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THE average American is astonished at nothing he sees or hears. He looks for large things. Things ordinary are too tame. This, and the exciting events of April, 1865, perhaps account for the fact that the loss of the steamer "Sultana" and over 1,700 passengers, mostly exchanged prisoners of war, finds no place in American history. The idea that the most appalling marine disaster that ever occurred in the history of the world should pass by unnoticed is strange, but still such is the fact, and the majority of the American people today do not know that there ever was such a vessel as the "Sultana." And many of those who do recollect something about the occurrence cannot tell whether it occurred in the Mississippi river, the gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic ocean; and the purpose of setting them right and instructing others, thus holding in the memory of the present generation and those yet to be the sufferings of the defenders of our country, is the object of this sketch. The steamer "Sultana" was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, January, 1863, and was registered, as near as I can learn, at 1,719 tons. She was a regular St. Louis and New Orleans packet, and left the latter port on her fatal trip April 21, 1865, arriving at Vicksburg, Miss., with about two hundred passengers and crew on board. She remained here little more than one day; among other things repairing one of her boilers, at the same time receiving on board 1,965 federal soldiers and 35 officers just released from the rebel prisons at Cahaba, Ala., Macon and Andersonville, Ga., and belonging to the States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Besides these there were two companies of infantry under arms, making a grand total of 2,300 souls on board, besides a number of mules and horses, and over one hundred hogsheads of sugar, the latter being in the hold of the boat and serving as ballast. At Helena, Ark., by some unaccountable means a photograph of the boat with her mass of living freight was taken, a copy of which is in possession of L. G. Morgan of Findlay, Ohio, one of the survivors today.

Leaving Helena the boat arrived at Memphis, Tenn., about seven o'clock, P. M., of the 26th of April. Here the sugar was unloaded, many of the exchanged prisoners helping the crew, thus making a little money for themselves. Sometime in the evening, probably well towards midnight, the boat steamed across the river to the coal bins or barges and, after taking on her supply of coal, started on, up the river, for Cairo, Ill. All was quiet and peaceful, many of the soldiers, no doubt, after their long, unwilling fast in southern prisons, were dreaming of home and the good things in store for them there, but alas! those beautiful visions were dissipated by a terrific explosion, for, about two o'clock in the morning of the 27th, as the boat was passing through a group of islands known as the "Old Hen and Chickens," and while about opposite of Tagleman's Landing had burst one of her boilers and almost immediately caught fire, for the fragments of the boiler had cut the cabin and the hurricane deck in two and the splintered pieces had fallen, many of them, back upon the burning coal fires that were now left exposed. The light, dry wood of the cabins burned like tinder and it was but a short time ere the boat was wrapped in flames, burning to the water's edge and sinking. Hundreds were forced into the water and drowned in huge squads, those who could swim being unable to get away from those who could not and consequently perishing with them. One thing favorable for the men was the fact that there was a little wind, hence the bow of the boat, having no cabin above it, would face the wind until the cabin was burned off from the stern, then the boat gradually swung around, the unburned part of the boat above the water acting as a sail while that below acted as a rudder, and finally drove the men into the water. A part of the crowd was driven at a time, thus giving many of those who could swim or had secured fragments of the wreck an opportunity to escape.

But there was one thing that was unfavorable, and that was the pitchy darkness of the night. It was raining a little, or had been, and but occasional glimpses of timber were all that could be seen, even when the flames were the brightest, consequently the men did not know what direction to take, and one man, especially, swam up stream. Another thing that added greatly to the loss of life is the fact that the river at this place is three miles wide, and at the time of the accident it was very high and had overflown its banks, and many, doubtless, perished after they reached the timber while trying to get through the woods back to the bluffs, the flats being deeply under water. Others died from exposure in the icy-cold water after they had reached the timber, but were unable to climb a tree or crawl upon a log and thus get out of the water.

Among the passengers on board were twelve ladies, most of them belonging to the Christian commission, an association akin to that of the sanitary commission of the Army of the Potomac. One of these ladies, with more than ordinary courage, when the flames at last drove all the men from the boat, seeing them fighting like demons in the water in the mad endeavor to save their lives, actually destroying each other and themselves by their wild actions, talked to them, urging them to be men, and finally succeeded in getting them quieted down, clinging to the ropes and chains that hung over the bow of the boat. The flames now began to lap around her with their fiery tongues. The men pleaded and urged her to jump into the water and thus save herself, but she refused, saying: "I might lose my presence of mind and be the means of the death of some of you." And so, rather than run the risk of becoming the cause of the death of a single person, she folded her arms quietly over her bosom and burned, a voluntary martyr to the men she had so lately quieted.

In the official list the names seem to have been taken without reference to rank or State they were from; sometimes, apparently, a squad from one company or regiment would be taken together, but often it was the case that they were all mixed up. In other cases many were left out; for instance, a sergeant came to me and asked to see the official list. It was shown him. "Why," said he, "there are but ten of my company reported here and I know there were eighteen of us." This has been true in quite a number of cases. On December 30, 1885, at a convention called in Fostoria, Ohio, there was a committee appointed, consisting of A. C. Brown, P. L. Horn, Wm. Fies, A. W. King, and G. N. Clinger, to prepare a suitable memorial and present the same to Congress, praying for a pension for each of the survivors of the lost "Sultana."


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Civil War Files On This Site

Michigan Civil War Files | 1883 Michigan Pensioners | 1894 Civil War Veteran Michigan Census
African Americans Who Served From Michigan | 1st Michigan Sharp Shooters Co. K | Loss of the Sultana
Honor Roll Interments in Michigan