Monthly Archives: April 2008

Sultana Thoughts

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.

The Wilderness – Gordon Flank Attack Trail

Started turning back to some pre-Antietam project notes and site trips today. My marker entries and trip notes for the Gordon Flank Attack Trail at the Wilderness had been waiting in the queue since mid-February. Those went into the database today. Not much to show and tell. The Wilderness, much as the case in 1864, lacks the scenic vistas and great overlooks. Must be why they call it the Wilderness!

The trail is roughly an hour course, threading respectfully around the remnants of earthworks.


The photo above is close to the location pictured in the period photograph on page 23 of Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee, by Earl J. Hess. My photo was taken just west of Saunders Field, about 100 yards north of Constitution Highway (Va 20).

Overall the trail is well interpreted without over doing things. However the text of the markers is set to follow a script. Hanging questions posed by some markers may confuse those taking the trail in reverse order.  And I’d still recommend the June 1995 issue of Blue & Gray Magazine for reference while walking the trail.

The trail is on a flat grade, with only one or two low crossing points. A park maintenance shop, while sited in the middle of the battlespace, is relatively un-obtrusive. The park service maintains good “green space” between the trail and neighboring subdivisions. As seen from the map view of the marker set, this section of the battlefield is under some pressure. The modern lake has covered much of the Confederate rear. All of which leaves the visitor a false impression that the Federal right flank wasn’t “in the air” quite so badly.

Missing War Department Tablets

Here’s my rundown of the missing tablets from the War Department series for Antietam Battlefield. The first five listed are from the lettered series. Four of the listed 29 are uploaded to the database, with reference numbers supplied (hence my tally yesterday of 25 “missing” tablets).

Tablet # Title Location HMDB ref Number Notes
C 1st Corps Camp North Woods N/A
E Union Line of Battle North Woods N/A Down for maintenance.
G 1st Corps, 1st Div, 2nd Bde North Woods N/A
L 1st Corps, 2nd and 3rd Div Unknown N/A Suspect location Hwy 65 North.
N 2nd and 10th US Inf East Woods N/A Location disputed.
13 Doubleday’s Division (Sept 16) Hwy 65 North N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.29.
18 Morell’s Division (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.34.
22 Sykes’ Division (Sept 15-16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.33.
23 5th Corps, Artilery Reserve Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.36.
82 3rd US Inf (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.35.
98 Bty K, 1st US Sunken Road N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.131.
115 II Corps (Sept 15-16) Hwy 34 East N/A
314 Jackson’s Command Dunker Church


Down for maintenance.
325 Anderson’s Bde (Sept 16) Hwy 34 East N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.41.
333 DH Hill’s Div, Jackson Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.135.
334 Jones’ Bde West Woods N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.94.
335 Winder’s Bde West Woods N/A Down for maintenance.
338 Rodes Bde, Hill’s Div Sunken Road N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.136.
344 Andersons Div, Longstreet Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.137.
350 Pender’s Bde Harpers F. Rd N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.181.
373 Toombs’ Bde, Jones’ Div Branch Ave. N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.173.
380 Sunder’s Artillery Battalion Piper Farm N/A Missing: Large & Swisher, p.139.
C.P.6 Slocum’s Division Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.6C Slocum’s Division (cont.) Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.7 Smith’s Division Crampton’s Gp N/A
C.P.7C Smith’s Division (cont.) Crampton’s Gp N/A
B.F.2 Boteler’s Ford Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.192.
B.F.4 Barnes’ Brigade Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.193.
B.F.5 118th Pennsylvania Shepherdstown


Missing: Large & Swisher, p.194.

My personal standard for uploading a “missing” tablet or marker is:

  1. The location of the object is known based on references (in this case I’ve used two references for baselines – Battle of Antietam: The Official History by the Antietam Battlefield Board, by George R. Large and Joe A. Swisher and the Trailhead Graphics, Inc map of the Antietam Battlefield).
  2. The text is documented. Again references are required.
  3. I have visited the location and confirmed the object is not in place.
  4. An exception for #1 of course is if during the on site visit, a pole, base or other indicator of the object location is noted. Still text must be documented with some degree of accuracy.

Based on the site visits, most likely four of these 29 are simply out for maintenance. However several of those recorded as missing have been “lost” for some time, as indicated with references to Large and Swisher in the notes. In some cases, there may well be a “rest of the story,” that needs telling. For instance, were the three missing Shepherdstown tablets victims of flood damage perhaps?

And like the story that keeps going, the tablet “status” is always subject to change. Between the time I started this project and completed the work, an “accident” occurred on the Boonsboro Pike (Highway 34 East). Seems a motorist failed to avoid a tablet cluster somehow (rumble strips, guard rails, who knows?). As seen in the before and after photos on the entry for the Second Army Corps, September 15-16 (number 35), four tablets suffered. Good news is these will be restored in time. Since the last revision of Large and Swisher’s book in 1998, at least five “missing” tablets have been restored by the park service.

Yes, one can dispute some of the battle details of the War Department Tablets. Certainly some of the misspellings are annoying. Run on sentences abound. But taken as a set these are the products of perhaps the most extensive research on the battle ever completed. The Antietam Battlefield Board was staffed by veterans, who in several cases were on the field the day of the battle. In my opinion, beyond aiding the on-site interpretation of the battlefield, these metal plates are part of the historiography of the subject.