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Steamship Isabel, Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1855
Joseph B. Smith (1798-1876)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
30 1/4 x 50 1/4 inches
Status: Private Collection, Charleston, South Carolina

This rendering of the steamship Isabel, which had a maritime career from 1848 to 1863, is a highly evocative representation of the maritime history of antebellum South Carolina and the Confederate States of America. Believed to have been painted around the year 1855 by Joseph B. Smith and his artist-son, William S. Smith, this work of art captures the vitality, technological mastery, and expansive commercial vision of the pre-Civil War United States, and, in this respect, complements in theme and even manner of execution the Southern landscapes of such artists as Joshua Shaw (1775-1860), George Cooke (1793-1849), and Edward Beyer (1820-1865). Although diverse in their subject matter, these artists uniformly depicted a youthful, optimistic vision of the American nation that was nearly destroyed by the political and social destruction wrought by the Civil War. The works of Smith and Son, Shaw, Cooke, and Beyer are so resolutely antebellum that their merits have had to be rediscovered by the present generation.


Despite economic pressures from the industrial North, ever-increasing global competition for rice and cotton, and growing condemnation of its slavery-based agricultural economy, the American South was prospering in 1848. Charleston businessmen lacked nothing in comparison to their Northern counterparts in terms of entrepreneurial energy and allegiance to technological innovation, and the steamship Isabel was a prime example of that community’s unwavering faith in the future. Commissioned by a group of Charleston merchants and commercial agents, the vessel was built in Baltimore, Maryland in 1847-1848. It was constructed specifically to serve the United States postal service, as well as coastal passenger trade, between the eastern United States and the Spanish colony of Cuba. During the Civil War, the Isabel, renamed the Ella Warley, operated out of Charleston for two years as a blockade runner. Following its capture by the Union Navy in April 1862, the Ella Warley was purchased by a New York City shipping company. The illustrious ship’s career ended when it collided with another vessel and sank off Sandy Hook, New Jersey in February 1863.  At each stage of its short-lived existence, it participated in some of the signal events of American history. To investigate the ship’s successive uses provides much information for the understanding of national and Southern maritime history. 


Ultimately, the Smith and Son Isabel painting is a distinguished example of ship paintings, a perennially popular variety of maritime art. Ship owners, builders, and commercial investors often commissioned paintings similar to this, and many artists specialized in the genre. Joseph B. Smith (1798-1876) who worked in partnership with his son, William S. Smith (born 1821), of Brooklyn, New York; James Edward Buttersworth (1817-1894) of New York City; and Edward Arnold (1824-1866) and James Guy Evans (1810-1860), both of New Orleans, were among the best known of this genre. Their works adorned the board rooms of shipping companies, ship staterooms, and homes of famous ship captains throughout the United States. Based on its provenance, the Isabel painting was probably commissioned by or created for John Mahony Jr., of Charleston, longtime purser or financial manager on the vessel.


Because these paintings were typically commissioned and because their subjects, sophisticated sailing vessels and steamships, were the technological marvels of the age, both the paintings and the ships they depict are usually very well documented. Exhibition records and accurate documentation of provenance often accompany the paintings. Likewise, nearly all aspects of the ships’ construction, service in commerce or as naval vessels, and roles in historic events are also carefully preserved. As was the case with the railroading in the nineteenth century, records abound concerning the Isabel and ships similar to it. Although unsigned and undated, the Isabel painting demonstrates the conjunction of fine art and historical documentation found in the best American genre and landscape paintings. It is, in many ways, a visual encyclopedia of the maritime history of the city of Charleston and of the American South. 

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Construction of the Isabel began in 1847 at Levin H. Dunkin’s shipyard in Baltimore, Maryland, and the ship was officially launched on February 22, 1848. When it slipped from its construction dock into the waters of Baltimore harbor, the Isabel measured 220 feet in length and thirty-three feet in breadth. Weighing 1,115 tons, it drew twelve feet of water, and its depth from main deck to keel was twenty-one feet. Fitted with two decks, it accommodated 150 passengers in addition to its cargo capacity. The Isabel was powered by a 500-horsepower, side-lever steam engine built and installed by the C. & A. Reeder Company of Baltimore that drove port and starboard side-wheels thirty feet in diameter and eight feet in width. The wheels were capable of fourteen to sixteen revolutions per minute, which gave the vessel a speed of around nine knots. In addition, the Isabel was fitted with three masts, square-rigged as a Baltimore clipper by Ford and Harris.

The daily newspaper, the Baltimore Sun, closely followed the ship’s launch, its fitting with the Reeder engines, and gave copious reports of the furnishings of the staterooms and other passenger facilities aboard the vessel. The Sun’s July 31, 1848 edition extolled the ship’s appointments, including a modern kitchen which featured a large ice locker, and the ladies salon’s elegant sofas and chairs, “manufactured by Charles Hodgkinson . . . of imitation porcelain and gild, with spring seats, and covered with moreen silk.” One of the onboard novelties was an “annunciator,” a servant call system. “This is the first of these convenient machines in use on board ship, and we learn that one of them is shortly to be put up in Barnum’s hotel,” the paper reported.


The Isabel was financed and owned by a corporation of Charleston businessmen, including Henry Gourdin (1804-1879) and Moses Cohen Mordecai (1804-1888). Gourdin, a longtime member of the South Carolina House of Representatives was a founder of the Bank of Charleston in the 1830s.  Mordecai, who served as the company’s principal, was one of antebellum Charleston’s most prominent merchants. He served in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1844-1845) and South Carolina Senate (1854-1857), and as alderman, police warden, and market commissioner of Charleston. In addition to his public service, he was a director of the South-West Railroad Bank (1840-1852), Charleston Gas light company (1848-1856), and one of the incorporators of the Charleston Floating Dry Dock and Marine Railway Company (1851). Born into Charleston’s Jewish community, Mordecai was a president of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue (1857-61) and was also a member of the Hibernian and Saint Andrews Societies. One report stated that the Isabel had been named in honor of Queen Isabel of Spain, the ruler of Cuba in 1848. However, the fact that Mordecai’s wife, Isabel Rebecca Lyons Mordecai (1804-1895), also had that name suggested that the ship’s name came from a more personal connection.

In late 1847, the United States Congress had established regular mail service up and down the American coast, across the Atlantic Ocean to Great Britain, and south to Cuba. On July 10, 1848, Mordecai and Company secured the contract to transport the U.S. mail twice a month from Charleston to Havana and back to Charleston. Mordecai’s firm’s larger objective was to establish a line of packet steamships that would carry goods and passengers, as well as the mail, along the Charleston-Havana route, including stops in Savannah, Georgia and Key West, Florida.


Its construction complete, the Isabel performed test voyages in the Chesapeake region before setting off to Charleston to take up its packet duties. The vessel arrived in Charleston on Friday, October 6, 1848 and berthed at Adger’s North Wharf. Adger’s Wharf was its regular port during its Charleston stops, but occasional advertisements for its passages indicated that it occasionally was docked at Union Wharf. The Isabel undertook its first scheduled trip to Havana on October 15, stopping at Savannah and Key West. Return trips from Havana ran on the eighth and twenty-second of each month. By the 1850s, the scheduled arrival and departure times had shifted somewhat, but the regular bi-monthly trips continued until the end of 1860, by which time South Carolina had seceded from the Union. Captain William Rollin of Baltimore was the sole captain of the Isabel during her packet career and John Mahony, Jr. was the vessel’s long-time purser. 


Over the years, copious advertisements in Charleston, Savannah, and Havana newspapers kept track of the Isabel’s arrivals and departures. In addition, manuscripts and philatelic collections contain numerous letter covers that bear postage stamps from the coastal cities and the Cuban capital. These covers were marked “via Isabel” and “per Isabel” to indicate their mode of transport through the mail service. With very few interruptions for repair and refitting, the Isabel fulfilled the Mordecai and Company contract from 1848 until its conclusion in January 1861. A study of the painting reveals the sophistication of the ship’s design and state-of-the art steam technology that permitted it to endure the rigors of ocean travel and a punishing travel schedule until its accidental sinking in 1863. 


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The Isabel took center stage during two noteworthy episodes in antebellum and Civil War history. During the spring of 1850, its regular packet duties included transporting the Cuban-born South Carolina citizen Narciso Gonzales and other “filibusters” along the coast to and from Havana as they made an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Spanish royal government in Cuba. After the bombardment and surrender of Fort Sumter on April 12-13, 1861, Mordecai and Company offered the Isabel to evacuate Colonel Robert Anderson and his Union troops from the fort and convey them to Union warships off the coast of Charleston.


These dramatic episodes aside, the chief impact of the Isabel’s pre-Civil War career was its reliability. With only a few interruptions for routine repair and maintenance of its steam engines and hull—constant attention was essential to the copper sheathing on ships’ hulls—the Isabel sustained its regular service through all of the political and social turmoil of the sectional crisis and the rise of revolutionary spirit in Europe and Latin America. So regular were reports of the ship’s passages that even intervals of upkeep were well documented.


The lifeblood of nineteenth century commerce was timely access to goods, services, and information, and the harnessing of steam power and electricity was the heart of this new era of human history. The ability of steam-powered vessels to adhere to tight travel schedules represented a revolution in international commerce, much as railroads and the telegraph had for domestic transportation. These transportation and communications innovations bound the whole world more tightly together than had ever been the case in the past. Only the most drastic political upheavals and international crises had the strength to break these new ties. Viewed in that light, the American Civil War was indeed a cataclysm, the effects of which transformed not only the American North and South, but also Europe and the Caribbean.


The Isabel played a complicated and unorthodox role during the War and was, in the end, its victim. The political tensions and looming secession crisis of late 1860 had cost Mordecai and Company the mail route from Charleston to Havana. Despite this setback, the Isabel’s captain, William Rollins, and Mordecai and Company had confidence in the vessel’s ability to transport passengers and commerce to Cuba. Steamship construction and design provided passengers safer, more reliable ocean transportation than could be achieved with even the best sail-powered vessels, as the Isabel’s owners worked to remind a paying public. An advertisement in the October 12, 1860 edition of the Charleston Mercury stated that “The Isabel is rated A.1 by the Underwriters of both Europe and America; and from recently introduced improvements, together with the wide-spread reputation of her popular Commander, is by far the safest and most agreeable conveyance for [Key West and Havana].”


Following South Carolina’s secession and the Union’s blockade of the entire coastline of the emerging Confederate States of America, international commerce and communications were severely disrupted. By January 1861, the new state government of South Carolina had commandeered the Isabel for government service. The Mercury of January 7, 1861 reported: “It is understood that the Isabel, which was built for a war steamer, with mercantile proclivities, is already under control of the South Carolina government, and is armed and equipped for naval service.” Despite this designation as a government ship, the Isabel likely saw little government service—except perhaps its transport of the Union troops from Fort Sumter. A far more significant career change for the Isabel occurred on October 7, 1861, when John Fraser and Company purchased a one-half interest in the Steam Ship Isabel Company from M. C. Mordecai. Fraser and Company was the Charleston branch of one of the largest new corporations created to secure and operate fleets of vessels to penetrate the Union blockade and keep alive Confederate commerce with Europe and the Caribbean regions. By entering into this agreement, Mordecai and the Isabel joined the dangerous, lucrative business of blockade running. In accord with this radically new mission, the Isabel received a new name. The vessel was rechristened the Ella Warley, after the wife of Theodore Wagner, a partner in Fraser and Company. Under that name, the Isabel served not only as a blockade runner, but also saw final service under the ownership of a Northern shipping company. According to Ethel Nepveux, biographer of her forebear George A. Trenholm, Fraser and Company purchased the Isabel at auction on June 17, 1861, several months before the agreement with Mordecai. Nepveux also stated that the Ella Warley was the first blockade runner to sail out of Charleston and carry the Confederate flag to British soil at Nassau, Bahamas.

From December 1861 to April 25, 1862, a period of a little less than five months, the Ella Warley successfully penetrated the Union blockade three times, carrying cotton and all manner of materials—munitions, cloth, medical supplies—to the Bahamas. On its fourth voyage, the vessel was captured off Abaco, Bahamas on April 25, 1862 by the Union warship USS Santiago de Cuba, captained by Daniel B. Ridgely. H. G. Swassey was captain of the Ella Warley that day, and among the ship’s passengers was a famous Charleston harbor pilot, Robert W. Lockwood, brother of the famous blockade runner, Thomas J. Lockwood. The vessel was filled with a variety of military and civilian cargo, and the loss to Fraser and Company was considerable. On October 18, 1862, Harper’s Weekly Magazine published an illustration of the Ella Warley and other captured blockade runners at anchor in New York harbor. Shown fifth from the far left, the Ella Warley is the most prominent vessel on that side of the illustration. Now painted black to elude detection, the Ella Warley offered a considerably different impression from the colorful Smith painting of the Isabel executed only a few years earlier. The accompanying article, “The Prize Fleet,” reported that the “Ella Warley, formerly the Isabel of Charleston, was captured on the 24th of April, by the St. Jago de Cuba, and was libeled June 4, 1862. Her cargo consisted of arms, skins, copper, paper, cigars, and powder.” 


As was the fate of most captured Confederate vessels, the Ella Warley was libeled (that is, put on trial) in the admiralty prize court of New York and condemned as a contraband vessel filled with illegal cargo. According to the law report, the ship was owned at the time by E. Adderly of Nassau, who had recently purchased it from an American citizen of Charleston, possibly Mordecai or a representative of the Fraser Company. The ship and its contents were put up for auction and the receipts shared, according to precedent, by the captors on the Santiago de Cuba and the federal government.


The New York shipping company Trujillo and Company purchased the ship and cargo from the admiralty court in June 1862 and returned it to service as a legitimate commercial vessel. That firm specialized in the shipping route between New York and Cuba, just as the old Mordecai and Company had. Although the shipping records and harbor reports have not been examined for verification, it is presumed that the Ella Warley conducted successful voyages between those two destinations and Union-held ports in the American South through 1862 and into early 1863. 


Unfortunately, the Isabel/Ella Warley came to a disastrous end on February 4, 1863, when the ship collided with another commercial vessel, the North Star, off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Ella Warley sank within twenty minutes of being struck; five crewmembers lost their lives. All passengers and the surviving crew were rescued by the North Star. Because the accident was most unusual, the owners of both vessels sued to ascertain liability for the collision. A New Jersey federal district court ruled the Ella Warley at fault. In response to an appeal by the Ella Warley’s owners, a federal circuit court later decreed that both parties bore some share of responsibility for the accident.


The Ella Warley wreck site has been mapped in the waters off Sandy Hook and, over the years, has been explored by recreational divers and would-be treasure seekers. Even at the bottom of the sea, the Isabel captures imaginations.

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Soon after the Isabel was launched in Baltimore in September 1848, a local painter, Edward McGregor (active 1853-1872), painted a version of the vessel that depicted its starboard (right side from the bow) side and included in the background an unidentified building, likely in Baltimore harbor. In that painting, the Isabel flew an American Stars and Stripes from a flagpole on its stern and the flag of Spain, the ruling force of Cuba, from its mizzenmast. In addition, the ship had run aloft a pennant with the name “ISABEL” from its main mast, a square mail packet flag with the letter “I” from its foremast, and another insignia from a stanchion on its bow. Now in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society (accessioned in 1936), the MacGregor painting is reproduced in Priestly C. Coker’s Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670-1865: An Illustrated History (Charleston, SC: Coker Craft Press, 1987, page 191), and in A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, edited by Ted Rosengarten and Dale Rosengarten (Columbia: University of south Carolina Press, 2000, page 127). In general, the McGregor version is a less accomplished work and appears to be primarily devoted to documenting the vessel in a factual manner.

The painting attributed to Joseph B. Smith and Son, circa 1855, depicts the port (left) side of the vessel and is distinguished by the fact that the vessel lacks its mizzenmast. Research on ship construction—and especially the refitting of steamships—reveals that other vessels built around this time occasionally had their rear-most masts removed in the years following their construction. Though the removal could have been a temporary adjustment, in the case of the Isabel, it may be assumed that the removal was permanent as the captive Ella Warley illustrated in the 1862 Harper’s Weekly Magazine also lacks the mizzenmast. The Smith and Son depiction of the vessel reveals the ship flying the flag of Spain from its foremast and the American Stars and Stripes from a flagpole at the stern of the vessel. A pennant with the name “ISABEL” flies atop the mainmast and a blue pennant with the letter “I” is affixed to a boom off of the mainmast. In addition, the foremast contains two placards or signs.  In the center of the foremast’s top yardarm is a sign bearing the name “ISABEL” and in the center of the lower yardarm is a sign with the word “CHARLESTON.”   Depicted in open sea, sailing sloops are included in the painting’s background. Male and female passengers stroll about the decks as crewmembers.

One of the most prominent features of the Isabel was its highly decorated port and starboard wheelhouses. On October 2, 1848, shortly before the ship arrived at its home port of Charleston, the local Southern Patriot newspaper reported that the wheelhouses were “ornamented on the outside with open work richly carved and gilded, representing the ‘rising sun.’ The inner sides facing the deck are finished with two handsomely executed paintings, one of the harbor of Charleston, and the other of the harbor of Havana, in both of which are represented the ‘Isabel’ entering port. These paintings are executed by C. A. Schinotti of [Baltimore].”

Attribution of the painting to Joseph B. Smith and Son of Brooklyn, New York has been made primarily by comparison with other ship paintings known to have been painted by Smith and his son, William S. Smith (born 1821).  Joseph B. Smith’s other son, Archibald Cary Smith (1837-1911), was not only a successful marine painter, but also a distinguished boat architect.  Additional evidence in favor of the Smith and Son attribution is the fact that a partially legible business card concluding with the word “[Broo]klyn” is affixed to the painting’s original stretchers. Other Smith and Son paintings have been identified by the Smith business card being similarly affixed to their unsigned paintings.

In her biography of George A. Trenholm, Ethel Nepveux published a black and white depiction of the Isabel with its original three masts and U.S. mail packet flags. The source of the image is recorded as “U.S. Navy Photo,” but a search for the original image has been fruitless.

The Smith painting of the Isabel has a well documented provenance. The work has been passed through generations of a Charleston family, beginning with John Mahony Jr., purser of the Isabel, who lived on Tradd Street during the years that the vessel voyaged from Charleston to Havana. A recent owner of the painting has compiled a valuable collection of published and unpublished records relating to nearly every aspect of the history of the Isabel and the Smith painting of the vessel. That collection has provided much of the information contained in this essay.


John O. Sands, “Steamship Isabel of Charleston” (research file, Charleston Renaissance Gallery, Charleston, SC), 3-11. Sands cites the New-York Marine Register 1857 and articles in the Baltimore (Maryland) Sun, February 21, February 23, and July 31, 1848, for statistical and other descriptive materials.

Sands research file, “Blockade Running,” 43-44; and “Sinking of the Ella Warley,” February 9, 1848,” 56-60. Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 26, 63, 251, 230, 276, 297. Ethel T. S. Nepveux, George A. Trenholm, Financial Genius of the Confederacy: His Associates and his Ships that Ran the Blockade (Anderson, SC: Electric City Publishing, 1999), passim.

ds research file, “Painting Chain of Ownership,” 61-63. Mahony resided on Tradd Street during the years the Isabel was a packet steamer.

Baltimore Sun, July 31, 1848, as quoted in Sands research file.

Henry Gourdin (1804-1879), a Charleston banker and leading entrepreneur, represented Saint Philip and Saint Michael Parish in the South Carolina House of Representatives (1834-1835, 1838-1841, 1852-1853). He partnered with James Adger (1777-1858) in another steamship company.

or more on Mordecai, see N. Louise Bailey and others, Biographical Directory of the Senate of South Carolina, 3 vols. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 2: 1146-7; Theodore Rosengarten and Dale Rosengarten, editors, A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 127-30.

Rosengarten, Portion of the People, 128.

“Mail Service, Charleston, Key West and Havana,” Sands research file, 12.

Yamil H. Kouri, Jr., “Early Contract Steamship Mail between the United States and Cuba,” Cuban Philatelist (April 1997): 38-45, Internet text at www.philat.com/FIL/collections/LOUR 0712.pdf. See also, Sands research file, 12-15.

Anthony De La Cova, Cuban Confederate Colonel: The Life of Ambrosio José Gonzales (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 69, 71, 106, 129.

Sands research file, 38-40. See also, E. Millby Burton, The Siege of Charleston, 1861-1865 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), 56-58.

Sands research file, 37.


Nepveux, Trenholm, 38-40.


Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy, 297; Sands research file, 52-55.

Harper’s Weekly Magazine, October 18, 1862, 663, 668.

Sands research file, 55-56.

Sands research file, 64.

A. J. Peluso, Jr., “Joseph B. Smith & Son, Marine Artists, and Their American Flag,” Maine Antique Digest (2001), at http://maine antiquedigest.com/articles_archive/articles/smit0301.htm., accessed June 14, 2010.

Nepveux, Trenholm, 52.

Sands research file, 61-63.

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