Chronicles of the American Civil War - Words and Images of the War

Home Documents Poetry Blog About

Chronicles > Sultana

Burning of the Sultana


                History of the Seventh Indiana Cavalry Volunteers, and of…;Thomas S. Cogley; 1876; Herald Company, Steam Printers; LaPorte Indiana

            The Steamer Sultana, lost on the Mississippi above Memphis April 1865The burning of the splendid steamer, Sultana, is connected with the history of the Seventh Indiana Cavalry, because at the time of that terrible disaster, there were aboard of her, and lost in the calamity with hundreds of other soldiers, from thirty to forty of the members of the regiment.

            The Sultana was one of the largest size steamboats. She bad been running but three years, and was valued at eighty thousand dollars.

            The quartermaster, at Vicksburg, was guilty of criminal carelessness in overloading the boat. About two thousand soldiers were on board, most of whom had but recently been released from Andersonville and other prisons, where they had been imprisoned for months, and suffered the tortures devised by the rebel government, and were at the time of the disaster, on their way to their homes in the North. Besides these, there were a large number of passengers consisting of men, women and children, and the boats crew, and a large quantity of freight, principally sugar.

            With her freight of precious souls, the Sultana, on the 6th of April, 1865, arrived at Memphis, where she lay till midnight, to unload one hundred hogsheads of sugar. Having discharged her freight, the bell summoned passengers "on board," and warned visitors to go ashore. Parting friends shook each other by the hand, and said "goodbye," little dreaming that that was the last time they would ever clasp hands, or exchange words of friendship this side of the grave. The gang-plank was drawn in; the engines of the boat put the ponderous wheels in motion; and the proud Sultana swung out into the current of the Mississippi, and was soon hurrying on to her terrible doom. The passengers retired to their berths :

"To sleep, perchance to dream,"

of home, friends and loved ones, thinking that when they awoke in the morning they would be many miles nearer their destination. Sixteen hundred of them were destined to awaken soon after, to find themselves, not only nearer, but at their great final destination. Before the sun, on the morrow, illumined the east with its golden flood of light, sixteen hundred human beings, who left Memphis a short hour before, bouyant with hope, were doomed to enter upon –

"That bourne whence no traveler ere returns."

            When about seven miles above Memphis, the boilers of the Sultana exploded, hurling the pilot-house and a portion of the cabin high into the air. They came down on the deck a complete wreck, and buried many of the passengers in the debris, who, being unable to extricate themselves, were burned to death. Men, women and children, rushed from their berths in their night attire, and with the most heart-rending screams, plunged into the river, preferring death by drowning, to the more horrid one of burning. Mothers, with their babes pressed to their bosoms, jumped into the water and sank to rise no more. One heroic mother cast herself and babe into the river, and by means of a mattrass, managed to keep afloat till both were rescued by a boat, several miles from the scene of the disaster. Husbands threw their wives into the water and plunged in after them, and after a brief struggle, found their last resting place beneath the waves.

            The explosion occurred in the widest pat t of the river, where none but the most expert swimmers could reach the shore. Some sank never to rise when they had almost reached the banks. Some who had reached them, and succeeded in catching hold of the limbs of the bushes, unable longer to sustain themselves above water, relaxed their grip, sank out of sight, and were never seen again. Some floated down past Memphis, and by their cries, attracting the attention of the boats at the wharf, were saved.

            Immediately after the explosion, the flames, spreading rapidly, enveloped the Sultana in a sheet of fire. The scene presented by the light of the burning vessel was horrid beyond the power of language to describe. Two thousand persons were in the water engaged in a desperate struggle for life. The screams and cries for help, when there was no arm to save, was enough to curdle the blood with horror. Amid the babble of screams and shouts, were distinguished the cries of children and babes. In that sea of drowning humanity, were bride and groom on their wedding tour; families consisting of fathers, mothers and children, returning from or making visits to friends; and soldiers who had fought gallantly on many a hard contested field of battle , and had suffered the tortures of the damned in rebel prison pens in the south.

            Such disasters bring out prominently the strongest. and weakest traits of character. With the women and children the conflict was soon over. The most of them immediately sank on reaching the water and never again came to the surface. But hundreds of the men kept up for hours a gallant battle for life. Soldiers who had often defied death on the field, were not to be vanquished in a moment—not even by the great Mississippi. Such as managed to keep afloat, were picked up by boats hastening to the rescue.

            The steamer Bostona, on her way down the river, and about a mile distant at the time of the explosion, hurried to the scene, and succeeded in saving many who otherwise would have perished.

            The iron-clad gun boat, Essex, left the wharf at Memphis, on hearing of the catastrophe, and steamed rapidly toward the wreck. The morning was so dark that it was possible to see but a few feet ahead. The gun-boat was guided to the spot by the cries of those struggling in the water. She saved sixty persons from a watery grave.

            The Sultana burned to the water's edge, and sank on the Arkansas side of the river.

            All of the twenty-two hundred persons, except six hundred, who thronged the decks of the Sultana the day before, with visions of a happy and prosperous future of life before them, slept at the bottom of the great Mississippi, while over their quiet bodies, its floods rolled, on their ceaseless journey to the sea.

            The following are the names of the members of the Seventh Indiana Cavalry, lost with the Sultana, that we have been able to get.

            Daniel W. Doner, John Q. Paxton, and Costan Porter, of company E; William S. Corbin, of company G; William Barrick and Elisha Swords, of company I; Augustus Barrett and Francis M. Elkins, of company K; William M. Thomson, of company M.

Robert B. Armstrong, of company I, was the only member of the regiment who escaped.




Newest Material

July 17, 2007 -  Added A Federal Railroad Adventure - "Andrews Raiders"
May 10 - Added new page Civil War Era Definitions with definitions to be added as I come across them
May 9 - Added article: Our Captured Correspndent
May 9 - Added page for Prisons and Prisoners and a page for Libby Prison
May 8 - Loss of Sultana, article and biographical sketches
May  - Images of Sultana
May 7, 2007 - Steamboat Sultana pages created