been largely forgotten and overshadowed by the momentous other events of April 1865, which included the evacuation of Richmond; the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and later General Joseph Johnston in North Carolina; the assassination of President Lincoln; and — the day after Booth was killed at Garrett’s Farm — the sinking of the steamship Sultana on the Mississippi with a loss of 1,800 lives, more casualties than were sustained in the loss of the Titanic.

The Black Diamond was an iron hull steam propeller canal boat (or barge) built in 1842. Before bring chartered by the Quartermaster Corps during the war, the Black Diamond’s normal duties were transporting coal between Washington, D.C. and Alexandria.

The crew of 20 consisted of men from the Alexandria fire department. Unknown to the crew of the Black Diamond, Booth had already crossed the Potomac into Virginia at the time the collision with the Massachusetts occurred.

Plans are currently underway for a monument to be erected on St. Clements Island in honor of the 87 soldiers and firefighters who died in the collision of the Massachusetts and the Black Diamond.


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