Memphis, TN Area Sultana Disaster book - part 9


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

Continued (below)

The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913, pages 180-182