Last Tragedy of the Civil War
by Roger Weston
by Roger Weston
One of the most amazing shipwrecks in American history is largely unknown. The ship was called the Sultana, and she ran a route on the Mississippi River, transporting cargo and passengers. On April 27, 1865, she swung up to the docks at Vicksburg, where her lines were made fast. It was then that the engineer noticed something worrisome: the boilers were leaking. After evaluating their options, the engineers and captain decided that the boilers would be repaired straightaway.
Vicksberg, at that time, was swarming with semi-invalid civil war veterans. These Union soldiers were newly-released POWs. They’d come from various prisons where they had been sadly neglected. They were diseased, half–starved skeletons with many wounds that needed proper medical attention.
Because the Civil War had just ended eighteen days ago, the government was paying boat captains for every veteran that they shipped up river. Soldiers began boarding the Sultana even as it was being repaired.
Despite their sad physical condition, they were in high spirits like Captain J.C. Mason had never seen before. They were singing, smiling, shouting, and dancing with joy. They had just gotten their lives back and were headed home. Many of them had expected to die in the camps. Now they’d literally been given a second life. They were ecstatic. There weren’t just a few soldiers on the Sultana either. There were lots of them. They poured onto the paddle wheeler like a flood. In no time at all, the Sultana was full, packed well beyond capacity. In no way was she built for this many passengers. It was a dangerous situation. The Sultana was legally entitled to carry 376 passengers. It was presently carrying 2,300. The captain was nervous, but he felt he must follow through with his mission of returning the veterans to their homes.
The engineers were lively, and wasted no time. The boilers were quickly repaired, and the Sultana headed upriver, her big paddle wheels thrashing the water.
Despite being grossly overloaded and running against the current, the Sultana performed well for the next couple of days. At Memphis, the boiler showed more signs of leaking. Once again, repairs were done. The boat moved on, heading into the current with over five times more passengers than she was allowed to carry.
As it turned out, the current was stronger than usual. At 2 a.m., they were only a few miles upstream from Memphis. The weighed-down boat was really working hard to make progress. It was earning every inch against the flood-stage currents. Then the boilers failed and a tremendous explosion lit up the ship. It was so powerful that the boom was heard all the way back in Memphis. The detonation blew hundreds of sleeping soldiers into the river. These half-invalid men landed in freezing water, splashing down below the surface along with half of the boat’s superstructure. A large portion of the boat had been obliterated. It was a miracle that men survived both the explosion and the shock of landing in the river during their sleep. Because there was wreckage in the water, many soldiers were able to grab onto some flotsam and hold on for their life. This was a rude awakening, but also a lucky one.
Sadly, many of the men could not swim and were also malnourished and weak. At the same time, pieces of wreckage were quickly claimed. When too many men tried to climb on, the wreckage was driven under water. Then panicked drowning men grabbed onto other men to use them as flotation devices. In many cases, both men sunk and never came up. In other cases, survivors drove away those who would take them under. It was an easy choice to make to drive them off and let them drown; it was frequently a hard memory to live with.
The ice-cold water proved too much for many of the worn-out men. Hundreds of them died from the shock because they could not swim.
Back on the boat, people were fighting over lumber. They were tearing away lumber wherever they could find it. Everyone wanted a flotation device. Only the most determined were successful.
One man found a ten-foot alligator in a wooden cage. He bayoneted the beast and rolled the cage into the river. He dove in and clung to that cage until a boat picked him up. A man who been caged up himself for so long now owed his life to a cage.
Three other men held onto a bale of hay and floated all the way to Memphis.
James K. Brady had awoken to find that he was on fire, or at least his clothes were. Most of his hair had burned off. He and his friend David Ettleman put out the flames on Brady, but the boat was also burning. Next, they rushed around looking for a flotation device. They had no luck, so they went to the hurricane deck, where they saw an astounding scene.
As Brady said, “Oh, what a sight met our gaze! There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying. Many were cursing while others were singing. That sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”
Brady and Ettleman found a gangplank, which they grabbed onto just as it was going over the side. Brady later explained that “About fifteen or sixteen of us that had stuck to the plank. But now a new danger had seized me, as someone grabbed me by the right foot and it seemed as though it was in a vise; try as I would, I could not shake him off. I gripped the plank with all the strength that I had, and then I got my left foot between his hand and my foot and while holding on to the plank with both hands I pried him loose with my left foot, he taking my sock along with him... He sank out of sight and I saw him no more.” Such incidents were common, but that didn’t make it any easier. Anyway, Brady’s troubles weren’t over.
The gangplank flipped over during the struggle, and several other men were lost. Brady’s spirits were plummeting. He was losing hope. He was weak, having lost thirty percent of his body weight in prison. In his darkest moments, it was his friend who helped him: “Every little while he would call out some encouraging word to me to keep up my spirits.”
On the burning ship, Chester Berry was fighting his own battle for survival. He got himself a piece of cabin door casing, but hesitated to jump in the water. The flames had not reached the bow yet, but the real reason was what he saw in the water. As he explained, it was “literally black with human beings, many of whom were sinking and taking others with them. Being a good swimmer, and having board enough to save me, even if I were not, I concluded to wait till the rush was over.” To jump into a crowd of drowning men would have been extremely dangerous.
Remaining on board a little longer gave him time to look around and see how humans responded to a situation where they were facing death, men who had faced it before, but finally thought they were getting another shot at life. Then suddenly they saw that second chance slipping away. Berry said, “The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory — such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat — imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping.”
Berry saw that different men responded differently. He saw men who would fight tooth and nail to survive. He saw one man whose flotation devices had been taken from him by stronger men, and he would not fight anymore. He could have gotten more wood from the pile, but he had had enough. He was done fighting. Berry was angry at his defeatist attitude and let him be. For years, it would haunt him that he didn’t do more to help that broken man. Berry was haunted by a man who would not help himself.
Finally, the waters cleared of people, and Berry dove in. He struggled with the current for a time and on account of the ice-cold water, he became completely discouraged to the point where he decided it wasn’t worth it to struggle any longer. He realized that he would drown in spite of his efforts, so it would just be easier to give up and die. He started to do just that when a miracle happened. As Berry puts it, “I was transported for the moment to ‘the old house at home,’ and that I was wending my way slowly up the path from the road gate to the house… as plainly as I ever heard my mother's voice, I heard it that evening.” Their family had always prayed together. His mother said the prayer because his father was mute. Now Berry actually heard her pray “God save my boy.”
After that, Berry’s attitude changed. He knew that his mother was expecting him to return home from war and how much it meant to her. He said, “I fiercely clutched the board and hissed between my now firmly set teeth ‘Mother, by the help of God, your prayer shall be answered.’''
Berry ended up clinging to a tree until a boat rescued him.
James K. Brady, whose friend’s encouraging words gave him strength, was another survivor. Brady lasted till daylight and they managed to get to shore. Another man crawled ashore with them, but he was so badly burned that he died three minutes after reaching land.
Eighteen hundred other men also passed away. They had survived the Civil War, including time in POW camps. They were on their way home to see their families. But destiny had other plans.
More people died on the Sultana than on the Titanic. It is the worst shipwreck in American history, but few know of it. To some degree it was overshadowed by greater events and bigger news. Lincoln had been assassinated only a week earlier. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth had just been apprehended the previous day.
The impact on the eighteen hundred families was no doubt profound. But the 1,800 men are not forgotten. We honor them for their sacrifice for their country and their fellow man. This was the last tragedy of the Civil War, but it was more than that. It was the loss of 1,800 brothers. Their story reminds us of who they were and what they did.
After learning about the worst maritime disaster of all time, resulting in an even greater loss of life than the RMS Titanic, I wrote FATAL RETURN. This little known tragedy took place on a cold and dark night during WWII. I was so fascinated about the circumstances surrounding this shipwreck that I wrote about it in my novel FATAL RETURN.
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