Book Review Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865

bdtex

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9781557507396-us.jpg


Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865

Gene Eric Salecker
Published 1996 by Naval Institute Press
ISBN 10: 1557507392 / ISBN 13: 9781557507396

216 pages of text,130 pages of appendices, notes, bibliography and index.

Bought a very good used hardcover copy on Christmas Day from Abebooks for $4.76,free shipping. Finished it last night. Really good book. Didn't see a review here in CWT of the book even though it was published 23 years ago. I'll post more about it tomorrow,time permitting. Wanted to start the thread tonight.
 

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Started this book review about 1.5 months ago with the intention of adding to it and didn't get back to it promptly. Here we go.

The 1st 4 chapters of the book cover the history of the Sultana itself and the mechanical problems it had,the release of the prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba who would end up on The Sultana, the process by which The Sultana was chosen and it's final journey upriver to Vicksburg. The prisoners were first sent to Camp Fisk just across the Big Black River from Vicksburg and eventually transported by rail to the docks at Vicksburg for boarding on The Sultana. I didn't know any of that before reading the book. The process by which The Sultana was chosen and the number of prisoners chosen for transport on it was a bit unsavory to say the least. Not gonna say much more about that. I'll let the readers get that from the book.
 

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Chapters 5 and 6 cover the loading of the passengers and crew on The Sultana and the overcrowding conditions it created. Some detail about the identity of the passengers, other than prisoners, is provided and their accommodations onboard. The same is true in the book for the crew members,their responsibilities and duty stations onboard. You never hear about it,but there were also quite a number of horses,mules,other livestock and other cargo onboard The Sultana on it's final voyage. From this point in the book forward,this reader found it difficult to read many times because of all the sad and heartbreaking stories The Sultana Disaster produced.
 

bdtex

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Chapters 7 and 8 cover The Sultana's voyage from Vicksburg to just above Memphis where the explosion occurred. I would add here that throughout the book are excerpts of the recollections of survivors of the The Sultana Disaster, including accounts of the final minutes/hours of some who did not survive.
 

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Chapter 9-13 cover the explosion and the conditions it created on each deck and in specific sections of the boat. The explosion occurred amidships and The Sultana was traveling upriver in a headwind at the time. The fire caused by the explosion was swept astern by the winds. Eventually the current swung The Sultana around and the wind swept the fire down the bow. In this section of the book there is a good drawing of The Sultana after the explosion and the survivor accounts are chilling.
 

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Chapters 14-17 cover the accounts of survivors who jumped into the Mississippi River and some of the rescuers. The explosion happened about 2am in the morning and about 7-8 miles upriver from Memphis. Although some people saw the light from the explosion and fire,it wasn't until debris, survivors and bodies floated downriver to and past Memphis in the early morning hours that many realized what had happened and rescue operations started. It was April too and the water was cold. Some of the survivors shed their clothes in the water because they made swimming difficult or the weight made floating difficult. Survivor accounts were difficult for me to read. There were children on board too who perished in the explosion and in the water and lot of the prisoners and other passengers didn't know how to swim. They either stayed on board and burned or suffocated to death or jumped into the river and fought each other for debris to stay afloat with. Various vessels in and around Memphis and some residents along the river in small boats went out and rescued survivors. Later the task turned to recovering bodies.
 

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Chapters 18-20 cover the disposition of the bodies,the care of the injured/sick survivors in Memphis and nearby,the journey home for some of the survivors,the official investigation, the scant press coverage the disaster received at the time and how quickly it was forgotten. Weeks after the disaster,debris and bodies were still floating downriver as far as Vicksburg. All but one of the Officers involved in the selection and loading of the Sultana who might have been criminally culpable resigned from the service before they were charged and were thus beyond the reach of military tribunals. The Sultana Disaster got little press coverage at the time. The war had just ended and the country had become desensitized to mass casualties and was still reeling from the aftermath of the Lincoln asassination.
 

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In a short review on the back cover of the book, historian Ed Bearss said this:

"Strange to say,in view of the high visibility the Civil War has commanded for more than 130 years with the public, few are familiar with the Sultana disaster---a disaster that took more lives than the sinking of the Titanic and with a death toll equal to that of the Union army at Bloody Shiloh. This should now change. ..."
 

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Thanks for this review @bdtex
The Sultana disaster occurred on April 27, 1865 - the day after John Wilkes Booth was located and killed. I think that's probably one reason it was not so widely publicized. The explosion of the boilers was unavoidable. The overloading of the boat and the incredible loss of life as a result of overcrowding was completely avoidable. I think that's what makes it such a terrible tragedy.

I've been reading lately about the prisoner of war camp at Cahaba AL where many of the Sultana passengers had been recently released. For most of Cahaba's operation (July 1863-1865), Colonel H. A. M. Henderson was the commandant and Dr. Richard H. Whitfield was the surgeon in charge. The prison had the lowest death rate (3%) of any prisoner of war camp - North or South. The low death rate was mainly due to the efforts of Henderson and Whitfield to provide clean water and proper sanitation. There were about 2000 ex-prisoners on board the Sultana, with more than half of them being former prisoners at Cahaba.
 

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The overloading of the boat and the incredible loss of life as a result of overcrowding was completely avoidable. I think that's what makes it such a terrible tragedy.
Yep and as I said above,those responsible for that avoided accountability by resigning from the service and placing themselves beyond the reach of military justice. As I recall,only one minor player involved stayed on in the military and was court-martialed. He was initially convicted but it was overturned upon review.
 

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Remember reading that when the Titanic went down, some Sultana survivors were still around- 1912. We know what a horrendous story was Titanic and so widely covered we make movies about it today. Vets were swift to bring up Sultana's disaster and the fact more people died in 1865 than were killed when Titanic went down, without a 1/100th of the notice. And it was and is very weird. Yes, overshadowed by Booth but the vets claimed it was the government avoiding a closer look. You're correct, the reasons behind Sultana's disaster are awful reading. Government at the time deserved a closer look.

It sounds like an important book- and thank you to Ed Bears for his cover quote.
 

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Difficult to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy. Starting watching the 2014 History Detectives episode on the Sultana. Stopped 15 minutes in and have yet to pick it up again. Very sad tale.
 

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There were about 2000 ex-prisoners on board the Sultana, with more than half of them being former prisoners at Cahaba.
Yep...plus a detachment of Union cavalry troops,from Tennessee as I recall,who were escorting the ex-prisoners.

I don't think it is in the book but I learned from my visit to The Sultana Disaster Museum in 2017 that many of the deceased victims ended up being buried as "Unknown US Soldiers" at Memphis National Cemetery. The bodies were collected for burial and placed in wooden coffins with their names and other identifying information written in chalk on the coffins but they were laid out in the open and got rained on which washed off the chalk writing.
 

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Bumping on the anniversary of the sinking. This is a really good book... the kind I could see myself reading again some day.
 
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#19
Thanks for this review @bdtex
The Sultana disaster occurred on April 27, 1865 - the day after John Wilkes Booth was located and killed. I think that's probably one reason it was not so widely publicized. The explosion of the boilers was unavoidable. The overloading of the boat and the incredible loss of life as a result of overcrowding was completely avoidable. I think that's what makes it such a terrible tragedy.

I've been reading lately about the prisoner of war camp at Cahaba AL where many of the Sultana passengers had been recently released. For most of Cahaba's operation (July 1863-1865), Colonel H. A. M. Henderson was the commandant and Dr. Richard H. Whitfield was the surgeon in charge. The prison had the lowest death rate (3%) of any prisoner of war camp - North or South. The low death rate was mainly due to the efforts of Henderson and Whitfield to provide clean water and proper sanitation. There were about 2000 ex-prisoners on board the Sultana, with more than half of them being former prisoners at Cahaba.
I've posted this before in other Sultana related threads. My Mother's Grandfather, Pvt. John Haley, 102nd Ohio Inf. Rgt. was one of the Sultana's Cahaba Prison survivors. He eventually made his way to Missouri and farmed there until he died in 1929. He fathered 15 children and was 56 years old when my maternal Grandpa was born.
 

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I've posted this before in other Sultana related threads. My Mother's Grandfather, Pvt. John Haley, 102nd Ohio Inf. Rgt. was one of the Sultana's Cahaba Prison survivors. He eventually made his way to Missouri and farmed there until he died in 1929. He fathered 15 children and was 56 years old when my maternal Grandpa was born.
Perhaps you should attend one of the Sultana Descendants Association Reunion one year. It's going on this weekend. I am not a descendant but I would like to attend it some year.
 



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