Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Captain John T. Shirley - Steamboat Captain & Confederate Ironclad Builder

We are pained to-day to be compelled to announce the death in this city at his residence on Promenade street, at three o'clock this morning, by congestion, of Captain John T. Shirley, a gentleman known for his manifold good qualities in every city and town along Western rivers.  The flags of the boats in port are displayed at half-mast in respect to the memory of Captain John T. Shirley, whose funeral takes place from his residence, No. 96 Promenade street, at five o'clock this afternoon.
Posted in the Memphis Daily Ledger, September 9, 1873



The remains of Captain John T. Shirley were followed to their last resting place in Elmwood Cemetery last evening by a large circle of friends and acquaintances.  Posted in the Memphis Daily Ledger, September 10, 1873


What's missing from these announcements are the important contributions of Captain John T. Shirley during the Civil War to the building of a Confederate inland Navy as well as his business acumen and philanthropy.  For more information about the life of Captain Shirley be sure to check out The CSS Arkansas: A Confederate Ironclad on Western Waters by Myron J. Smith.

The CSS Arkansas


Like so many people, Captain Shirley is interred at Elmwood Cemetery along with his wife, Virginia A. Shirley who died just four days after her husband.  Cause of death for Captain Shirley was listed as "congestion" while his wife is supposed to have succumbed to cholera.  I think the more likely cause of death was Yellow Fever as Memphis was in the middle a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1873.

If the Captain and his wife had a monument at Elmwood it has long since disappeared.

The following comes from the Reminiscences of the Civil War by Charles Edward nash, M.D., Little Rock, Ar., 1898.

Here we will pause and give a short description of our comrades.  Capt. Shirley was about five feet eight inches in height, fleshy, round face, thin beard.  He was one of the most successful steamboat men that ever ran on the fiver from Friar's Point to Memphis, with the exception of old Capt. Jim Lee, whom every one knows, and he needs no encomium from me.  Shirley's great success depended on his strict watch over things on the lower deck, noticing every piece of machinery, from a tap to a bolt, and from a bolt to a boiler; always keeping under strict surveillance deck hands, engineers and pilots.  He was a man of cool temper and clear judgment, and did not often indulge in swearing, which most steamboat captains think a boat cannot be run without.  He left the care of his cabin passengers to his clerks, who were always polite, accommodating and communicative, entertaining the ladies by describing the scenery, with many reminiscences of steamboat life.  The "Kate Frisbee" was a great pet with him, and indeed she was the most beautiful packet that has ever plied the waters of the lower Mississippi.  She was double decked, and walked the water like a thing of life, almost as prompt to the hour as a mail train.  Capt. D.D. DeHaven ran a magnificent packet some years before the war from Louisville to New Orleans.  At the breaking out of the war he transferred her to the lower Mississippi and in 1862 sold her to the Confederate government, then went to Selma, Alabama, to join Capt. Shirley in a government contract to build the large war steamer "Alabama" Commodore Forand being the naval officer in charge.  They completed the boat, a heavy ironclad vessel, but in launching her in the fall of 1863 met with a serious accident.  The Alabama river at this season of the year low, she caught on a bench and broke in the center.  She was condemned and sold to some merchants in Mobile for $750,000.  This was a great disappointment to our navy, as they had expected to raise the blockade at Mobile."

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