Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Sultana Disaster

Everybody will be able to see what my dad did in Hollywood today in just a few months on the History Channel.
The folks with Modern Marvels ended up scheduling the interview with me for today so that they could also interview my dad.
Because his great, great grandfather - my great, great, great grandfaher - was killed in a horribe steamboat disaster back in 1865, and we both read some books about what happened, we'll both be appearing on cable t.v. to talk about it.

Here's the tale:

Ex-POW William H McIntosh as he appeared while on the SultanaWay back in April 1865, my ancestor, Corp. John Hawken of the 58th Ohio Infantry, and half the guys in his unit, were given what they were told would be their last assignment before being sent home. The Civil War was finally over, and the 58th was stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi to keep the peace, settle any potential riots by the defeated Southerners, and other general "provost" detail. Their final job sounded like cake: they'd escort a ship load of Union soldiers recently released from Southern prison camps. They'd board the boat in Vicksburg, and guard them until the men finally arrived in Ohio to decommissioned and sent home.
Hawken and his boys had seen some awful things in their time, but nothing prepared them for the site of their wards. These ex-prisoners of war were mostly walking skeletons, malnourished, and weak as hell. Men who'd been captured and sent to prison camps weighing 180 pounds would often emerge weighing less than 100 - visually the same as what would happen little over half a century later at places like Dachau and other concentration camps. More men were killed by disease than battle during the Civil War, and many of these were at prison camps such as Andersonville and Cahaba.
The ship that these men boarded was a beautiful, sidewheeled steamboat called the Sultana, a luxury liner with a common sense max occupancy of around 350 passengers. The owners of the boat were being paid for each soldier they took on board by the Federal Goverment, so all the steamboats competed for the business. As was all too common, the boat captains offered "commissions" to Union offers to persuade them to choose their boat for the business.
As a result, packing over 2000 soldiers on board the Sultana was a win-win situation for the Union officers, and those running the Sultana.
The soldiers, however uncomfortable, could barely complain. They were going home after years of battle, and for some, long internments at the prison camps.
This wasn't the worst of it.
The Sultana had a broken boiler with what was supposed to be a temporary patch. The captain had to decide whether to stay docked for a few days to make the boat safe, or make a gamble on a huge payout.
This hottie perished on the Sultana.History has somehow forgotten his bad luck.
As the Sultana was passing Memphis, Tennessee at around 2am on the morning of April 27, the boiler finally gave out with a fury. The explosion nearly ripped the boat in half, sending fire and hot coal all over the boat. The blast blew metal, cinder, and men into the air, finally landing in the Mississippi.
Our great grandfather John Hawken, being an officer, was most likely huddled to the warmest spot on the boat - on a deck near the location of the boiler. I imagine he was killed immediately.
The ship was engulfed in flame. The soldiers who'd survived the explosion had to choose between burning to death or risking drowning in the chilly, rushing river. Most didn't know how to swim. Almost all were too weak even if they could.
I the end, over 1600 men perished. More casualties than from all steamboat disasters prior COMBINED. A greater death toll than from any other shipwreck in American history... even more than from the most famous ship disaster of all, the Titanic.
And still this is a story that most people, even Civil War buffs, do not know. It is missing even from the recent bestseller "April 1865" by Jay Winik, because, in his words, it didn't fit into the narrative flow.

I found out about the Sultana about six or seven years ago from my Uncle Skip, our family geneologist. I thought maybe it would make a good movie... and after some research discovered that it would make an AMAZING movie.
I also made a website to spread the story some more, which is in dire need of an update:

In anycase, a few years ago a reunion of Sultana descendants was held in Vicksburg, and I called my dad to see if he'd like to go with me. He suggested a road trip. In what was indeed perhaps my favorite Offline Adventure, we drove from Toledo, OH to Cincinnati, where the Sultana was built, on to Alabama and the Cahaba prison, and finally to Vicksburg, for the reunion, where the group dedicated a marker by the waterfront where the soldiers first boarded the boat. My dad and I continued on to Memphis, where the Sultana exploded (and to check out Graceland), and even over to the opposite side of the river to see the soybean field under which the Sultana now supposedly finally rests (the Mississippi once flowed through there... it is now three miles away).

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was contacted a month or so ago by Sean Heckman, an associate producer at Actuality Productions on "Modern Marvels", wanting me to do an interview for a segment on the Sultana. When he called to finally schedule, I suggested he do it this week so he could also interview my dad. He liked the idea, and today a producer and camera guy came by. Somehow my girl Claire was dragged in to do makeup... but, in short, it went well. I'll wait for pictures before I write more on the subject... although after this epic post I've probably written enough.

suggested reading: Death on the Dark River is one of the best accounts of the Sultana tragedy ever written, and certainly the best available on the web. It also includes some links to personal accounts by ancestors of webmaster N. Dale Talkington.