The little-known story of a deadly steamship explosion at the end of the Civil War.
On April 27, 1865, the Sultana was moving along the Mississippi River, writes freelance journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia, 2004, etc.). At 2 a.m., near Mound City, Ark., three of its boilers exploded and the ship sank. Some 1,700 passengers died, many of them Union soldiers recently liberated from Confederate prisons. Occurring less than three weeks after Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination, the disaster was lost among larger developments in American history and is known today mainly to Civil War enthusiasts. Huffman rescues the Sultana tragedy from obscurity and brings the people and events surrounding it to vibrant life. He focuses mainly on the stories of three soldiers: Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, farmers and friends from Indiana, and J. Walter Elliott, who later wrote about his experiences. The author’s descriptions of their travails during the Civil War, especially in Confederate prisons—Elliott was incarcerated in Georgia’s infamous Andersonville—are unflinching and powerful. So is his account of the confusion and corruption that resulted from Tolbert, Maddox and Elliott crowding onto the Sultana with about 2,400 other paroled prisoners, more than six times the number the ship could safely hold. Steamboat owners, paid by the head, bribed army officials to squeeze as many soldiers as possible on each vessel; these thin, weak and sickly passengers were “in no condition for a major survival challenge.” Huffman chronicles the explosion and its aftermath in startling detail with a wealth of striking images. “After the scalded swimmers were pulled from the water,” he writes, “they were sprinkled with flour to relieve their pain.”
A short but moving history that effectively captures both the disaster and the soldiers’ ordeal.