Thursday, April 11, 2024

The Sultana: The Maritime Disaster the U.S. Forgot - Part I

The journey of the Sultana

by Denise Weimer

They were destined for home, these emaciated, war-weary Union prisoners of war from Andersonville prison camp in Georgia and Cahaba in Alabama. The nightmares they had endured had left them shell-shocked and shells of their former selves. After four years of war and incarceration, they were paroled to Camp Fisk, where the U.S. Sanitary Commission replaced their prison rags with decent clothing and fed them potatoes and sauerkraut. 

When the order came on April 13, 1865 to release all prisoners without exchange, they celebrated with an artillery volley. Men from Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and western Virginia soon found themselves entrained for Vicksburg, from where they would steam their way up the Mississippi River and then proceed by train to muster out at Camp Chase, Ohio.

At the Vicksburg dock, their ride awaited—the Sultana steamboat, its black bunting and flag at half staff that had carried the news of President Lincoln’s assassination downriver at odds with the elk horns proudly displayed between the two smokestacks. The elk horns were the wreath of honor for the fastest steamer on the river, owned by Captain Cass Mason. And even more jarring were the clanging sounds of boiler repair as the Ohio men first came aboard.

The unease of the initial group of parolees only increased as a second, then a third trainload arrived. (Officers in charge of the loading had miscommunicated and missed important information.) The soldiers aboard didn’t know the steamer had been designed to carry up to 376 passengers and a crew of 80, but anyone could see the men were being packed onto the main deck, which also carried livestock aft of the open boilers, the boiler deck where the enclosed saloon housed officers and paying civilian passengers, and the open hurricane deck which sat below the Texas deck of crew’s quarters just beneath the pilothouse. Packed on like sardines while other steamers came and went virtually empty from the Vicksburg dock. It didn’t take long for rumors of bribery between the captain and the quartermaster, Colonel Reuben Hatch, to circulate. By the time the Sultana left Vicksburg at 9 p.m. on Monday, April 24, she carried over 2100 souls.

The Mississippi River in the spring of 1865 was flooded up to several miles beyond its banks, the levees that were normally maintained by the Corps of Engineers broken. When the steamer stopped in Hopefield, Arkansas, the men rushed to view the water-covered streets and had to be chastened when the boat started tipping. A photographer on shore captured an image of the overcrowded steamer.

The Sultana stopped again at Memphis, unloading 400,000 pounds of sugar, 97 boxes of wine, and 60 hogs from the hold…without distributing the top-heavy load. A mile upriver, the steamer took on coal from the barges. The paroled Union soldiers and crew didn’t know it, but they were minutes away from a disaster that would forever change their lives.

Continued in my May 11 Part II post.

Pre-order When Hope Sank, part of Barbour’s Disastrous Days Series, at The Civil War took Lily Livingston’s parents, twin brother, and home. She hides her Union loyalties to protect her younger brother while working in her uncle’s riverside inn—and dismisses the threats of a saboteur as bragging. Until the Sultana steamboat explodes in the Mississippi. The fiery explosion threatens to render Andersonville Prison survivor Cade Palmer unable to practice medicine again. But the tender care of the girl who rescues him sparks both faith and romance. When coded messages pass through the inn, Cade and Lily must work together to prevent another tragedy. 

Denise Weimer writes historical and contemporary romance from her home in North Georgia and also serves as a freelance editor and the Acquisitions & Editorial Liaison for Wild Heart Books. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses.

Connect with Denise here:

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I look forward to the next installment.