The Black Diamond Disaster of 1865
By Bob Tagert
One of the great treats of living in this area is the huge amount of history that lies at our fingertips. This past month we ventured to Colton Point on the Potomac River near St. Clements Island and visited the St. Clements Island Museum for the wreath laying ceremony dedicated to the men who lost their lives in the Black Diamond Disaster in 1865. Billed as “The forgotten tragedy on the Potomac”, there is an amazing story behind these casualties.
Among the other stories of the German submarine that lies in 95 feet of water near Piney Point, Maryland and the ships in Mallows Bay that lie in shallow water near Charles County, Maryland and is regarded as the “largest shipwreck fleet in the Western Hemisphere” and is described as a “ship graveyard”, the Black Diamond is another disaster after the Civil War.
In April 1865, following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the Quartermaster Corps sent the barge Black Diamond to the lower Potomac River to stand on picket duty off of St. Clements Island. Her main job was to keep John Wilkes Booth from crossing the Potomac River into Virginia as he was fleeing from the law. About the same time, the side wheel steamer Massachusetts set sail for Fortress Monroe in the Hamptons Road area of the Commonwealth from Alexandria, Virginia. On board were several Federal soldiers who were returning from sick leave as well as some recently paroled prisoners of war. In a huge mishap around midnight, the Massachusetts rammed the Black Diamond on the port side near the boiler, sinking her in a matter of minutes.
Although the Massachusetts remained on the scene to pick up survivors until daybreak, eighty seven lives were lost. Despite the damage to her bow, she continued on to Point Lookout where the survivors disembarked.
The ceremony, an annual event, honors those who lost their lives that day. The ceremony and the laying of the wreath was a memorable tribute and I learned something new.
These are some of the stories that you can learn at the museums of St. Mary’s county. Piney Point Light House on the Potomac is another classic example and learn about the stealth German submarine that lies at the bottom of the Potomac. It is a certified diving site.
About the Museum
St. Clement’s Island Museum rests on the east shore of the Potomac River overlooking St. Clement’s Island, Maryland’s First Colonial Landing in 1634. The museum’s mission concentrates on Maryland’s earliest history and Potomac River heritage.
The museum focuses on the English history that preceded the voyage to Maryland relating the religious and political issues of the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors can discover the vision of George Calvert, the First Lord Baltimore, to found a colony incorporating religious views of tolerance and his sons’ implementation of this vision.
Visitors will learn of the voyage of the Ark and the Dove departing from the Isle of Wight in England on the feast day of St. Clement, the patron saint of mariners, following their treacherous crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, braving pirates and dangerous storms, and their venture up the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac River.
Visitors will also learn about Father Andrew White’s written account of the voyage and landing on St. Clement’s Island and view the 7 x 20 foot mural depicting the colonial arrival along with an exhibit regarding their negotiation with the Native Americans for a permanent settlement.
The Potomac Room shares this river’s heritage of the Blackistone Lighthouse once on St. Clement’s Island along with the industries of hunting, crabbing, fishing and oystering.
Also located on the Museum grounds you will find the “Little Red Schoolhouse,” an authentic 19th century one-room school.
The museum is also host to an authentic historic watercraft, the Doris C, a Potomac River dory boat that worked the waters of the Potomac for decades in the early 1900’s.
Open Daily 10 am – 5 pm.
38370 Point Breeze Road
St. Clements Island