Memories are their graves

Published 11:30 am Thursday, April 24, 2014

Overloaded Sultana left Vicksburg on way to doom

More than 1,500 lives lost

The Sultana was photographed at Helena, Ark., on April 26, 1865, two days after it left Vicksburg and a day before its boilers exploded about seven miles north of Memphis. The boat was so overladed that crew members and passengers worried that it would capsize as all the men rushed to one side to pose for the photo. More than 1,500 people died from burns, scalding and drowning after the Sultana explosion.

The Sultana was photographed at Helena, Ark., on April 26, 1865, two days after it left Vicksburg and a day before its boilers exploded about seven miles north of Memphis. The boat was so overladed that crew members and passengers worried that it would capsize as all the men rushed to one side to pose for the photo. More than 1,500 people died from burns, scalding and drowning after the Sultana explosion.

Thousands of Union soldiers longing for the comforts of home after experiencing terrors of war and the starvation that wrought southern prison camps left Vicksburg 149 years ago today only to meet a deadly fate that would push them to the limits of the best and worst of humanity. 

On April 24, 1865, the steamer Sultana departed Vicksburg with between 2,400 and 2,600 passengers — far over its legal capacity of 376. The passengers included about 2,100 Union soldiers who had been Confederate prisoners, a dozen nuns and an opera troupe.

Three days later, the Sultana’s boilers gave out and exploded about seven miles north of Memphis.

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In the explosion, passengers were scalded to death, burned alive and blown to bits. Many who survived the explosion drowned or were trampled to death on the boat’s mercilessly crowded three deck levels.

No one knows the precise count of lives lost aboard the steamer, but U.S. Customs Service records list 1,547 casualties — 30 more than would perish aboard the RMS Titanic in 1912. Most estimates place the true number closer to 1,800.

By comparison:

No one is sure how many lives were lost when the steamer Sultana exploded three days after leaving Vicksburg packed with more than 2,000 people. The official number is 1,547, but some historians estimate as many as 1,800 people died. Following are some deadly historical events for comparison.
• Wreck of RMS Titanic……….1,517
• Hurricane Katrina……………1,833
• Battle of Fredericksburg……1,892
• 9/11 terrorist attack………….2,996
• The American Revolution….4,435

This weekend, about 50 members of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends will meet here to pay tribute to those who perished in the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history and share the stories of those who survived. 

“We want to keep the memory of these guys alive. So many of them, like my great-great-grandfather, their bodies were never found. The memories are their grave,” said Pam Newhouse, who for years wrote and edited the association’s newsletter “The Sultana Remembered.”


A rest at Camp Fisk

In early 1865, the Civil War was near its close.

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was on the cusp of surrendering to Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Southern cities lay in wreckage, and food had become scarce among civilians, let alone the thousands of prisoners of war held by the Confederacy.

In February 1865, Confederate Lt. Col. Howard A.M. Henderson came to Vicksburg under a flag of truce to meet with Union Col. Archie C. Fisk.

Howard, the commandant of Cahaba Prison in Alabama sought food and clothing for the Union prisoners under his care.

The prisoners were starving. Many of them had fallen below 100 pounds and looked like skeletons, just shells of men. The guards weren’t much better off.

“Why not bring the men here under parole and detain them in a camp on neutral ground until exchanged,” Fisk suggested.

Henderson agreed, and Camp Fisk was established about four miles outside Vicksburg on the Jackson Railroad near present day Old Highway 27 and Stenson Road.

By early March, the first men from Cahaba began arriving, and by March 10 the warring factions reached a deal that would bring all Union soldiers held prisoner in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to Camp Fisk, which was garrisoned by African American soldiers from the 66th U.S. Colored Troops.

It was the first time many of the prisoners had seen black troops and the first occasion many of them had seen a U.S. flag in a year or more.

“What a glorious sight met our eyes when we got there!” wrote Truman Smith of his arrival at the camp. “On the opposite side floated the Stars and Stripes.”

It was at Fisk where the men were fed and nursed back to health to prepare to be packed like sardines onto steamers and shipped toward doom.


Passengers for sale, $5 a head

The Sultana, by all accounts, was not the most magnificent steamer.

It was launched in Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 1863, the fifth boat to carry the name Sultana. The previous four had all been destroyed in disasters.

A group of investors including captain James C. Mason purchased the 260-foot boat in 1864 and had regular trouble with its boilers.

Though the boilers were constantly being patched, Mason liked to enter the Sultana in races, and on April 7, 1865, he set a record for the fastest trip from New Orleans to Cairo, Ill. The next week, the boat brought news of Abraham Lincoln’s Assassination to Vicksburg while getting the boilers patched in route to New Orleans.

At about 4 p.m. Sunday, April 23, 1865, the Sultana arrived at Vicksburg for the final time and for its last repairs.

Boilermaker R.G. Taylor told the steamer’s engineers that it would take several days to repair the boat, but they convinced him to make quick, shoddy work, promising they would get the boiler overhauled in St. Louis.

With that deal, and the one to follow, the fate of the Sultana was sealed.

That night Mason, who is believed to have been about 35, met with Col. Ruben B. Hatch, and, according to later court testimony, was told he could have all the men he could fit on his boat.

The going rate for shipping parolees was $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer, so Mason stood to make a fortune.

Mason was told to get in touch with Capt. Frederick Speed, a 24-year-old who temporarily had been placed in charge of filling out the prisoner transport rolls. Speed initially said it was impossible to prepare the rolls in time, but later agreed to let all the men board the Sultana.

After the Sultana exploded, rumors began swirling that someone — possibly Speed — had accepted a bribe of 5 cents a person from Mason in exchange for the prisoners.

“If any a scoundrel deserved hanging, he does, if he is guilty as he seems,” The Wheeling (W.Va.) Register wrote of the bribery rumors.

The boat was loaded the next day, despite objections by Capt. William F. Kerns, the master of river transportation in the occupied city.

Kerns, a Minnesota native, had detained the steamer Pauline Carroll to take passengers. He was never notified that all the prisoners were to board the Sultana.

He later testified that he had asked his superiors numerous times about separating the men, and each passed the buck to Speed.

Packing them on the Sultana was not a matter of economics, Kerns said.

“It would have made no difference in regard to expense whether these men went on one boat or on different boats,” Kerns said during an inquiry into Speed’s conduct.

Mississippi Steamship Co. agent William C. Jones also testified that he thought the men should be divided between two boats.

“I thought it impossible to get all the men on board,” he said.

Regardless of the objections, the men — more than 2,000 of them — were packed onto Sultana, which was already carrying nearly 100 passengers, 70 to 100 horses and mules, a herd of hogs, 120 tons of sugar, 94 cases of wine and a live alligator that served as the boat’s mascot.

Of the men who boarded in Vicksburg, 23 were bedridden, and 277 were unable to walk without assistance. Many of them suffered from chronic diarrhea.

“The men were everywhere in the boat, where they could get a chance to hold on, to stand up or sit down. The boat was very crowded,” James M. McCowan, a Kentucky cavalryman later said of the boat’s condition.

Captain William S. Friesner of the 58th Ohio Infantry later claimed he was last man to board the boat. He was in charge of guards aboard the ill-fated Sultana, which he said he felt was so overcrowded that it might tip over.

“I was very afraid that she would be blown up by the crowding of troops to one side,” he said.

The trip from Vicksburg to Memphis was rather uneventful except for the cramped conditions. The Sisters of Charity passed out hymnals and crackers, and the men and women aboard sang songs and watched performances of the Chicago Opera Troupe.

The weather was beautiful, and the men passed the rest of the days watching the scenery go by and stopping in Helena, Ark., where one of the only known photos of the Sultana was taken.

On April 27, 1865, the Sultana docked briefly at Memphis to unload cargo. A few men sneaked off board to get drunk. The lucky ones missed the boat’s departure.


Scalded, burned and broken

At about 2 a.m. that morning, Ben Davis of Kentucky went for a smoke. He was one of the few people awake aboard the Sultana.

After wandering between the maze of men passed out on cots and in the floor, he found some splintered wood and a firebox.

He lighted his pipe and raised his canteen to his mouth, and it was blown from his hand.

Pieces of metal, wood, and body parts began to rain from the sky.

The quick patchwork on the boiler had given out, spewing fire and hot water into the night sky.

At that moment, the pits of hell itself couldn’t have been worse.

Chester Berry was sleeping just forward of the boilers when the explosion launched a piece of wood at his head and fractured his skull. He lay dazed under his blanket until a stream of boiling water soaked him and scalded his uncovered bunkmate to death.

“The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory,” Berry wrote in an eyewitness account.

In a daze, he went looking for any recognizable face. A man who couldn’t swim approached him, and he told the man to grab a board and jump in the water.

Another frenzied passenger promptly stole the board. Berry pointed out another loose board, but it too was stolen.

“Drown then you fool,” Berry told the man before shoving the man out of the way.

Berry later watched as the man burned to death, and he wrote that he regretted not helping.

Friesner, the commander of the guards, was awakened by a loud noise he thought might be a fight on the deck above his.

“I opened the door and the hot steam rushed in. I thought the boat was on fire. Then when I went out to where the guards were, that part of the boat had been blown up and they were gone,” he later recalled.

The Mississippi River was flooded, and it was more than a mile to either the Tennessee or Arkansas side of the river.

“When I jumped into the river, most of the men had left the boat and were in the river. Many were drowned and many drowning all around me,” Friesner said.

Commodore Smith, whose weight was less than 100 pounds after being imprisoned at Cahaba, wrote that he was buried in “dead and wounded comrades, legs, arms, all parts of human bodies, and fragments of the wrecked upper decks,” when he awoke.

He stayed aboard the burning boat for about half an hour, throwing wounded men overboard so they wouldn’t suffer the same fate as the man Berry refused to help.

On deck, men, women and horses rushed back and forth in pure pandemonium. Some passengers were crying like children; others prayed or sang old familiar songs and hymns. Many of them were trampled or pushed into the water.

W.A. Fast later recalled people cursing Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln and ‘any and everybody prominently connected with the war.”

In the roiling waters of the Mississippi, a primal fight for survival was raging. Men and women too weak to swim in the strong current were grasping at logs, boards, window shutters and other people in an attempt to stay afloat. Witnesses saw one man attempt to ride a swimming horse before both drowned.

The throngs of drowning people had begun to subside and fade into the distance before Albert King jumped in the water. A man grabbed him by the shirt, and King pushed him away. Then a woman came up from the water and clung tight to him, gripping helplessly to his clothes. Afraid they would both drown, he wrestled her away too.

Later, when he found a floating board, he returned for the woman.

Her name was Anna Annis and she had come to Vicksburg because her husband, Lt. Harvey Annis who was a white officer in charge of U.S. Colored Troops garrisoned at Vicksburg, was too ill to make the journey back to Wisconsin alone.

Harvey was her third husband. The two prior had drowned in shipwrecks, one of which she survived. Weak and unsteady, Harvey led his family to the stern of the boat where he placed their daughter on his back and lowered a rope into the murky depths.

As Anna Annis followed her husband into the water, a man jumped from one of the decks and knocked her off the rope. She clung to the Sultana’s rudder and watched as her husband and daughter drowned.

In all, about 800 people made it to shore alive, but 300 of them later died at hospitals.

Only about 200 bodies were ever recovered from the river. Captain Mason, who stood to make a fortune of his cargo, was included in the list of dead. His body was never found.


The Legacy

News of the Sultana traveled as quickly as information could before the digital age, but it essentially got lost in the shuffle of what was consider the big news of the day.

The day before the explosion, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was captured, and Confederate Gen. Joseph. E. Johnston, who failed to relieve Vicksburg in 1863, surrendered the remnants of his army to Union Gen. William T. Sherman.

“Even during the time of the explosion … it was on the front pages briefly, but there were other things going on so people quickly forgot about it. Lincoln’s casket was still on the train taking him to Illinois for burial,” said Norman Shaw who founded the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends 27 years ago in Knoxville, Tenn.

Many of the men who died in the disaster were from the Knoxville area though others were spread throughout the Midwest.

Two groups of survivors met each year, though they eventually faded over the years. The last Sultana survivor died in the 1930s.

So in the 1980s, a group of descendants and people interested in the boat disaster began meeting in Knoxville. Shaw, for instance, had no ancestors who were on board the boat.

“I’m just interested in the Civil War,” he said.

At the suggestion of Pam Newhouse, the group’s newsletter editor, the association began traveling to sites that are important to the history of Sultana, and they have come to Vicksburg twice before as they will Friday.

Newhouse’s great-great-grandfather, Adam Schneider, died after jumping from the Sultana. Schneider, an immigrant from present-day Germany was drafted into the 183rd Ohio at age 42. On the first day of his first battle, he was captured at Franklin, Tenn.

“He was taken along with the other men to Cahaba prison in Alabama,” Newhouse said.

Newhouse somewhat blames Capt. Fredrick Speed for her ancestor’s death, though the two men share a common thread.

“There was plenty of guilty to go around,” Newhouse said of Speed. “There were just too many people who looked the other way. He was certainly a big one for that.”

Speed, a native of Maine, stood trial in the courtroom of what is now the Old Court House Museum. Schneider had stood trial in his native land.

In 1848, Schneider attempted to assassinate Prince Wilhelm of Prussia. He was acquitted though he later admitted his guilt.

Wilhelm went on to be the first Emperor of Germany.

Speed was tried in 1865 for neglect of duty by overloading the Sultana while the Pauline Carroll sat waiting for passengers. He too was cleared.

“The evidence shows that the government has transferred as many or more on boats of no great capacity than the Sultana frequently and with safety,” a portion of the court finding in Speed’s favor says.

Speed, unlike Schneider and more like his intended target, went on to become a judge and powerful politician.

He stayed in Vicksburg for the rest of his life.