Discovering the Links: Helping Students Piece Together a Story from Alexandria National Cemetery

Just after midnight on April 24, 1865, the Massachusetts, a side-wheel steamer carrying some 300 soldiers, collided with the Black Diamond, a small propeller boat anchored in the lower Potomac River. The Massachusetts struck the Diamond mid-ship, throwing soldiers overboard by the shear force of the collision. The Diamond took on water rapidly, reportedly sinking in three minutes, while the Massachusetts also sustained damage and struggled to stay afloat. All told, over sixty men from the Massachusetts and four crewmen of the Diamond were lost. Hailed by newspapers as a “sad and terrible disaster,” this tragedy was one of the worst riverboat accidents up until that time, receiving not only local, but also national media attention.

According to a commemorative plaque at Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC), four men had “lost their lives April 24, 1865 while in pursuit of Booth the assassin of our beloved President Abraham Lincoln.” (RRCHNM 2018)

However, I, like many of you, had never heard of this tragic event before I came across it during my research for For Us the Living, a series of online learning modules for high school students, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) for the National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Legacy Program. As I perused several newspapers from 1865, it became clear that the coverage of the Black Diamond tragedy had been largely eclipsed by another event, which in fact, was the original topic of my research: the nationwide search for John Wilkes Booth. As I would discover during my research, the story of four men buried at Alexandria National Cemetery, the Black Diamond tragedy, and the manhunt for Booth, were profoundly intertwined.

When we first started working on For Us the Living, one of our key aims was to find and tell compelling stories from ANC (a national cemetery often overlooked due to its close proximity to Arlington National Cemetery) that would engage high schoolers in the same process of discovery historians use to uncover the past. While students from nearby Alexandria City Public Schools would first use the modules, we needed to find stories that US history students across the country would find relevant.  After discovering the four “Booth pursuers,” the project team agreed that this story, intertwined in the larger story of Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, fulfilled these goals.

The gravestones list their branch of service as “CIV” [Civilian] “EMP” [Employee] of the “QMD” [Quartermaster Department]. (RRCHNM 2018)

To get started, I examined the photographs from our cemetery research trip which showed the memorial plaque and gravestones for Peter Carroll, Samuel Gosnell, George Huntington, and Christian (also listed as Christopher in some places) Farley. While the plaque and gravestones provided a starting point, they also left questions: What work did they do for the Quartermaster Department? How did they die? What role did they play in pursuing Booth? Why are they remembered? How can their story help us better understand this period of American history?

I pored over period newspapers, photographs, maps, and other scholars’ accounts to try to piece together the story of these men’s lives, deaths, and memorialization. Using databases such as Chronicling America (Library of Congress) and Virginia Chronicle (Library of Virginia) to search newspapers from around the time of these men’s death, I finally struck gold when I found several articles on a single page of the May 11, 1865 Virginia State Journal which shed light on these men’s story. 

The first article informed me that a steamer had returned to Alexandria, VA “with the bodies of A.Q.M. employees lost by the accident between the steamer Massachusetts and the propeller Black Diamond.” The second told me that the men who died were members of the United States Steam Fire Brigade (firemen) who died “performing the sacred and important duty of volunteer soldiers, manning a boat engaged in patrolling the Potomac to prevent the escape of the murderer of our late President.” The third article described their funeral which was “attended by almost every employee of the department” and concluded with “a large and imposing procession…headed by the brigade band.” In short, the men I was investigating were, in fact, the four crewmen who died in the Black Diamond tragedy.

This photograph shows members of the U.S. Steam Fire Brigade in Alexandria in July 1863, about two years before the disaster. While none of the men are identified, it is entirely possible that Carroll, Gosnell, Huntington, and/or Farley are pictured. (Library of Congress)

The clues in these articles allowed me to track down other sources to learn more about the Black Diamond, the U.S. Steam Fire Brigade, and the memorial placed at the cemetery. Highlights include using historic and modern maps to geolocate the disaster to St. Clements Island in the Potomac, and reading an Alexandria Gazette article noting the first memorial laid to these men in November 1865, only seven months after the disaster. Even with these successful finds, much of my research reminded me that historians’ searches don’t always yield straightforward answers. For example, I had hoped to use genealogical resources to learn more about the men’s lives. However, census records revealed that their names were fairly common and it was almost impossible to determine exactly which “Peter Carroll” or “Samuel Gosnell” is buried at ANC.

I used what I had found in my research to create a module entitled “A Sad and Terrible Disaster.” This module walks students through much of the same process of discovery as my own, asking students to examine the same primary sources I found and employ historical thinking skills to place these four men’s story within the larger context of the Civil War.

One of the challenges in creating this module was putting myself in the shoes of the students. After spending a few weeks researching, I knew all of the details of the story, was familiar with the 19th century language, and recognized how all of the pieces fit together. But the students, of course, would not. I had to think about the skills and knowledge the students would bring to the module and then provide supporting text, arrange sources, and ask questions in a way that would facilitate their journey of discovery.

Creating this module was not straightforward. It involved lots of trial, error, and revisions (especially after pilot testing with Alexandria City Public Schools students). But ultimately, working through the complexities of this project has resulted not only in a wonderful resource to teach U.S. history through cemeteries, but has also helped me become a better educator and historian.