by Jim Walker
In the latter part of April in 1865, as
Admiral Raphael Semmes was enroute to Greensboro to seek terms from General
William T. Sherman, the big steamer Sultana was making her way up the
The 1,700-ton, two-year-old side-wheeler was jammed solid with at least twenty-three hundred people, well over twice her listed human capacity, plus more that fifteen hundred horses, cows, and pigs. The passengers had boarded her in Vicksburg, many of them hungry, ragged, sweating prisoners from the prison camps of Andersonville, Georgia; Macon, Georgia; and Cahaba, Alabama. Victory earlier that April, had set them free. Their number was augmented by an overflow of soldiers from nearby Camp Fisk who struggled to obtain discharge papers and shoulder their way aboard. Two companies of armed infantry had also been ordered onto the Sultana to protect her from guerrillas along the banks and to guard a group of Confederate prisoners who were suspected of crimes. Twelve ladies of the Christian Commission crowded into the last available cabin, thankful that they did not have to travel overland. Northern bushwhackers vied with Southern diehards to render travel through the back roads of most of the Southern states wholly unsafe for man or woman.
With so many soldiers, sutlers, and other camp followers wanting to go home now that "the cruel war" was over, steamers the length of the Mississippi from New Orleans northward were swamped with hordes of would-be passengers. Masters were faced with far more potential fares than they could possibly accommodate. The had to request armed guards at the piers to keep the boisterous, pushing mobs off the gangplanks.
So, while some "Billy Yanks" were stomping aboard and others were held at dockside by lines with bayoneted rifles, the Sultana's grizzled chief engineer, Nat Wintringer, scratched his head over his problems, the most pressing of which was a leak in the new “experimental” boiler. It was hard to patch up a boiler without going into a shipyard, where engineers probably would have replaced the whole unit.
The best that Wintringer and his assistant, Ed Clemmans, could do was screw soft iron plugs into the more obvious holes and tighten metal straps the girth of larger areas, such as around the seams. "Good man that Clemmans", Chief Engineer Wintringer often thought - Clemmans neither drank nor swore. Wintringer could think of no other engineer on the entire Mississippi with a similar pedigree of sobriety and restraint.
While the engineers fussed and sweated in their greasy domain, two other steamers arrived in Vicksburg - the Pauline Carroll and the Olive Branch. Neither appeared as hopelessly overcrowded as the Sultana, whose passengers wondered why there could not have been a more reasonable division between the three riverboats.
Although Wintringer was not wholly satisfied with his repairs, Captain J. Cass Mason ordered steam up for Helena, Arkansas. There, much of the bulk cargo - a hundred hogsheads of sugar for ballast was unloaded. Who needed more ballast? Some of the livestock was also led ashore, though the odor remained in full strength. A number of the soldiers aboard the Sultana earned a few dollars and eased their boredom during the unloading by serving as stevedores.
The master's carefulness in casting off from the dock of Helena impressed at least one of his passengers, Lieutenant Joseph Taylor Elliott of Indiana, one of those released from Andersonville; Elliott heard Mason cautioning the travelers not to crowd to one side of the boat.
The Sultana paddled into Memphis at dawn on April 26, 1865. The remaining hogsheads of sugar were trundled onto the wharf, along with additional cows, horses, and pigs. A dozen mules were tugged aboard and into the ship’s cattle pens, however, as the quartermaster at Cairo, Illinois - the next stop - had telegraphed ahead for those cussed but essential quadrupeds of many jobs.
Then the coal barges came along side to satisfy the huge appetite of the side-wheeler's inefficient furnaces. The Sultana would need every chunk she could bunker to make Cairo. Wintringer and Clemmans again hammered and tightened the "experimental" boiler that had occupied so much of their attention.
The two companies of armed infantry assigned to protect the Sultana and guard the Confederate prisoners relaxed during the day’s layover in Memphis. Some went ashore in search of timeless soldiers’ pleasures, with the accent on liquor and women, while others caught up on their sleep on the hard decks. Memphis, snatched from the Confederates in mid-1862, had remained strongly garrisoned by Federal troops. For Pickering, for example, was just up the river. The Sultana's guards figured that their prisoners would not try to escape. Where could they go?
That they should keep an eye on the coal coming aboard or on other aspects of security never occurred to them, even though the occupation forces were well aware of the "bad losers"still wandering the city. Memphis had never been 100 percent secure. Certainly, communications being what they were, it was unlikely that any officer stationed in Memphis was aware that General Benjamin Franklin Butler’s communications ship, Greyhound, had been sabotaged recently in the James River by explosives placed in her coal bunkers. The war was over, and complacency was in the air. Just two short weeks past, no one - certainly not his guards - had thought that President Lincoln was walking into danger when he entered Ford's Theater.
On the other hand, Colonel I. G. Kappner, the commander of Fort Pickering, remained obsessed with the idea that guerrillas might materialize from shore and river to wreak all manner of violence upon his confines. That very Wednesday morning, for example, he had mustered Company A, Third Colored Artillery (Heavy), whose men were then performing a great deal of sentry duty. Whatever Kappner told them, his worthies had come away with the idea that they should shoot at anything that moved. That was fine with them. They were bored and wanted to see some action. The night watches were interminable, and the sentries tended to doze off.
Most of Sultana's passengers drifted ashore. A very few decided that they would wait for the next boat and proceeded to find themselves rooms or houses of prostitution where they could tarry a night or two. Another option was to continue north by rail and wagon, but that was a tedious, time-consuming, and not altogether safe alternative.
Among the passengers who went ashore was Joe Elliott, who was seeking "amusement" and some time in which to “cool off.” His nemesis ever since Vicksburg had been a Captain McCoy of Ohio, a fellow Andersonville prisoner. Not only had the two men exchanged “some very unpleasant words” over possession of a double- decker cot, according to Elliott, but the “words” had at least twice degenerated into physical combat. Their shipmates had separated them each time.
A small minority made the best of their situation. "A happier lot of men I think I never saw," wrote Chester D. Berry, twenty-one, of South Creek, Pennsylvania. A choir singer and avid churchgoer, Berry loved spirituals and "old time hymns." By untiring perseverance, he corralled others of like inclinations aboard the Sultana. "All went gay as a marriage bell," he wrote. "The most of them had been a long time in prison, and the prospect of reaching home made them content to endure any amount of crowding..... The main thought that occupied every mind was home, the dearest spot on earth.'
He had found himself a cot inside one of the passenger compartments shared by dozens. The conditions were dirty, smelly, and tightly packed, but if Berry had faithfully appraised the situation, the passengers were nonetheless in good spirits. Of course, his most recent basis of comparison was Andersonville. He had been captured at Fredericksburg early in the war and had suffered from typhoid in addition to the expected hardships of any Southern prison.
Berry had heard gossip to the effect that 'while the boat lay at Memphis, someone had gone up the river to prepare for her destruction. He had shrugged this off as 'talk.' He also conceded, however, that it was a 'a grand opportunity for guerrillas, if the [knew]..... that there was such a boatload of prisoners coming up the river .... They could plant a battery on the shore, sink the boat, and destroy nearly all of the prisoners on board.'
Others like Otto Barden of Wooster, Ohio, were inhabiting gratings in recesses of the engine room despite the shattering noise, the grease, and the steam. Perhaps the heat acted as an anesthetic for Barden, who claimed the dubious distinction of having been captured by General Nathan Bedford Forrest's tough cavalry.
P.L. Horn, also of Wooster, defied the jungle of heads, arms, and booted legs to spread his bedroll on the top deck near one of the cinder-belching stacks. At least he obtained some night air, mingled with the soot and the sparks showering down upon him and his mates.
Gaslights were shedding their familiar, nostalgic glow over Memphis’s streets when the soldiers began to straggle or stagger back aboard the Sultana. The engineers were not satisfied with either the boiler or the engines, but Captain Mason could not recall an engineer ever pronouncing the machinery fit in all respects to propel any vessel. If he waited for the 'grease monkeys' to say they were ready, he might never cast off from any dock.
Nevertheless it was almost midnight before coaling was completed, steam was up, and the majority of his passengers were on the steamer. One of the captains of the armed infantry reported to the master that “most” of his company had answered muster. Mason squinted into the blackness. A light rain was falling. Then he volunteered to the army captain that he planned to sell his interest in the Sultana 'if' she reached Cairo.
As Mason walked away, the army captain found himself thinking that the master’s remark was curious indeed. Further reverie was interrupted by two throaty blasts of the side-wheeler’s whistle, as lines were hauled onto the slippery decks. Sultana pulled away from Memphis and into midstream.
Chester Berry’s group finished a final chorus of 'Sweet Hour of Prayer' as they stared at the rapidly vanishing lights of Memphis. They would have been compelled to stop anyhow, since a rough, unkempt knot of soldiers nearby had threatened them bodily harm if they did not shut up. Joe Elliott was again arguing with McCoy over the cot, but Otto Barden, in the engine room, and P.L. Horn, on the upper deck, both slept through the departure like babies.
Well past midnight on Thursday, April 27, the Sultana, grossly overloaded, was wallowing opposite Tagleman’s Landing. Near the rough, shaky wharf, the converted side-wheeler USS Essex lay silently at anchor. Battle-scarred from the Vicksburg action, she was scarcely fit for duty more demanding than what presently assigned. Ensign James H. Berry, the Essex's young executive officer, had just been relieved by Ensign Jim Earnshaw and was preparing to hit the sack. Earnshaw logged “a large side-wheeler, prominently illuminated.” He noted the time meticulously - 2:00 A.M.
Ashore, the sentries of the Third Colored Artillery swung the arms against the chill and dampness. After their briefing, they gazed suspiciously at the large, dark silhouette thumping upriver. Was it friendly? They remembered what Colonel Kappner had told them.
Ahead, to port, wavered the misty outlines of Paddy’s Old Hen and Chickens Islands, no more than half a mile off the eastern bank of the Mississippi. There, the frogs of spring croaked their throaty chorus.
In the Sultana’s engine room, Clemmans had just relieved Chief Wintringer. The needles of the many gauges seemed to speak their normal, mute pattern. Not so mute were the wheezing pistons and grinding shafts, some eight inches in diameter, which drove the huge wheels.
The transition from quiet night on the river to cataclysm came wholly without warning and had but one common denominator: shock! 'Hot steam, smoke, pieces of brickbats, and chunks of coal came thick and fast. I gasped for breath,' recalled Otto Barden of the scene near his engine-room grating.
In the same area, Chief Engineer Wintringer 'stood bewildered for a moment, then saw the river perfectly alive with human beings struggling in the water, and the cry from all quarters, 'put out the fire!' which was getting a good headway.'
Hot water awoke Chester Berry as it soaked his blanket, compelling him to the conclusion: 'I had better move ... I sprang to the bow of the boat and turning, looked back upon one of the most terrible scenes I ever beheld. The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck and the dry casings of the cabins, falling in upon the hot bed of coal, were burning like tinder.'
On the upper deck, P.L. Horn first thought he was in a railroad wreck - a few weeks previously, he had survived a prison train smash-up near Athens, Georgia. He was in a good position to abandon ship, and taking off his shoes and coat, he did just that. Plunging off the side toward the inky, black water, Horn would remember thinking that 'the Confederates had blown up the vessel.'
Near Horn on the upper deck, William H. Norton of Summit County, Ohio, paused to listen in strange fascination to 'that awful wail of hundreds of human beings burning alive in the cabins under the fallen timber.'
Topsides near the bronze bell, twenty-two-year-old JP Zaizer of Limaville, Ohio, was awakened by one of the stacks falling down, splitting in two as it did so. One half knocked the bell onto the deck with a doleful clap, while the other crushed 'Sgt. Smith who had laid by us.' Without further thought, Zaizer jumped overboard.
Joe Elliott had paused in his continuing donnybrook with McCoy to doze off - for a matter of seconds. He dreamed he was 'in the regions of eternal torment.' Suddenly aware that these 'regions' were terribly real, not the province of nightmare, he observed with shock that many soldiers were still asleep. He 'turned around and made for the stern of the boat,' he recalled, 'hardly knowing what I was doing.' Aboard the Essex, Ensign Berry was awakened when his watch officer, Ensign Earnshaw, pounded on his door. Earnshaw informed the executive officer that a steamer had blown up nearby and was burning furiously, showering sparks high into the night. 'I ordered all the boats manned,' Berry would report, “and I went in the cutter ... We went out into the middle of the river. The morning was very dark ... and the weather overcast, and the shrieks of the wounded and drowning men was the only guide we had.'
Believing that the 'whole river' was illuminated by the blaze, Otto Barden paused momentarily by the engine-room hatch - the top of which had been blown off - in an effort to keep others from falling in. 'I stood there until the fire compelled me to leave, he recalled. 'I helped several out of this place.' Then he started for the wheelhouse. 'I tried to get a large plank, but this was too heavy, so I left it and got a small board and started to the wheel to jump into the water." Here a young man said to me, "you jump first, I cannot swim!" This man had all his clothes on. I had just my shirt and pants on. I said to him, "you must paddle your own canoe, I can't help you." Then, I jumped and stuck to my board."
Engineer Wintringer found that “there was such a mass of confusion and such a complete wreck of the boat that nobody, apparently, could get out of the position they were in. I managed to get hold of a shutter and saw that the fire would soon force me off the boat; I took my chances and jumped into the river.”
Chester Berry rationalized that “a few pails full of water would have put the fire out, but alas, it was ten feet to the water and there was no rope to draw with; consequently, the flames swept fiercely through the light wood of the upper decks .... I went back to where I had lain and found my bunkmate, Busley, scalded to death; I then secured a piece of cabin door casing, about three or four inches wide, and about four feet long; then going back to the bow of the boat I came to the conclusion I did not want to take to the water just then, for it was literally black with human beings, many of whom were sinking and taking others with them. “Being a good swimmer, and having board enough to save me even if I were not, I concluded to wait till the rush was over.”
P.L. Horn went down twice before he managed to maintain his head above water by kicking and dog- paddling. His impression that he was in a train wreck was quickly corrected. “How far or how high I was blown into the air I do not know,” he reported, “but I remember that my feet first struck the water and with the exception of being slightly hurt on my left side I suffered but little from the shock.”
Grabbing hold of a portion of the Sultana’s deck stairway, which was floating past, Horn and a number of others clung “with a death grip.” Then, of all things, a mule, “another floating waif of this disaster swam along and dumped us all into the river, compelling us all to exert our strength to regain our hold.” The swift current also compelled the men to relax their grip, and only “with the greatest difficulty [did] they --- recover it again.”
Soon Joseph McKelvey, who had been sleeping next to Horn on the steamer, grabbed hold of the stairs. Horn asked him if he were hurt. “Yes,” McKelvey replied, “scalded from head to foot!”
Bill Norton, Horn’s fellow Ohioan, reported that as he “arose to the surface, several men from the boat jumped upon me and we all went down together. Others leaping on us forced us down until I despaired of ever reaching the surface again; but by a desperate struggle, I succeeded in getting out from under them and reached the surface. I tried to swim through the crowd of men but could not.
“One man caught hold of me but I managed to get away from him, and not knowing what to do or which way to go I instinctively turned toward the burning boat. Reaching that and swimming alongside, I found the ring which is used in tying up the boat. I had no sooner caught hold of it than a drowning man clasped his arms around me in a death grip. I told him he must let go, but it was of no use.”
Still aboard the flaming wreck, Joe Elliott stumbled through a curtained-off women’s cabin, only to be greeted by an angry: “What do you want in here, sir?” He told the woman that there was “something wrong with the boat” and then hurried on his way toward the stern. “I climbed up to the hurricane deck. Throwing myself across the bulwark around the deck, I looked forward toward the jackstaff. The boat's bow was turned toward the Tennessee shore, one of the boat’s chimneys was down, and all the men in commotion.”
“As I started back, realizing that it was not a dream, I heard the men calling, ‘don’t jump, we are going ashore!’ I answered, saying that I was going back to where I came from. On getting back and looking down into the river, I saw that the men were jumping from all parts of the boat into the river. Such screams I never heard - twenty to thirty men jumping off at a time, many lighting on those already in the water - until the river became black with men, their heads bobbing like corks, and many disappearing never to appear again.”
“We threw over everything that would float that we could get hold of, for their assistance; and then I, with several others, began tearing the sheeting off the sides of the cabin, and throwing it over.”
About that time, a soldier from the tenth Indiana Cavalry asked Elliott, “Have you seen my father?” Just as Elliott said he had not, the older man appeared, and father and son embraced. By then, the fire was “jumping along from one crosspiece to another in a way that made me think of a lizard running along a fence.”
“I now made up my mind to leave the boat, and walked around the right side of the cabin to the wheelhouse,” Elliott continued. “I feared that it was too far to jump, and on looking over to see what the distance was, I saw one of the fenders hanging just behind the wheelhouse, I lost no time climbing over the side of the boat and ‘cooning it’ down to the lower deck .... Casting my eyes around, I could see nobody, and stepping to the edge of the boat and looking to see that the river was free from any poor struggling soldier, I dived off.”
Otto Barden went down so far that he was forced to let go of his board and was “strangled twice before I reached the top,” as he recorded. “Then the young man [who said he could not swim] caught me and strangled me twice. By this time I was about played out. I then reached the wheel, and clung to it until I tore off all my clothes, with the intention of swimming with one hand. I looked around and recognized Fritz Saunders, of my regiment, by my side.”
Barden saw two doors under the paddle wheel. One contained glass panels. He discarded it. Then he noticed a solid wooden one, which he and Saunders took. As they moved away, “a man swam up and laid across the center of [the door they had rejected]. And even as he did so, the wheel housing burned through and fell over door and occupant.”
“I said to Sanders, ‘let’s go to the right, it is nearer to the shore.’” Saunders saw a boat, and the two decided to paddle for it instead. They met “three young men clinging to a large trunk; they grasped our door; that put us all under the water. I gave the trunk a kick and raised on the door and brought it to the surface of the water.
“Then I said, ‘boys if you don’t keep your weight off of the door, then you must steer the trunk yourselves.’ By this time, I was cold and benumbed and was in a sinking condition, but having presence of mind, I reached and got my board and called aloud to God for help. I rubbed my arms and got the blood in circulation again.”
Chester Berry, concerned that his poor physical condition was not up to the Herculean demands of the night, was one of the last to quit the furiously burning Sultana. He heard a level of “swearing, praying, shouting and crying” that exceeded anything that had ever before stunned his ears, “much of it ... followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations, or bitter weeping.” He came across one man “wringing his hands as if in terrible agony, continually crying: ‘o dear, o dear!’”
When Berry asked if he were hurt, the man replied that he could not swim. “I’ve got to drown. O dear!” Berry showed the distraught man his piece of cabin-door casing and told him to get one for himself. “Put it under your chin,” he advised, “and you can’t drown.” The man argued that he had already found one and that it had been taken away from him. “Well, then, get another,” Berry admonished. “What would be the use?” the other persisted. “They would take it away from me ... I’ve got to drown!”
Thoroughly disgusted, Berry gave him a shove and shouted, “Drown, then, you fool!” Berry then jumped and “struck out for some willows that I could see by the light of the burning boat, they appearing to be about one-half mile distant.” When he looked back, he witnessed much the same sight as had Otto Barden - the crashing of one of the fiery wheel housings. Berry, however, saw a man on top of the flimsy structure burning to death.
Some survivors were already being plucked from the night waters of the Mississippi. Horn, for one, was picked up by a small river steamer that had raced to the scene.
Also assisting in rescue efforts were boats from the USS Tyler, laid up in Memphis for repairs. One of her officers, William H. C. Michael, would recall the moment that “the Tyler’s crew, half-clad ... pushed off into the stream. The wails, cries and prayers could be heard, but the morning fog made it impossible to see the struggling men from whom the cries for help ascended ... Surrounded by piteous prayers for help, and yet unable to save a single soul!
“The fog lifted a little and we were able to escape the confusion of the wails and moans and prayers and pick up as many as our boat could hold. These were landed as quickly as strong arms and willing hearts could pull ashore, and again we were in the midst of the heart-rending scene. “Thus we worked till all was hushed upon the surface of the river.”
Ensign Berry of the Essex had by then arrived in a small boat. The first survivor he encountered was so “chilled and benumbed” that he could not speak. The second died in minutes. The naval officer set course for Fort Pickering to unload. Rowing in, his skiff was fired upon. Berry kept on anyhow, and accosted the sentry who appeared to have fired the shot. He was only obeying orders, the sentry asserted, to “shoot at anythin’ that moved.” Berry, who did not log his full reply, informed the soldier of what had happened on the river and that he “was picking up drowning men!” The sentry stared at him in silence as he pushed off again, having emptied his boat. Soon, Berry was hauling in survivors “who were so benumbed that my boats’ crews were obliged to handle them as if they were dead men.”
Otto Barden was lucky. He reached shore, grabbed a tree growing on one of Paddy’s Old Hen and Chickens Islands, and hung on.
Bill Norton broke the death grip of the drowning man, but his troubles were not over. He was not only numbed, as were all who hit the river, but he was experiencing debilitating stomach cramps as well. “It seemed as if I could go no further,” he recorded, “but if I stopped swimming I found myself sinking .... “ “I could hear the cries of those that were burned and scalded screaming with pain at every breath, and men all along the river were calling for help. Away in the distance, floating down ... was the burning boat with a few brave men fighting the fire with buckets of water. Looking to my left, I thought I could see trees through the darkness. This gave me new courage, and I turned in that direction and soon some brush struck me in the face. “A little further on I was washed up against a log which had caught in the young cottonwood trees.”
Joe Elliott went down so far in the water “colder than Greenland’s icy mountains” that he was certain he’d never resurface. “Then,” he noted, “my drawers began to slip down around my feet, and it became necessary to get rid of them as soon as possible.” Like Horn, he came upon floating stairs. He figured they were the ones that had led from the cabin deck up over the wheel housing to the hurricane deck. Another man already astride the stairs invited him aboard after he politely inquired if Elliott thought it would support two.
From the stairs’ eminence, Elliott watched the last moments of the incandescent Sultana: “It looked like a hugh bonfire in the middle of the river. As the flames ascended, mingled with smoke, and shed their peculiar light on the water, we could see both sides -- bluffs on one side and timber on the other, and with no sensation as to the moving current”. “It was more like one of those beautiful lakes that I have seen in Minnesota, and if it had been only a painting it would have been grand; but alas! it was real...... “ “The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the boat until they were singed off like flies.”
Suddenly, with a great hissing, the flaming Sultana vanished before his eyes. The shrieks and cries from inside her ceased. She was gone.
Elliott stroked on minus his drawers. He was soon passed by a man “bobbing up and down in a way that reminded me of the frog in the game of leap- frog.” He called out to the man, only to receive the reply: “Don’t touch me! I’m on a barrel.” Next, Elliott and his fellow passenger on the stairs encountered a man “on the end of a large log.” The three joined forces, somehow holding the stairs and the log together with their hands and feet. Idly wondering what had happened to his archenemy, McCoy, Elliott “made no further exertions to get on shore, but floated on down the river with the current.... I remember passing Memphis, and seeing the gas lights burning in the streets ...... I heard the splash of an oar and tried to call for help, but my voice seemed to have left me.
“It was some such feeling as when one tries to call out in a nightmare.”
Chester Berry, holding his piece of wood and thrashing in what he thought was the direction of the shoal islands, became “despondent” of saving himself and lapsed into a meandering reverie, in which he was “transported .... to the old house at home ... I was wending my way slowly up the path from the road gate to the house, but, strange for me, when I reached the door, instead of entering at once, I sat upon the step.” His mother was a devout Christian, and although his father was no less so, he was deaf and dumb. Thus, Berry’s mother was compelled to lead the family in prayer and hymn. At nine o’clock every evening, the family had it’s hour of prayer. If a member happened to be absent, he or she was prayed for. Now, gulping hugh mouthfuls of the foul Mississippi, Berry imagined that it was nine o’clock and that he was the object of his family’s beseechings. “Mother, by the help of God, your prayer shall be answered,” he believed he called aloud. Ahead, he thought he saw “the bow light of the gunboat [Essex].”
His namesake, Ensign Berry, however, continued to experience difficulties with the shore sentries. As he attempted to bring in another load of survivors, a shot “came whistling over our heads,” he recalled. Seeing a sentry raising his musket, Berry shouted angrily that he wished to see the man’s officer -- at once! The officer was produced. “I told him,” the young naval officer would report, “that these boats were not skiffs, that they were a man-of-war’s gig and cutter, and again reminded him of what had happened and of the drowning men whose cries he could not help hearing.... He said he had as much humanity as anyone, and in firing at me he had only obeyed orders.” Baffled and still furious, Ensign Berry put back into the river. Missing the Essex, Chester Berry came upon a tree “whose roots were now fast in the bed of the stream, upon which I climbed and was nearly asleep when a number of men from the boat came along and climbed upon it, also. Their united weight sank it low into the water, whose icy coldness coming upon my body again awakened me. Then, to more fully arouse me, a man got hold of my board and tried to take it away from me,” claiming it was his. Their brief tug of war ended in Berry’s grabbing firm hold of the board. He floated off and “gave [himself] up to sleep.” And thus, slumbering, Chester Berry was picked out of the river by sailors from the steamer Pocahontas.
Otto Barden was rescued from his tree by the same ship. Nearby was a man who had been clinging all night to a trunk from the Sultana’s baggage rooms. He was dead. Bill Norton was saved by a canoeist who paddled out from the Arkansas shore. Joe Elliott, though swept past Memphis, was still in range of the Essex’s busy boats, one of which hauled him aboard. He, too, complained that he had been fired upon from the shore as he floated downstream. Chief Engineer Wintringer was rescued from a large plank he had shared with four others, one of whom slipped off moments before salvation.
Not a hint was ever found as to the manner of Captain Mason’s demise. It was presumed that he was among the last to quit his flaming command. Eleven of the twelve women from the Christian Commission were lost, including a bride and her husband. One woman refused to jump, fearing that her presence in the water would add to the panic when male swimmers sought to rescue her. It was said, without confirmation, that the sole survivor was a Mrs. Harvey Ennis, who had boarded at Memphis. She rode to shore on the back of a mule. Her husband - a navy lieutenant - her child, and her sister were all drowned.
As army Surgeon H.H. Hood sought to commandeer cots and medical supplies en masse in Memphis, he pronounced the condition of the survivors “pitiable.” There were fewer than 700 of them, not even a third of those who had been aboard. Thus, more than 1,600 perished that rainy night on the Mississippi. Such a toll remains unequaled in American waters and off our shores. (As points of comparison, approximately 1,500 died on the Titanic, and 1,198 on the Lusitania.)
For the survivors, the memory would haunt them the remainder of their lives. Many bore physical scars. Chester Berry, for example, had fractured his skull, and he languished several months in a Memphis hospital. When he walked into his home in South Creek, Pennsylvania, in midsummer, his mother collapsed. He had been reported dead at the time of the disaster. Others succumbed to burns after lingering for agonizing months. A few, unable to stand the continued torment, found one of the service revolvers or muskets that still abounded in the land and ended their pain.
Yet others turned to poetry. Bill Norton began a meandering requiem:
On sails the steamer through the gloom, On sleep the soldiers to their doom. And death’s dark angel - oh so soon, Calls loud the muster roll ........!
But what, or who, was the villain in the catastrophe? Chief engineer Wintringer had no idea what had happened. He could not testify that the “experimental” boiler had burst, for he did not know. Most river steamers, outrageously overworked throughout the war, steamed without exploding in spite of leaky boilers. Anyhow, high- pressure steam remained several decades into the future.
Marine investigations and a few court-martials adjourned without coming to any conclusions. Significant, perhaps, were the rumors of sabot or outright “torpedoings” (mining that had followed the Sultana all the way up from Vicksburg.
Lieutenant Michael of the Tyler would write some years after the war: “Admiral Porter and many other well-informed officers connected with the Mississippi Squadron believed that the explosion was caused by coal loaded with powder by one of the many fiends in human form who had banded themselves together and taken an oath to destroy Federal gunboats and transports whenever and wherever it could be done. I have a list of names of men who had thus sworn to do such work.
“In 1888, William C. Streator, on his deathbed in St. Louis, stated that a noted Confederate blockade runner and smuggler of mails, by the name of Robert Lowden, known during the war by the alias of Charles Dales, concocted and carried out the demonish plot. Streator says that Dales told him after the war that while the Sultana was lying at the wharf taking on coal the night previous to the disaster he smuggled aboard a lump of coal charged with powder. This he laid on the coal pile in front of the boilers for the purpose of destroying the boat and wrecking [sic] vengeance on the ---- Yankees. This statement, taken with other evidence in my possession, .... proves to me that the Sultana was blown up in the manner described.”
Lieutenant Michael’s theory is easily plausible. A cast-iron bomb resembling a large chuck of coal had been invented eary in the war by Confederate Brigadier General Gabriel Rains, who had also introduced a crude type of land mine. These instruments of sabotage became such a concern to Union commanders that during the Vicksburg operation, Admiral Porter ordered that anyone seen carrying a lump of coal near any Federal man-o’-war be shot on sight. These “coal bombs” rarely sank ships, but they often ripped up furnaces and tore holes in vessels’ sides. : What sank the Sultana?
The shattered steamer persisted as a gruesome curiosity. Bones, skulls, and scorched bits of clothing were visible within the charred hull when the river was low. Some artifacts washed ashore, to be seized and preserved by the morbid. A frugal reward of two hundred dollars for the body of Captain J. Cass Mason was never claimed, but eighteen thousand dollars in gold rumored to have been somewhere on board the Sultana inspired divers to probe the disintegrating wreck for several decades.
Then the Mississippi changed its course, and the side-wheeler’s remains vanished altogether. Yet the Sultana’s fiery demise was not to be the last war-related act in the wake of Appomattox.
Sources: It's from a mixture of reference material. There was a historical novel Jim dipped into and various other books of CW Tales.
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