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Books: Story of maritime disaster spends too little time at sea

“Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History,” by Alan Huffman. Smithsonian Books, 270 pp. $26.99.
By Steve Huffman
shuffman@salisburypost.com
In the wee hours of April 27, 1865, the paddlewheel steamer Sultana, filled many times beyond its capacity, was chugging up the Mississippi River.
The ship’s passengers were largely Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisons. At a point where the rain-swollen Mississippi measured 5 miles across, one of the boilers on the Sultana exploded. The resulting carnage was tremendous.
Many were burned alive. Many more, unable to swim, were dumped into the dark river, where they drowned or died of hypothermia. The devastation was hard to comprehend, bodies washed miles down the Mississippi, the glow of the burning ship turning surrounding shores to daylight.
It has been estimated that more than 1,600 of the 2,400 people aboard the ship died. To this day, the Sultana remains the greatest maritime disaster in the history of the United States, exceeding even the loss of life aboard the Titanic.
Yet, for most, little is known about the disaster. Timing is one of the reasons. There was plenty more happening in the United States at the time of the explosion.
John Wilkes Booth had been killed the day before. Robert E. Lee had recently surrendered his troops, effectively bringing the Civil War to a close. Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated two weeks before and his funeral train was in the process of carrying his body back to Illinois.
Newspapers of the era had little space to give to the catastrophe on the Mississippi.
Alan Huffman tackles the story of the disaster in a recently-released book: “Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.”
The book is well researched and detailed, following largely the lives of two Union soldiers, Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, imprisoned together and passengers aboard the ill-fated Sultana.
Unfortunately, the book’s title and cover picture of a burning steamship are somewhat misleading. “Sultana” is 270 pages long, but the ship is hardly mentioned until page 174. Much more of the book pertains to the early days of the fighting and imprisonment of Union soldiers in the most miserable of Confederate prison camps.
It was a terrible existence, no doubt, but this wasn’t the read I was expecting. I would have preferred more about the Sultana and less about events leading up to the disaster.
The ship was licensed to carry 378 passengers, but about six times that number were aboard the night of its ill-fated journey. Paddlewheel owners of the era were paid based on the number of people they could get on board.
With so many recently released prisoners longing to return to their homes in the North, the owner of the Sultana took everyone he could cram on board.
Huffman does a good job of describing the grossly over-crowded steamship as it eased from the dock and began the laborious journey up the Mississippi. Many of the Union soldiers were so weak and sick they could barely stand. With workers struggling to repair the ship’s boilers just before the trip began, it’s easy to see that all the elements for disaster were in place.
And when the boiler blew, the aftermath was sickening.
“On all three decks, injured people were begging to be thrown overboard, believing that burning to death was worse than drowning,” Huffman wrote. “The brief choking of those who went under no doubt appeared less horrible than the extended, screaming agony of those being burned alive.”
As difficult as it is to read, it’s interesting stuff. More people should be aware of the story. Those who died aboard the Sultana deserve to be remembered.
I only wish Huffman had dedicated more of the book to doing that. At times I got the impression that the tale of the ship’s explosion was almost an afterthought, since so much of the book detailed events leading to the disaster.
Complaints about the focus of “Sultana” notwithstanding, Huffman is an excellent writer, the author of “Mississippi in Africa” and contributor to numerous magazines. He’s also a contributor to National Public Radio, which is where I learned about “Sultana” after hearing him being interviewed about the book.
“Sultana” opens with details of the battle of Chickamauga, Tenn., one of the Civil War’s more fierce fights, a campaign that involved 125,000 troops.
“There was no safe place at Chickamauga ó no backstage,” Huffman wrote. “The fighting was all over the map, and everywhere intense.”
William Rosecrans was a Union general whose troops saw some of the worst of the action. Huffman described the scene as the cabin occupied by the general and his staff was about to be overrun.
“Rosecrans, whose reputation would never fully recover, reportedly turned to his staff and said in a surprisingly calm voice, ‘If you care to live any longer, get away from here,’ ” Huffman wrote. “Union General Charles Anderson Dan, a former journalist who would later be assistant secretary of war, said he knew his line was in trouble when he saw Rosecrans crossing himself.”
It’s all good stuff, but the focus isn’t what it should be. Civil War buffs, especially, will enjoy “Sultana.” Just remember that two-thirds of the book has little to do with the disaster that befell the ship.
Steve Huffman is not related to Alan Huffman, author of “Sultana.” Contact him at 704-797-4222.

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