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 Civil War Ancestor was Injured 152 years ago today at the Battle of Cumberland Church

Pvt G W Lowery Co. A 81st Penn Inf

Pvt George W Lowery Co. A 81st Pennsylvania Infantry

I want to pay special tribute to my 2x great grandfather George Washington Lowery who was shot during the Battle of Cumberland Church, outside of Farmville, VA. 152 years ago today.

Just a little info on my great great grandfather, George Washington Lowery. He was drafted July 19, 1864 at Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Next he was assigned to Co. A, 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry for three years. Born in Franklin County, PA my grandpa was a 37-year-old laborer at enlistment time. At 5 feet 9 inches tall, with a fair complexion, grey eyes, and dark hair, he was an average guy, his description was not uncommon for the time.

After a brief two-month training stint to make my “everyday man” grandfather a soldier, Lowery and the rest of the recently drafted recruits were sent to join their regiment. The 81st Pennsylvania had been mired with the rest of the Second Corps at Petersburg, Virginia, which had been under siege for months. Even though they were in the midst of war, it’s been written that many Confederate officers who lived in the area were able to slip away and visit with family and attend Sunday church services. The fighting here didn’t come in intense bursts as so many other battlefields but it was long, hard months of exhaustive trench warfare.

But soon my great great grandfather learned the true magnitude of war. His regiment pulled out of Petersburg and was involved in what is known as Lee’s Retreat.

He was part of the pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, west across the state, in the final week of the war. The experiences this regiment endured would hardened any soldier. This was the time George experienced the full impact of fighting.

The nine months dug in at Petersburg probably did not prepare him for sleeping only moments at a time, the constant skirmishes and out-right battles. His regiment continually moving, marching with the weight of supplies and a rifle. Smoke so heavy in the air an infantryman couldn’t see where his bullet hit if it hit anything at all.

The regiment found sporadic food consumption a luxury. Yet above all that – experiencing those you’d come to depend on, your fellow soldiers, your friends, ripped apart by flying shrapnel. The thud of a minie-ball as it plunges into a human body. The yelling, cursing, and then slow moans as the injured soon become casualties. It was during this time my great great grandfather came to know the full meaning of war.

There was the fighting at White Oak Road, where the Confederates prevailed. The battle at Sutherland Station was a union triumph due in great part to the fighting of the 81st. The battle at Sailor’s Creek was some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, yet recognition has been lost to the surrender at Appomattox, which was only three days later. There was the skirmish at High Bridge, reminiscent of a modern day movie.

Then just outside Farmville, on April 7, 1865, the Battle of Cumberland Church took place, where George Washington Lowery was wounded. As the 81st Pennsylvania, 2nd NYHA and part of the 5th NH encountered Confederate soldiers entrenched upon the ridge surrounding a church, intense fighting broke out. A minie-ball struck my great great grandfather in the chest, one and a fourth inches below the right nipple. The ball traveled through his body, ranging downward and lodged against the skin about a half inch right of his backbone, where it was taken out by an Army Surgeon the day after he was shot.

Transferred to Carver Hospital in Washington DC my grandfather recuperated there for two months. He was honorably discharged with a Surgeon’s Certificate of Disability June 5, 1865, and went home to his wife and children back in Franklin County, PA.

I want to dedicate this post to you George Washington Lowery, my great great grandpa. I want to honor you and just let you know I’m so proud of you and so glad I have the honor of being your descendant.

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A Soldier’s Story: Francis O. Cheney of Co. B, 192nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry on this Civil War Saturday

On this Civil War Saturday our guest contributor is Deborah A. Carder Mayes. Debbie is a genealogist, writer and speaker. She’s sharing her Civil War ancestor, her great grandfather Francis O. Cheney with us today. There’s more info about Debbie at the end of this post but first let’s learn this Civil War soldier’s story.

**Several years ago, I joined the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Any woman whose direct ancestor served in the Union forces during the Civil War is eligible to join. Joining DUVCW is a great way to honor your ancestor and assure that he is not forgotten.

Most of the able-bodied men in my family living during that time served. Here is a little info on my great grandfather, Francis Owen Cheney, who is the ancestor I honored by joining DUVCW.

Civil War Saturday - Francis O. Cheney

Francis O. Cheney

Francis Owen Cheney was born on October 25, 1847 in McLean County, Illinois. His great uncle, Jonathan Cheney was the founder of the town, Cheney’s Grove in McLean County. Many of the Cheney family, including William and Rebecca (Love) Cheney followed Jonathan to Illinois. Three of their eight children were born there before they made their way back to Ohio where they remained for the rest of their lives.

On May 20, 1869, Francis, who was known as Frank, married Martha Jane Uncapher in Marion County, Ohio. She went by her middle name, Jane. She was the daughter of John M. Uncapher and Barbara A. Rimmel and was born on February 2, 1851 in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Her family was Pennsylvania Dutch and she spoke their German dialect fluently.

Francis and Jane had nine children, Una Belle, Elizabeth Etta, Hillis Ray, Emma O., Silas, Haymond William, Elmer Albertus and Francis Elzie, who were twins, and my grandfather, Earl J. Cheney.

After the war, Francis lived most of his life in Allen County, Ohio but he lived in Marion County, Ohio for about two years and in Morgan, Cooper, Lafayette, and Benton Counties in Missouri for four years. Francis and Jane lived in Missouri shortly after they married. They probably went there because land was cheap. Either they were homesick or they did not prosper in Missouri because they returned to Ohio by 1872 where they moved to Allen County and remained.

While on duty at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in March, 1865, Francis, a private in Co. B, 192nd O. V. I., was disabled by disease of the lungs, heart, fever, and pleurisy and treated at the hospital in Harper’s Ferry. He was discharged at Winchester, Virginia on September 21, 1865.

In 1891, he was a resident of Allentown, German Township, Allen County, Ohio. He was 5′ 9″ and had a fair complexion, light hair, and hazel eyes. He weighed 145 pounds. In 1899, when he was a resident of Shawnee Township, Allen County, Ohio, he was 5’7″. He applied for a veteran’s pension and received $8 a month. He was still a resident of Shawnee Township in 1902 and remained there until his death. In 1912, his pension was raised to $13.50.

Pvt. Francis O. Cheney Shawnee Cemetery, Allen County, Ohio

Pvt. Francis O. Cheney Shawnee Cemetery, Allen County, Ohio

Francis died on November 20, 1912. After his death, Jane moved into the home of her son, Francis Elzie Cheney, in Lima, Ohio. She died on November 27, 1931. Francis and Jane are buried together, a few feet away from his parents, in Shawnee Cemetery, Allen County, Ohio.

You can read learn more about Debbie, her writing and programs on her site:
Rambling Along the Ancestral Trail – Deborah A. Carder Mayes Genealogy & Family History.(http://cardermayes.weebly.com/blog) Debbie’s passion for genealogy began over seventeen years ago when she started exploring her family history. She soon became active in her local genealogical community.

In 2001 as a library volunteer, Debbie began helping others with their own family research. She began presenting lectures and workshops in 2004 and researching for clients in 2008. Currently, Debbie is a writer for the In-Depth Genealogist magazine, and their blog Going In-Depth. She also writes for her own genealogical blog, and is writing a book on her father’s family history.

**This post, Military Monday-Francis Owen Cheney, can be found on Debbie’s blog under the category, Ohio Civil War Ancestors and was posted on April 7, 2013.