Volume 1, Issue 3
April , 2006
Monroe County Civil War Roundtable
The Sultana as it appeared just before the tragedy. This is the only know photograph of the ill-fated ship, that last of four to bear the same name.
THE GREATEST MARITME
DISASTER IN US HISTORY
John Crosby, the first three-time presenter in the short history of the MCCWR, evoked images of Mississippi River life...and death...with his compelling story of the riverboat the Sultana. John made note that most people had not even heard of the event, and those that had held only vague recollections for the most part. This was a tragedy with a greater loss of life than the Titanic, which came almost fifty years later, and involved over two-thousand soldiers ironically on their way home, at last, from either the last battlefields of the war or, more often, the wretched, squalid prisoner-of-war camps at Andersonville and Cawhaba. Why is it so enshrouded in the fog of history? In addition to being numbed to the horrors of the war for four long years, only two-weeks before had seen perhaps the single biggest tragedy of the 19th century, the assassination of Lincoln, and the nation was awash in so much grief already that it was, perhaps, unable to grasp this event.
The true motives and reasons for the tragedy are still in the shadows of history, with characters like Captain Mason, who was also a part owner; R.G. Taylor, the experienced boilermaker who decried the ships safety; Reuben Hatch, the quartermaster who may well have used his position for personal gain, and more.
The facts are that three of the four boilers blew suddenly and unexpectedly and the ship sank in minutes, with an estimated immediate loss of life numbered at 1,547 and as many as 300 more soon to follow from injuries. Shortly after the explosion, bodies were seen floating down the Mississippi by those on shore miles below the site by onlookers on shore. The Sultana was ridiculously overcrowded, with some estimates putting the total on board as high as 2,600 on a craft that was designed to hold less than 400 during a normal voyage. Other ships leaving from the same debarkation point had sailed either empty or with less than their capacity simply because there was a better contract for much more money “per head” on the Sultana’s human cargo.
Three separate inquiries quickly followed the disaster, but after weeks of testimony, only one, Frederick Speed, the Asst. Adjutant General at Vicksburg, was found culpable, and even he was later exonerated.
For more detailed information on this little-known event, see Jerry Potter’s excellent book The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster.
These are just a few of the over 2,000 soldiers who were on board the ill-fated vessel as it set off from Memphis, TN, and headed northward very early on the morning of April 27, 1865. Less than an hour after departing it blew up and sank, forever affecting the lives and families of soldiers like these.
Do you have an idea for a program but are unsure of how to present it? As we have seen the last couple of months, fancy video and graphics are nice but not necessary. A simple reading or book report can be compelling when delivered by someone who has what we all came to our group already in hand…a passion for a topic that has fascinated us for years. And there are others who could help you prepare a presentation if you need it.
If you do have a topic that you think would be better served by the use of photography, the History Center, our gracious and supporting host, has a laptop computer and a digital projector that we have been granted access to. See President Steve Rolfe or call him at 336-0757 if you think you would like to avail yourself of their use.
The Siege of Vicksburg by Kurz and Allison.
This Mississippi river town that was one of the last stops of the Sultana had been in Confederate hands until U.S. Grant captured the city on July 4, 1863, almost two years before the ship sank .
While Scarlett O’Hara did not attend the March meeting, she did send some of her best Atlanta peach pies along with Hospitality Chair Deborah Cronin. They were much appreciated by the members. Remember, if you can possibly do so, please help Deborah out with refreshments. Call her at 323-9615 and lend a hand.
Thank You Monroe County History Center
If you have not been to the old Carnegie Library building recently for more than our meetings, stop in to see their collections, use the genealogy library or simply browse in their first-class gift and book shop (Civil War titles available!).
Even further, if you have not considered it before, think about a membership to the Monroe County History Society. They are keeping the legacy of our area alive and vibrant for the generations to come.
If you have questions about the roundtable, please contact any of the following members:
Steve Rolfe President 336-0757
David Wiley Secretary 337-0649
Kevin Shiflet Treasurer 876-2415
John Crosby Programs 339-2572
Deborah Cronin Hospitality 323-9615
The annual business meeting of the MCCWR will be held shortly before the April program, so please come prepared to pay your dues and ask any questions about the operation of your roundtable. Dues are $15 for an individual, $20 for a family and $5 for a student. Treasurer Kevin Shiflet will be prepared to receive your payment and issue a receipt.
A unique evening awaits us on Tuesday, April 18, at 6:30 pm when Barbara Davis, editor of the recent compilation of letters Affectionately Yours: The Civil War Letters of the Ovid Butler Family joins us from her home in Chicago to talk about her work editing this vivid and important family history..