Memphis, TN Area Sultana Disaster book - part 8
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.
The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913, pages 177-179