The Sultana Disaster Museum occupies a tiny space for such a huge disaster.
The 1,000-square-foot museum in Marion honors those who died in the United States’ biggest maritime disaster.
On April 27, 1865, a boiler on the Sultana exploded, engulfing the steamship in flames before sinking it into a muddy grave on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River. The disaster took place about 7 miles north of Memphis in the vicinity of what were then known as Hen and Chickens Islands.
The Sultana, with a legal capacity of 376, was overloaded with Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prisons in Alabama and Georgia. They were trying to get home to the Midwest after a long march to Vicksburg to board the ship.
About 1,400 people died in the disaster, said Louis Intres, a retired history professor from Arkansas State University.
“We know over 2,200 were aboard the steamboat,” Intres said.
By comparison, about 1,500 people died on the Titanic, a British ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.
Intres said the Sultana was about 1/14th the size of the Titanic.
Until the early 1900s, part of the jack staff of the Sultana could still be seen jutting out of the mud where the ship sank, said John Fogleman, who is president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society.
Now, the ship’s remains are 37 feet under a soybean field, Intres said.
Fogleman said the museum, which opened in 2015, needs more space. Plans are to move it into a 17,000-square-foot school gymnasium that was built in 1938.
The Marion School District will have a new gymnasium finished in about a year, said Fogleman. Until then, the district is still using the old gym. The city of Marion has acquired the old gym and will lease it to the nonprofit Sultana Historical Preservation Society, said Intres, the former president of the Historical Society, who now serves as the museum’s project director. The Society will pay for renovation and preservation of the building.
Fogleman said the Preservation Society is trying to raise $7.5 million. Of that amount, $4.5 million to $5 million will be spent on restoration and construction, including building an addition onto the old gym. Fogleman said he hopes about $3 million can be set aside as an endowment to operate the museum.
The Marion Advertising and Promotion Commission has pledged $500,000 for the new museum. And the Preservation Society’s eight-member board has pledged just over $150,000.
Fogleman said the board will take possession of the gymnasium when it raises $3 million that will go toward construction.
“We didn’t want to make changes to the gym until we knew we had the money to make this a first-class museum,” he said.
A quiet phase of fundraising has already begun, but the campaign won’t officially be announced until April. Plans were to announce the campaign last September, but the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the calender out of kilter.
Fogleman, a retired circuit judge, said his ancestors helped save people from the burning Sultana that morning in 1865. The ship exploded about 2 a.m., flinging men who were sleeping on its deck into the cold Mississippi River, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
“Many were killed instantly by the explosion, fire, falling timbers, shrapnel, and searing steam from the boilers, as well as by drowning,” according to the encyclopedia entry.
The ship “came to rest only about 300 or 400 yards from my great-great-grandfather’s home,” said Fogleman. “There were still a bunch of survivors on the hull of the burning ship.”
Fogleman said his great-great-grandfather, along with his sons and neighbors, rescued about 100 people from the ship.
Fogleman said many people who were affiliated with the Confederacy risked their lives to save Union soldiers on the Sultana — just a few days after the South’s surrender and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
“There are so many stories from the Sultana that need to be told,” said Fogleman. “It’s not just the story of a tragedy, but it’s the story of heroism in the face of that tragedy.”
Before the museum’s founding in 2015, descendants of Sultana survivors would descend on Marion in an attempt to understand what happened and why few people know the story of the Sultana.
Part of the reason is all of the other significant Civil War events that were happening around that same time, according to the museum’s website, sultanadisaster.org.
The museum is committed to telling the whole story of the side-wheel steamboat from its construction to its destruction.
Investigations into the disaster revealed “a litany of corrupt practices, including kickbacks, and bribes paid to high-ranking Union officers [that] caused the overcrowding of the boat,” according to the website.
The museum also presents the stories of the freed Union soldiers, rescuers and eyewitnesses.
In the current museum, visitors will find Civil War photographs of more than 100 of the known Sultana prisoner-of-war passengers, renderings of the prison camps and Union Private William Lugenbeal’s wooden curio box. He claimed to have been “saved by a alligator.”
Actually, Lugenbeal killed the ship’s 7-foot-long “pet” alligator and used its crate for a flotation device after the Sultana exploded. Other survivors worried that the alligator was alive and in the water.
“Several men were clinging to a log floating toward Memphis when from out of the darkness a horse swam up and stuck its head over the log,” wrote Jerry O. Potter in his book “The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster.”
The snorting horse frightened some of the soldiers, who abandoned the log.
The Sultana Disaster Museum’s exhibit also includes a 14-foot replica of the original Sultana reconstructed by Gene Salecker, and Thomas W. Bankes’ photograph of the overcrowded steamboat taken at Helena on the morning of April 26, 1865.
“In less than five years, the temporary museum has now enjoyed visitors from all 50 states and eight foreign nations,” according to its website.
The Preservation Society wants to elevate the museum to national status. But expansion is essential, Intres said.
“If we don’t build this museum now, the story will be forgotten and never be retold,” he said. “It took nearly 150 years for this to become a national story. It’s taken 30 years for a small group of amateur historians to resurrect this story. American history is being revisited in ways that we believe this story will be lost forever. It’s never been in our history books. It’s never been in our textbooks.”
The museum, currently at 104 Washington St. in Marion, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and from 2-4 p.m. on Sundays. The museum is 11 miles from downtown Memphis.
Admission is free, but suggested donations are $5 for adults and $3 for children.
Besides Potter’s book, Intres recommends Salecker’s “Disaster on the Mississippi” for history on the Sultana.