The Sultana Disaster – Death on the Big River

The SS Sultana explosion and sinking in the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865 is the worst maritime disaster in United States history. This brief overview of the event is written and published to try make sure that the men of the 175th Ohio and 183rd Ohio who died, or somehow survived this terrible event, are honored. The tragic events of that day and the days leading up to it are largely forgotten today. That in itself is a bigger tragedy.

 The SS Sultana was a steamboat built in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1863. It was the most modern of its type and was registered to carry 376 passengers and a crew of 85. It was intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade.  Union POW’s, released from confederate prisons like Andersonville and Cahaba, were gathering in Vicksburg, MS to be transported by steamboats to Cincinnati and other ports to return to their Midwestern homes. The government paid ship captains $5.00 per man, some of that paid back to officers in charge of the transportation as bribes to assure that the ship would be filled.

Late in April, 1865 the Sultana left New Orleans and made its stop at Vicksburg. Hasty repairs were made there on a troublesome boiler rather than take a couple days to replace it. Delaying the ship would lose the last load of troops and POW’s to leave post there for this ship’s captain.  Between 1800 and 2000 gaunt, tired men, who had survived disease, poor housing, and malnutrition, were jammed aboard, in addition to passengers and troops.

The ship slowly made its way north and stopped briefly in Memphis, TN. After unloading some cargo and passengers it left port and struggled north against strong currents in a flooded Mississippi. It got seven miles when the hastily repaired boiler gave out. That boiler and two others exploded, the ship began to burn and smoke stacks collapsed onto the decks and eventually the ship sank into the muddy bottom.  No definite count of the killed was possible because there was no compete list of the number of POW’s aboard, but it is estimated that 1700 died. The official count is 1547.

Why would such a disaster be scarcely remembered today? In part, because the story was not well covered in the news of the day. It was regulated to back pages. April 1865 – Robert E. Lee surrendered; Lincoln assassinated; Booth caught; Jeff Davis caught; War over – northern newspapers “rejoiced.”

Before ending, a statistic and thought; The Sultana 260’ long, 1547 dead, the Titanic 882’ long 1517 dead. Passengers are the precious cargo in any disaster like these, but for 1700 POW’s we can all agree; they deserved a better fate. Many of the dead were interred in the Memphis National Cemetery.

Last known picture - Sultana

SS Sultana from Library of Congress

The following men perished April 27, 1864 when the SS Sultana exploded in the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee:

Badgeley (Badgley), Benton, age 39, 175th O.V.I. Co. G Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #14, held at and paroled from Cahaba Prison

Bahn, John was 29 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. H, captured at Franklin

Barnes, Edward, age 18, 175th O.V.I. Co. C Drummer, captured at Thompson’s Station Nov. 29, 1864, held at and paroled from Cahaba Prison

Barrere, William, age 28, 175th O.V.I. Co. G 2nd Lt., captured at Blockhouse #14, held at Andersonville Prison, buried at Hillsboro Cemetery, Ohio.

Baumgardner, W.J. (possibly N.J. Baumgardner), 30 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. K, was captured near Spring Hill

Bayne, James, age 19, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #16 on Nov. 24, 1864

Bercaw, Norman, age 24, 175th O.V.I. Co. G Pvt. Captured at Blockhouse #14

Boyd, George W., age 19 175th O.V.I. Co .G Pvt., captured at Blockhouse #14

Carroll, William, age 18, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #16 on Nov. 24, held at and paroled from Cahaba Prison, suffered from Typhoid Fever

Gray, Thomas J., age 18, 175th O.V.I. Co. E Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #15, confined at Andersonville

Getterman, John (Gutterman, others), 19 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. F, reported missing, but possibly captured at Franklin. Service records state that he perished in the Sultana explosion. The spelling of his name is inconsistent at best among various sources

Gunther, John was 18 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. E, musician, captured at Franklin and imprisoned at Cahaba

Hendrixon (Hendrickson), George W., age 24, 175th O.V.I. Co. E Pvt. captured at Franklin

Holmes, Samuel A., age 28, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #16

Hudson, James, age 23, 175th O.V.I. Co. G Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #14, confined at Andersonville

McCoy, William Henry, age 22, 175th O.V.I. Co. F Capt., captured at Thompson’s Station Nov. 29 confined at Andersonville

Meeker, Timothy, age 42, 175th O.V.I. Co. E Pvt. captured near Columbia, TN and was confined at Cahaba.  He is buried at Memphis Nat’l Cemetery, TN

Morris, Stacy, age 34, 175th O.V.I. Co. G Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #14

Myers, William O., age 20, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Franklin

Oliver, Thomas, 18 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. K, captured at Franklin and imprisoned at Andersonville

Rice, Martin L., age 29, 175th O.V.I. Co. A Pvt.

Richmond, William, age 24, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #16

Schneider, Adam (Adam Snyder in the 1860 census and also Adam Snider elsewhere) was 44 years old, 183rd O.V.I Co. C, captured at Franklin and imprisoned at Cahaba

Shelton, William, age 29, 175th O.V.I. Co. D Pvt. captured at Blockhouse #16

Smith, Henry, age 19, 175th O.V.I. Co. I Pvt. captured at Franklin, confined at Cahaba

Staton (Stayton), George W., age 21, 175th O.V.I. Co. E Pvt. captured near Columbia Nov 29, 1864, confined at Cahaba

Van Eman, Matthew T., age 22, 175th O.V.I. Co. G Sgt., captured at Blockhouse #14. He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery, Leavenworth County, KS

Zehfuss, Gustav was 30 years old, 183rd O.V.I. Co. H, captured at Franklin and imprisoned at Cahaba

The following were aboard but survived the disaster, likely able to jump clear of the dangers aboard ship and finding something to cling to. They may have floated away and were rescued by ships from Memphis that came when they heard the explosion and saw the fire, or were able to float to shore.

Anderson, John, age 18, 175th O.V.I. Co. C, captured at Franklin

Conrad, Michael, age 26, 183rd O.V. I. Co. C

Lemons, Nathan, age 19, 175th O.V.I. Co. G

Miller, Joseph, age 34, 183rd O.V.I. Co. D Sgt.

Minier, Darius, age 24, 183rd O.V.I. Co. G, captured at Franklin

Moore, James, age 24, 175th O.V.I. Co. A captured at Franklin

Payler, George W., age 29, 183rd O.V.I. Co. E Cpl., is listed as Taylor on the roster and is said to have died at Franklin. Apparently he was captured there. He died Feb. 8, 1912, buried at Dayton National Cemetery Plot 1,1,21

Rohland, Peter, age 40, 183rd O.V.I. Co. C

Sources: Wikipidia, Baptism of Fire by Eric Jacobson, and http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~genepool/sultana/htm

The latter is the story of a survivor, Emanuel Yeisley, 76th O.V.I. Co. G and contains lots of detail.

 

 

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