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.


2 thoughts on “Sultana Thoughts

  1. Very interesting post on the Sultana. I’m especially curious to know whether you recorded or transcribed any of the oral history accounts you referenced (from the descendants of witnesses)?

    Incidentally, I read or heard at some point that the wreckage was at least partially identified through core samples or some limited digging in an Arkansas rice field, that turned up pieces of boiler or fire brick marked by the Cincinnati manufacturer.

    I did a lengthy post on the Sultana for my blog a couple years ago, still readable here:


  2. Dave,
    Regarding transcripts or recordings, the short answer is “unfortunately not.” Let’s just say the social settings (church functions and the like) precluded such. However, the de facto Crittenden County (Arkansas) historian did collect such interview notes. She was quite a remarkable lady in her own right. Having worked as both a newspaper reporter/editor and a lawyer, she had a well kept system for her annotations. The result of her work was both a history of the county and of the county seat, Marion. Since her passing, I believe the notes were retained by a friend who is working on an updated history of the county. If you are interested I can pass along an inquiry.

    Regarding the final resting spot of the Sultana, I’ve walked the ground in question, which was soybean or winter wheat depending on the season. (The ground is not stable for rice fields.) I think the hang up was finding a piece that said beyond a shadow of a doubt “this is the Sultana.” That particular section of the river was somewhat treacherous due to currents, sandbars, and geography that force the river to meander. When John Fogleman awoke to the sound of the bursting boiler, it was described as a “familiar” or a “well known” sound. So it was not uncommon for steamboats to have trouble there. Furthermore, Mound City saw much activity as a repair point for steamboats.

    Thus the remains of a steamboat in that area of the old river course isn’t all that unique or definitive.
    Short of an identifying mark that links things by documentation to the exact boiler used on the ship, I don’t think anyone can be certain on the location.

    Anther tidbit about the location, which carries the place name Mound City. It was used as a way point for the brown water navy during the war also. Several cannon balls were located in piles around the old river banks, as late as the 1970s. At first, the locals felt this was the result of the naval battle of Memphis. But let’s just say forensic analysis disproved the notion that cannon fire would deposit the rounds in nice neat piles. More likely, the gunboats off loaded their ordnance there to lighten the loads before passing through a rather swift section of the river (extending northward past Caruthersville, Mo).


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