STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
You could read pretty deeply into Civil War history before you came across the event we'll describe next. One-hundred-fifty years ago today came an aftershock of that conflict - the explosion of a steamboat on the Mississippi. The steamboat was called the Sultana, and its destruction it killed 1,800 people - the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. NPR's Jon Hamilton brings us a report on its connection to the war and a remarkable effort to rescue survivors.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The Sultana was a 260-foot side-wheeler on its way from Vicksburg, Miss., to St. Louis. Jerry Potter, who wrote a book called "The Sultana Tragedy," says the vessel was filled with Union soldiers who'd just been released from Confederate prison camp.
JERRY POTTER: The boat had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, and on its up-river trip, it had over 2,500 aboard.
HAMILTON: In part because the government was paying $5 for each enlisted man who made the trip. Potter describes the scene from a park along the banks of the Mississippi just north of Memphis.
POTTER: The river is at flood stage today very similar to what it was on April 27, 1865. So fast-moving water with a lot of trees and debris, and the water is very cold.
HAMILTON: Back then, before modern levees, the river was also several miles wide during the spring floods. Potter says the Sultana made it only a few miles north of where we are standing.
POTTER: At 2 a.m., one of the boilers exploded, resulting in two other boilers exploding, and the entire center of the boat erupted like a volcano.
HAMILTON: The first to die were soldiers from Kentucky and Tennessee who'd been packed in next to the boilers.
POTTER: It was like a tremendous bomb going off in the middle of where these men were, and the shrapnel, the steam and the boiling water killed hundreds.
HAMILTON: Fire, drowning and exposure would kill many hundreds more, but the story of the Sultana is about more than lost lives. It is also about a rescue effort that brought together people who had been at war just weeks earlier. Many of the Sultana survivors ended up here on the Arkansas side of the river - the Confederate side. Frank Fogelman is the mayor of Marion, Ark.
FRANK FOGELMAN: One of my ancestors came to this part of Arkansas in 1825. His name was John Fogelman, and I believe he was one of the rescuers from the accounts that I've read.
HAMILTON: Frank Fogelman says those accounts suggest his ancestor spotted the burning Sultana as the remains of the paddle-wheeler drifted down river.
FOGELMAN: The wind blew the fire to the rear - burned that out. The paddle wheel fell off of one side, caused the boat to turn sideways. The other paddle wheel fell off. Now the boat's adrift, and I understand it reversed itself.
HAMILTON: So that the wind was now blowing the fire toward the bow, which held the last 25 soldiers who hadn't jumped into the water. Fogelman says his ancestors didn't have any boats to reach them.
FOGELMAN: I understand that the Fogelmans were able to put together some logs to make a raft and go out and take people off the boat as it drifted back this way. And in order to save time, they would set the people off in treetops and go back to the boat to take more off.
HAMILTON: Newspaper accounts say all 25 soldiers were rescued and that the Fogelman home became a refuge for Sultana survivors. As for the Sultana itself, Fogelman gestures towards the river, which has shifted east since 1865.
FOGELMAN: Across the levee, into the southeast probably five or 600 yards, is where I think the final resting place of the Sultana is.
HAMILTON: Riverboats and bystanders on both sides of the Mississippi helped pull hundreds of survivors from the muddy water. But some of the most poignant stories involve Confederate soldiers rescuing their Union counterparts. Frank Barton is the descendent of one of those soldiers, a man named Franklin Barton.
FRANK BARTON: He served in the 23rd Arkansas Calvary, and he was tasked with, among other things, raiding shipping going up and down the river.
HAMILTON: Barton says that meant attacking Union vessels as they went by.
BARTON: A few weeks earlier, you know, he might've been attacking the Sultana if it had come in.
HAMILTON: Instead, newspaper accounts say Franklin Barton saved several Union soldiers. Frank Barton says he didn't know much about his ancestor until he started going through the accounts of Sultana's survivors.
BARTON: And then you read something about like that and how he saved these people's lives - it's a pretty cool thing.
HAMILTON: The story of the Sultana isn't well-known, even among people who live along this stretch of the Mississippi. Jerry Potter, the author, grew up in Tennessee, but he only learned about the tragedy when he began practicing law in Memphis in the late 1970s and happened to see a painting of the Sultana in flames. Potter went to the library to learn more. Then he started asking himself a question.
POTTER: Why haven't I ever heard of this? And that's what started a obsession that continues until today.
HAMILTON: Potter has used his legal expertise to collect evidence of the mistakes and malfeasance that led to the Sultana disaster. He says the boat's captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, broke several laws in order to fill his boat with soldiers.
POTTER: It's clear that he had bribed some of the officers, and an officer at Vicksburg, to ensure that he would get a large load of prisoners, and he did get a large load of prisoners.
HAMILTON: Potter says Mason and his chief engineer also chose to make a quick patch to a damaged boiler, despite warnings from the mechanic they hired to do the work.
POTTER: He told the captain and the chief engineer the boiler was not safe, but the engineer said that he would have a complete repair job done when the boat made it to St. Louis.
HAMILTON: Potter says the role of corruption in the Sultana tragedy may have led the government to downplay the sinking. But he says there were many other reasons the event didn't get much attention at the time.
POTTER: The war had just ended a few weeks before Lincoln had just been assassinated. The boat was filled with enlisted men, primarily men that were really hadn't made a mark in history or a mark in life.
HAMILTON: And Potter thinks the nation was simply tired of war and death. Today, though, Marion, Ark., is betting that people are ready to learn about the Sultana. The city has created a museum and is hosting a series of events to commemorate what it calls the forgotten tragedy. At the moment, the museum occupies a temporary space near city hall. Lisa O'Neal helped create the exhibit.
LISA O'NEAL: We feel like we are a part of this Civil War story, but we're the conclusion that no one heard.
HAMILTON: The museum includes biographies of passengers, pieces of the Sultana and a 14-foot replica of the boat. O'Neal says working on the project has made her feel a strong connection to the soldiers who died on the river that day.
O'NEAL: They had survived war. They had survived prison in one of the most hideous places the South had. And now on the 27, these men are going home and it just hurts my heart.
HAMILTON: Even now, 150 years later. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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