Sultana: An Unimaginable Tragedy 152 Years Ago Today

Sultana taken at Helena, AR, on April 26, 1865, a day before she was destroyed. The view captures a large crowd of paroled Union prisoners packed tightly together on the steamboat’s decks.
Photo Credit: Bankes, Thomas W. Photographer, 26 Apr 1865. Sultana [digital image]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sultana_(steamboat)#/media/File:Civil_War_Steamer_Sultana_tintype,_1865.png

 

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.

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.

My Take on the Newest IDG Brief – Pennsylvania Genealogy

 

When working on our family history most of us find many of our ancestors lived or passed through the state of Pennsylvania. A good number of my family lines originated or stayed for a generation or two in the Keystone State and I’ll bet that applies to you too. With a large chunk of my research centered on Pennsylvania I’ve found myself trying to remember websites I didn’t bookmark, databases or other research sources I’ve used in the past. You know how it is. You research a family line hard, then put it down for a while and when you come back to it, it’s difficult to pick up where you left off.

Recently I received “Pennsylvania Genealogy” written by Elissa Scalise Powell, CG, CGL. It’s an In-Brief from IDG and the newest addition to the collection of The In-Depth Genealogist. Turns out “Pennsylvania Genealogy” is just what I needed as I work on my Pennsylvania families.

This guide is chock full of information. In fact I’m surprised at how much is in this four page guide. There’s very little unused space, with sections on Research Strategies to Vital Record Substitutes, Tax Records to Directories. This guide gave me several new sites to research, many I had no idea existed. There are plenty of hard core, fact filled research sites listed, but Powell also includes Online Communities, Organizations and Societies and Facebook pages related to Pennsylvania research. I especially love digging into these extras as I research. I found the Books, Periodicals & Articles section had titles I wasn’t aware of and am interested in investigating.

I’m really happy with this newest brief from IDG. I like having a list of compiled resources ready for me so I can jump into my research. I used the .pdf version of the guide but I’ll also purchase the laminated version. As much as I’d like to go paperless I find having a hard copy of my research log and IDG brief next to my laptop helps my focus as a researcher. That way I’m not switching between a number of open tabs which is distracting for my monkey brain.

With a good number of my ancestors traveling through Pennsylvania I found “Pennsylvania Genealogy” by Elissa Scalise Powell a great resource. I’ve been researching my Pennsylvania people for a while and found new, really helpful info in this IDG brief.

This guide can be downloaded as a .pdf for just $2.75 or bought in a laminated version for $9.95 at The In-Depth Genealogist.

Disclaimer: A free copy of the guide was provided for review purposes. The writer is not being compensated for her opinions.

James Hayes Marshall Jr – the patriarch of the Marshalls of Monroe Township, Allen County, Ohio

Hays Marshall aka James Hayes Marshall

James Hays Marshall                     aka Hayes Marshall


This is my great-great grandfather James Hayes Marshall Jr. and like the title says, the patriarch of the Marshalls of Monroe Township, Allen County, Ohio.

James was born 9 April 1823 to James Hayes Marshall Sr. and Nancy Jane Patterson. James Sr. was a War of 1812 veteran which would come to have an affect on Jr.’s adult life.

James Jr. was one of seven children who all lived and farmed in Little Beaver Township, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. He and his twin William were his parent’s fourth and fifth babies. As happened all too often during these times James’ mother Nancy died in 1829 the same year she gave birth to her seventh child. James was only six years old.

James Sr. remarried in 1834. With his new wife Mary Slaven they added three more children to the family. This same scenario would be replayed in James Jr.’s adult life as well.

My great-great grandfather James Jr. married Nancy Painter Steele on 22 January 1826 in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. They had eight children. The first three were born in Lawrence County, PA. The family then moved to Vinton County, Ohio where two more children were born and the last three were born in Allen County, Ohio.

James Jr. and his wife Nancy purchased property in Vinton County along with James’s sister and brother-in-law. The Marshalls stayed in Vinton County long enough to produce two children. Father James Sr. had received land for his service in the War of 1812 and gave these parcels to his five sons. Which is why James Jr. and his family left Vinton County and ended up in Allen County, Ohio.

James Jr. farmed and raised his family of eight in Allen County until tragedy struck in 1863 when his wife Nancy died. Just as his father before him James had a house full of children to raise without their mother and just as his father before him he remarried.

Susannah Van Meter became his new wife on 15 January 1864 and brought her own son into their family as well as bearing four more children. My great grandfather George S Marshall was one of those last four children.

James H Marshall Death card

James H Marshall Death card

James Jr. continued to farm the rest of his life. He died 10 February 1888 at the age of 64 years old. He was buried in Rockport cemetery in Allen County, Ohio next to his first wife Nancy.

Now this is pure speculation on my part but I sense James Jr. and Susannah’s marriage was one of convenience. He needed a woman in his home for his children and Susannah had an out-of-wedlock child making her undesirable to most men. Susannah was 30 yrs old when she married James Jr. I think her prospects of marriage were dimming, so she took what she could get. After James Jr.’s death the older children continued farming and Susannah left the family home and lived with my great grandfather George for nearly the rest of her life.

In many ways there seems to be a disconnect between the older and younger children of James Hayes Marshall Jr. but again that is a feeling I have and not proven fact, although it is something I will continue to research! It really doesn’t matter what I turn up. It’s a good thing James Jr. married Susannah. That union is vital for me being here today!

Thanks for reading the story of my great-great grandfather James Hayes Marshall Jr.

William Holmes – My 3x great granddad

William Holmes

William Holmes

WILLIAM HOLMES is my 3x great grandfather on my maternal side. He was born 25 April 1810, in Carroll County, Ohio. William was the oldest son of Obadiah and Rebecca (Thomas) Holmes, who both came from Virginia.

As one of Obadiah and Rebecca’s eight children he married Margaret Jenkins (Junkins) on 2 September 1830 in Tuscarawas County, OH. While living in Tuscarawas County located in eastern Ohio, William and Margaret had nine children. Their second child, daughter Rebecca (Holmes Williams) is my 2x great grandmother.

William farmed pretty much his entire life. By the early 1860s he and nearly his entire family moved to Allen County, Ohio. This exodus west across the state included several of his older children, already married besides the kids still at home. At least two of Williams’ siblings made the move and his parents Obadiah and Rebecca. I find this astonishing because both Obadiah and Rebecca had to be around 82 or 83 years old when they moved.

I guess no one was left in Tuscarawas County to care for the old folks so they had to move too. Accompanying the Holmes family in the great move was the Williams family. Two of William Holmes daughters, my 2x great grandmother Rebecca and Hannah (Anna) married into the Williamsfamily.

Holmes Land Liberty Township Hardin County Ohio

Holmes Land Liberty Township Hardin County Ohio

This great migration is going to be the focus of my genealogy research. Two dozen families from infants to 80 year olds moved 175 miles across Ohio. Why? Better farm land? Was there an epidemic? Did the Civil War have anything to do with it? It’s time I do a little research to find out!

William and Margaret lived in Allen County until 1874, when they moved to Liberty Township in Hardin County, OH just a few miles east. I found where William and Margaret lived in Hardin County on an 1870s plat map. My genea-sister and I made the 30 minute drive and wandered the area where they lived. I am very fortunate to be able to walk in my ancestors footsteps almost whenever I want.

William Holmes Property in Hardin County Ohio

William Holmes Property in Hardin County Ohio

According to the History of Hardin County, William and Margaret were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which he had attended since 1829. He was a Class Leader for twenty-five years and was Steward and Trustee. William Holmes, three sons, six sons-in-law and seven grandsons were all Republicans.(1)

William died at the age of 82 on December 22, 1892 in Allen County, Ohio.

Thanks for reading about my 3x great grandfather William Holmes. If you have a Holmes in your family tree email me at cindy@genealogycircledotcom.

Let’s share info. I’d love to hear from you!

William Holmes Property/Cemetery

There’s a cemetery on William Holmes’ property

(1)The History of Hardin County, Ohio: Containing a History of the County, Its Townships, Towns, Churches, Schools, Etc., General and Local Statistics, Military Record, Portraits of Early Settlers and Prominent Men, History of the Northwest Territory, History of Ohio, Miscellaneous Matters, Etc., Chicago: Warner, Beers & Co. 1883, online, Google Books, http://books.google.com/books?id=aNQ4AQAAMAAJ pg 1005, 27 March 2012

Do you think my great-grandfather was a mama’s boy?

Marshall Home Place

 

You know how us family historians talk about putting flesh and bones on our ancestors? We love the the thought of discovering their daily lives. We want to see them as “real people” and find out what they were really like.

 

One way I’ve found to do that is through newspapers. They’re a fantastic source for understanding the setting of our ancestors daily lives. Even if our ancestors aren’t named, newspapers will have documented major local events that certainly affected our people’s lives. Better yet are newspapers from smaller communities, which printed the most mundane events. The stuff real life is made of!

Another great benefit? A newspaper search will reveal the names of lots of your ancestors’ friends and family too. Remember FAN club research?

In Northwest Ohio we have a fabulous resource in Bowling Green State University. Their Center for Archival Collections has a huge collection of historic newspapers. Check out their website. It’s worth the drive if you are close.

So awhile back my sister Betsy and I spent a day at BGSU. Our goal was to find a particular obit, but we struck out. It wasn’t a total loss though. We did find in the Lima, Ohio Times-Democrat an interesting slice of life concerning our great-grandparents.

 

The snippet read:
Mrs. Susan Marshall, of whose serious fall mention was made some weeks ago, was removed to the home of her daughter, Mrs. Stella Everitt, Monday of last week owing to the serious and finally fatal illness of Mrs. George Marshall, with whom she made her home.

 

 

Beside an incredibly long run-on sentence, we found our g-g-grandmother Susannah Van Meter lived with her son my great-grandfather George S. Marshall, and his wife my great-grandmother Mary Ellen Williams. Now I find that interesting as heck!!

Why would Susannah live with her son, instead of a nearby daughter until after she fell? George and Mary Ellen had young children at home. So Mary Ellen’s hands were full with her home/farm and children. I’d just think Susannah would live with Stella to begin with! Don’t you? Do you think my great-grandfather was a mama’s boy?

It’s a really cool bit of family info. I’ve twirled it around in my head several times. Whatever their reasons I have a little more flesh on the bones of these ancestors and look forward to finding lots more!