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Possible Civil War vessel found in Yazoo River

A curious history buff may have found a Civil War-era vessel in the Yazoo River.

Bob Harston of Silver City said he’s heard stories about the Confederate vessel in the river for years. This week, near drought conditions left the water level so low that a boat was visible in the river bottom.

Harston called Vicksburg National Military Park historian Terry Winschel, who traveled to the site Monday with Jim Wojtala, an archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District.

The experts spotted what appeared to be a sidewheeler packet vessel, used by Confederate troops to navigate narrow channels.

A pitman arm, used to crank the wheel, was visible in the mud and silt. The outer walls of the vessel were charred to the water line, which showed that the vessel had caught fire, Winschel said.

Winschel said the vessel appears to be 32 feet wide and about 140 feet long.

“That’s typical of packet vessels,” Winschel said.

According to local lore, that vessel, the Natchez, was one in a line of Confederate steamers. Many riverboats have had that name.

“It’s common knowledge,” Harston said. “People have been seeing it forever.”

Documents at the First Baptist Church in Belzoni, about a mile from the vessel’s wreckage, back the story, Harston said.

An entry in church records says that a bell from the vessel was recovered and placed on the church’s steeple, he said.

The experts began investigating the name “Natchez” and Wojtala found a 1979 Corps of Engineers report that describes a vessel in that area, called the Natchez No. 5, a sidewheel steamer built in Cincinnati in 1860.

Winschel said the information proves that what he saw was the fifth in a series of seven boats of the same name, all owned by Thomas P. Leathers of Vicksburg.

The Natchez No. 5 was reportedly used by Jefferson Davis when he traveled in 1861 on a portion of his journey to Montgomery, Ala., where he was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America.

On March 13, 1863, the boat is believed to have accidentally caught fire, which caused it to sink near the left bank of the Yazoo.

Lamar Roberts, curator of the Vicksburg Battlefield Museum, said at least one report claims Leathers burned the boat on purpose so it wouldn’t fall into Union hands.

“He burned six or eight of his vessels for that reason,” Roberts said.

Winschel said any treasures that might have once adorned the boat are long gone now. He said it’s a historical find.

Roberts said 29 vessels were scuttled on the Yazoo River and its tributaries during the war.

In 1998, the last time Civil War vessels that sank were spotted in this area, was in the Big Black River during a drought when four vessels were found, Winschel said.