Memphis, TN Area Sultana Disaster book - part 11
short and very inaccurate account of the disaster. Some officers claimed at the time that a bomb had been placed in the coal, but this belief died out when it became known she had tubular boilers instead of the usual flue boilers, as all other river boats had. This type of boiler was not adapted to the muddy waters of the Mississippi river, and there is no doubt it caused the explosion, as the steamer "Missouri," the sister boat of the "Sultana," blew up not long afterward with some loss of life. The "Grosbeak," the vessel I was on, had the same kind of boilers, and as my stateroom was over one of them I often wondered if my fate was to be blown up.
Of the twelve men I picked off the raft I know but very little. No questions were asked. I only recollect some conversation among them. Very queerly, one was sleeping above the boiler and said that the first thing he knew he was flying up in the air and when he came down it was in the water. The other under the boiler was not injured, as the force of the explosion was upward. One was an Irishman who kept up snatches of songs as we rowed to shore. Another was a fine-looking officer with a long, heavy, reddish beard, but who was so unnerved by the experience he had gone through that he could not realize he was saved, but kept continually calling for help. I have kept all the newspaper clippings about the disaster and now have quite a number.
I suppose you know there is an association of "Survivors of the 'Sultana' Disaster." I received a letter from a member of the association a number of years ago but do not know their headquarters. I have a shipmate living in Hastings, Minnesota, who was on the gunboat "Tyler," but I never heard him tell much of his experiences. I think he went out in one of their boats and helped pick up some of the survivors.
I think the government has tried to minimize the loss of life, as it was negligence of government officials in allowing the boat to be overloaded, and for her to proceed on her journey when her boiler needed repairing. It was generally understood at the time that over two thousand lost their lives. A distressing feature was that these men were ex-prisoners of war who had undergone awful experiences in Southern prisons, after all to lose their lives when free and on their journey home. It was related that one case in particular was of a regular soldier at the opening of the war whose time had expired just on the eve of a battle, but who felt he could not leave under the circumstances and remained and took part in the fight. He was captured, and, after being a long time in prison, was one of the unfortunates on board the "Sultana" and lost his life.
This incident of the great Civil War is almost completely lost sight of, as note in speaking of the "Titanic" disaster it is called the greatest marine disaster of record. But those lost on the "Sultana" were merely soldiers, and it occurred at a time when loss of life was taken for granted.
The Sultana disaster by E.J. Hecker, Indianapolis, 1913, pages 185-186