[Editor’s note: Here’s a little-known, little-told footnote about the Civil War that got little attention at the time of President Lincoln’s assassination, and the all-out pursuit of the assassin. Can you imagine being a prisoner of war in a hellish confederate prison in the south; freed and on your way home to loved ones only to meet another hellish fate? Author and Michigan historian, Larry B. Massie, tells this harrowing story in one of his volumes, “Voyages Into Michigan’s Past.”]
The Floating Inferno
The story of the ill-fated Sultana overloaded with troops
by Larry Massie
Faded blue uniforms hung loosely on their gaunt bodies. Weakened by months of starvation, disease and brutality in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama, many of the recently released soldiers that crowded the wharf at Vicksburg, Mississippi could hardly walk. Despite their condition, the men joked and bantered with each other. They were going home – back to loved ones in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.
It was April 24th 1865. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, and for all practical purposes, the war that had pitted brother against brother for four bloody years was over. Now the ex-prisoners waited anxiously at Vicksburg for transport up the Mississippi by river boat. The Sultana, a 1,719-ton side-wheeler built in 1863 for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, arrived from New Orleans that evening.
As the ship’s engineer supervised some apparently routine repairs to the boilers, the troops streamed up the gangplank. The Sultana had taken on at New Orleans 75 cabin passengers and a cargo of 100 hogsheads of sugar, 60 horses and mules, and one crated 10-ft “man eating” alligator. She carried a crew of 85 and legally could only transport 376 passengers in all. Nevertheless, when she slowly pulled away from the wharf at Vicksburg, between 1,800 and 2,000 ex-prisoners of war and two companies of soldiers under arms had clambered aboard. The troops, for which the ship owners received a set fee of $5 per head, covered every square foot of space from the hurricane deck to the pilot house. Of the approximately 2,300 people on board, more than 250 were from Michigan.
To compound the situation, the Mississippi was in flood stage with an exceptionally strong current. The troops sprawled out on the sagging decks and cooked their own meals using hot water from the boilers as the Sultana slowly splashed upstream. Two days later, the vessel docked at Memphis. Some of the troops went ashore to stretch their legs and got so involved in sight seeing that they missed the boat. They little realized how lucky they were.
After additional repair work on one of the leaky boilers, the ship crossed the river to take on coal. A little after midnight on the 27th it left for Cairo, Illinois, where most of the soldiers were to disembark for rail travel home. About 2 a.m., as the overloaded vessel laboring against the strong current neared a cluster of islands known as the “Hen and Chickens,” it happened.
A tremendous explosion heard all the way back to Memphis, disintegrated half of the Sultana. The boilers, that had proved troublesome during the entire voyage, had blown up, hurling huge fragments of the superstructure skyward. Chunks of boiler plate whistled through the air like shrapnel. Jets of steam cooked man alive. Red-hot coals sizzled into the water or fell on the deck to start numerous fires. Hundreds of men were killed outright by the explosion or blown through the air into the swirling current. Seething masses of panic-stricken men grasped at anything to stay afloat and pulled each other under. The river was three miles wide at that point and in the pitch-black darkness it was almost impossible to see the shore. The turbulent stream, full of eddies and whirlpools, carried even the strongest swimmers under. The only hope for those in the water was too cling to a piece of the debris that littered the river.
Those not blasted into the stream by the explosion faced a worse fate. Many were trapped below deck and burned to death. Their screams filled the night air. Some jumped immediately into the river. Still others clung to the vessel until the fire reached them and they too dropped into the icy waters. The few lifeboats launched were soon swamped by the drowning hordes. Those still on the ship combed the wreckage for anything that would keep them afloat. The captain ripped off the cabin shutters and threw them to swimmers below. One soldier bayoneted the captive alligator and pushed himself overboard in the stout wooden cage. A passing boat rescued him miles downstream.
Meanwhile, the floating infernal that had once been the Sultana drifted out of control. When it lodged against a small island, some soldiers jumped ashore and secured the vessel with ropes. Another group of survivors fashioned a raft out of broken timbers and drifted loose just before the ship sunk with a great hiss and a cloud of steam.
Pvt. Chester Berry of the 20th Michigan infantry had been awakened at the time of the explosion by a flying piece of wood that fractured his skull. The man next to him was scalded to death. Berry grabbed a few pieces of door casing and jumped into the river. An excellent swimmer, he stroked toward what he thought was a small island. When he made no headway, he realized that he was trying to swim against the strong current. Exhausted, he floated with the help of his tiny raft of wood until he was able to grasp a tree top rising above the flooded river bank. Berry was eventually rescued by the gunboat Pocahontas that searched for survivors.
In 1892 Berry compiled a book containing the stories of as many fellow survivors as he could locate. Page after page of poignant testimony by Michigan, Indiana and Ohio men document miraculous escapes from the Sultana horror. A Pontiac man, J.E. Norton of the 5th Michigan Calvary, awoke after the explosion to find himself pinned down by a heavy object. After struggling free, he assisted in raising timbers off other trapped soldiers and then floated down the river supported by a wooden box. Another panic-stricken soldier wrestled the box away and nearly drowned him, but Norton made it to safety clinging to a bale of hay.
George F. Robinson of Charlotte was stunned by the explosion. The first thing he remembered was someone below him screaming “for God’s sake, cut the deck, I am burning to death.” His partner was laying across his legs, dead. Robinson survived by clinging to a dead mule. Others caught the tail of live mules, and a dozen men gripped one floundering horse. Ogilvie E. Hamlin, a veteran from Jackson County, had had an arm amputated by Confederate surgeons. Nevertheless, he managed to float to shore where he clung to a tree top with one arm until rescued. Many others who managed to make it to the shore died of exposure or of the effects of their burns.
There was no official verification of the exact number of Sultana victims, but the best estimate places the death list at 1,700. Michigan’s adjutant general, John Robertson, termed the Sultana explosion the greatest calamity of the Civil War. Strangely enough, newspapers of the time, preoccupied with the pursuit of Lincoln’s assassins and the end of the war, devoted little space to the tragedy. Yet the sinking of the Sultana remains one of history’s worst Naval disasters.
Author Larry B. Massie resides in Allegan, Michigan. Email: [email protected]