It's time for a historical fiction about the Sultana disaster. Coming Summer 2014. "Yours," by Lila Jeanne Elliott Sybesma
The Sultana’s Last Voyage
The Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. Over 1,500 soldiers and civilians lost their lives. With Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox grabbing the headlines, the disaster took little space in the newspapers of that day. The passengers were soldiers, after all, and after four years of bloodshed, people were ready to put the war behind them.
There may have been cover-up as well.
The boat, intended for 376 passengers, was loaded with almost 2,500 people, most of them soldiers. After surviving some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles, like Shiloh, Perryville and Franklin, and after surviving prison of war camps, like Andersonville and Cahaba, they were finally going home.
The Sultana was loaded with freight as well. It carried more than 240,000 pounds of sugar and almost 100 horses…and even an alligator.
With the promise of $5.00 per soldier, the owners had the boiler hastily repaired and headed north. Unaware of the boiler’s condition, the soldiers spent their last hours celebrating their new freedom: singing songs, playing tricks, telling jokes and talking of home.
Flood waters made upriver travel more arduous. With the weight of the soldiers, the boat careened at every corner, further compromising the walls of the boiler.
On April 27, 1865, just north of Memphis, Tennessee, the boilers exploded and the soldiers were confronted with a fatal decision: stay on the boat and face the flames, or take to the icy Mississippi. In their emaciated condition, the soldiers didn’t have a chance.
Fewer than 500 survived.
I saw that the men were jumping from all parts of the boat into the river. Such screams I never heard, twenty or thirty men jumping off at a time, many lighting on those already in the water, until the river became black with men, their heads bobbing up like corks, and then many disappearing never to appear again. Joseph Taylor Elliott
The hold of the boat was full of comrades. They cried for the door of the hold to be opened. My chum and I pulled the door away, when they came rushing out of the hold like bees out of a hive, followed by dense clouds of steam and smoke. Ogilvie E. Hamblin
The agonizing shrieks and groans of the injured and the dying were heart-rendering, and the stench of burning flesh was intolerable and beyond any power of description. William Fies
While we were clinging to the tree we saw in the distance the hull of the “Sultana” come floating down the river, with a dozen or more boys still clinging to the burning wreck. Hugh Kinser
These noble men who had faced battle in all its fury; who had not flinched when the word “forward” came, even though in the face of the cannon or screaming shell; had faced worse than death at Andersonville, standing there on the bow of that burning boat wringing their hands, rushing to and fro begging their comrades to assist them that their lives might be saved to their dear ones. A.A. Jones