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

Home Documents Poetry Blog About

Chronicles > Sultana

Wreck of the Steamer "Sultana"


Mcgill Family Record by Robert M. McGill, Maryville, Tennessee; R. E. McGill, Publisher, Richmond, Va., 1907; pp. 54 - 58

    Uriah J. Mavity enlisted August 12, 1862, in Company D., Sixty-eighth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, when twenty years of age. He was a soldier through and through; always brave. He was discharged, November 28, 1862, on surgeon's certificate of disability. He enlisted for a second term in September, 1863, at Acton, Ind. He was captured and sent to Cahaba prison, Ala., for six months; was exchanged, and sent to Vicksburg, and went aboard the ill-fated Sultana, for home, which blew up, April 27, 1865, and he was blown into the river, but hung to the anchor chain for six hours, with his head just out of the water, when he was rescued.

    While in the Cahaba prison, the Alabama River submerged the prison several feet deep. He was given his final discharge in June, 1865, at Indianapolis, Ind. He is an honored member of Rich Mount Post, 42, and is an invalid.

    Right here are coincidents worthy of note:

    Companies A. and B., Third Tennessee Cavalry, United States Army, were nearly all from Blount County, and the whole regiment was made up from this and surrounding counties. About seventy men from Blount County were on the Sultana when it blew up, and about one hundred and thirty men from other counties nearby, making two hundred in all. Probably over half of them were lost. The survivors have faithfully kept up their reunions every year since the war; but death has so often invaded their ranks, that only about seventeen are living now of the Blount County men; among them Sam P. Dunlap, of Maryville, who is totally blind, but otherwise in health good; Alexander Kidd lives near by ; others in the county are Pleas Keeble, Wallace Milsaps, Sam Pickens, Robert Rule, George C. Davis, Bart McMurry, Adam Wilson, and others. I have often talked with these men, and heard them tell of their escapes and the awful scenes of that night.

    I have a book before me, entitled: "Loss of the Sultana, and Reminiscences of the Survivors." The following is taken from the introduction to that work :

    "The average American is astonished at nothing he sees and hears. He looks for large things. Things ordinarily are too tame. This and the exciting events of April, 1865 perhaps account for the fact that the loss of the steamer Sultana and over seventeen' hundred passengers, mostly exchanged prisoners of war, finds no place in American history. The idea that the most appalling marine disaster that ever occurred in the history of the world should pass by unnoticed is strange; but still, such is the fact, and the majority of the American people to-day do not know that there ever was such a vessel as the Sultana; and many of those who do recollect something about the occurrence, cannot tell whether it occurred in the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic Ocean; and the purpose of setting them right and instructing others, thus holding in the memory of the present generation, and those yet to be, the sufferings of the defenders of our country, is the object of this sketch.

    The steamer Sultana was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, January 1863; and was registered, as near as I can learn, at 1,719 tons. She was a regular St. Louis and New Orleans packet, and left the latter port on her fatal trip April 21, 1865, arriving at Vicksburg, Miss., with about two hundred passengers and crew on board. She remained here little more than one day; among other things, repairing one of her boilers, at the same time receiving on board 1,965 Federal soldiers and thirty-five officers, just released from the rebel prisons at Cahaba, Ala., Macon and Andersonville, Ga., and belonging to the States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Besides these, there were two companies of infantry under arms, making a grand total of 2,300 souls on board, besides a number of mules and horses, and over 1oo hogsheads of sugar, the latter being in the hold of the boat and serving as ballast. At Helena, Ark., by some unaccountable means, a photograph of the boat, with her mass of living freight, was taken, a copy of which is in possession of L. G. Morgan, of Findlay, Ohio, one of the survivors to-day.

    Leaving Helena, the boat arrived at Memphis, Tenn., about seven o'clock P.M. on the 26th of April. Here the sugar was unloaded, many of the exchanged prisoners helping the crew, thus making a little money for themselves. Some time in the evening, probably well towards midnight, the boat steamed across the river to the coal bins, or barges; and, after taking on her supply of coal, started on up the river for Cairo, Ill. All was quiet and peaceful, many of the soldiers, no doubt, after their long unwilling fast in Southern prisons, were dreaming of home and the good things in store for them there; but alas! those beautiful visions were dissipated by a terrific explosion, for, about two o'clock in the morning of the 27th, as the boat was passing through a group of islands, known as "The old hen and chickens," and while about opposite of "Tangleman's landing," had burst one of her boilers and almost immediately caught fire, for the fragments of the boiler had cut the cabin and the hurricane deck in two, and splintered pieces had fallen, many of them, back upon the burning coal fires, that were now left exposed. The light, dry wood of the cabins burned like tinder, and it was but a short time until the boat was wrapped in flames, burning to the water's edge and sinking. Hundreds were forced into the water and drowned in huge squads; those who could swim being unable to get away from those who could not, and consequently perishing with them. One thing favorable to the men was the fact that there was a little wind, hence the bow of the boat, having no cabin above it, would face the wind until the cabin was burned off from the stern, then the boat gradually swung round, the unburned part of the boat above the water acting as a sail, while that below acted as a rudder, and finally drove the men into the water. A part of the crowd was driven off at a time, thus giving many of those who could swim or had secured fragments of the wreck, an opportunity to escape.
But there was one thing that was unfavorable, and that was the pitchy darkness of the night. It was raining a little, or had been, and but occasional glimpses of timber was all that could be seen, even when the flames were the brightest, consequently the men did not know what direction to take, and one man especially, swam up stream. Another thing that added greatly to the loss of life is the fact that the river at this place is three miles wide, and at the time of the accident, it was very high and had overflown its banks, and many doubtless perished after they reached the timber, while trying to get through the woods back to the bluffs, the flats being deeply under water. Others died from exposure in the icy cold water after they had reached the timber, but were unable to climb a tree, or crawl upon a log, and thus get out of the water."

Inasmuch as so many men from East Tennessee, and especially from Blount County, were on the Sultana, and so many of them went down to watery graves, bear with me for a few words about Blount County:

It has been said, and often repeated, that the second congressional district of Tennessee, composed of Blount and ten or eleven other counties in East Tennessee, furnished more soldiers to the United States army, according to population, than any other congressional district in the United States. Blount County furnished so many soldiers to the Union Army that to-day it is called "Loyal Blount."

The county was named after the territorial governor of Tennessee, William Blount, and this included the "territory of the United States south of the Ohio River." He was also the first United States senator from Tennessee. And Maryville, the county seat, was named for his wife, Mary. He signed his official documents "Willie Blount." Major Will A. McTeer, of Maryville, has one of those old documents, signed "Willie Blount, Governor."



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