Memphis, TN Area Sultana Disaster book - part 6
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 soliders, 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
The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913, pages 173-174