Forty-seven years ago last night, a steamboat wreck, entailing a loss of life equal to that caused by the sinking of the ill-fated Titanic, took place in the Mississippi river seven miles above Memphis.
The steamboat was the St. Louis and New Orleans packet Sultana. She was commanded by Capt. J. Cass Mason, who lost his life in his efforts to save his passengers. The passenger list was composed entirely of paroled Union soldiers, eagerly counting the hours that divided them from the moment of reunion with families and friends in their homes in the North.
There were about forty women on board - all of them, it is said, relatives of the soldiers. There were some civilian passengers. All told, when the Sultana left the Memphis wharf at 2 o’clock that Wednesday night she carried about 2,300 souls. Over 1,500 of them were lost.
Three of the women were saved - one of them picked from a tangled mass of floating drift some distance below Memphis, more than seven miles from the scene of the wreck, next morning. The rest found graves in the Mississippi river or were laid by reverent hands in resting places upon its banks.
For days following the wreck the people of Memphis, impoverished by the war which was just closing, forgot sectional feeling and laid aside the memories of their own dead upon a hundred battlefields to give themselves and all that was theirs in procuring the comfort and well-being of the survivors. Homes were thrown open to the wrecked soldiers as to brethren in the flesh. Clothing was provided. Medical attention was given. The pall of horror which lowered above the charred timbers of the Sultana blotted out, for the time at least, the animosities of warfare.
When the nation recovered from the first shock of the tragedy, indignant protests went up on all sides against the officers of the boat. It was asserted that the boilers of the Sultana were in Wretched condition; that she had loaded to practically double her capacity; that the explosion of a shell, probably through the treachery of an enemy aboard, had caused the explosion of her boilers which precipitated the wreck.
Gen. Washburn, commanding the Union forces at Memphis, appointed a commission of inquiry. The Federal government sent General Hoffman and Colonel Badeau and Cutro down from St. Louis to participate in the inquiry. The report of the commission completely exonerated the officers of the boat and routed both the theory of the shell and that the explosion was caused by overloading - although it was maintained that the load was far beyond the proper limit of the Sultana. It was found by the commission, and so reported, that the wreck was caused by the engineer or fireman permitting the water to get too low in the boilers and keeping the fires too hot. It was pointed out that the eagerness of the soldiers to return to their homes, rendering them unwilling to wait for other boats to transport a part of them, was responsible for the over-loading of the boat - against which Capt. Mason had vigorously protested.
The whole story is graphically told in the Memphis Argus of April 28, 1865, which is quoted:
Yesterday morning our city was startled with the news of one of the most appalling disasters which ever occurred on American waters. By this terrible catastrophe no less than twelve or fifteen hundred persons were hurried into eternity.
The steamer Sultana, one of the People’s and Merchants’ line of packets, Capt. Cass Mason commanding, bound from New Orleans to St. Louis, arrived up on the evening of the 25th at 6:30 o’clock, having on board, it is understood, 1,966 men and thirty commissioned officers. Besides this there was a considerable passenger list, including forty ladies and the boat’s crew.
Having discharged the freight for this city, the Sultana proceeded on her way up the river, leaving our wharf at about 2 o’clock yesterday morning. When about seven miles above the city she exploded her boilers; the entire middle portion of the boat, including the texas and pilot house, was hurled high in the air and scattered over the water. Immediately after the explosion fire broke out; a vast volume of flame swept through the cabin from the front to the stern of the boat. Then ensured a scene which language cannot describe - the most terrible that can possibly be conceived.
The explosion occurred in a wide portion of the river, there being no land for a mile on either side. Many were scalded to death immediately; those who were not injured were jumping overboard. The river for a mile around was full of floating people; the light of the burning boat shone over a scene such as has never before been witnessed; such as language cannot paint or imagination conceive. The screams of women, the groans of those who were wounded and thrown from the boat by the force of the explosion, the cries for help when there were none to assist - all contributed to create a scene over which we are compelled to shudder with horror.
The steamer Bostona was on her way down and about a mile above the Sultana at the time the explosion occurred. Her officers, perceiving the light of the burning boat and hearing the cries and struggles of the drowning people, made all haste to the scene of the disaster. Her yawls were sent out, stage planks thrown overboard; everything that could float was thrown into the river for the sufferers. Every effort was made by the officers of the Bostona in this trying emergency to render aid to the drowning multitude.
A passenger from the Bostona, Mr. Deson, rendered noble service by his courage and daring. It is said that this gentleman took one of the foot planks from the Bostona and went out on it and succeeded in saving the lives of no less than eight persons. Such deeds should not go unnoted.
The flames burst in great fury in a very few minutes after the explosion on the Sultana. No time was allowed for the people to do anything. Ladies rushed forth from their berths in the night attire, and with a wild scream plunged into the angry flood and sank to rise no more. The pitiful cried of children as they, too, rushed to the side of the wreck and plunged into the water were mingled with the hoarser voices of manhood in the desperate struggle for life. More than 2,000 people were thus compelled to choose between a death by fire and a sleep beneath the wave. Hour after hour rolled away, and the struggle for the great multitude in the river continued. Manhood was powerless. Husbands threw their wives into the river and plunged into the water after them, only to see them sink in death. Some had secured doors and fragments of the wreck and were thus enabled to keep a longer time above the water. Those who were swimmers struck for the shore, where they could find trees and bushes to keep them above the water. Some were carried down by the current until opposite the city, where their cries attracted the attention of the people on the steamers lying at the wharf. Yawls, skiffs, and every available small boat was put into immediate requisition and sent out into the stream to pick up the survivors. A considerable number were thus rescued from a watery grave. One lady with an infant in her arms was forced by the current several miles, and was finally rescued by some of the small boats that were cruising around. She exhibited the most remarkable heroism--still clinging to her precious charge and supporting it above the water until rescued. The small boats from the United States gunboats did good service.
Messrs. John Fogleman, Thomas J. Lumbertson, George Malone and John Berry, citizens of Mound City, Arkansas are entitled to the eternal gratitude of every right-thinking mind. When they saw the burning, floating mass, and heard the cries of the struggling thousands, they made haste to construct rude rafts of logs and put into the stream. With these, they succeeded in saving the lives of nearly a hundred persons. They were unceasing and labored faithfully and courageously as long as there was any possibility of relieving a suffering fellow mortal. Mr. Fogleman’s residence was converted into a temporary hospital for the sufferers, and every possible care and attention were bestowed on them by Mr. Fogleman and his family. The number who had been brought in--rescued from the river--at 12 o’clock yesterday were 110 enlisted men, ten officers, four ladies and fifteen citizens.
The Sultana had been in service three years. She belonged to Capt. Cass Mason, Sam DeBow, W. J. Lewis and Mr. Thornberg, and was valued at $80,000. She was insured to a large amount.
The officers and crew of the ironclad Essex deserve unstinted credit and praise for the part they took in picking up passengers of the ill-fated steamer Sultana. Lieut. James Berry, ensign of the Essex, was awakened yesterday morning about 4 o’clock and informed that the steamer Sultana had blown up and was now burning; that the passengers were floating down the river and crying for help. The lieutenant jumped up immediately and was startled and horrified by the agonizing cries of the people in the river. He said that never in his life did he hear anything so dreadful, and hopes it may never be his lot to hear such screams again.
He immediately ordered the boats to be manned, which was done in very quick time. The morning was very dark; it was impossible to see twenty feet ahead; they had nothing whatever to guide them but the shrieks and groans of the wounded and scalded men.
The first man picked up was chilled through and through. Lieut. Berry, seeing the condition the man was in, very generously divested himself of his own coat and put it on this man. The second man they took up died a few minutes after being taken aboard. The men who had Capt. Parker’s gig picked up a woman out of some drift. She was at that time just making her last struggle for life. About the time this woman was picked up a steamboat yawl came there and helped pick up some more who were clinging about the drift. Lieut. Berry said it was impossible for him to give any description of the scene; he said it beggared all description; that there were no words adequate to convey to the mind the horror of that night. He continually heard persons cry out, Oh, for God’s sake, save us! We can not hold out any longer!
The boats of the United States steamers Groesbeck and Tyler were on hand and displayed great vigilance and zeal in picking up drowning men. Lieut. Berry, with the help of the crew, picked up over sixty men... With commendable forethought Capt. Parker sent out ten boats to explore the shore from Memphis to the place of the disaster. Up to 3:30 yesterday afternoon only five of these boats had returned. They had found a few dead bodies, but could not find any survivors along the shore.
Had the disaster occurred an hour or two later Capt. Parker feels assured that the naval force could have saved several hundred lives instead of the sixty alluded to. Unfortunately the night was dark, and the boats were compelled to steer in the direction of the cries, being unable to see more than a few of those struggling in the water.
After the explosion of her boilers, and the rapid spread of the flames, the burning mass of what had been the fine steamer Sultana floated down with the current until within a few hundred yards of Mr. Fogleman’s residence, where it grounded on the Arkansas shore. We visited the wreck about 10 o’clock. It was sunk in about twenty feet of water; the jackstaff was standing up before the black mass, as though mutely mourning over the terrible scene, a silent witness of which it had been. The boat was almost entirely consumed. The charred remains of several human bodies were found, crisped and blackened by the fiery element. The scene was sad to contemplate, and those who witnessed it can never forget it. The Rose Hambleton, Pocahontas, Jenny Lind and Bostona were cruising around the place, ever and anon picking up the breathless body of some unfortunate who slept the sleep of death; or some more fortunate who had escaped a watery grave, though exhausted by a fearful night of struggle for life.
The names and places of many of those who were hurried into eternity by this terrible catastrophe will never be known. Capt. Cass Mason, who was in command of the Sultana, was among the lost. Capt. Mason was well-known to many of our business men as the former commander of the Belle of Memphis. It is said that he did well his part. During the trying scenes ensuing the explosion he stood upon the deck of the fated vessel, throwing buoys into the water, or anything that would float, encouraging others by his example; and was last seen after everybody else had left the burning wreck. His body is probably beneath the mighty river’s surging waves. The two clerks, W. J. Gamble and William Stratton, were among the lost. One of the engineers, lost. Harry Ingraham, one of the pilots, was lost. Mrs. Hardin of Chicago was among the lost. She was lately married, and was on a bridal tour.
DeWitt Clinton Spikes (whose father, mother, three sisters, two brothers and young lady cousin were all lost), a young Louisianian, with a noble courage that is beyond all praise, notwithstanding his exhausted condition, used every effort to assist his fellow sufferers and succeeded in saving no less than thirty lives... A soldier procured a log; several drowning men were seen; he directed his log toward them; they laid hold on the log, and were thus taken ashore. By this means he was instrumental in saving the lives of five men... Capt. Curtis, master of river transportation, sent out boats on the first intimation of disaster, and had the Jenny Lind fired up and dispatched her to the scene of distress. He and his assistants were very active, and performed many noble deeds...
Capt. George J. Clayton, pilot of the Sultana, was on duty at the time the explosion occurred. He says they were going on about as usual; that they had gotten about seven miles above the city, running at her usual rate of speed--if any difference, not as fast as usual. All of a sudden he saw a flash, and the next thing he knew he was falling into the water with a portion of the wreck of the pilothouse. He thinks that he must have been hurled at least forty feet into the air. When he reached the water he saw the flames bursting up from the furnace and soon enveloping the entire boat. The scene which ensued beggars all description. He says the river was full--a sea of heads for hundreds of yards around. Screams and cries arose, rendering the scene appalling. Mr. Clayton was slightly injured in his fall.
The following statement from Private Friend Albard, of the Second Michigan cavalry, is given:
I was awake when the explosion took place, lying on top of the wheelhouse. As soon as I discovered that the boat had exploded I caught hold of the fender and slid down to the water and let myself in, having nothing on me at the time. I judge I swam about two miles. The river was alive with people crying and calling for help in the greatest agony - it was heart-rending in the extreme. Just as I was coming down off the boat, I saw two ladies who had thrown themselves into the water. They had nothing to keep them up, and they sank, and I saw them no more. When the explosion took place it threw the cabin into the air, and it fell back on the boat in one mass of ruins, crushing many of the passengers who were thus caught, and were undoubtedly burned to death. Very many caught hold of horses by their manes and tails, but whether those escaped or not, it is impossible to tell. I never heard of them afterwards.
Another survivor was William Long, a civilian passenger. His statement is also given. Mr. Long said:
At the time of the explosion I was in room 10. I jumped up and saw that the partition separating my stateroom from the next room was knocked all to pieces. I ran out in the cabin and back to the stern, and saw that we were not near the shore. While standing there I saw fifty persons jump overboard every minute. I stood there for five minutes, but seeing the boat in flames, I ran back to my stateroom and got some clothing. I returned and jumped from the cabin floor down to the lower deck. I got up on the taffrail and stood there until I saw three or four hundred people go overboard. I stayed on board until the boat was burned clean to the stern and the whole upper deck had fallen in, when I jumper overboard, having a door to keep me up. I tried to make the Tennessee shore, but failed. I then tried to make the Arkansas shore, but failed again. I then let myself float. Pretty soon I saw lights. I then knew I was opposite Memphis. In floating I ran across a large saw-log. I got on this, because I was almost exhausted and ready to sink. I kept floating down, and pretty soon I picked up a soldier, and soon another, and then another, until I had picked up four. We would keep quiet for a moment and then hallo; and thus we went on until I was taken into a yawl with the rest.
The mental and emotional tension of the time may be gathered from the following excerpt from an editorial in the Memphis Argus of May 6, 1865: