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The SS Sultana: A Civil War tragedy lost to history

Leo Morris

This will be on the honor system, so tell the truth.

Let’s have a show of hands from all those who’ve heard of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. OK, looks like a lot of you, a solid majority, in fact.

Now, how many of you have heard of the explosion of the SS Sultana? Anyone? Still waiting. Oh, there it is, one hand raised in Muncie.

Such are the whims of history.

The Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Nov, 10, 1975, in a storm on Lake Superior. It was, to be brutally realistic, a relatively minor incident, the loss of one freighter among many claimed by the Great Lakes. The crew of 29 perished, a small number as disasters go.

Yet the wreck is embedded in the American consciousness, lore that becomes part of the culture and gets passed along the generations.

The Sultana was a wooden steamboat that exploded on the Mississippi just outside of Memphis on April 27, 1865. Loss of life has been estimated as low as 1,200 and as high as 1,800. It was the worst maritime disaster in American history and is routinely listed among the top 10 ever in the world.

Yet hardly anyone has heard of it.

We know about the Edmund Fitzgerald because it had a champion, if that is the right word. Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot decided to memorialize the wreck, and his composition hit No. 1 in Cashbox and No. 2 in the Billboard Hot 100. The Sultana’s victims had no advocates, so the nation has never properly mourned them. And that is doubly sad, because their loss was not just a calamity. It was a true American tragedy.

The Sultana’s last voyage began in Vicksburg just days after the Civil War’s end. The federal government was offering $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer for every ex-soldier transported home. The steamboat had a capacity of 376, but the greedy captain and a corrupt Union quartermaster loaded it up with more than 2,000 souls.

Most were veterans returning to Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky. They had not merely endured a war. They had just been released from the brutal prisoner of war camps in Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Al.

They were to travel the Mississippi to the Cumberland River, which flows into the Ohio across from southern Illinois. But seven miles upriver from Memphis, the twin boilers, which the captain knew were in need of repair, exploded. The soldiers who had already endured so much, on their last leg home, were flung into the frigid river raging with high floodwaters.

And their ordeal was recorded in small accounts printed on the inside pages of newspapers, the Sultana’s fate overshadowed by the much bigger stories that dominated Page 1: the end of the war, the journey of President Lincoln’s funeral train, the hunting down and killing of assassin John Wilke’s booth. And the loss of fewer than 2,000 American lives became a mere footnote to the conflict that claimed more than 600,000.

There are just a few small monuments here and there mentioning the Sultana – in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. There are two in Ohio.

And one in Indiana. The “In Remembrance” marker in Beech Grove cemetery in Muncie honors the 55 Delaware County members of the 9th Calvary, 121st Regiment, who lost their lives in the Sultana explosion. “Your sacrifice will never be forgotten,” it says.

Except that is has been.

It has been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history. “The news” might get things wrong as events in the daily parade compete for the public’s attention – the chroniclers of our past will eventually sort it all out.

But there’s a lot of ore to dig through, and not all the gold nuggets will be unearthed. What we lose today might never be found.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at leoedits@yahoo.com.