I am working on a middle grade historical fiction about a group of boys in the Memphis area and their adventures around the Sultana disaster. The steamship Sultana sank just north of Memphis, TN in April of 1865 on the overloaded boat carrying Union soldiers northward to home after the end of the Civil War. The tragedy resulted in the death of 1547 people–more people than died in the Titanic disaster.
This quote is from a survivor of a Confederate prison camp and the Sultana explosion, J. Walter Elliot, in his submission to Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, edited by Chester Berry
“I’ve seen death’s carnival in the yellow fever and the cholera-stricken city, on the ensanguined field, in hospital and prison and on the rail; I have, with wife and children clinging in terror to my knees, wrestled with the midnight cyclone; but the most horrible of all the sights and sounds of that hour. The prayers, shrieks and groans of strong men and helpless women and children are still ringing in my ears, and the remembrance makes me shudder. The sight of 2,000 ghostly, pallid faces upturned in the chilling waters of the Mississippi, as I looked down on them from the boat, is a picture that haunts me in my dreams.”
One of my new projects is a middle grade historical fiction about a group of boys in the Memphis area and their adventures set around the Sultana disaster. The research has been fascinating. The steamship Sultana sank just north of Memphis, TN in April of 1865 and resulted in the death of 1547 people. More people die died in this tragedy than in the Titanic disaster.
Unfortunately, most of the passenger on the Sultana were Union Army soldiers returning home after the end of the Civil War. Pouring salt in the wound of the tragedy; the majority of these poor passengers were Union soldiers recently released from the horrors of the Andersonville and Cahaba Confederate prison camps. Below is an first hand account by E. J. Hecker of his release and the inhumanity of the Andersonville prison.
“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.”
-excerpt from: The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913.