Saturday, October 20, 2012

Voices from the Sultana

April 1865 was perhaps the most trying of months during the years 1861 to 1865.

While it is true that Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had stacked their arms for the last time on April 9, and General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered on the 26th, Kirby Smith and Richard Taylor still had armies in the field and the war was not quite over.

Abraham Lincoln was barely six weeks into his second term when John Wilkes Booth sent a bullet into the presidents brain on the 14th. Lincoln succumbed to the wound early the next day.

The mood of the country was at once hopeful and despairing, mixed with a good measure of indignation. This April was like no other during the American Civil War.

April 1865 also saw the worst maritime disaster the United States has ever witnessed. The explosion and burning of the packet steamer Sultana. That sad event also ranks number five on the list of peacetime maritime disasters in terms of casualties. [1] (Although technically the war was still going on.)

The Sultana was built at Cincinnati, Ohio and put into service in January 1863. She displaced about 1,700 tons, drew seven feet of water and was powered by four tubular boilers [2] turning her two massive side wheels. Her regular run was New Orleans to St. Louis and she carried passengers and freight.

In the very early, inky black darkness of the morning of April 27, at least one of the steamers boilers exploded. She immediately caught fire, and passengers, at least those that were able, scrambled for safety, which usually meant over the side and into the cold, flood swollen Mississippi River. On this trip there was upward of 2,000 souls aboard, most of whom were Union soldiers, fresh from prison pens from across the Confederacy.

The exact details of who was to blame for the tremendous loss of life and theories of the cause of the explosion are not covered in this post. Dealt with here is the human aspect of that sad morning. These are snippets of first hand accounts from survivors.

The SULTANA, April 26, 1865, the day before the disaster.

Hiram Allison, Company G, Ninth Indiana Cavalry, captured at Sulphur Trestle, Louisiana, September 25, 1864, imprisoned at Cahaba, Alabama (Castle Morgan). He writes:

[I] glanced around the burning wreck and saw that I would have to go,so I jumped from the cabin deck into the water. I remained there for two or three hours and then came across a horse trough with a comrade on each end of it. I took the center. When I caught up with the two comrades they were both praying. When I got on with them I said: “That was a terrible disaster.” They made no reply but kept right on praying. I said no more to them and when it was light enough for me to see they were gone. What became of them I never knew.” [3]

Incidents like this are a recurring theme throughout the accounts of survivors. Many were able to either throw pieces of debris from the wreck into the water for a raft or had the good fortune to find a piece in the water large enough to accommodate three or four men. Sadly, the loss of comrades that slipped away without a murmur and unbeknownst to their friends was common. Months of prison life had taken a terrible toll on these souls, and given the swollen river and weakened constitutions, it is a wonder that anyone survived.
P.S. Atchley, a corporal in Company K, Third Tennessee (US), has an interesting tale to tell, one that reminds us that decency, even in the bitterest of times, can show through even from an unlikely source. He relates:

[I] landed on the Arkansas shore without any assistance whatever. There I found a Confederate soldier who came to my relief, and took me to a house nearby, and gave me something to eat, and I felt something like myself again, thanks to the Ruler of the Universe. The said Confederate soldier worked hard to save the lives of the drowning men,and brought to shore in his little dugout about 15 of them.” [4]
Even in bitter defeat, the Rebel soldier came to the aid of the enemy in distress. Perhaps it was his realization that the past was gone and the future was still to be faced, and in some small way his action was a way toward his own healing. No name is given to this man, but at least 15 men would owe their lives and their own healing to him.
William Boor, a private in Company D, 64th Ohio Infantry had not been long in the army that terrible morning, and much of his service was spent as a prisoner of war. He enlisted on October 5, 1864 and was captured at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee November 30, 1864. He spent the remainder of the war in pens at Meridian, Mississippi, Cahaba and Selma Alabama. He, too has a harrowing tale to tell, beginning almost as soon as he abandoned the burning Sultana:

Here I met with an accident which came near proving fatal to me. I got into one of those whirlpools in the water,and while there I could not manage my board. (He had, like so many others, thrown a piece of the wreck into the water to use as a raft) I finally got tired out, and then for the first time I thought I must give up the struggle and drown as I could not get away from there. I finally concluded to dive for the bottom and get a good start, not thinking that the water was forty or fifty feet deep in the channel. I went down but it was not long before I was in need of the fresh air. When I came near the surface of the water, as luck would have it, I cleared the pool and got my board.”
Boor would end up rescuing another man with his board and another piece of debris. Both were non-swimmers, and eventually they would be hauled out of the black river by yet another[?] Confederate soldier, this one a captain with a raft of rails, again on the Arkansas shore, and again no name given. [5]
Acting Master's Mate William B. Floyd has the vantage of rescuer to the survivors of the disaster. Serving on the USS Grosbeak, he tells of rescuing twelve soldiers on a raft, “or a lot of wreckage”, while at the same time ignoring the cries from someone stranded in the flooded timber some distance from the raft. Working from one of Grosbeaks boats, Floyd offers his testimony:
I found the nearest on a raft or a lot of wreckage. There were twelve or perhaps more and were raising a terrible cry for help. It was yet dark, and I could not tell if there were twenty or a hundred there, but away farther toward the shore was a lone voice, calling in the most piteous tone for help, that appealed to me so that it was hard for me to steer my boat for the raft, instead of hastening to his aid. I had to leave the poor fellow to his fate.[6]
Of the twelve men on the raft Floyd learned very little but he overheard a pair of them speaking of their sleeping berths aboard Sultana:

One was sleeping above the boilers and said that the first thing he knew he was flying up in the air and when he came down it was in the water. The other, sleeping under the boiler was not injured, as the force of the explosion was upward.” [7]

Erastus Winters of Company K, 50th Ohio Infantry, had been in the army since the summer of 1862 was captured at the Battle of Franklin, November 30, 1864. His home for the next several months was also at Cahaba. He perhaps sums up the minds of all the survivors with these words:

No artist, I care not how clever he may be with his brush, can paint a picture as full of horrors as the picture that was painted on my memory, that April morning, 1865.” [8]

These are just a few of the voices from the Sultana. The accounts here were related some years after the fact. Winters' story was told 40 years beyond Sultana. The memories did not fade or go away and would haunt these men until the end of their lives. The author/compiler of Loss of the Sultana, Chester D. Berry, gives his own testament to that fact, 27 years after the wreck:

... I came across one man who was weeping bitterly and wringing his hands as if in terrible agony, continually crying 'O dear! O dear!' I supposed the poor fellow was seriously hurt. My sympathies were aroused at once. Approaching him, I took him by the shoulder and asked where he was hurt. 'I'm not hurt at all.' he said 'but I can't swim, I've got to drown. O dear.'”
With that, Berry shows the man the small piece of board he was going to use as a raft, and points to a pile of broken timbers and suggests the man get himself one. The other soldier continues:

But I did get one, and someone snatched it away from me.”
Well, get another.” said I.
I did.” said he, “And they took that away from me.”
Well then” said I, “get another.”
Why?” said he. “What would be the use,they would take it from me. O dear, I tell you there is no use; I've got to drown. I can't swim.”
The man had lost all hope. Berry, himself a recently released prisoner thrust into a traumatic situation, relates what happened next:
By this time I was thoroughly disgusted, and giving him a shove I said, 'drown then you fool.'
I have been sorry all these years for that very act.” [9]
Chester Berry was with Company I, 20th Michigan Infantry, captured at Cold Harbor in June of 1864, and recently a prisoner at Andersonville, Georgia.
Others tell of seeing a bridal couple aboard the doomed vessel, some tell of the ladies of the Sanitary Commission that perished that morning. There are claims of Rebel prisoners aboard, and a compliment of Union soldiers, under arms, that were traveling northward with their late prisoner comrades. Among the lost were men, women, and children, passengers that paid a fare for a trip North.
Coming as it did in the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and occurring far from the eastern population centers, it did not garner the attention one would expect from such a disaster. Most of the soldiers on board were Westerners anyway, at least that is reason the early writers blame for lack of coverage. Families of the people lost would feel it long afterward as much as any battle touched the families of those slain on “fields of glory”. 1,547 lives were lost “officially” [10] but many more may have perished in the explosion and fire or drowned in the turbulent river. Many were never found.
Sultana is a sad epitaph to the national nightmare that was the American Civil War.

The Picket

1- List of maritime disasters, wikipedia, retrieved from
2- Trudeau, Noah A., Death on the River, Naval History Magazine, August 2009, Volume 23, Number 4, retrieved from
Mr. Trudeau lists Sultana's displacement as 719 tons.
3-Berry, Chester D., Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of survivors, , 1892 pp 33-34. Retrieved from
4-Ibid, p34
5-Ibid pp 59-60
6- Taylor, Joseph, The Sultana Disaster, Indiana Historical Society, Volume 5, Number 3, 1913. p 182 retrieved from
7-Ibid, p185
8-Winters, Erastus, In the 50th Ohio Serving Uncle Sam:Memoirs of one who wore the Blue,1905, p168 retrieved from
9-Berry, pp 50-51
10- SS Sultana from as listed from US Customs Service

Photo from Library of Congress retrieved from
**Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of survivors has a list of soldiers supposed to have been aboard the Sultana that morning and as near as could be ascertained, the names of the lost are marked with an asterisk. The list is not alphabetical and begins on page 385. This book contains a great many recollections of the soldiers, and may prove useful to genealogists.


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