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Thursday July 19, 1984


Pix #1 - The ill-fated steamer Sultana, which exploded and burned on the Mississippi in 1865, causing the deaths of hundreds of Civil war soldiers.

Author's Note: Some older readers may have read, many years ago, about the explosion and destruction of the steamship Sultana, overloaded with Union soldiers returning to their homes in the North. However, today's story is updated with information which may have never appeared in print, provided by Alverda Myers, U.S. 23 North.

It was late in April 1865 - the Civil War had ended and Southern prison camps where Northern soldiers had been incarcerated had been emptied. Vicksburg had become a repatriation center where thousands of Union soldiers were waiting for some means of transportation to return them to their homes in the North. A large number of them were to travel on the steamer Sultana.

The Sultana was a typical sidewheeler, built at Cincinnati in 1863 and used primarily for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, running between New Orleans and St. Louis. The vessel was registered at 1,719 tons and had a crew of 85.

Leaving New Orleans on April 21, 1865, the Sultana reached Vicksburg on April 24 where it discovered that the boilers were leaking rather badly. The decision was made to layup briefly for repairs. The work was completed in a short time while passengers and cargo were being loaded.


The crowd of Union soldiers boarding the Sultana was go great, and their condition so bad, that the decision was made to take out the muster roles after leaving Vicksburg. It was estimated later that as many as 2,300 men were on board, when by law it was to accommodate on 376. The boat was packed from top to bottom.

The vessel left Vicksburg, headed for Memphis, bucking a strong current because of the river's flood stage. Making several stops, the Sultana made Memphis on the evening of April 26. There they discovered a leaky boiler again and repairs were made. They left Memphis close to midnight.

By 2 a.m. the Sultana was only a few miles out of Memphis and bucking a powerful current - with an overloaded vessel, and with the engines laboring.

As the vessel passed a group of islands known as the "Hen and Chickens" it happened - the leaky boilers suddenly exploded with a tremendous roar and the sky became brilliantly lighted. The U.S.S. Grosbeck, a river gunboat at Memphis, heard the noise and saw the lighted sky. They went to the rescue as did other vessels on the Memphis waterfront.


The Sultana had been blown in half. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were blown bodily into the river. Accounts of the explosion were almost unbelievable. One man was said to have been thrown more than 200 feet by the blast, but was not seriously hurt.

Three other men were blown clear of the ship with a big piece of the after- deck under them. Deck and men made a square landing from the vessel. Clinging to it, the men drifted back to Memphis where they were rescued.

One mane recalled afterward: "When I got 300 or 400 yeards away from the boat, clinging to a plant, the whole heavens were lighted by the fire. Hundreds of men were fastened down by the timers of the decks and had to burn, while the water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves.


When the cold dawn came, survivors dotted the river all the way to Memphis, clinging to logs, rafts, spars, barrels, railings, etc. Rescue crafts at Memphis hauled in half the dead men from the cold water. One former Confederate soldier, rescued 15 Union soldiers, singlehandedly.

No definite count of the casualties was possible, because there was no complete list of the men on board; estimates of the dead ranged from 1500 to 1900.

After the terrible tragedy, some of the survivors formed the Sultana

Survivors Association. At some point in time, James Ball, a prominent Fostoria photographer, produced a printed card showing the Sultana and a list of surviving members, along with a brief history of the vessel. The photograph of the Sultana, shown with today's article, was taken by F.H. Zay, photographer from Findlay.


The membership list of the Association at one point in time was: Rev. S.H. Raudabaugh, Co. K., 65th Ohio, president Findlay; A.C. Brown, Co. 1, 2nd Ohio vice president, Mediapolis, Iowa; William Fied, Co. B, Maysville; James T. Waltermier, 57th Ohio, Fostoria; Simeon Landon, Co. D, 64th Ohio, Prospect; John Davis, Co. D, 100th Ohio, Defiance; I.G. Morgan, Co. B, 21st Ohio, Findlay; Perry Summerville, Co. K, 41st Indiana, Brazil, Ind.; G.L. Horn, Co. 1, 102nd Ohio, Wooster; Otto Bardon, Co. 11, 102nd Ohio, Wooster; William Boor, Co. d, 64th Ohio, Sandusky; H.B. Wallace, Co. A, 124th Ohio, Brooklyn Village, Ohio; I.B. Horner, Co. K, 65th Ohio, Weston; J.D. Davis, Co. K, 65th Ohio, North Baltimore; C.H. Bradley, Co. M, 3rd Ohio Cavalry, Upper Sandusky.


James T. Waltermier, one of the members of the association, was the grandfather of Alverda Myers. When he came home from the war he and his brother settled on 80 acres of land east of Fostoria. A brick house was built on it where they both lived. Today, the home still stands, being owned and lived in by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Huff, 10911 W. Jackson TR 41.

Some time later, James, the one brother married. That farm was then sold and James bought land and established his home. Today, that land is owned and cultivated by Frank E. Harrison, the location being 5830 N. Jackson TR 47, according to Alverda Myers.
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