THE RIVER STEAMER SULTANA DISASTER
There was never a happier lot of men than those who marched out of Andersonville Prison on March 20, 1865, on the way to freedom; not that any of them were in a physical condition to cause happiness, but because of the horrors they were leaving and the comforts they hoped soon to find. The rosiest dreams of children on Christmas Eve are no fairer than the visions that floated through their minds.
I was one of them. I had been captured at Spring Hill, near Franklin, Tennessee, on November 30, 1864; and had been transported with other unfortunates to Andersonville, by way of Meridian, Selma, and Montgomery; so that I had over two months in the "hell on earth," and that was long enough to gain a residence that could never be forgotten, though I think that the "officers' pen," in which I was confined, was not quite so bad as the main pen where the private soldiers were kept.
There was no ceremony about our release. We were simply told that the hour of deliverance had come, and without giving us time to arrange our toilets which, indeed, was not necessary, as there was nothing to make them with, we were marched up to the railroad to await the train for Montgomery. We had been there a short time when the prisoners from the large pen began to come up.
It was one of the most pitiful sights I ever beheld, and I doubt very much if Ezekiel's vision in the valley of dry bones excelled it. Coming like cattle across an open field were scores of men who were nothing but skin and bones; some hobbling along as best they could, and others being helped by stronger comrades. Every gaunt face with its staring eyes told the story of the suffering and privation they had gone through, and protruding bones showed through their scanty tattered garments. One might have thought that the grave and the sea had given up their dead.
They waited patiently for the train, but when it finally arrived there was a wild scramble to get on board, every man for himself, as if in terror lest he be left behind. But there were some like the one at the Pool of Siloam, who were unable to help themselves, and had to be lifted on as little children. But, in wretched plight as we were, it was a great pleasure to meet the boys of my company after our weeks of separation, at least those that were left, for some had died in prison.
And there were others who barely escaped it, for there was hardly a station on the road where we did not leave the remains of some poor fellow to be buried by strangers. How hard to die in the morning of their deliverance, with all the bright hopes of meeting father, mother, wife or children! It is not strange that those whose memories go back to such scenes should find it hard to restrain a feeling of bitterness toward those who caused the war, with all its sacrifice and suffering.
A tiresome ride of several hours on the cars brought us to Montgomery, where we were transferred to a steamboat that was waiting for us. While at the wharf I met my first outside acquaintance, in the person of a colored man who had been a slave of the proprietor of "Montgomery Hall," in whose employ I had been when I resided in Montgomery for a time before the war. The boat soon backed out into the river, and we were quickly out of sight of that beautiful city. Within a few hours we were landed at Selma, where we took cars again for Meridian, Mississippi.
The "Pullmans" on which we were loaded were of the kind commonly used for four-footed passengers, and the more active of us took upper berths on top of the cars. This proved rather dangerous, for our car had an accident and some of the boys were thrown off and badly bruised. I escaped injury by jumping to the car ahead. We had another transfer to a steamboat on the Tombigbee river, and then cars again to Meridian, where we were informed that we would have to make the rest of our journey on foot. They simply turned us loose, and directed us to the road to Vicksburg, near which the parole camp was located.
After a wearisome march we came to the Big Black, which was the Jordan for us, but with no Joshua to command the waters to roll back. We had to wait till the ferryman had orders to take us over, and we were probably more patient in doing so because we could see the Stars and Stripes floating over the parole camp. It was too far away to see even the stripes, but we knew it was "the old flag," and as it floated out I felt that I loved it as I never had before. Perhaps every American would appreciate it more if he were obliged to live for a while out from under its protection. "Long may it wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
In a few hours we were in camp, and soon had some coffee, and surprised our stomachs with other good things. The camp was under the command of rebel officers, but was guarded by colored Union troops. This was due to the fact that we were to be paroled, not exchanged, as has sometimes been stated. The authorities had stopped the exchange of prisoners, on the ground that we were releasing sound men who could at once take their places in the ranks, and receiving men who were hopelessly incapacitated by starvation and disease. The parole system had been instituted in its place. The rebel officers continued in command until the news of the assassination of President Lincoln came, and then they were wisely advised to get across the Big Black, which they did before the news was communicated to the men. The day after our arrival I got a pass and went into the city, and found, to my surprise, that Captain Owens' company of the Ninth Indiana cavalry was stationed there. The boys in that company were nearly all from about Indianapolis, and a better-hearted set of men than they never lived. I shall never forget their kindness, and I had need for it. The truth is that at Andersonville we had no modern conveniences, such as bathtubs, soap, towels, or change of apparel, and it was not long until we became inhabited worlds. No microscope was needed to discern what sort of beings those inhabitants were, and they are not included among those catalogued as being in the ark. I long since came to the conclusion that they were descendants of those spoken of in the third plague of Egypt, and that after inhabiting the land of Moab they came over and settled with the first families of Virginia. By the laws of evolution they are of larger size and more intellectual than their progenitors, being "near man." But they certainly had the instincts of a Moabite, and were of the first blood, for the boys who formed their acquaintance used to say that some of them were of ripe age, running back before the Christian era. They classed them by different names, "bluebacks, greybacks, and half-breeds, but all of them inflationists." I am sure Oliver Rice will never forget the time he marched me down to the little creek in Vicksburg, and, seeing that I had forgotten how to use toilet articles, bounced in after me and scrubbed me from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, and dressed me in a new suit of linen such as the soldiers were then wearing. I walked back to the company's quarters reduced in weight several pounds, and feeling as though I had just got over a spell of sickness. Sim Gaston declared that he saw my cast-off garments on the outskirts of Vicksburg, walking off toward the Big Black.
There was not a day while we remained in parole camp that I was not in some part of the ground that was contested in the advance on Vicksburg. With the choice of positions the rebels had, and the natural advantages presented, it was almost a mystery how the troops under General Grant could have advanced as close as they did to the rebel line. But it would not do for me to start on General Grant, for, like the old-time Democrats with General Jackson, I would be willing to continue to vote for him during the balance of my days.
On April 24, 1865, our paroles having been arranged, we were taken from the camp to the city and embarked on the ill-fated steamboat "Sultana," bound for Cairo, Illinois. The men were marched onto the hurricane deck of the boat, around to the cabin, and then to the lower deck, until all the available space was occupied, including the fore part of the decks, the cabin being occupied by the officers. Most of the men were emaciated and weak, being prisoners released from Andersonville and Cahaba prisons, with a few from other points.
The "Sultana" was a boat that had been built for the cotton trade of the lower river, and therefore her lower deck was higher than that of ordinary boats. She was on an up trip from New Orleans to St. Louis, and had on board a number of passengers, many of whom were to get off at Memphis. I remember in particular one, a gentleman from near Madison, Indiana, who had come down to see his son, a member of the Tenth Indiana Cavalry, who had been a prisoner. There were perhaps half a dozen women, one of whom was a bride returning with her husband from their bridal tour. My recollection is that the crew numbered about sixty-two, and that in all there were over 2,200 souls on board. My recollection is confirmed by a letter from F. A. Roziene, dated at the Seventy-second Regiment Illinois Infantry Volunteer Society, Rookery Building, Chicago, July 6, 1912, in which he says:
"I was an A. A. A. G. of Camp Fisk, at Four Mile Bridge, near Vicksburg, where we received paroles, exchanged prisoners, etc. This camp was under the immediate command of Gen. M. L. Smith, commanding post of Vicksburg. The camp was named after A. A. G. Captain C. A. Fisk. The superior command was in General J. N. T. Dana, and his A. A. G. Captain Frederick Speed, who controlled the shipment of the last squad of the camp, on April 25, 1865. I have reason to remember the deplorable occurrence from the reprimand I received from Captain Speed for advancing the impression to the men that they were to be apportioned to different boats.
"At the time I had a list of the officers and men shipped on the ill-fated steamer 'Sultana: Their aggregate number from each State was: Ohio, 552; Michigan, 420; Indiana, 460; Kentucky, 180; West Virginia, 12; Tennessee, 522; total, 2,134. Added to this list was a squad of Confederate prisoners under guard, on their way to another military prison camp, other passengers and the crew. At Vicksburg the loss was estimated at 1,900 lives."
Some one was certainly at fault for crowding so great a number of human beings on one boat, when there was no emergency calling for it, and especially so great a number of men who were so reduced in strength that they were not able to do much for themselves in case of an accident. Some one should have been held responsible, but I cannot say who it should have been from my own knowledge. I add the report of the official investigation as to that matter.
Captain Mason, the commander of the boat, and a citizen of St. Louis, was as congenial a gentleman as I ever met. and afterward proved as brave as he was clever. As I saw him at all times of day between Vicksburg and Memphis, I became quite well acquainted with him. He was a careful man. I remember his cautioning the men not to crowd on one side of the boat when making a landing, because the tilting of the boat and its return to a level position would endanger the boilers. The men managed this very well except at a few places, especially Helena, Arkansas, where they all tried to get a view of the place.
The first night, about 9 o'clock, they commenced putting up cots in the cabin. The passengers were provided for first, and some of us were left unprovided for. I got the assurance, however, that when we got to Memphis I would have one of the cots that would then be vacated. Until we reached Memphis my bed was on the cabin floor, immediately over the boiler which afterward caused the terrible catastrophe. We landed at Memphis just after dark on the 26th, and many of the passengers left us at this point.
It being reported among the men that the boat would be at Memphis for some time, and there being no control over us, a number of us took advantage of the occasion to go up into the city in search of amusement. I was soon satisfied and returned to the boat, which shortly after moved out into the river and pulled up stream to take on coal, leaving about one hundred and fifty fortunate soldiers behind. We took coal from a boat that appeared to be out in the river, but the Mississippi at that time was over the whole country, on account of floods in the upper river and the Missouri. The water was much colder than would have been supposed, as the trees were all in leaf.
In the meantime the cots had been put up in the cabin as usual, and I went in and threw my hat in the first cot toward the bow of the boat, while I went forward to get what little worldly goods had come into my possession at Vicksburg. On coming back I found my cot occupied by Captain McCoy, I think of the One Hundred and Fifty-eighth Ohio Regiment, who refused to give it up. We were having some very unpleasant words about it, when Lew Keeler, of the Eleventh Indiana, came along and persuaded me to release my claim and take a cot at the back end of the cabin, under the one he occupied. The cots were double-deckers, one above and one below. It was some time after midnight when I retired. The last person I talked with was Captain Mason, and if I believed in presentiments I would believe that he had one that something dreadful was going to happen, for in our conversation he said that he would give all the interest he had in the boat if it were safely landed in Cairo. I was impressed at the time by what he said, but in a few moments it wore off.
It was not long after getting into my cot until I was in the land of dreams. How long I slept I cannot say, but it must have been about 3 o'clock in the morning when I was awakened. My first sensation was of a very oppressive heat, and the first thought that came into my mind was that I was in the regions of eternal torment.
The lights were dim, and they must have been obscured by the escaping steam from the exploded boiler. I was not long in getting out of bed and starting forward, but I did not go far. The cabin floor had dropped down at the front, without breaking off, and now made an inclined plane to the lower deck. The cots, including the one I had first selected, had disappeared. Looking down on the lower deck to the front, I was reminded of a fire in one of the old-time fireplaces. The lights in the chandeliers of the cabin had been turned down, but were still burning, and by their glimmer I could see a man some feet down on the inclined floor, whom I have always believed to be Captain McCoy.
Curiously enough, although the cots and staterooms were full of men, the explosion did not seem to have awakened them. Up to that time I had not heard a scream, and everything was as quiet as it was when I went to bed. I certainly was dazed or confused, and did not realize what had happened. Imaginations flew through my mind thick and fast. The thought came to me that I had the nightmare, and in that condition of mind I turned around and made for the stern of the boat, hardly knowing what I was doing. The ladies' cabin was shut off from the men's cabin only by curtains, and I pushed back a curtain and started through, when I was confronted by a lady, who I supposed was in charge of the cabin, with, "What do you want in here, sir?" I paid no attention to her but went ahead, saying that there was something wrong with the boat.
I went on through the cabin to the stern of the boat and climbed up to the hurricane deck. Throwing myself across the bulwark around the deck, I looked forward toward the jackstaff. The boat's bow was turned toward the Tennessee shore, and, if I am not mistaken, one of the boat's chimneys was down, and all the men were in commotion. As I started back, realizing that it was not a dream, I heard the men calling, "Don't jump; we are going ashore." I answered, saying that I was going back to where I came from. On getting back and looking out and down into the river, I saw that the men were jumping from all parts of the boat into the river. Such screams I never heard, twenty or thirty men jumping off at a time, many lighting on those already in the water, until the river became black with men, their heads bobbing up like corks, and then many disappearing never to appear again. We threw over everything that would float that we could get hold of, for their assistance; and then I, with several others, began tearing the sheeting off the sides of the cabin, and throwing it over. While doing this I became more calm and self-possessed.
About this time one of the Tenth Indiana Cavalry boys came to me, asking, "Have you seen my father?" I said, "I have not; but I know the stateroom he occupied;" and started with him to go into the ladies' cabin. As we entered the door we met his father, who was coming out. They threw their arms around each other, and as they embraced I looked up to the ceiling and saw the fire jumping along from one cross-piece to another in a way that made me think of a lizard running along a fence.
I now made up my mind to leave the boat, and walked around the right side of the cabin to the wheelhouse. I feared that it was too far to jump, and on looking over to see what the distance was, I saw one of the fenders hanging just behind the wheelhouse. I lost no time climbing over the side of the boat and "cooning it" down to the lower deck. This feat was accomplished so easily that I could never tell just how it was done. Casting my eyes around I could see nobody, and stepping to the edge of the boat, and looking to see that the river was free from any poor struggling soldier, I dived off. I knew that I could do no more than save myself, and as I had the utmost confidence in my swimming ability, I had some hopes of gaining the shore.
I had no sooner struck the water than I saw that I could not depend altogether on my own exertions, for as I went into the river it was colder than "Greenland's icy mountains," and I went down so far that I thought I would never come up. Then my drawers began to slip down around my feet, and it became necessary to get rid of them as soon as possible. I finally got them off and struck out for the shore. Having gone about fifty feet from the burning vessel, I came to a man who was supporting himself on the steps that had led up over the wheelhouse from the cabin deck to the hurricane deck. I asked him if they would support two, and he said to come ahead.
We were soon joined by two other soldiers, and, resting our hands on the steps, with our bodies in the water, we tried to work our way to the Tennessee shore. After some time we found that we could not make it on account of the strong current, which threw us out into the river after it struck a bluff, or where the river made a bend. We got about a hundred feet away from the "Sultana," which kept abreast of us, drifting with the current as we did. We could see all that was going on on board, and it was a sight that filled one with horror, though there was a sort of fascination about it.
The fire had come under full headway, and it looked like a huge bonfire in the middle of the river. As the flames ascended., mingled with smoke., and shed their peculiar light on the water, we could see both sides distinctly; bluffs on one side, and timber on the other, and with no sensation as to the moving current. It was more like one of those beautiful lakes that I have seen in Minnesota, and if it had been only a painting it would have been grand; but, alas! it was all real, and as I floated along with the current this sad picture was before me as a panorama. The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the boat until they were singed off like flies. Shrieks and cries for mercy were all that could be heard; and as I look back on that awful morning the only thing my imagination can compare it to is the last great day, when all the world is to be judged, and when men shall pray for the rocks to fall on them and cover them. As the terror of that day- will be to those whose sins are not forgiven, so it was to us when that dreadful scene went on and finally closed by the deck going down with all the men who were on it into the flames.
On looking up the river I could see a boat coming down. It was more like a picture of one, for it hardly seemed to move. It never reached us, and we floated on down the river until we were out of sight of both boats. At what rate we were going I have no idea, but certainly as fast as the current. This was the first time in my recollection that I ever called on the Lord for his assistance. Now and then we came in sight of other survivors. One man who passed us was bobbing up and down in a way that reminded me of the frog in the game of leapfrog. As he came within a few feet of us, I asked him what he was on, and he answered me, "Don't touch me; I am on a barrel." He actually was astraddle a barrel, holding on to the rim, and at any other time his queer motion would have been laughable.
At one time we came within ten feet of a timbered point, and I heard the familiar voice of a Kentuckian that I had often heard at the front, say that he was on land. A few moments later we got past the point and struck a cross-current that came in on the other side, and which, on striking the main current, made a whirlpool. Into this we went, and such a twisting and turning round, upside down and every other way, was never seen; but I held on to the steps with an iron grip. In my boyhood days I had read "Faust," and the description of the devil dragging him down into hell came pretty near fitting me. But Satan, who then claimed me as his own, finally let loose his icy hold, and we shot out into the current and on down the river, less one man who was left in the whirlpool and drowned. As he had been doing a good deal of praying, I have no doubt he is in the better world.
We finally came up with a man who was on the end of a large log, and with his consent we joined forces, one of our men throwing himself partly on the log and partly on the steps. The other man then crawled over onto the log, and I crawled up on the steps, where I was when I was picked up. We made no further exertions to get on shore, but floated on down the river with the current. I must have become unconscious or only semi-conscious, as I have no recollection of how the steps got separated from the log. I remember passing Memphis, and seeing the gas lights burning in the streets. Then it is all blank until I heard the splash of an oar, and tried to call for help, but my voice seemed to have left me. It was some such feeling as when one tries to call out in a nightmare.
The young gunboatman who rescued me, and whose name, as I recollect it, was Neal, told me that for some time before I came down the men had been floating by and calling for help. The gunboat had fired up, and he had set out in one of the boats, with a half-gallon measure of whisky. He said that when he lifted me into the boat I went down in the bottom in a lump like a wet rag. He raised the measure to my lips, and the whisky went down my throat with no more effect that water down a rat hole. When we got to the gunboat and he lifted me aboard, both of us came very near going into the river.
I think the gunboat was what we used to call a "tin-clad;" i. e., a light-armored boat, covered with sheet-iron about an eighth of an inch thick, to protect it from rifle and musket balls. I got the impression that it was a ferryboat remodeled, but it had two decks, and it probably had been what is called a transport. I do not know what its name was. I was not in a condition to pay-attention to details. When they got me on board they cut off my tow shirt, and got rid of my remaining sock, and then rolled me up in a blanket, and laid me up close to the boilers to thaw out.
I soon got over the chill, and as the boat went on down the river picking up others they ran out of blankets, and about 8 o'clock I gave mine up for another sufferer, and went forward and sat down with the fireman. I had no clothing on me, but was very comfortable in the warmth of the furnace. Neal came forward with a large cup of coffee, and as I looked up into his bright face, all covered with smiles, he said, "Old boy, you came very near taking me overboard with you." I don't know how he felt toward me, but I felt as though I belonged to him.
By this time the boat had gone several miles down the river, and was on the way back to Memphis, where we arrived about 9 o'clock. I was conscious of very little that was going on around me, and to give any description of my feelings would be beyond my powers, for I had certainly gone as far beyond this life as a man could expect to go and get back. But I imagine that if I had gone on over to the other country, and had been permitted to sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the land of Beulah, I could not have felt any happier than I did sitting naked by that furnace.
When the boat struck the wharf I started up, and on looking around I saw a crowd of people coming on board, among whom were some Sisters of Charity. I then had some of the feeling that Adam had when he first realized that he was a sinner, and, not being prepared to receive company, I made a hasty retreat to the rear and took refuge behind the buckboard. But here I was protected on only one side, and one of the sisters came in on my flank. When she saw me she said, "You need clothing," and tossed me a pair of drawers and undershirt of red flannel. If I had denied it she would not have believed me, so I acknowledged the corn, accepted the conditions, surrendered, and soon came out in red apparel. Just then some of the boys of my company, who had come on board looking for their comrades, spied me, and from them I learned something more of the terrible loss of life. Over fourteen hundred souls had left their bodies to float down that dark and gloomy river. They told me of the boys of my own company: Bart Beardon, Joseph M. Espy, James A. Hickerson, Daniel Brown, William H. H. Ryman, Levi Donahue, Patrick Harrington, James A. Morton, and James Tahan, who were among those that were lost; James H. Kimberlin, John W. Thompson, and Charles F. Bryant were among those who were saved. James Payne and Thomas Wright were fortunate to be among those who were left at Memphis the night before.
One of the officers of the boat, hearing the men call me "Lieutenant," took me to the upper deck and furnished me with an open-front sailor's suit, and as I walked up the levee bareheaded and barefooted I might have been taken for an old tar. I was sent to the hospital and furnished with slippers and other necessary articles. The steward there wanted to know of me if my hair had turned gray in a single night, but I had to acknowledge that it had got started before.
It would be impossible for any one to give all the incidents connected with that terrible disaster. Every man has an experience of his own photographed on his memory according to his situation and surroundings. In the two days that we remained in Memphis before transportation was given us, I heard many things of interest, for the "Sultana" disaster was the chief subject of conversation. A man who claimed to be an eyewitness told me that Captain Mason remained with the boat to the last, walking up and down the hurricane desk and encouraging the men to keep cool, until he went down with it into the fire. The pilot on duty at the time, one mate, and probably three others of the crew, were all that were saved. The bride whom I mentioned was lost. The bridegroom wandered up and down the river, hoping to find some trace of her whom so few hours before he had claimed as his own, but it was not to be so.
There were some other horrors besides those of the fire and the water. I was told that the ropes holding the stage planks in front of the boat were cut during the excitement and that they came down on a number of men below, crushing them to death. There were also some things that would have been ludicrous at any other time. One was the experience of several men who were floating down the river on a log, when a horse that had been on the boat swam up and stuck his nose over the log. The boys nearest him took it to be an alligator, and rather than keep his company they let loose and gave him full possession.
We were taken from Memphis to Cairo by boat, and then by rail to Indianapolis, on our way to Columbus, Ohio, to go into parole camp until we were exchanged. But, through the influence of Governor Morton, we were permitted to remain in Indianapolis, and there, on May 15, 1865, I was mustered out of the service without ever being exchanged. In a few weeks the war was over, peace was declared, and the soldiers were mustered out and were returning to the pursuits of peace.
It would be impossible to present all the different views of the "Sultana" disaster, but among the letters and statements that I have received from time to time concerning it is one from William B. Floyd, who was serving on one of the gunboats that took part in the rescue work. As I have never seen any other statement from this point of view, I add it to my own, together with the official papers from the War Department, in order to give as complete an idea as possible of this distressing calamity.
STATEMENT OF WILLIAM B. FLOYD
Late Acting Master's Mate U. S. Grosbeak, U. S. N.
On April 26th, 1865, I was an acting master's mate on the U. S. S. "Grosbeak," a small sidewheel steamer, fitted up as a "tin-clad" gunboat. We had a crew of perhaps seventy-five men and the usual complement of line officers; namely, captain, two master's mates, besides a licensed pilot. We had come up to Memphis, which was our division headquarters, for some reason unknown to me, and, on the 26th of April, it was my turn to go on watch at midnight. During the day I had heard some of the officers talking about the "Sultana" and the crowded condition of the troops on board her. There was considerable talk and discussion among the officers as to whether they had as many men on board or whether they were any more crowded than on a steamer that passed up a few days before.
Their remarks and conversation came forcibly to my mind when I went on watch at twelve o'clock, midnight, and was informed by the officer I had relieved, that the large steamer lying just above at the mouth of Wolf creek was the "Sultana" taking on coal. She was all lit up and presented the usual fine sight of a large passenger steamer with all her lights aglow, and as she backed out and started up the river I watched her until she disappeared behind the island known as Paddy's Hen and Chickens, about nine miles above Memphis. Shortly after she had passed out of sight behind one of the islands I noticed a red glow in the sky, which very soon plainly showed it was a fire. I cannot describe the horror I felt at the thought that perhaps it was the "Sultana" on fire.
I looked through my field glass and could plainly see the smokestacks of the steamer and that she must be on fire; but there were trees between me and the burning boat and I took this to mean that she was lying in shore, and if so the passengers on board could get safely off. To make sure, I asked the quartermaster (a petty officer who always stands watch with the officers of the deck and who carries a telescope, which is more powerful than the field glass) : "Quartermaster, what do you make out that light to be ?"
He answered: "A large steamer on fire and lying in shore."
I watched her closely, and to steady my glass held it against a stanchion. I then discovered she would drift past the glass, which showed that she was floating and not lying in shore. I then called the senior master's mate and informed him what had happened. He did not seem much excited about it, and after he had watched her through the glass for awhile I asked him if he did not intend doing something. He said, "No."
The captain was ashore and he did not intend taking the responsibility of ordering the boat out, and went back to his stateroom. By this time my feelings were very much worked up as to the necessity of some action being taken. I thought of the terrible calamity that was happening but could not see my way clear to take any action after my superior officer had declined to act. But there was a way, as you shall shortly hear, and I wish I had only thought of it sooner, as some time had now elapsed and away up the river I could hear faint cries for help. This cry of distress was too much to hear. I determined to make some sort of move to help, and it suddenly came to my mind to call the pilot. I had hardly thought of it before I was hurrying to his stateroom. I opened the door and called out very excitedly, "Mr. Karnes, the 'Sultana* is on fire."
I did not need to say any more. He sprang out of his berth, saying, "Great Lord, is that so?"
"Shall I call all hands, Mr. Karnes? The captain is ashore."
I needed no more authority. I was soon below, calling, "All hands on deck and cutters away!"
The first call brought all the crew out of their hammocks, and the last the crew to the cutter, in which in a very few minutes I was seated with six good oarsmen and a boy in the bow, and was on our way out in the river in the direction of the cries for help. The river was at flood height and the current strong and well over to the other side, so we had quite a pull to come near enough to make them out.
I found the nearest were on a raft or a lot of wreckage. There were twelve or perhaps more and were raising a terrible cry for help. It was yet dark, and I could not tell if twenty or a hundred were there, but away farther toward the shore was a lone voice, calling in the most piteous tone for help, that appealed to me, so it was hard for me to steer my boat for the raft, instead of hastening to his aid.
I had to leave the poor fellow to his fate and rowed in toward the raft. As I came near they became frantic with excitement and joy at the prospect of rescue, and one of the old sailors said, "For God's sake, Mr. Floyd, don't put us alongside that raft or they will swamp us." That was plain enough, so I rowed around and came up toward the raft bow on, and as they dropped off, picked them up and pulled them aboard. One had been missed and was floating by; at the risk of being pulled overboard, I leaned out as far as I could and grabbed him by the hair of the head and pulled him in. Six inches further away and he would have been beyond my reach and would have been drowned. I got twelve, and as that was all the boat could hold and there were no more on the wreck, I rowed to the nearest shore and landed them below the steamboat landing. As they had not been in the water except in getting them from the raft to the boat, they were able to take care of themselves. I then pulled out again into the stream. By this time it was getting daylight and my vessel was out in midstream, as were also many small boats, and they had picked up all those afloat and taken them aboard the vessel or on shore. I then rowed alongside and went on board.
Instead of going ashore, our vessel went on down the river, going past President island and coming up on the other side to see if any survivors had floated by and had not been picked up. We found but one. He had a piece of wreckage under each arm and was floating unconscious from the chill of the cold water. We picked him up and laid him alongside of about ninety more that the crew had picked up and received from the other small boats. They were all soldiers. The sailors got all their blankets and wrapped them up and made them as comfortable as possible before the furnace fires. Most of them were unconscious from cold and it seemed impossible that they could recover, but by the time we arrived, back at Memphis, about 11 a. m., most of them were able to go ashore.
The next morning a tugboat took several small boats and towed us up the river to where the hull of the "Sultana" lay in shore. All her upper works were burned away. We then cast loose and as we floated down looked to see if any were lodged in the trees along shore, but there were no signs of life. We must have laid at Memphis more than eight or nine days, for the bodies had begun to float and the government would send up every morning a boat and barge to pick them up, and would bring down the deck of the barge covered with bodies. These men were buried in the cemetery at Memphis. I read years afterward that in moving the bodies from the cemetery many of them were found to be petrified.
When we started out from Memphis we went down the river and soon came to two of the floating bodies. We picked them up and had to keep them on the stern end of the boat on account of being so badly decomposed. Nothing was found on them to identify them. We had to carry them nearly to Helena, Arkansas, before we could find dry land to bury them. Where we landed we had dug but a shallow grave before the water began to flow in and we had to bury them, barely covering them. After that no attention was paid to floating bodies except to avoid running over them. I saw some of these bodies floating nearly down to Vicksburg.
How different it might have been if there had been stricter discipline and my senior officer had been a more courageous and humane officer. Our vessel had her fires banked and could have got under way on short notice. Had there been stricter discipline the information would have been passed to me that the captain of another vessel was on board as a guest. Had I known this I would have reported to him at once, and he no doubt would have gone immediately to her assistance and could have got there in time to have saved all the vessel could hold.
A short time afterward I bought a photograph of the "Sultana" as she lay at Helena, Arkansas, on her way up, showing exactly how crowded she was. In changing and moving about I lost it, but you will find it published in the Photographic History of the Civil War, with a short and very inaccurate account of the disaster. Some officers claimed at the time that a bomb had been placed in the coal, but this belief died out when it became known she had tubular boilers instead of the usual flue boilers, as all other river boats had. This type of boiler was not adapted to the muddy waters of the Mississippi river, and there is no doubt it caused the explosion, as the steamer "Missouri," the sister boat of the "Sultana," blew up not long afterward with some loss of life. The "Grosbeak," the vessel I was on, had the same kind of boilers, and as my stateroom was over one of them I often wondered if my fate was to be blown up.
Of the twelve men I picked off the raft I know but very little. No questions were asked. I only recollect some conversation among them. Very queerly, one was sleeping above the boiler and said that the first thing he knew he was flying up in the air and when he came down it was in the water. The other under the boiler was not injured, as the force of the explosion was upward. One was an Irishman who kept up snatches of songs as we rowed to shore. Another was a fine-looking officer with a long, heavy, reddish beard, but who was so unnerved by the experience he had gone through that he could not realize he was saved, but kept continually calling for help. I have kept all the newspaper clippings about the disaster and now have quite a number.
I suppose you know there is an association of "Survivors of the 'Sultana' Disaster." I received a letter from a member of the association a number of years ago but do not know their headquarters. I have a shipmate living in Hastings, Minnesota, who was on the gunboat "Tyler," but I never heard him tell much of his experiences. I think he went out in one of their boats and helped pick up some of the survivors.
I think the government has tried to minimize the loss of life, as it was negligence of government officials in allowing the boat to be overloaded, and for her to proceed on her journey when her boiler needed repairing. It was generally understood at the time that over two thousand lost their lives. A distressing feature was that these men were ex-prisoners of war who had undergone awful experiences in Southern prisons, after all to lose their lives when free and on their journey home. It was related that one case in particular was of a regular soldier at the opening of the war whose time had expired just on the eve of a battle, but who felt he could not leave under the circumstances and remained and took part in the fight. He was captured, and, after being a long time in prison, was one of the unfortunates on board the "Sultana" and lost his life.
This incident of the great Civil War is almost completely lost sight of, as note in speaking of the "Titanic" disaster it is called the greatest marine disaster of record. But those lost on the "Sultana" were merely soldiers, and it occurred at a time when loss of life was taken for granted.
St. Paul, Minnesota, 937 Ottawa Avenue.