Death On The Dark River

PrintPrintEmailEmailLate in April of 1865, the Mississippi stood at flood stage. Four years of war had ruined many levees and dikes, and in the lower reaches of the river the foaming water was over the banks for miles. But in the towns and cities of the lower valley the high water was only an incident, and the dominant feeling was one of relief. For the Civil War at last was ended.

There would be no more fighting, no more destruction. Wartime bitterness and sadness might linger, but at least there was peace. And the war-weary Union soldiers in the South had but one thought. They wanted to go home.

Vicksburg had been turned into a great repatriation center, and here were gathered thousands of gaunt, worn-out men in faded blue uniforms—Union prisoners of war, just released from the horrors of prison compounds like Andersonville, waiting in Vicksburg for transportation to their northern homes.

More than any other soldiers, these were impatient to get started. Prison camps in that war were hard places, in North and South alike. Many men died in them, of camp diseases, of bad housing, of simple malnutrition. Most of the survivors were little better than semi-invalids. Now their minds had no room for anything but a feverish desire to get north to their middle western homes, where they could see their families, get out of uniform, and have the rest and care and good food they needed so badly.

Most of them would go by river, and as April came to an end a huge contingent was slated to travel on the steamer Sultana.

The Sultana was a typical side-wheeler built at Cincinnati in 1813 for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. She was registered at 1,719 tons and carried a crew of 85, and for two years she had been on a regular run between New Orleans and St. Louis. From War Department records it is known that she frequently carried Army personnel up and down the river. One dispatch of March 20, 1864, for instance, shows her carrying a contingent of the Second Missouri colored troops.

The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, on what looked like a regular run. She had from 75 to 100 cabin passengers, and a cargo which included a hundred hogsheads of sugar and a hundred head of assorted livestock. By law she could carry 376 persons, including her crew. She was commanded by Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, who had a reputation as a good, careful riverman.

On the evening of April 24 the Sultana made her regular stop at Vicksburg to take on passengers and cargo. After she had tied up, an engineer made a disturbing discovery: the boilers were leaking rather badly. It was determined to lay up briefly, draw fires, and repair boilers and machinery before going on up-river to the scheduled stops at Memphis, Cairo, Evansville, Louisville and Cincinnati. The repair gang got to work, and the job was done more quickly than had been anticipated.

Meanwhile, the Sultana was taking on passengers—a regular stampede of passengers. A large number of repatriated Union prisoners of war were to go north on this steamer, and the men were so desperately eager to start that the authorities decided not to make out the muster rolls in advance, as was usual. Instead, the rolls would be made out on board, after the vessel had left Vicksburg.

Boarding the vessel for the voyage home seemed to put new life into the ex-prisoners. Weak as most of them were, they were shouting, singing and jesting as they came aboard—as lighthearted a crowd, apparently, as ever came up a gangplank.

They came in almost unmanageable numbers, far beyond the Sultana’s rated capacity. Army reports do not give the exact number, but apparently it was somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000. In addition, two companies of soldiers under arms came aboard. Altogether, there were probably some 2,300 persons on the steamer when the lines were cast off.

Naturally, the boat was almost unbelievably crowded. The soldiers were marched onto the hurricane deck, then onto the lower deck, then onto the boiler deck, until all available space was filled. They packed the steamer from top to bottom—hull, cabins, texas deck, even the pilothouse. Almost literally, the steamer could not have carried another human being.

Somehow the Sultana got clear of the wharf and went pulling upstream, breasting a current made stronger than usual by the river’s flood stage. Captain Mason seems to have been a bit worried; he cautioned the men not to crowd to one side of the boat when a landing was made, because there were so many of them it might cause serious trouble. But for 48 hours after casting off from the Vicksburg wharf the Sultana went on without trouble, making a few scheduled stops and, on the evening of April 26, docking at Memphis.