Memphis, TN Area Sultana Disaster book - part 10
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
The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913, pages 183-184