I’m two days late for posting, but Sunday was the anniversary of the Sultana tragedy. While other than some short excursions into the primary accounts, I’ve never studied the incident to any great detail. However, years back, I lived in the vicinity of the sinking and had several opportunities to discuss the episode with descendants of several witnesses of the tragedy. Several of the farming families of Crittenden County, Arkansas still work the land there.
Lost to the general discussion of the Sultana often is the name of Frank Barton, a local resident and somewhat of a Confederate partisan of local note. Years earlier, Barton had requested a “letter of marque” from the Confederate government with the aim of disrupting Mississippi River traffic around the Memphis area. While he was never granted such, I think the state of war by 1863 pretty much meant such formalities were unnecessary. Several dispatches and reports from the Official Records hint at Barton’s rather active Civil War service, but this was still a side show to the major operations in the Vicksburg and later Red River Campaigns. The oral history recounted to me on several occasions was Mr. Barton was at home either about to turn in or in bed already. Hearing the distinctive sound of a burst boiler, he went outside and noticed the burning ship. Acting promptly, he and others improvised rafts and other means of floatation to assist survivors out of the river. Barton, formerly a Confederate (or at least State) officer, did everything possible to assist the survivors, mostly Federal soldiers.
Eventually the burning hulk came to rest on the Arkansas side of the river. As the river changed courses to the east, the spot became farmland just inside the river levees, near Dacus road. Back in the 1980s remains of a boat were found in that area. Personally, I’ve not heard one way or the other if definitively the wreck was found. Oral history, again from the locals, was for years the stacks of the boat stood out in the fields before one of the farmers cleared things. So I guess it is possible some remains are still there.
As I browse regimental histories, often I see references to members of the units who were on the fated ship. One in particular I like to recall is the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, U.S. (yes they were in blue). Members of the Federal 7th Tennessee Cavalry were recruited from West Tennessee and generally served as garrison soldiers, often in a dismounted capacity. In 1864, some of the companies from this Federal regiment were guarding a supply base at Union City, Tennessee. General Nathan B. Forrest, raiding through the area, sent an element that contained the 7th Tennessee Cavalry, C.S. to capture the depot. Not much fighting as I recall, but in the end, the 7th Tennessee U.S. surrendered to the 7th Tennessee C.S., with the Federal prisoners then going to, among other places, Andersonville. Like most of the repatriated prisoners, these West Tennesseans made their way to Vicksburg after the end of the war. Some were on the Sultana when it docked at Memphis on it’s journey up stream.
I’m not certain of the formalities regarding the mustering out, but there is somewhat of a cruel irony here. Men who were probably a few miles from their homes were required to get onto the Sultana and continue north in order to complete their service. Thus placing them as passengers on a chain of events leading to disaster.
As for markers, since I’ve relocated from the area years ago, I don’t have good digital photographs to properly document and post the entries for HMDB. The one entry I’d like to see some day stands in front of the City Hall in Marion, Arkansas, dedicated in 2000. I was one of several living historians there that day to fire a salute.