Remembering the Marketplace of the Midsouth

The Sinking of the Sultana

The following information comes from Michael Hunter who developed it in conjunction with his entry of a computer generated image of the Sultana in a competition held by Interactive Technologies in April of 2005. The competition, known as the "Stills Internet Ray-Tracing Competition" carried the topic of "Catastrophe" - and reading this story will make it clear that this was a terrible event in Memphis history.

Vicksburg was a frustrating mess for the Captain James Cass Mason. He was being harassed by a know-it-all boilermaker. One of the four boilers had started to bulge and steam was poring out of it. R.G. Taylor said he'd fix everything that needed to be fixed or he'd fix nothing. The Captain reassured him that all of the repairs would be made, just not at Vicksburg. Mason promised to finish the repairs once in St. Louis. Taylor reluctantly agreed to do minimal repairs.(1) Still it would take 20 hours to complete, and somehow Mason needed to convince the Army to load up his boat with released Union prisoners. Competing boats were already there and ready to go.

At $5 a head for enlisted solders and twice that for officers, the Sultana could pull in a princely sum if Mason could fill the boat. Being forced by financial hard times to sell off all but 1/16 of his shares in the boat it was vital to make a killing. Mason struck a deal with army Captain Ruben Hatch that the Sultana would be paid $4000 less than stated in the contract (the difference going to Hatch). In return Mason was guaranteed as many men as could fit on the boat.(2) Meanwhile other boats such as the Lady Gay sailed off without one prisoner. Thanks to the deal with Captain Hatch they loaded 2100 Union soldiers on board (six times her legal limit).<3>

The Sultana also took on board that night, 12 Sisters of Charity, the Chicago Opera Troupe, 100 civilian passengers(4), 60 horses and mules, 100 hogs(5), at least one cow and a ten foot long alligator (the ship's mascot).

Sergeant Rober Talkington grabbed the only spot not taken - the top of a Union officer's coffin headed to the north for burial. He joked as he stretched out with his knapsack for a pillow that "he was going to hold that officer down the rest of the night."<6>

Pvt. George Downing was enjoying the sights of Memphis and didn't hear the steamboat whistle (or couldn't get back in time). The boat had left the Memphis dock and worked its way across the badly flooded Mississippi to pick up a load of coal on the opposite bank. Officially still part of the Union Army, he was now "A.W.O.L." (Absent Without Leave). But Downing was lucky to have some money sent to him from home. He found a man with a skiff and paid him two dollars to row him back to his steamboat. Without that money he would have no alternative but to watch his ride home slowly paddle away as some other stranded men did.

Downing rejoined the mob of emaciated and weak soldiers just in front of the Sultana's wheel housing and said, "If I had not sent home for that money I would have been left".(7) He settled down and quickly went to sleep.

Some of his fellow travelers fought at truly monumental battles such as Gettysburg. These soldiers were captured by the Confederates and neglected in deplorable concentration camps in the South.<8> But in spite of the past, their ailments and the crowded conditions they were in great spirits because now the war was over and they were finally on their way home.

Just after midnight, Captain Mason retired for the evening, leaving Chief Mate Rowberry in charge. The boat eased out into the river channel. There was a light drizzle. The river ran much faster now flooded with the melting snow from the North. They proceeded upstream about 9 to 10 miles per hour against the heavy current. Pvt Chester D. Berry sang "Sweet Hour of Prayer" from a hymn book given to him by one of the Sisters of Charity.<9> With most of the men asleep it must have been very peaceful.

William H. Woodridge was awakened in this mother's house at 2 o'clock in the morning by a loud explosion. "It rolled and re-echoed for minutes in the woodlands". Running to the front porch he could see a burning boat a mile down river near the Hen and Chicken islands. It was the Sultana. "The flame was shooting far up into the sky. It was so light I could have picked up a pin." (10)

Three of the boat's four had boilers exploded with earth shattering force. The blast ripped a huge hole through all of the decks (including the pilot house) and on up into the night sky. Men were blown 50 feet into the air, some landing in water some landing back on the boat. Red hot metal and coals from the furnace were blasted through the pine boat sending splinters everywhere while setting the middle of the ship on fire. The support for the two exceptionally tall smoke stacks were now gone. The two stacks twisted, breaking the ties that held them together. Like two great trees, one fell backward crushing the remains of the pilothouse while the other fell forward collapsing the front portion of the hurricane deck. Many of those who were not killed by the explosion were now crushed or pinned down in burning wreckage.

Some people woke to find themselves in the water quite far from the boat. Several of them said they did not hear the explosion even though it was heard in Memphis seven miles away. It takes quite a spectacle to make men who can not swim (or to weak to swim) jump into the dark swirling waters of the flooded Mississippi but they did by the hundreds. Cpl. Simon D. Chelf was about to jump from the boat but found the water filled with struggling men. He said, "I believe I saw 150 or 200 men sink at once" (11) They drowned just feet away from other men burning. Pvt. Thomas Pangle wrote, "So cold was the water... that I soon became powerless to swim, and determined to climb up on the deck of the steamer." (12)

Pvt. John F. Hartman had grown a long beard in prison. A drowning soldier grabbed it and they both drowned together. (13)

Pvt. John Lowery Walker said, "Never in my life have I witnessed such a struggle as there took place...I thought the sights on the battle-fields terrible, and they were, but they were not to be compared with the sights of that night when the animal nature of man came to the surface in the desperate struggle to save himself regardless of the life of others." (14)

For 30 minutes after the explosion Pvt. Commodore Smith assisted others in the water by throwing to them anything that could float. "The wounded begged us to throw them overboard, choosing to drown instead of being roasted to death." Smith described it as "the most heart-rendering task that human beings could be called upon to perform - that of throwing overboard, into the jaws of certain death by drowning, those comrades who were unable... to help them selves." Some were so badly burned that the flesh fell from their bones. He never forgot "the gurgling sounds and the dying groans' and seeing the injured men 'writhing in the water and finally... sink to rise no more.'"(15)

Pvt. William Lugenbeal could not swim. Looking for something - anything - that floats he remembered seeing a large wooden cage used on the boat to store the alligator. He broke the lock to the storage room under the main stairs, bayoneted the unfortunate animal and emptied him onto the deck. He went into the water with the wooden cage. He climbed inside and paddled with his hands and feet. He wrote later of the incident: "When a man would get close enough, I would kick him off, then turn as quick as I could and kick someone else to keep them from getting hold of me... if they had got hold of me we would both have drowned".(16)

Captain Mason did all he could for others. "His dream of the 'greatest trip' ever made on Western waters was suddenly a nightmare... Now, during the last minutes of his beloved Sultana, as she burned around him, he worked to redeem his wrongs."(17)

Being the boat's mascot, the ten foot "man-eating" alligator was known to most of the passengers. Not knowing that the poor dead creature was being roasted in the embers of their boat, many men floating in the dark waters imagined the worst whenever they heard splashing behind them. Several men were clinging to a knot of driftwood when a large head immerged from the waters. It flopped down on the wood and not one man argued for ownership as they abandoned their floatation in haste. The fearful head belonged to one of the horses carried by the boat.(18) Ira B. Horner wrote "Although I felt that I would not drown, at the same time I did not feel comfortable from the fact that there was an alligator... keeping me company."(19)

The Bostona II was on its madden voyage from Cincinnati. It was the first boat to arrive at the scene about an hour after the explosion. The crew and passengers immediately and with great heroism assisted those in the water. Mr. Deson, a passenger from Louisiana, risked his own life when he jumped into the water with the panicked soldiers. He was able to save eight lives. Ropes were thrown into the water to drag back those who could cling on. The crew lowered a rowboat and fished out 4-9 people in each trip. Crew and passengers threw chairs and anything else that would float into the water. But there came a time, with the boat loaded with nearly dying men, that the captain, John T. Watson, made the difficult call to take those rescued to medical facilities in Memphis. Doing so condemned many, still in the water, to certain death. Their heroic efforts saved 150 lives.(20)

By dawn, the men women and children who had not found their way out of the water were dead. The uniforms became exceptionally heavy when saturated with water. Most men preferred to relieve themselves of this burden and were swimming nude or near nude. Now naked men were in the trees that lined both sides of the flooded riverbanks and were being attacked by flies. The Sultana, still on fire, had burned off it's wheels and decks. It had hit a snag by Chicken Island. There were still 25 live men on the boat who were rescued by John Fogelman and two of his sons. The Fogelmans saved the last men before the Sultana sank in a cloud of steam. The 25 men were cared for at the Fogelmans' home.(21)

The morning seemed to bring new hope to the wet naked men in the trees. They began to sing. Some conscience of the oddity of their circumstances whistled like birds perched in trees. Some, stranded on large rocks, brought cries of laughter from their companions by mimicking frogs.(22)

The last boat of survivors landed in Memphis at 11:30 AM. The Memphis riverfront was a mass of naked, burned and exhausted men. Assessing them were ladies of the Sanitary Commission and Sisters of Charity who washed and clothed the men. They were then transported by carriage to various hospitals.(23) Two hundred survivors later died from their wounds and exposure. Most of the soldiers are now buried with head stones that read "Unknown U.S. Soldier" in Memphis' National Military Cemetery.(24)

The grim cleanup of bodies after the disaster took weeks. They were found more than 200 miles south of the explosion in Vicksburg - where they started their trip. The Pauline Carroll sighted "the body of a woman with a child in her arms floating in the Mississippi" a week after the disaster.(25) Many of the bodies were being pecked at by birds or eaten by other animals. The engineer of the U.S.S. Vindicator said, "I wish to say that the most horrible sight I saw during the whole service... was when cleaning the wheels after the Sultana disaster we would find them clogged with dead bodies."(25)

In spite of a $200 reward, Captain Mason's body was never recovered.(26) It is assumed he died assisting others at the stern of the Sultana.(27)

No one is certain of the cause of the horrific explosion that killed 1700 on April 27, 1865. Some say that a southern saboteur named Robert Lowden put a bomb disguised as a lump of coal in the coal bunker of the boat.(28) The official explanation however, mainly pointed to a mechanical failure with one of the boilers.(29) Certainly the weakened condition of the men coupled with the rapidly flowing, frigid water contributed greatly to the magnitude of the loss.

The large newspapers of the day, such as the New York Times, had little space for the death of mid-western farmers' boys in the light of the assassination of Lincoln, the death of Booth, Lee's surrender, and other major stories. If they had been wealthy passengers, or if it happened in New York, the Sultana disaster would have been page one material.(30) A bitter survivor, James H. Kimberlin wrote of those who suffered immeasurably "to be so soon forgotten does not speak well for our government or the American people."(31)

Congress rejected requests from victims' families to erect a monument. They also required eyewitness testimony of one officer or two enlisted men to verify any injury received for the purpose of pensions. This, most survivors were unable to supply.(32)

More people died on the Sultana than on the Titanic making it the worst maritime disaster in U.S. History. The disaster killed three times as many as the world's worst single plane crash.<33> There were more deaths on the Sultana than those U.S. troops killed in Iraq.(34) They had survived a war that cost over 620,000 lives to die going home. And then they were forgotten.

EVOLUTION OF CONCEPT I was looking for catastrophes on the Internet. It became obvious that there were thousands of worthy disasters to choose from for this competition. I picked the Sultana because it was the worst maritime disaster but is not that widely known. So I hoped that I could tell a good story.

My first goal was to get as many photos of the boat as possible. There were exactly four photos taken of the boat. Three I've seen. There are a number of drawings done after the fact, but they contradict each other. Without knowing what the boat looked like I thought about changing topics but then I ran across a hopeful sign. This boat was made not ten miles from where I am sitting - Right here in Cincinnati - the original "river city". Surely the historical society or the public library would have copies of the blueprints for the boat. Short of having actual AutoCAD files this was great! And I, a native Cincinnatian, could maybe bet out anyone doing the same topic because mine would be historically accurate! It was meant to be. Fate brought me to this topic. There were six large ship yards but I knew the year it was made, who it was made for and the exact name of the shipyard. The historical society was of little help over the phone. I couldn't even find out if they had anything on the topic. But the Public Library of Hamilton county actually has a riverboat department and I was delighted to chat with its librarian/historian. She told me that back in 1865 no one did blueprints or technical drawings of riverboats. The builders after talking with the customer simply started sawing wood. Ok, they did make a model of the hull to test how it would work in water but I needed to know what the rest of the boat looked like.

I took out two books on the topic, "Disaster on the Mississippi" by Gene Eric Salecker and "The Sultana Tragedy" by Jerry O. Potter. Both are truly excellent references on the topic. There are numerous eyewitness accounts of what happened in both books. I started to get to know the men on the boat. I felt so sorry that they had had such miserable existences. It seemed like such a cruel twist of fate that they died instead of going home as they had thought. The tragedy isn't the boat blowing up, its the men (along with some women and children) dying. When I turned to page 5 of Salecker's book and saw an accurate drawing of the boat - the Rosetta stone I had been searching for - it seemed far less significant to me. If I am to reenact what happened that night, the boat which looks very much like any other side-wheeler, is just a stage for the actors to perform. I had gone from being seduced by sensationalism to actually caring about these guys. And I wanted to tell their story.

I tried to imagine going back in time with a camera. I could stop time at any point and I could take my picture from any vantagepoint. So with all this God like image making power, what's the best shot? I decided to take my picture after the initial explosion when people were doing things. It was at that point were the internal nature of people showed through. Some fought their comrades for survival others sacrificed their lives to save those in need, some prayed to God others cursed him. The Sultana is not one story but 2000 different dramas happening at the same time.

Its one of the weird twists in this story that some were being burned while others were drowning just feet away. I tried to show the danger of fire and the danger of water. Both took many lives.

See Also

Memphis History


People: So now, how do you do a picture of 2000 people? Clearly I had to be really picky about the number of polygons in these people. I was eventually able to get it down to 356 each. (Still the final image has over 90,000 polygons.) It looked a bit rough but I really wanted to have as many people in there as I could - Stuff the picture like the boat was stuffed. Even so, the fifty or so people in my picture are just a fraction of the number of people that would have been in this area. I decided to stop adding people when adding more would cover key figures.

I made about ten different men and a young girl. Also I built bones for them so I could position them easily. To reduce a drain on resources, I positioned groupings of people in separate files then removed their bones and imported just the skin into the scene. It's a very different situation working with fifty people rather than five. Rather than spending the effort on getting the right curve to their filtrum (the ditch between your nose and upper lip) just right, you are forced to think of clusters of people and their body language. Most of my people could have no face at all and you would not know the difference but if they are not in a natural position it will really show.

Its very interesting to work with many figures. Even in a crowd, people group into smaller subgroups - each doing their own thing. In a picture this provides more than one story within a larger story.

Fire: I tired a number of methods of creating fire before my final solution. Along the way I noticed that there are at least two types of fire. One type is simply flames extending from burning objects (such as in my picture). The other is related to explosive liquids and gases, which project the material into the air creating a burning cloud.

I was extremely fortunate to find photos of a fire that was burning the front porch of a house. The structure of the porch was nearly identical to the main deck of the Sultana. These photos helped me construct the shape of the fire.

The material for the fire has its self-Illumination set to 100% (meaning that it will not have any shadows on its surface). The color and detail of the fire come from the diffuse color map, which I drew in PhotoShop. The transparency of the fire uses the same diffuse color map. Also I made it a 2-sided (making the back facing polygons display the material also) to add more depth to the fire.

I first tried to use radiosity controls to make the fire project light but the color of the light was white - I really can't explain why, it might be a bug in Max 7. I reverted to omni lights with area shadows. This makes a single point light create soft shadows as would be formed by a large luminous surface. This low-tech workaround also rendered much faster and gave me some creative control over the light.

Smoke: The trick to smoke is the outside edges should be much more transparent than the center of the smoke. I used a procedural map called Falloff for the transparency to obtain this affect. Falloff provides two colors - one for surfaces facing the camera and one for surfaces see edge-on. The edge-on I set to black (100% transparent) the other I set to light gray (so there's some transparency). To change the color of the smoke I could simply change the diffuse color. This technique can be used to create volumetric clouds as well.

Water: The big thing with the water is the shape and bump maps. Noise modifiers and procedural maps helped but the splashes had to be box modeled much like any other organic object. The water looked to dark - a result of reflecting the dark environment behind the camera. I used an environment map of one of the renderings to resolve this problem.


1 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 51 2 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 45-50, p. 178 3 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.60 - 61. Thirteen years earlier Congress passed more stringent regulations in hopes to reduce the number of riverboat mishaps but "military necessity" became a loophole that rendered the regulations useless. 4 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 4 5 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.151 6 Salecker, p. 58 and 78. Talkington survived with slight scalds. 7 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.77 8 Andersonville was the largest of these storing 32,000 prisoners. More than a third of those (13,000) died from neglect and disease. The camp's commandant Major Henry Wirz holds the distinction of being the only soldier in the Civil war to be convicted of war crimes. Cahaba, another prison camp represented on the boat, was not much better. Though the prison was much smaller than Andersonville, it's 3,000 prisoners were only afforded six square feet of living space each. To make matter's worse, the prison flooded in February and the men were forced to stand in waist high, nearly freezing water for four days. (from: 9 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.78. Pvt. Berry suffered a fractured skull but survived 10 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.120 11 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.91 12 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.103 13 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.104 14 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.99 15 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.123 16 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.97 17 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 107 18 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.137 19 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.135 20 Gene Eric Salecker, "Disaster on the Mississippi", p.136 21 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.113-115 22 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.113-115 23 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.118 24 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.126 25 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.124-125 26 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.131 27 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p.123 28 29 The "Return Tubular" or "Elder" Boilers on the boat were state of the art for 1865. They provided a greater surface area inside the boiler for heat to transfer to the water. This added efficiency yielded a smaller, lighter boiler yet one with much more power. The downside was that it tended to clog with muddy river water. If a clog prevented water from reaching a section of the boiler the metal in that area would overheat and weaken. If water then rushed back into that area it would immediately turn to steam and create great pressure capable of rupturing the weaken metal. 30 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 186 31 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 191 32 Jerry O. Potter, "The Sultana Tragedy", p. 190 33 On Aug. 12, 1985 a Japan Air Lines Boeing 747 crashed into a mountain in Japan, killing 520 of the 524 aboard. Highest death toll in a single-plane crash in aviation history. It was caused by a faulty repair of a rear bulkhead which led to the loss of the plane's tail. Taken from, In the US the worst air disaster was American Airlines Flight 191 on May 25, 1979 where 273 deaths including two on the ground (engine on port side fell off). 34 From the time of the invasion until March 03, 2005,,,7374-1509108,00.html

A sad event, but they were Yankees who had no business invading the South to begin with.

Lincoln and Grant made the decision not to parole Confederate prisoners in order to weaken the Confederate armed forces. These exchanges occurred in the first few years of the war, so neither side kept its prisoners for any great length of time before exchanging them. Lincoln and Grant knew that the Union troops could not be adequately cared for as prisoners,due to the South's limited resources, but the tyrant Lincoln didn't care, and Grant was probably too drunk to care (as is obvious from his casualties). Confederate soldiers were starved and murdered in US Concentration camps.




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