Mural recalls ill-fated journey of boat carrying Civil War troops|[4/10/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 11, 2005

Descendants of survivors of the ill-fated Sultana, which saw about 1,700 former Union soldiers die after leaving Vicksburg 140 years ago, on Saturday helped unveil a City Front mural commemorating the tragedy.

Glenna Green, 85, and her son Maxie Green, both of Bakewell, Tenn., north of Chattanooga, were among the about 80 descendants who traveled to Vicksburg for the unveiling ceremony.

They were among about 150 people who saw unveiled the 12th and latest in a series of historical scenes painted on the City Front flood wall by Louisiana artist Robert Dafford and his crew.

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Glenna Green’s father, Samuel Washington Jenkins, was on the passenger ship when it departed City Front on the night of April 24, 1865, overloaded by more than six times and with a patched boiler. The boiler exploded a little more than two days later, about 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, about seven miles north of Memphis, and the Sultana sank in cold Mississippi River water about 4 miles wide.

The Sultana left Vicksburg with about 2,300 passengers, 1,924 more than Jerry O. Potter, the author of the book “The Sultana Tragedy” and a Memphis attorney who spoke at Saturday’s ceremony, said was its legal capacity of 376. About four-fifths of those who boarded the ship that night died in the disaster.

Jenkins was among the 600 or so who survived. Glenna Green said he was from Bryson City, N.C., and traveled to the divided area of East Tennessee to join the Union army at age 16.

“He had two brothers who joined the Confederate army,” Green said after the ceremony. “He went to Maryville, Tennessee, and joined the Union.”

“He was just a 16-year-old looking for adventure,” Maxie Green said of his grandfather’s decision to join the war opposite his brothers and his home state.

Tennessee furnished nearly as many troops to the Union as to the Confederacy, Potter said.

Jenkins joined the Union army’s 3rd Tennessee Cavalry that was formed in 1863. He was in a group of about 100 members of that unit captured while helping guard a railroad trestle at Sulphur Springs, Ala., about nine months before they boarded the Sultana, said Norman Shaw, the founder of the descendants’ group that held its annual meeting here this year in conjunction with the unveiling. The group also met in Vicksburg three years ago when they saw the placement of a Sultana historical marker on Mulberry Street, just across the street from the new mural.

The prisoners loaded onto the Sultana came from Alabama and Georgia camps for prisoners taken by Confederate forces mostly since 1863, Potter said. Some of those who came from the Georgia camp may have been taken prisoner earlier in the war and moved there from Virginia as Union forces neared the camps where they were being held, Potter said.

“It became very obvious that the war was about over in February, March and April of 1865,” Potter said. “The North and South started to have discussions about paroling or exchanging prisoners.” Prisoner exchanges had taken place earlier in the war but had been halted on concern by the North that paroled Confederate soldiers would rejoin the rebel forces, Potter said.

The prisoners who boarded the Sultana had been moved to Camp Fisk, east of Vicksburg along the Big Black River, Potter said. Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to those of Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., 15 days earlier.

Vicksburg itself had fallen to Union forces two years earlier, in 1863.

“They were still prisoners under Confederate control but Union forces were taking care of them, so it was a unique situation,” Potter said.

The prisoners were to be taken by the Sultana to Cairo, Ill., and from there to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio, where they were to be paroled. Among the states represented by the largest numbers of captured troops on the Sultana were Ohio with 791, Indiana with 490, Tennessee with 365, Michigan with 280 and Kentucky with 194.

About 100 civilians, a crew of about 80 to 85 and several head of livestock were also on the Sultana, Potter said. The boat’s operators were paid per person for the transportation.

“After the boiler exploded, the government investigated and found that while overcrowded, it was not overloaded,” Potter said. “I think the one thing that Robert has captured in this incredible painting is that they were wrong.”

Several people were negligent in allowing the boat to be so overloaded and to depart with its boiler in poor repair, said Illinois author Gene Salecker, who wrote “Disaster on the Mississippi” about the Sultana and also spoke at Saturday’s ceremony.

Salecker commented on a Union officer the mural portrays facing the viewer.

“‘Why are you standing there?” he said he could imagine the officer asking the viewer. “‘Why are you not getting on board with the rest of us? What do you know that we don’t know?’ And of course we do know how it ended.”

Jenkins returned home after the war, became a doctor and helped rear families of eight and 13 children with his two wives, Glenna Green said.

The 13th in the mural series is under way on the southern flood wall panel with the existing 12 and space for one mural remains on that panel. The series is planned to continue with about 18 more paintings on a separate panel to the north, said Nellie Caldwell, who chairs the 30-member mural committee.

Each mural costs $15,000. The Sultana mural was financed by the J. Mack Gamble Fund of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer River Men and the Friends and Descendants of the Sultana.

“We’re honored to be a part of sharing the news of this event to all of the world,” Caldwell told the audience. “We hope you’ll take it home with you, take our Web site ( home with you and share it with everyone you know.”