Sultana: An Unimaginable Tragedy Claimed as many Casualties as any Battle

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. No known restrictions on publication. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank on April 27th. No known restrictions on publication. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

By April 1865 citizens had grown accustomed to big news events but this month was filled with even more outstanding headlines than usual.

On April 9th, Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, signaling the first step in the end of the Civil War.

Shocking the nation, President Abraham Lincoln was shot April 14th and died April 15th from the assassin’s bullet. His murderer John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed on April 26th.

April 27th saw Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrender his army to Gen. William T. Sherman and his Union troops in North Carolina. Yet buried in the backs of most newspapers would be one of the single most tragic events of the Civil War. The explosion of the riverboat Sultana.

For a little background, the Sultana was built in Cincinnati in 1863. She ran in the most southern part of the Mississippi River, used mainly for transporting cotton but she was also known to carry U.S. Army officers and soldiers between ports along the river.

On April 21, 1865 the Sultana was docked in New Orleans. She was being loaded with sugar and livestock. There were a few passengers boarded in the 100 cabins of the steamer. By law the Sultana could carry 376 persons which included the crew. Leaving New Orleans on April 24th the Sultana headed for Vicksburg, Mississippi which was a regular stop on her route. While docked in Vicksburg the ship’s captain discovered the Sultana’s boilers were leaking. The repair normally should have taken three to four days yet was completed in a single day. The rush to finish the repair was easy to figure out. In a single word – money.

Ship lines were paid five dollars a head by the government to transport Union soldiers back north. The men about to aboard the Sultana we’re headed to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio where they would be mustered out of the army. If the Sultana stayed in dock a couple extra days soldiers anxious to make the trip home would find other ships to make the journey. The repair crew rushed to fix the Sultana’s boilers to get the ship back en route and not lose out on this easy cash.

It’s estimated that 2,300 people were aboard the Sultana when it left Vicksburg. This was six times the number of people it was supposed to carry. In fact crew members had to bolster the second floor deck to keep it from caving in from the weight of so many people.

Recently released Union prisoners of war comprised most of the passengers. Liberated from Cahaba, Alabama and Andersonville, Georgia prisons they were being housed at Union Camp Fisk outside of Vicksburg. From there they would board ships heading north on the Mississippi River. Finally these POWs, recently released from their hellish prison experience would be headed home. After enduring so much in prison camps, being overcrowded on a steamer going home didn’t seem so bad. Many of the men were weakened, ill and in such bad shape their only thought was to get home.

The exact number of soldiers on the Sultana was never known. The ship was so crammed with passengers that it was decided not to make out muster rolls in advance. Roll would be taken once the ship was underway.

Once the Sultana left Vicksburg she made her way north on the Mississippi River, stopping at several smaller ports unloading cargo. The river was high for this time of year with a fast moving current. There had been a lot of rain recently. The steamer, with the extraordinary number of passengers strained to get through the churning waters.

It was late afternoon on April 26th when the Sultana docked at Memphis. Here some of the soldiers, went ashore to get off the overcrowded ship and do some sightseeing. The recently repaired boilers started leaking again and were quickly patched once more so the steamer could get underway. Some of the soldiers who got off the ship did not get back in time and missed boarding the Sultana as it pulled out of Memphis around 7 pm. These men would soon learn that being late probably saved their lives.

It was about 2 am April 27, 1865. The Sultana was just a few miles north of Memphis, straining against the powerful river currents with hastily repaired boilers when the unthinkable happened. The boilers, stretched to their limit, with the extra weight and churning waters, burst. With unbelievable force the explosion, escaping steam and fire tore the mid section out of the ship. The blast was so loud and flames shot so high in the sky it was seen and heard back in Memphis.

 

First appeared in the magazine Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865.

Sultana in flames – First appeared in the Harpers Weekly magazine, May 20, 1865.

Soldiers, presumably sleeping at that early morning hour, were blasted into the air, then plummeted into the cold April waters of the Mississippi. Some were scalded by the boilers hot steam, others burned by fiery debris. Still others clung to the ship’s remnants or were trapped aboard as the disaster continued to unfold. They too were forced to jump into the river as fire consumed the part of ship they clung to. The Mississippi was littered with the bobbing heads of passengers as they desperately tried to stay afloat. These soldiers were weak from their POW experience. The effort it took to swim, if they knew how or to hang on to whatever they could find floating was too much for most. Battered, burned and scalded they slipped beneath the water’s surface drowning in the Mississippi River. Tragically they were only a few days from reaching home.

By morning, ships of all sizes had arrived at the scene from Memphis, pulling survivors from the river and picking up those who made it to shore. It was estimated that somewhere between 500 and 600 men were taken to Memphis hospitals. About 200 of those survivors died soon afterward either from their injuries, exposure or their weakened condition. It really isn’t known how many people died in the explosion since their wasn’t an accurate list of passengers but it’s generally accepted 1,700 perished although some published accounts put the number at 1,800. To put this horrible incident into perspective 1,754 Union soldiers died at Shiloh.

The Sultana, alarmingly overcrowded with passengers, struggling against unusually high waters, with hastily repaired boilers, exploded and caught fire in the worst maritime tragedy of our country’s history. More passengers died in the Sultana explosion than the sinking of the Titanic. Making it even more heartbreaking is the fact that most of the dead were Union prisoners of war. Men who had survived Andersonville and Cahaba prisons and were finally headed home to their families. May they always be remembered and rest in peace.

The Battle of Gettysburg, the 20th Maine and George Washington

Little Round Top Gettysburg National Battlefield

Little Round Top viewed from Devils Den – Gettysburg National Battlefield

What hasn’t been said about the infamous battle that took place in the tiny southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg? The Army of the Potomac clashed with the Army of Northern Virginia in a savage three day battle that resulted in horrendous loss of life. Both sides suffered substantially with more than 51,000 casualties, nearly one third of all those who fought.

Millions of words have been written about specific events of those three days. The heroic stand of Buford and his cavalry the first day. The bloody assaults at the Wheatfield where possession of the land changed hands multiple times that afternoon. The decimation of Pickett’s Charge but none may be as memorable as the fight waged by Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine at the battle for Little Round Top.

We all know the story. It was the second day of battle at Gettysburg. The Union troops grip on the high ground of Cemetery Ridge was slipping. To shore up the Union’s defensive position troops were dispersed to the hills just south of town. General George Sickles was to move his II Corps to a hill known as Little Round Top. His reinforcements would bolster a weak Union line and was ordered by the Union commander himself, General George Meade. Yet Sickles in one of the greatest blunders known to military minds took it upon himself to defy orders. He moved his troops about a mile away into a heated battle at the Peach Orchard. Sickles left the Union left flank completely open to devastation. If Confederate troops could exploit this breach the Union line would fall like dominoes losing the high ground, maybe even the entire battle to the rebels.

The vulnerability of the Union line left by Sickles at Little Round Top was soon discovered. Col. Chamberlain and his men were immediately dispensed to bolster the inadequate defenses there. It was while these troops were heading toward Little Round Top that an unimaginable event occurred.

The men had come to a fork in the road. Being unfamiliar with the territory the 20th Maine wasn’t sure which route to take. It was at this point a huge white stallion appeared out of nowhere. The horse and rider had an ethereal air about them. Some of the men later called it an eerie glow. The rider erect in the saddle wore a tri-cornered hat and old fashioned clothes. Those soldiers who got a glimpse of his face swore it was the very man who fought for and fathered this country decades before, George Washington. Although dead for 60+ years the men had seen paintings and etchings of Washington and were sure this was who was directing their path to Little Round Top. If the appearance of George Washington wasn’t enough some men said Washington raised his sword and led the troops to the appropriate position on Little Round Top. Continue reading

Crafting Genealogy: Family Photo Blocks

Family Photo BlocksWelcome back to Crafting Genealogy! This time around we’re going to make some Family Photo Blocks. This project is really easy, inexpensive and can be done in just an hour or so.

Let’s gather our supplies and get started. You’ll need:

Children’s blocks or pieces of wood

Sandpaper

Acrylic paint/small craft paint brushes

Vaseline

Copies of family photos

Modge Podge

Gathering our supplies

My husband bought the children’s blocks I used. He loves to bargain hunt and stops at garage sales, yard sales, etc. So he bought some older blocks at one of the sales he stopped at. As you can see it was a few blocks, not a complete set, so I was limited in some of my options. I was able to pick out the words “Our Family” and spelled that out with the blocks. I used the rest of the blocks to add my photos.

You could also use some scraps of wood instead of children’s blocks. If you have a spare 2×4 or 2×6 you could cut them into small blocks for this project.

Rough them up with a little sanding

First off I grabbed a piece of sandpaper and sanded the corners to make sure they had a worn, distressed look. I like most of my craft projects to look like they’re old and vintage. I wiped the blocks off with a cloth after sanding to make sure there wasn’t any dust clinging to them for the next step.

Family Photo Blocks

Painting. I decided to use a two step method to paint the blocks. I’m only painting a side or two on each of my spare blocks. First I put a base coat of gray on the side of the blocks where I’m adding the photos. I used gray because that was the color I had on hand. You could use any color or none at all. When the gray paint dried I put some Vaseline on the edges of the blocks. Some blocks had a little more Vaseline than others and you’ll be able to see that in the finished product.

The Vaseline keeps the second coat of paint from sticking to the previous coat. So with the Vaseline applied I put the yellow topcoat of paint over both layers. Once this top coat dried completely I used fine sandpaper on the corners of the yellow painted sides to reveal some of the gray underneath giving the blocks a distressed look. If I sanded off too much yellow I went back and painted over that area.

Since my blocks were small I used very small photos. I picked a few out of my stash of copied family photos. With the wet adhesive used in this project you’ll need prints from a laser printer or printed professionally from Walgreens or WalMart. Ink jet photo copies will smear with this adhesive. I love using my vintage family pics but current photos work just as well. Once I chose my pics I cut them down to fit the blocks.

Using the Modge Podge I put a light coat of adhesive on the painted side of a block. I let it sit for just a moment to dry to a tacky state. Then I added a light coat of Modge Podge to the back of the photo. Now I pressed the photo on the block. I tapped the photo with the end of my paint brush to make sure the edges of the pic were pressed down. Finally I added a light coat of Modge Podge over the block and pic to seal it. I let the Modge Podge dry completely and then I arranged my finished blocks.

Family Photo Blocks

I completed my Family Photo Blocks in just a couple of hours and used supplies I already had on hand. I think the next batch I make I’ll use scrap wood pieces cut a little larger. Although I really like my finished project here, larger blocks will allow me to use larger photos and I’ll also be able to use any color scheme I’d like. Either way these Family Photo Blocks are a fun, easy project and would be great to do with the kids and grandkids. Enjoy Crafting Genealogy!!

Civil War Quick Tip: Take a look at the FamilySearch Memorial Day post

Memorial Day CrossesI hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful Memorial Day weekend here in the U.S. and that you got the chance to honor our fallen soldiers either in a moment of silent tribute or by visiting a cemetery.

Memorial Day is a holiday that has its roots in the Civil War. It was originally known as “Decoration Day” and folks both north and south set aside a specific spring day to pay tribute to their fallen veterans by decorating their graves.

FamilySearch.org did a neat blog post on May 22nd. They asked family historians to share stories of their favorite Civil War ancestor. I was honored to be among the four and wrote a short piece about my own Civil War ancestor. You can find that post here.

Along with some really moving stories about Civil War soldiers, FamilySearch gives several suggestions for Civil War research in their vast databases. You’re sure to find a tip, a record set, or a new search idea that will help you find more on your Civil War ancestors.

So please take a look at the FamilySearch post, “Family Historians Share Stories of Their Favorite Civil War Ancestors” and maybe leave a comment about your favorite or most interesting Civil War ancestor either on their blog or right here in my comments. I’d love to read about your own favorite or interesting Civil War ancestor.

A Little Decorating on Decoration Day

With Memorial Day this past weekend my gene-buddy sister and I headed out on Saturday morning to “decorate” the graves of our Civil War ancestors and any soldier we found that needed a flag. Actually most cemeteries are very good at marking the graves of all veterans for the Memorial Day holiday. We added flags to just a couple graves.

George W Lowery Co A 81st Pennsylvania

George W Lowery  Co A 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

Our first stop was to honor our direct Civil War ancestor George W Lowery. He was a private and served with Co. A 81st Pennsylvania until he was wounded at the Battle of Cumberland Church on 7 April 1865. Two days later Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Our great great grandfather missed Appomattox by two days!! Thankfully he recovered from his injury, came home and fathered my great-grandfather.

 

Phillip Lowe

Next we stop at the grave of Phillip Lowe. This is my sister arranging his flag and flowers. Phillip Lowe is either our 3x great grandfather or our 2x great uncle. You know how that goes. Lots of Phillip Lowes in our family and we’re still trying to find the records that will identify each one individually. We’re honoring Phillip Lowe’s service with Co. D 112th Pennsylvania Heavy Artillery.

 

James R and George S Vanmeter

Next we leave flowers for our first cousins – four times removed James R and George S Vanmeter. They were brothers and both served with Co. F 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. George was wounded while with the 4th and was discharged and sent home. Meanwhile James died of “lung fever” in February 1864 and is buried in a local cemetery. George reenlisted with Co. G 9th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry. He died on the battle field 13 April 1864 outside of Florence Alabama. His body was never recovered. So we honor George by placing his flowers alongside his brother James.

 

Thomas William

Thomas Williams is a half-brother to our 2x great grandfather Isaac Williams. That makes him our half great great uncle (?) or something like that. As you can see Thomas fought with Co. B 129th OVI and Co. D 161st OVI. I know very little about him. I really need to spend some research time on Thomas and get back to researching Phillip Lowe too!

 

Hidden Soldier Julius Curtiss

Then we found this hidden soldier resting peacefully among this greenery. We set his GAR marker upright and added a flag.

Julius Curtiss

I’m glad we were able to mark the grave of Corporal Julius Curtiss of the 151st OVI on this Memorial Day.

My sister and I went to four cemeteries on Saturday and walked every inch of three of them. You know how happy that makes a genealogist! It was a beautiful day and we were so glad we could honor a lot of Civil War veterans. Did you write a blog post honoring one of your Civil War veterans? Why don’t you put the link to your post in the comments. I’d really like to read about your veteran ancestor.