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The Sinking of The Sultana

Sultana[1]In Shadows of the Soul, the hero, Luke Devlin, is a mentally and emotionally tortured hero. The torture starts when he’s young, perpetrated by an emotionally abusive aunt. But his life after leaving home is no picnic (partly to his own choices). He ends up in Andersonville prison. When he’s released, he decides to travel to Iowa to find the heroine. Unfortunately, he chooses the Sultana.

The Sultana was a riverboat that traveled the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, which sank after a terrible explosion on the morning of April 27, 1865. Most of the people on board were soldiers, many like my fictional character Luke, survivors of Andersonville prison or Cahaba prison.

Launched on January 3rd 1863, the Sultana was a $60,000 side-wheel riverboat/steamboat, 260 feet long with a hold 7 feet deep. Constructed with a flat bottom for inland water ways, it sported four coal-burning boilers, made in the new “fire tube” style. This style was considered more efficient, but were not, however , particularly good for the muddy water of the  lower Mississippi.

Originally built for the lower Mississippi cotton trade, The Sultana was a beautifully appointed ship with glass chandeliers and ornate Victorian trimming. It had room for 66 cabin passengers. The staterooms were small but luxurious, and the passengers could enjoy the passing scenery from the boiler deck promenade. The rest of the ship could accommodate 300 deck passengers and crew, the former of whom were like “steerage” passengers on ocean liners, and slept on bare planks, and had their food served on tin plates.

For all that, on the day the Sultana sank two years later it carried an estimated 2400 passengers.

Riverboats on Mississippi had a rough life. They were only expected to last  4 -5 years due to the perils of snags, debris and collisions. However about 200 of steamship disasters in the first half of century were due to boiler explosions.

At any rate Captain J.C. Mason piloted the Sultana out of Cairo, Illinois headed for New Orleans on April 15, 1865, the day President Lincoln died, and a week after the official end of the war. At the time, War Secretary Stanton had ordered southern newspapers not to print anything about Lincoln’s assassination, so when the Sultana arrived in New Orleans on April 19th, it was the first time they’d heard this news, which many didn’t believe.

The Sultana left New Orleans two days later on April 21st 1865 with only 75-100 passengers. 75 miles south of Vicksburg it was discovered that one of the coal-burning boilers was leaking from a bulging seam. They reduced the ship’s speed and it was decided to repair the boiler in Vicksburg. There the Captain was informed that the best repair, the most thorough and permanent, would be to replace two metal sheets adjoining the leak. However, Captain Mason was persuaded against his better judgment to patch the seam instead. It took 20 hours and the patch itself was thinner than the regular plating on the boiler. In addition heavy rain and melting snow increased the current made it harder for the steamship to travel.

While the Sultana was being repaired, Federal prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba were arriving for passage to Cairo, Illinois. The price paid to transport enlisted men was generally five dollars, and ten dollars for an officer, good money for the time. The first 1300 soldiers, the lucky ones, were taken north by the Henry Ames on April 22. Afterwards more ex-prisoners being held at Camp Fisk were marched four miles to Vicksburg to board the Sultana. They were crammed on board, along with army mules, horses and hogs.

When the Sultana left Vicksburg it had 2400 people on board. It steamed North for 30 or more hours to Helena Arkansas, on April 26. There the last picture of the Sultana was taken. When the passengers heard of the photograph they moved to the port side to be part of the photograph, nearly capsizing the boat. An hour later it started up river. It’s next stop was Memphis, Tennessee, where they docked at 6:30 pm that night. There they did some minor repairs again on the boiler while some passengers disembarked. The ones who didn’t re-embark were the lucky ones. At midnight the Sultana cut across-stream to a coal yard, where it picked up a thousand bushels of coal. It left at 1 am on April 27th.

7 miles north of Memphis, at 2 am, The Sultana’s boiler finally gave out. It’s believe that the explosion ruptured two of three remaining boilers, and was heard all the way to Memphis. Debris tore through decks below, and many passengers were instantly scalded by superheated steam. Some were hurled into the air and thrown into the river. Others were burned or wounded by flying metal, and some were trapped in the burning ship.

The Sultana Saga, The Titanic of the Mississippi by Rex T. Jackson, has many different direct recollections of survivors’ tales. One passenger reported the hissing of steam and the crashing of the different decks, along with the horrors of the falling of the smoke stacks, and flames bursting through crowds of people, burning alive men who had survived battle and the horrors of Andersonville. He reported the sounds of people begging for help, of women shrieking and the sounds of horses neighing and mules braying, all kicking frantically in fear.

The explosion made machinery parts into projectiles, flying through the upper decks and killing passengers as they slept. One man wrote an account of waking up surrounded by fire. He escaped to the hurricane deck and used ropes to get to the bow, where he saw the dead and dying being trampled as people tried to escape. He reported seeing people crying, praying and singing.

As the Sultana burned, terrified people jumped into the water, whether they could swim or not. The water, one passenger reported, was a seething mass of humanity, and people jumping in often landed on top of other people. The passengers in the water hung onto each other. It didn’t last for very long, however. Many were injured by the explosion. Many were weakened by their time in prison, and drowned quickly.

One man was thrown into the water by the explosion, fully clothed. He swam as best he could for a while and was lucky  to catch hold a piece of debris large enough to keep him afloat.

One man sleeping on the boiler deck about 16 feet away from the explosion had his shoulder broken by the explosion. He was badly scalded and believed he should be burned alive, but he managed to crawl to the front of the boat. He jumped into the water and swam three and a half miles to shore, where he stayed until 9 am the next morning.

One smart man picked up a hatch door, threw it into the water, and then jumped on top of it. He floated on it until another steamer, the Bostonia picked him up. The Bostonia picked up about one hundred passengers.

Sadly, the Sultana had only one lifeboat. Although people did manage to get it into the water, so many tried to get into it that eventually it sank, taking everybody down with it.

Meanwhile on shor, a man whose house was across the river from the explosion said that fire was so bright, he could the ground clearly by it. He watched as the ship because a ball of fire and drifted down the river. By dawn of April 27th it sank in 26 feet of water, taking many dead with it.

That day and for weeks to follow bodies washed up on shore in and around Memphis, Fort Pickering and Helena. Many bodies just floated in the water decomposing and getting in the way of other boats and steamers, some of which would get caught up in the wheels of the paddle boats. To get them untangled was a gruesome job. 520 victims made it to hospitals, 200 of whom died, many so badly burned or wounded they died within hours.

In the end an estimated 1,547 people died that day. However, taking into account the people at the hospital, the casualty count is probably more like 1700-1800 in all. In comparison, the estimated dead of the Titanic 47 years later was about 1500 people. And yet, very few people have heard of this disaster, probably because it was so close to the end of the war and the death of Lincoln. Understandable, of course, but for the people who lost loved ones on the Sultana, and those who survived it to be physically and mentally scarred for the rest of their lives, the lack of press and therefore lack of understanding, was difficult and painful.

PHOTO borrowed from this site, which has some more very interesting information, and an eyewitness account.

The majority of my information came from The Sultana Saga, The Titanic of the Mississippi, by Tex T. Jackson


Guest: Anthea Lawson

A Posh Trip Around the Mediterranean

We love researching our Victorian-set novels. Both Passionate and All He Desires feature travel around the Mediterranean Sea on the P&O line. In order to get the period details just right, we delved deeply into historical fact—and fiction.

In addition to finding out that sail and steam were in use together on ships, we looked into the origins of the word posh. Still associated with the upper classes, posh is widely used to describe something as fashionable, elegant, or luxurious. It is widely believed that the word came from the acronym Port Out Starboard Home, describing the best cabins given to upper-class passengers traveling with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company from Britain to India and back. These cabins would have been on the north side of the boat, protected from the fierce sun, and thus most desirable.

However, the acronym was never used officially in the P&O offices or printed on tickets, so the story of posh’s origins may be only a legend. The term has also been variously ascribed to P.G. Wodehouse, as a derivative of the Romany word for money, and to the English gentlemen poet Edward Fitzgerald.

Regardless of its true origins, nothing conjures up the image of genteel Victorians trotting about the world better than the word posh. The next time you travel, pack your trunks well, and don’t forget your parasol!

Leave a comment for a chance to win PASSIONATE, our novel featuring a romantic journey from London to Tunisia aboard a P&O sailing steamer~

Anthea Lawson is the pseudonym for a husband-wife team who write spicy Victorian romance. Their debut novel, PASSIONATE, was nominated for a Best First Book RITA in 2009. Their newest book, ALL HE DESIRES, “deftly combines danger, desire, and a deliciously different Victorian setting into a sexy version of Victoria Holt’s classic gothic romances.” –Booklist Reviews. 

Excerpt from All He Desires:

The cart rolled forward over the rough track, and it did not take long for Caroline to fall into a hazy, pain-filled daze. The night sky, the flaring torches, the jolting ride wove together into a disjointed tapestry. She did not realize they had halted in front of a cottage until Maggie coaxed her upright and helped her from the cart.

Monsieur Legault went to the door. He pounded, and pounded again until at last it was opened by a figure who remained in the shadows. Caroline blinked, her vision still blurred. A tall man, she thought.

“What do you want?” His voice was gruff.

“Mr. Trentham, we require your help.” The Frenchman waved to where Caroline stood, supported by Maggie. “The mademoiselle is injured.”

The man shook his head. “I cannot help you.” He began to close the door, but Monsieur Legault set his foot in the jamb.

“I ask you not to be stubborn. She is hurt—she must be seen.”

The shadow moved closer to the light. He was tall, his hair the color of night. The torchlight painted hollows under his cheekbones and cast his uncompromising nose in sharp relief. He did not look like a doctor, not with his creased clothing and untamed hair, a scowl making his face even more forbidding. When his gaze moved to her, Caroline felt it, a nearly physical sensation, like standing under a storm cloud just before the fury of wind and rain lashed down. She shivered.

He regarded her for several moments, measured by the rapid beat of her heart. His eyes seemed black in the flickering light. That intent gaze moved down to her dusty boots, then returned to her face.

At last he turned to the Frenchman. “The woman is on her feet. She looks well enough. Take her to Rethymno.” He stepped back and made to close his door again.

“You must help us,” Monsieur Legault said, a pleading note in his voice. “Rethymno is too far, and you know how little talent the doctor there has.”

“Enough to care for an injured arm. Good night.”

“Wait!” Maggie stepped forward, bringing Caroline with her. “You cannot refuse—you are English!”

“Oh?” He paused with one hand on the door frame, his lips twisted as though he had tasted something bitter. “I don’t see that it signifies.”

“Of course it does. This is Miss Caroline Huntington, the niece of the Earl of Twickenham. How can you consider yourself a gentleman if you turn her away?”

“Who says I consider myself a gentleman?”

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