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contributed by ©Barb Ziegenmeyer
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S.S. Sultana before explosion

Photograph shows the overloaded steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River the day before her boilers exploded and she sank. The passengers included ca. 1,880 Union soldiers heading home at the end of the Civil War; more than 1,100 of these men died in the disaster.
Source: Library of Congress

From a Boone County, Indiana article:

One of the most dreadful maritime disasters in loss of lives of all time was the explosion and burning of the Mississippi river steamer, the Sultana, at a point a few miles above the city of Memphis, Tennessee, shortly after midnight on the morning of April 27, 1865. The catastrophic event is an almost completely forgotten episode because at the time it occurred, the great Civil War was ending, and, too, in those tragic days, the loss of life was more or less taken for granted.

The U. S. Army reported that 1,238 soldiers lost their lives by injury or drowning in the Sultana disaster; the U. S. Customs Service put the total number of dead at 1, 547; the World Almanac today reports the loss as being 1, 400; and Gould’s History of River Navigation claims a total of 1, 647 died. The last three totals given include a large number of civilian passengers aboard the ill fated boat who also perished.

Boone County (Indiana) soldiers known to have lost their lives on that early April morning included Captain Henry L. Hazelrigg, Anderson Hall, and Henry L. Wetherald, all of Company K, 40th Indiana Volunteer Infantry and Corporal Benjamin Franklin, of Company F, also of the 40th Indiana. Escaping with their lives to later live and die in Boone County were Uriah J. Mavlty, Nathan D. Everman, and Joseph H. Mayes. Of the four men lost, the body of only one, that of Corporal Franklin, is definitely known to have been recovered. Franklin was first buried in Lebanon’s old Cedar Hill Cemetery on North Park Street, and was later reinterred in Oak Hill Cemetery. A marker, “to the memory of Capt. Henry Lane Hazelrigg,” stands on the Hazelrigg lot in Oak Hill.

The Lebanon Patriot, a (Indiana) weekly newspaper, in its issue of May 4, 1865, under the heading, “TERRIBLE STEAMBOAT DISASTER, told the story of the tragedy as follows:

“The steamboat Sultana, from Vicksburg, with about 2, 300 people on board, of whom 1, 964 were exchanged Union prisoners, when about ten miles above Memphis exploded her boilers. The boat took fire and burned to the water. Of all on board only between 700 and 800 are supposed to be saved, and many of them scalded, burned or injured by the explosion. A large number of the soldiers on board were from Indiana and Ohio. Several members of the 40th Regiment were on board, among whom we notice the names of N. D. Everman and Benjamin Franklin, of Company F.

“Mr. Everman was rescued and has arrived home. He states that Capt. Hazelrigg of Co. K, 40th Regiment, was also on board, and that Hazelrigg and Franklin were not injured by the explosion, as he saw them afterwards, but he supposes both of them to have drowned. It is possible that many now supposed to be lost may have swam ashore or floated downstream and been picked up, and will soon be heard from.”

In his later years and some time before his death at his home in Lebanon on March 10, 1910, and subsequent burial in Oak Hill Cemetery,
Uriah J. Mavity, as an invalid confined to a wheel chair, wrote a graphic and stirring account of his experience in the Sultana explosion and fire.

His story as he wrote it follows:

“We had just been liberated from the dark filthy walls of Andersonville and Cahawba and were going home.

“Although exhausted by the confinement and weakened by hunger, there was not one in our number whose heart did not leap with joy, and to whom bright visions of home did not come as on the 26th of April, 1865, we boarded the Sultana at Vicksburg.

“The very vessel quivered with her load, as she sailed forth with over two thousand of the boys who had fought to save their country and were going home to be received as victors. We sailed safely the first day and the second. Our hearts grew lighter and visions of home more vivid as we drew nearer and nearer to our destination.

“On the night of the 26th, the dark clouds fringed the sky and keen flashes of lightning darted fitfully across the heavens. But we could sleep in spite of this for trouble was over and home would soon be reached. So we lay in huddled masses on the floor and in deep slumber. We stopped at Memphis to unload some sugar, but I was sleeping soundly again, when, at about one o'clock (as I afterwards learned) I was suddenly awakened by the hot cinders flying in my face, and starting up, found the blankets we had thrown over us to be on fire. So deep had been my sleep that I had not heard the report of the bursting boiler which has been described as a sound which seemed to be the groans of the world being rent in twain. Timbers were flying in every direction together with the remnants of the boiler, and fire raged on the shattered vessel. What should we do? To stay on board meant to be burned to death for every moment the flames were gaining headway. And surely to leap into the depths of a river which having burst its levees, had spread its water over a breadth of five miles, could mean no less than death.

Some already were leaping Into the water and I tried to decide which course to pursue or which kind of death to choose, the flames were coming closer and closer; now almost all had abandoned the vessel. Seizing a stick of wood, I jumped off into the water.

“Several times was I pulled under water by others drowning. and, finding that the wood could not aid me and spying a cable chain, I grasped the latter as a last means of hope. Holding firmly to this with my hands, and catching my toes in the lower links, I managed to keep my head above the water. My hands soon became so stiff that I could not hold to the chain that way, so I clung to it with my arms. As I hung there, fearing every moment to lose my hold and drop into eternity, as I heard the cries of the drowning and felt that their fate would soon be mine, I felt -- but comrades. If you ever longed to see your mother, even in the prison -pen or on the battlefield, you know the feelings which came over me were too deep to be described.

“The cries of the drowning were pitiful -- heart rending. Those of one Irishman I can never forget. His face had been terribly crushed by the flying missiles, his nose being entirely split open. Still he managed to keep his head above water and when someone said that a boat was coming to our rescue, he cried out again and again, ‘0 the Lord’s a good Lord, we'll all be saved.’ But, alas, we could not all be saved at once; and after gathering up a load of the wounded and drowning, the boat pulled away and we saw it no more.

“I hung there, with body grown numb through exhaustion, until seven o'clock In the morning, when the citizens from the Arkansas side of the river came with a raft to our rescue. I was perfectly helpless when taken out of the water and it was only by the aid of brandy and skillful hands that I was brought to life. The poor Irishman, I learned, did not live but a short time after our rescue. Afterwards we were taken back to Memphis to the hospital and I lay there until the second evening after our arrival, seeing not one face of the eight of my company who had started on the boat, and thinking that they were all lost except myself.

“But that evening I saw a squad of boys coming up the street, and recognized the features of one of my company, Bill Harden. I managed to hobble to him and to hear his glad cry, ‘My God! Mavity, Is that you? I thought all were gone but me.’ I replied that I had reached the same conclusion regarding myself. We remained there for a few days, after which time we boarded another boat and went to Cairo. From there we took trains to our different towns.

“But it was with more foreboding that I boarded the second boat, and when night came I could not close my eyes with such a feeling of safety as before. Well, home was reached and I was permitted to see my mother, but I can never forget that awful night on the river. It is branded upon my memory and every day my suffering calls it to mind, together with the numerous hardships of military life.

“Over 1,700 of the noble boys lost their lives on that terrible night, and since then a great part of the survivors have been removed by death. At present there is but one other than myself of the Sultana survivors residing in Boone County, and that is Joseph Mayes of Harrison Township.”

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