Steamship Mail in the 19th Century


The Civil War

During the Civil War, mail lines provided the most efficient line of communication between the Eastern and Western territories of the Union. Steamships provided the fastest route to carry troops to the Pacific and offered an opportunity to train naval officers. David D. Porter, a lauded Union naval commander, operated the Panama during her maiden voyage from New York to the Pacific and later served as captain of the Georgia.1 The most valuable asset to both the Union and Confederacy, of course, was gold.

Refer to caption
Captain Raphael Semmes aboard the CSS Alabama, August 1863.

The Confederacy hoped to capture ships on their return eastward from the Isthmus, when they would be returning with the treasures of miners who struck it rich in California. On December 7, 1862, the steamship Ariel was headed southward from New York when it was overhauled by Captain Raphael Semmes of the CSS Alabama.2 The Alabama had actually been waiting for the northbound Champion, which was expected to be carrying $1,353,536.77 in treasure. When they spotted a large steamer, Captain Semmes and his crew believed that it was carrying California gold, even though it was travelling in the wrong direction.3 The Ariel, heading westward toward the gold mines, was only carrying about $9,500.

Nevertheless, Captain Semmes seized the modest amount of treasure as well as the arms and ammunition of one hundred and twenty US marines aboard the Ariel. Captain Semmes also required a release bond of $223,000 from Captain Jones, who had commanded the Ariel.4 The ship and its passengers were spared and the Ariel continued its journey to the isthmus. It returned without any gold, having left it all safely in Aspinwall. The gold was eventually transported to New York by the more heavily armed USS Connecticut. After the capture of the Ariel, the routes of all ships carrying gold specie from California were immediately changed. Beginning in 1862, treasure was divided at the isthmus with the greater portion being transported by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company from Aspinwall to Liverpool, then to New York. The much longer route proved to be a success.

The Confederate Army had also planned to use the schooner J.M. Chapman as a privateer to raid Pacific steamers for their treasure. This plot and another to capture the steamer Salvador in 1863 were both unsuccessful and the only serious threats to the mail lines during the Civil War.


Between 1848 and the end of June 1869, at least 375,000 people travelled westward by the Panama route as passengers on mail steamers.5 Approximately one-fifth of the emigrants to California between 1849 and 1859 travelled across the Isthmus of Panama, and in the years afterward, nearly half of the emigrants to California travelled by this route.6 Additionally, until the completion of the transcontinental railroad, nearly all of the gold sent eastward from California was shipped by mail steamers. At least $710,723,857.62 in gold specie was shipped by way of Panama between 1849 and 1869.7 In the twenty years of their most significant service, these isthmus-bound mail steamships had a tremendous impact on U.S. history.

1) Kemble, 202.
2) Colyer Meriwether, “Raphael Semmes,” (Philadelphia, Penn: George W. Jacobs & Company, 1913), 202.
3) Ibid.
4) Kemble, 110.
5) Kemble, 206.
6) Ibid.
7) Kemble, 207.