It's a slow day in downtown Marion as I pull up to the Sultana Disaster Museum at 104 Washington St. I get out of my car and hear someone calling out to me. It's the museum's one volunteer on this Thursday morning.
"I'm rolling up the windows before it rains," she says. "I'll be right there."
I'm the only visitor, but that doesn't discourage me. The museum tells a story that needs to be told. The worst maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred April 27, 1865, in the Mississippi River near here. It's estimated that almost 1,800 of the Sultana's 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana burned. The sinking of the Titanic claimed fewer lives--1,517, to be exact.
The Sultana disaster didn't receive widespread attention due to timing. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated just 13 days earlier. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed the day before the explosion as Union troops tracked him to a Virginia farm and shot him.
Sultana survivors formed a national association in the 1880s, and their descendants began holding reunions on the anniversary of the tragedy. City officials at Marion joined forces with historians several years ago to create a small museum. The goal was to attract some of the tens of thousands of annual visitors to Memphis. The photographs and interpretive panels, which record the names of soldiers, crew members and civilians on the Sultana, explain the events of that week.
The museum has accumulated far more material than it has room to exhibit, and fundraising efforts are ongoing so a larger facility can be built. The museum is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. each Thursday through Saturday, and from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m. each Sunday.
Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman told an interviewer: "The way I understand it, they used a raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire."
The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21 with between 75 and 100 cabin passengers. Livestock bound for market in St. Louis was also aboard the ship. The Sultana docked at Vicksburg so repairs could be made to the ship's boilers. It was also a chance to take on more passengers. The Sultana had a defective boiler that should have been replaced. In order to save time and money, a small patch reinforced the area that was leaking. That repair took one day. A complete replacement would have taken about three days. Meanwhile, hundreds of new passengers came aboard.
Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that those who boarded were "mostly Union solders from Midwestern states such as Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Having been taken as prisoners of war, they were sent to the notoriously overcrowded Confederate prisons of Cahaba in Alabama and Andersonville in Georgia. Those who survived at war's end were marched to Vicksburg for their return north. When the survivors came in sight of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, they shouted and sang with joy. The Army was paying the Sultana's captain--who was part-owner of the boat--$5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer taken aboard. Those who boarded the side-wheeler found a boat built for 376 that took on, by some reports, almost 2,400 men, as well as women and children who were in passenger cabins."
The boilers were taxed to their limits as the crowded ship made its way upstream against strong currents. The river was swollen by spring rains. It was 2 a.m. on April 27 and the Sultana was a few miles upstream from Memphis when the worst occurred.
"It was like a tremendous bomb going off in the middle of where these men were," said Jerry Potter, the author of The Sultana Tragedy and a Memphis lawyer. "And the shrapnel, the steam and the boiling water killed hundreds."
One of the boilers had exploded, leading two of the other three boilers to also explode. Many survivors ended up on the Arkansas side of the river, which was still under Confederate control. One local resident who helped rescue survivors was an ancestor of the current Marion mayor. Most boats on the Arkansas side had been confiscated by Union soldiers during the previous months in an attempt to discourage Confederate raids. Arkansas residents set out in what few boats they had. Logs were strung together to form rafts.
In a story for National Public Radio, Jon Hamilton said the best explanation for why the tragedy didn't receive much attention is "that after years of bloody conflict, the nation was simply tired of hearing about war and death. Today, though, the city of Marion thinks people are ready to learn about the Sultana. The museum it has created near City Hall includes pictures, personal items from soldiers, pieces of the Sultana and a 14-foot replica of the boat. But what the museum really has to offer is a powerful story of soldiers who died just days away from seeing their families and loved ones."
Those Union soldiers had somehow survived two of the worst prisons in American history, only to die on the way home. The story is a sad one, but it's one Arkansans should know. Thanks to the folks at Marion, the Sultana disaster is no longer a forgotten part of Arkansas history.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 04/14/2018
Print Headline: The Sultana disaster