When the British-owned and newly built side-wheel steamer Lady Sterling proceeded down the River Thames on 12 August 1864, her ultimate destination was the Confederate port of Wilmington, North Carolina. She was built for speed, and her owner anticipated huge profits by running cargoes past the well-armed Union vessels blockading that port.
On the dark night of 28 October, after several attempts to pass the Confederacy’s soft sands, she cleared Western Bar Inlet of the Cape Fear River. Encountering Union shellfire, she caught fire and was captured—her smuggling career thwarted at the outset. But much more lay in store for her, and no one would have anticipated that the Lady Sterling, a Union prize, would be modified for the “special accommodation” of none other than Abraham Lincoln. Even so, the 16th President would never set foot on her.