ON APRIL 15, 1865, the steamboat Sultana left Cairo, Illinois, for New Orleans. The Sultana was a large boat, one of the largest on the river—almost 250 feet long, and rated to carry a maximum of 376 passengers. But on that run it had an errand more urgent than simple transport. Its lines and flagpoles were hung with black pennants and black banners; its railings and portholes were draped in long, fluttering ribbons of black crêpe. It was an amazing apparition to the people of the lower valley. When they saw this vessel of mourning emerge around a bend in the golden afternoon light, or loom out of the river mists at midnight, they all came running down to the levees to greet it. It stopped at every town and village and plantation along the banks, announcing its arrival not with the customary whistles but with a single tolling bell. The passengers along the railings were all dressed in black. When the boat docked, they fanned out through the streets; some of them did no more than stand and silently hold up the black-bordered newspapers they’d brought from Cairo. Then they boarded again and the Sultana moved off and vanished downriver, to bring to the next town the news of Lincoln’s assassination.
Constructed over the winter of 1862–63, the Sultana had been one of the first steamboats to begin making regular runs in the lower valley after the surrender of Vicksburg. Its frequent passengers had gotten an excellent view of the way the reopening of the river had transformed the valley. The landscape still bore the immense scars left by the passage of the war—the craters and slides in the hills, the burned-out forests, the gutted and abandoned plantation houses, the remnants of the immense earthworks constructed along the battle lines—but the riverfronts were thriving and the commercial districts were jumping with new business. The tough times of the blockades had been quickly forgotten. The people on the streets looked healthy and prosperous. In Vicksburg, which had taken the worst of the war, the buildings had all been repaired, the stores had all been restocked, and the flow of luxury goods to the specialty shops had resumed. “You can get anything you want,” one townsman reported in amazement barely a month after the surrender.
In the later years of the war, the Sultana had also brought in a flood of strangers. They were people with peculiar accents: Northerners, Europeans. The lifting of the blockades meant the resumption of the cotton trade, and brokers and factors from all over the world were streaming into the lower valley to cash in. With most of the great plantations of the Deep South still behind the battle lines, the planters along the Mississippi found that they had a spectacular seller’s market. Locals whose livelihood had been ruined by the siege were setting up as cotton speculators—or else were looking to strike it rich by supplying the speculators with whatever else they might desire. As the harvest came in, the various Landings and Under-the-Hills were all springing back to life, more gaudy than they had ever been, with saloons and gambling houses and the fanciest brothels to be found outside of New Orleans.
The river valley was still under the control of the Union military government, and the burgeoning trade was leading to a complicated new weave of bureaucratic corruption. The river commerce was administered by the staff officers of the Union army, who were the only ones authorized to disgorge the most prized document in the occupied valley: a trading license. These licenses were required for any and all cargo carried by the steamboats. The idea was to give priority to items of immediate military necessity or urgent humanitarian need, but in practice those concepts were defined in an easygoing, elastic way, so as to create for the staff officers a thriving business in bribes and kickbacks. Judging by the licenses issued for one Christmas week, the valley had either an immediate military necessity or an urgent humanitarian need for the following: five barrels of brandy, thirty cases of champagne, one hundred cases of assorted liquors, twenty thousand cigars, 420 dozen pairs of women’s shoes, fifty dozen pairs of white gloves, fifteen yards of green velvet, fifteen yards of red velvet, and one pound of silver spangles.
The rebirth of the river economy struck a lot of old-timers as a travesty. By the spring of 1865, the most common remark heard around the valley was that you could barely recognize the place any longer, what with all these Yankees and foreigners—and with all the new money pouring in. And of course there was one more enormous social change that the whites of the lower valley were finding impossible to adjust to: emancipation. So far, the worst nightmare of the whites had failed to materialize—they weren’t being murdered in their beds by vengeful gangs of ex-slaves. Instead there had developed a new routine of casual, grinding hostility. The old hair-trigger rage of the frontier was back, only now it was almost exclusively racial. Day after day, the whites were stunned and outraged by the lack of deference shown to them by their former property. Every sidelong glance between white and black was a potential provocation; every mutter, every bumped shoulder was the pretext for a fight. Public sentiment among the whites, one Union officer observed, “has not come to the attitude in which it can conceive of the negro having any rights at all.”
In the midst of this rising tension came the news brought by the Sultana. The reaction among the whites was public silence and private jubilation. While in the North, Lincoln’s views on slavery had always been a matter of debate (and remain so to this day), in the South there had never been the slightest doubt. To them Lincoln had been the maddest of the abolitionist madmen, the demonic persecutor who had slaughtered their men and destroyed their country for no better reason than sheer spite. One diarist of that time, Sarah Morgan of New Orleans, could only suppose that Lincoln had been driven by a kind of psychotic class envy. “Lincoln’s chief occupation,” she wrote, “was thinking what death, thousands who ruled like lords when he was cutting logs, should die.” But now that had all changed: “A moment more, and the man who was progressing to murder countless human beings, is interrupted in his work by the shot of an assassin.” Kate Stone of Vicksburg put it more simply in her diary: “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations.”
On April 23, 1865, the Sultana, returning from New Orleans, stopped off at Vicksburg. Its errand of mourning was completed and it was an ordinary steamboat again, carrying a full complement of passengers and cargo. It laid over at Vicksburg Landing for the day while one of its boilers was repaired, a routine procedure for steamboats on the river—the Sultana’s boilers had already been patched twice that spring. During the layover, arrangements were concluded for it to carry a very large number of Union soldiers upriver to Cairo.
These soldiers were prisoners of war who had been brought to Vicksburg by the Confederate command for exchange with the North. They had been held at the prison camps of Cahaba and Andersonville in the Deep South, and they had arrived at Vicksburg earlier that spring. They were in horrible shape—sick, malnourished, emaciated, scurvied. Many had open and infected wounds; many were limping in on crutches; some couldn’t walk at all and were being dragged on pallets by their fellow soldiers. They told horrifying stories of their captivity. Cahaba, where most of them had been held, had been designed for five hundred men and ultimately was crammed with more than three thousand, and their only drinking water was from a fouled stream that doubled as a cesspool. But that was nothing compared with what some of the other prisoners said about Andersonville. Forty-five thousand men had been held there at the war’s height, and almost thirteen thousand of them had died; the rest were described as “walking skeletons.” One typical story was told by a survivor:
A large wagon, drawn by four mules, was used in drawing out the dead. They were laid in as we pile cordwood and taken to the burying ground, generally putting fifty in a grave, and returning would bring mush in the same wagon, where worms that came from the dead could be seen crawling all over it; but we were starving, therefore we fought for it like hungry dogs.
Even after the Confederacy had decided to release them, the men had found fresh miseries to endure. The Confederate rail system was a shambles in the later days of the war; one of the transport trains had derailed three times in a hundred miles. Two of those times, rail cars had overturned, and dozens of the prisoners, their bones already brittle from malnutrition, had their rib cages shattered and arms and legs snapped like twigs. When they approached Vicksburg, they learned that the rail lines west ended at Jackson: the last forty miles of track had been destroyed, and the only way forward was on foot.
In Vicksburg they found themselves in a tormenting legal limbo. The arrangement made between the Yankees and the Confederates had been for an even exchange of prisoners—but the Yankees didn’t have several thousand Confederate prisoners available for transfer at Vicksburg, and the Federal command, with the war on the edge of being won, wasn’t enthusiastic about returning so many troops to the enemy anyway. Meanwhile, the Confederate command was in increasing disarray. Their lines of communication back to the government were broken, and the government itself appeared to be collapsing—by early April there were rumors everywhere that General Lee was about to surrender and Jefferson Davis was on the run. So while the confused and desultory negotiations between the two commands went on, the Yankee prisoners, almost five thousand of them, were forced to wait.
A holding camp had been built for them about six miles outside of town. The men got new uniforms, tents to sleep in, and the first good rations they’d seen in months or years: hardtack, fresh-baked bread, and sometimes beef and pork. Since they were still technically Confederate prisoners, the Union command had agreed to keep them under armed guard. The first guards assigned were newly commissioned Negro soldiers—but this nearly led to a riot. Many of the prisoners were just now catching up with the news of the emancipation, and not all of them approved. White guards were hastily substituted, and the mood in the camp quieted—that is, until the Sultana brought the news about Lincoln.
The official reaction of the Confederate command at Vicksburg was muted and respectful. The Confederate officer in charge of the prisoner transfer immediately ordered all Confederate flags to be lowered to half-staff and had his headquarters draped in black crêpe. He wrote an open letter to his opposite number on the Federal side, expressing “sincere regrets upon receipt of the painful intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln.” Speaking on behalf of the Confederate officer corps, he assured him that “no officer of the United States Government regrets more than they this cowardly assault.” In all this, he was acting with extreme prudence. He was aware the situation in the camp was on the edge of calamity; among the Union prisoners, the only thought on anybody’s mind was revenge. If they knew how gleeful the citizens of Vicksburg were, they were likely to storm out of the camp and burn down the town. But symbolic gestures weren’t going to solve anything for long. This was why, in the days following the assassination, the Confederate and Yankee commanders ultimately agreed to forgo the exchange of prisoners and simply get the soldiers in the camp out of the South and on their way home as quickly as possible.
On the morning of April 24, the Yankee soldiers began boarding the Sultana. A few hundred of them quickly filled up the main deck—and then a few hundred more came, and still more, until all the decks were filled and then overfilled. “We were driven on like so many hogs,” one soldier remembered, “until every foot of standing room was occupied.” The cabin deck was packed with men, amid stacks of cargo and corrals holding pigs and horses; the hurricane deck was jammed, as was the roof of the pilothouse; there were men perched between the smokestacks and men squatting on the coal bins belowdecks. Any of the cabin passengers who looked out through their windows would have seen an unbroken wall of flesh and blue cloth pressing in on the glass. The Sultana on a crowded run probably had around 450 people aboard; it was carrying at least five times that many when it finally pulled away from Vicksburg after sunset.
Later, there would be a forest of finger-pointing about who had overloaded the boat, why it had been allowed to happen, who had tried to stop it, who had ignored it, who had cashed in. A lot of blame was put on the Union staff officers, the same ones who’d been in charge of the trading licenses—they had already been caught up in several scandals involving sweetheart deals with steamboat companies over fees for transporting soldiers. It was said in expiation that a steamboat had left Vicksburg a few days before carrying more than a thousand Union soldiers, and it had arrived in St. Louis without incident. The owners of the Sultana offered the interesting argument that while their boat had undeniably been overcrowded, it hadn’t technically been overloaded: a roughly equivalent volume of cargo would have weighed far more than the soldiers did.
But the Sultana’s crew had been under no illusions. Some of them were heard to say before departure that it would be a miracle if they ever reached Cairo. The behavior of the captain, a longtime river professional named J. Cass Mason, was particularly telling. Mason was known (according to a newspaper account) as “one of the clearest heads on the river.” But he got dead drunk at the departure from Vicksburg and he stayed drunk until the end.
The Mississippi had begun its rise early that season. It was already in full flood by the time the Sultana started north. Banks were drowned and levees overtopped all through the central and lower valley. The boat made sluggish progress against the strong, debris-choked surge of current. That first night proved to be a wretched one for everyone crammed on deck. They could barely move; hundreds of them were leaning against the exterior walls and sleeping upright. The night air was clear and bitterly cold. Food was in short supply—mostly bread, hardtack, and salt pork—and there was no way of heating it. The only privies were by the wheelhouse on the lower deck, and this was for most an impossible journey. By morning some enterprising soldiers had hacked out holes in the planking above the paddle wheels to give everyone who needed to relieve himself a shorter distance through the crowd.
But the atmosphere on the deck, people would later agree, could have been a lot worse. There were no fights and hardly even any complaints. Many of the soldiers were so sick and exhausted they could barely register where they were anyway, much less grouse about the conditions. The rest were so grateful to be on their way home that they were prepared to put up with anything. As the night passed, there were songs and jokes going around, and the occasional impromptu performance: among the paying passengers in the cabin was a theatrical troupe from Chicago who’d been touring the lower valley, and they put on sketches and did dances to keep the soldiers amused. The soldiers were also entertained by the discovery of the boat’s mascot, a pet alligator kept in a crate in the wheelhouse. One soldier remembered, “It was a curiosity for us to see such a large one. We would punch him with sticks to see him open his mouth, but the boatmen got tired of this and put him in the closet under the stairway.”
As the night ended and the morning light grew, the soldiers found themselves deep in a drowned country. The floodwaters had spread out for miles on either side of the banks; the Sultana spent the day moving through a wide, shining, featureless sea. It was a radiant April day, and there were dazzling reflections of cumulus scudding across the shivery blue surface of the water. The familiar navigation landmarks were submerged; the pilot had to weave back and forth by trial and error, marking where the current was strongest by the long, unwinding trails of debris languidly drifting down from upriver. The Sultana passed fallen trees and drowned animals. It glided through the sodden contents of overrun farms—patched clothes and spinning wheels, brooms and rakes, keepsake albums and sheet music, heirloom bedsteads and ornamental nightstands. It shouldered aside the debris from drowned boats and overrun levees—barrels of salt and coffee and vinegar and wine, hogsheads of salt pork and molasses, tuns of flat-head nails. The men on deck saw engulfed towns where the citizens were casually moving through the streets in rowboats. In some of the towns there were pontoon bridges between the upper stories of downtown buildings; some store owners had moved their stocks up to the rooftops and were selling to the river traffic.
But in that world the Sultana was the strangest sight of all: an enormous boat fantastically overcrowded with deckers, like a forest of men, precariously tilting and grinding up through the flood. The Sultana’s crewmen were so convinced that the boat was fatally top-heavy that they urged the army officers on board to order the men to keep as motionless as possible. There was a particularly close call as they passed along the Arkansas shore. A photographer rowed out to the middle of the river to take a picture, and as he laboriously maneuvered his camera into position, so many deckers hustled to the railings to be included that the Sultana began listing and almost capsized then and there. It was only after a frantic rush to get everyone back spread evenly across the decks that the sickening tilt subsided and the boat steamed on.
Late in the afternoon of the next day, April 26, the Sultana reached Memphis. It was a big, crowded city perched on bluffs safely above the flood, and it was doing a thriving business both with the river trade and with the Yankee military occupation. Much of the Sultana’s cargo was off-loaded there—most of the livestock, to everyone’s relief, and, to their regret, several hundred hogsheads of sugar. (A couple of the hogsheads had cracked open, and the soldiers had been gorging themselves on their contents ever since Vicksburg.) Several of the cabin passengers disembarked at Memphis as well—among them the theatrical troupe, whom the soldiers gave a big cheer of thanks as they descended the gangway. By then the soldiers who were healthy enough to move were getting eager to sneak in a little time onshore themselves. They had been ordered to stay on board, but nobody felt any compelling need to obey. “The moment the boat touched the wharf,” one soldier, W. G. Porter, remembered, “the boys began to jump off.” Hundreds of them spent that evening carousing around the river district.
The Sultana’s whistle sounded its warning around 10:00 p.m. The soldiers straggled back on board. They found that the decks had gotten more crowded: a big new load of coal had been taken on, and those soldiers who’d been sleeping in the coal bins had been evicted. W. G. Porter had been one of them, and he now faced a long, weary scramble to find somewhere else to lie down. He wandered around the cabin deck among a tangle of sleepers; whenever he found an empty place to spread out his blankets, he’d be told it was being held for somebody else. At last he crammed himself onto one of the outside stairways between decks. He was only able to make himself fit onto a step by letting his feet stick out over the edge.
Other soldiers never did get back on board. Some of them had had enough; they couldn’t bear the overcrowding and, despite their orders, decided to wait on the levee for the next boat coming upriver. Others had managed to get so drunk during their few hours ashore that they missed the steamboat whistle. One later estimate was that roughly 150 soldiers were left behind in Memphis that night. When the Sultana departed, there were probably around twenty-two hundred people still on board.
The Sultana pulled off from the levee a little after 1:00 a.m. It continued its wheezing way north through the murky gulf of the river. Some of those watching from the railings guessed that at this point the Mississippi had swollen up more than five miles on either side: in some places the banks were submerged under twenty feet of water.
It was a new moon that night; the Sultana’s lights were the only illumination. The sky began clouding over. Soon a storm came up from the southwest. Its thunder was inaudible above the rumbling of the paddle wheels and the roar of exhaust from the smokestacks—but the men on deck could see distant flickers of lightning glinting on the surface of the flood, silhouetting the snarl of half-submerged treetops along the drowned banks and the remote peaked islands of farmhouse roofs.
One of the men on the cabin deck was a soldier from Ohio named Joseph Bringman. He was sleeping near the balusters on the port side; he’d barely moved from the spot since Vicksburg. He’d come aboard in bad shape: sickly, weak, and exhausted, and with all his teeth loose (a common result of life in the prison camps). His chief emotion so far had been sheer gratitude that he’d found someplace to lie down. On this night he hadn’t even bothered to take off his clothes—partly because of the approaching storm, partly because he was simply too tired.
Sometime around two in the morning, he had a dream. “It appeared to me,” he wrote, “that I was walking leisurely on an incline or sloping hill, and when I reached the top there appeared to be a ledge or projecting rock overhanging a river; I seemed to step upon it so as to look down into the water, and just as I took the second step the rock seemed to burst with a report like the shot of a distant cannon. I felt pieces of rock striking my face and head and I seemed to be hurled out into the river.”
Another soldier, J. Walter Elliott, remembered at that moment “a report as of the discharge of a park of artillery, a shock as of a railroad collision, and I am sitting bolt upright, straining my eyes and stretching my arms out into the Egyptian darkness; face, throat and lungs burning as if immersed in a boiling cauldron.” William A. McFarland “seemed to be dreaming and could hear some one saying, ‘there isn’t any skin left on their bodies.’ I awoke with a start and the next moment the boat was on fire and all was as light as day.”
All over the Sultana, people were waking into a nightmare of fire and confusion. One of the boilers had exploded, and the concussion wave had caused two of the remaining three to go up as well. Most of the soldiers near the boilers, as well as almost all the cabin passengers, had been killed instantly. The main force of the blast had cratered the midsection of the boat, and the burning debris that had been blown out in all directions was setting off fires from prow to stern.
Immediately around the blast crater there was chaos. One survivor, Commodore Smith, remembered the scene: “At the time her boilers exploded I was lying sound asleep on the lower deck, just back of the rear hatchway to the hold. I was not long in waking up, for I was nearly buried with dead and wounded comrades, legs, arms, heads, and all parts of human bodies, and fragments of the wrecked upper decks.” Commodore Smith tried to fight his way to the bow to jump overboard, “but could not on account of the wreckage and carnage of human freight which now covered the lower deck.” W. G. Porter, sleeping on the stairs, remembered that when he woke, he first thought that the stairway and the deck had collapsed from being overloaded, “but soon found out different.” He wrote: “It was not long before it was all confusion, some singing, some praying, some lamenting, some swearing, some crying, and some did not seem to know anything.”
Since the main force of the blast had gone upward, the hull was still intact and the boat wasn’t yet sinking. But the fires were spreading rapidly. People were grabbing and hurling into the water everything they could find that they thought might float, and they were jumping in after and praying for the best. Bales of cotton and hay went first, but so many grabbed hold of them that they sank or unraveled into useless tufts. Then the gangway board went, carrying dozens with it. Commodore Smith remained on deck, he guessed for around twenty or thirty minutes, “throwing overboard all the loose boards and timbers and everything that would float to assist those in the water and save them from drowning if possible.”
Around him fights were breaking out among those who hadn’t yet jumped into the river. One woman fought savagely with two soldiers over a life belt she was trying to put on her child. She succeeded in wresting the belt away from them, but in her panic she put it on incorrectly, and when she let the child go into the water, he helplessly rolled over head down and drowned.
In the river surrounding the burning wreck were people and animals frantically thrashing amid a spreading field of bodies and debris. Everyone was clawing wildly for handholds on the flotsam; they were grabbing on to hands and shoulders and legs and feet to keep from drowning—sometimes several men at a time dragged each other under. Meanwhile, the fires on the boat were raging out of control and were whipping down on the people still on board. There were no railings left around the deck—they had already been torn off and thrown overboard—and the rushing of the crowd back and forth to stay out of the flames forced those closest to the sides to jump into the water. Chester Berry, a soldier from Pennsylvania, recalled looking up from the water and seeing an apparition: a woman still on board, in the midst of the pandemonium, calling to those in the water to stay calm.
Seeing them fighting like demons in the water in the mad endeavor to save their lives, actually destroying each other and themselves by their wild actions, [she] talked to them, urging them to be men, and finally succeeded in getting them quieted down, clinging to the ropes and chains that hung over the bow of the boat. The flames now began to lap around her with their fiery tongues. The men pleaded and urged her to jump into the water and thus save herself, but she refused, saying: “I might lose my presence of mind and be the means of the death of some of you.” And so, rather than run the risk of becoming the cause of the death of a single person, she folded her arms quietly over her bosom and burned, a voluntary martyr to the men she had so lately quieted.
The wreck of the Sultana was drifting out of the channel into the shallows near the Arkansas shore. There were still people alive on board, but the fires were now burning down to the waterline and the boat had to be abandoned. Commodore Smith remembered this as the hardest moment of his life. The injured were begging to be thrown overboard, because they would rather drown than be burned alive. “While our hearts went out in sympathy for our suffering and dying comrades,” Smith wrote, “we performed our sad but solemn duty.”
The wreck by then was in a narrow channel between the bank and a chain of islets. The islets were submerged by the flood, but the tallest trees were still sticking up above the surface; some of the men were snatching at their branches and tying the lines to them. By then the last of the boat was aflame, and everyone still mobile had to jump into the water.
The fires reached the Sultana’s waterline and began to gutter out. This made those in the water more frantic. As long as the boat had been burning, the glare cast across the water had faintly illuminated the forests along the shores and had given the swimmers a target to aim at, but once the flames vanished, they were lost in complete darkness. One survivor said mildly, “We could not tell which way to go and it was a very lonesome place to be in.” Some of the survivors managed to thrash and lunge their way out of the current into the shallows and strike out toward what they thought was dry land—only to find when they arrived that the banks were overrun and the waters stretched on out of sight. Here and there were what looked like clumps of gnarled bushes poking above the river surface, and the swimmers grabbed on to them gratefully—but when they pushed their feet down into the water, feeling for solid ground, they found only more of the shapeless river murk: the bushes they were clinging to were treetops. Other swimmers managed to bump into the rooftops of farmhouses and drag themselves out of the water; some were able to break through the roofs into the attics, where they collapsed in exhaustion onto the sacks and barrels stored there. Still others did at last succeed in reaching firm land, only to be faced with a danger as bad as what they’d just escaped. The banks north of Memphis were being patrolled by Union troops who had no idea what had happened to the Sultana; when the men began straggling ashore, some of the patrols thought they were Confederate infiltrators and began firing at them.
The majority of those still alive, together with the corpses and the countless clusters of debris, were being carried downriver. Among the living a strange new terror was spreading. Some of them couldn’t put a name to it. Chester Berry, who’d caught hold of a snag in the river, recalled: “I was out of my head and imagined that some terrible danger threatened me”—some danger, that is, worse than what he was currently going through. But several of the survivors were able to be more specific: they were tormented by the fear that, as they were thrashing through the water, they would be attacked by the Sultana’s pet alligator. “I guess everyone that was on the ‘Sultana’ knew something about the monstrous alligator that was on the boat,” remembered one soldier, Ben G. Davis. “It was nine and one-half feet long. While the boat was burning the alligator troubled me almost as much as the fire.” Another, 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 seven and one-half feet long keeping me company.” Some soldiers became convinced that they had actually gotten a glimpse of the alligator, and they were driven into a suicidal panic. One survivor recalled how a horse swimming downstream rested his nose on a log that several men were clinging to; the men mistook this dim, snorting silhouette for the alligator and all dived away into the water.
As it happened, the fear of the alligator was misplaced. During the worst of the fire, a soldier named William Lugenbeal had been searching belowdecks for something he could throw overboard; when he’d found that the rooms had all been stripped already—“every loose board, door, window and shutter was taken to swim on”—he’d thought of the crate the alligator was kept in. It was exactly the right size and shape for a lifeboat. The only problem was the alligator itself—but Lugenbeal made quick work of that: “I got [the crate] out of the closet and took him out and ran the bayonet through him three times.” Then he lugged the crate to the bow, threw it overboard, and jumped in after it. He grabbed hold of it once it bobbed back to the surface, and he began kicking his way out of the mêlée around the wreck. He remembered: “When a man would get close enough I would kick him off, then turn quick as I could and kick someone else to keep them from getting hold of me. They would call out ‘don’t kick, for I am drowning,’ but if they had got hold of me we would both have drowned.”
By then hundreds of people were drowning. Of those who were alive when they’d gone into the water, many were unconscious or in shock or had been scalded by the blast and were too disoriented to understand what was happening; some were so badly injured they were helpless; some simply couldn’t swim. But most were succumbing to hypothermia. The river had been flooded by meltwater from its northern tributaries and it was deadly cold. Some were surviving only by clinging desperately to the bodies of drowned horses and mules, because they still had some lingering warmth. Others were bunching themselves together into tight clusters, which gradually fell apart as their strength weakened and some of them helplessly let go. The current was irresistibly pulling everyone away from each other. Their voices grew weaker and more remote, and gradually fell silent.
The river swept them onward into pitch darkness. The sky was starless, and rain was falling in thin, hissing cascades. Then in the distance ahead a hazy glow appeared. It was Memphis, looming on its high bluff through the drizzle and the river mist. As the current carried them closer, the men began shouting and screaming for help. They wailed and banged their shards of driftwood and flotsam together, and they shrieked at the top of their lungs. They were terrified that they’d be whisked past the city and back out into the night again. Many of them sobbed with relief when they heard the city answer.
Boat whistles and church bells were ringing out from the riverfront. The boat city off the levee was breaking up and putting out into the water: steamboats, packet boats, flatboats, rafts, and canoes. Elsewhere up and down the river were voyageurs and raftsmen who had seen the pillar of fire and smoke rising above the hills, and as the first gray of the dawn light spread along the river, they, too, set out to look for survivors.
Over the course of the next several hours, the rescuers took seven hundred people alive out of the river. They were found everywhere, clinging to flotsam, perched on drowned treetops, and waving from half-submerged farmhouse roofs—wounded, injured, scalded, exhausted, corpse-blue with hypothermia. One man was rescued ten miles downriver from Memphis. A rescuer remembered, “We found men almost dead, hanging to the trees about two miles out into the river, and among those that I rescued was one man so badly scalded that when I took hold of his arms to help him into the boat the skin and flesh came off his arms like a cooked beet.” One survivor, Perry S. Summerville, remembered that when he was taken out of the water, he couldn’t stand up; he was wounded, he was scalded, and he was spitting up blood. “Was rescued at Memphis,” he wrote, “by a colored man who picked me up in a canoe and took me to a boat to get warm. After I had been there a few minutes a young man was brought in who was so badly scalded that his skin slipped off from the shoulders to the hands.” The scalded man paced around the room, unable to sit still or lie down, before he finally collapsed and died.
About two hundred of the rescued died over the next few days—of their injuries, of exposure, or of the medical care they received after they’d been brought ashore. (The only treatment available then for severe burns, for example, was to cover them in oil and flour and wrap them in gauze.) The rest of the survivors, some five hundred of them, left Memphis just as soon as they were able to travel. They got aboard other steamboats—it was still the quickest way out of the South. Many of them, once they reached Cairo, stepped onto the docks and declared that they would never set foot on a boat again.
From Cairo they caught trains bound north and east. The farther away from the river they got, the less anyone cared about the Sultana. Its loss was barely mentioned in the Eastern newspapers. This was the worst naval disaster in American history (more people died on the Sultana than would die on the Titanic), but there was a general sense back east that it was, after all, just another sunken frontier steamboat. And besides, everyone was still in mourning for Lincoln. In town after town, the returning veterans arrived expecting to find cheering crowds and celebratory storms of red, white, and blue bunting but instead discovered nothing but somber-faced citizens and silent streets hung with long, listless streamers of black crêpe.
No final count was ever established of the lives lost. Only a few of the dead were recovered; the rest were carried off by the river. A couple of days after the explosion, a gunboat coming upriver was met by a drifting mass of what the crew assumed to be fallen trees: as they got closer, they saw that it was a flotilla of hundreds of bodies. The gunboat had to be deliberately beached on a sandbar to avoid running them over. No attempt was made to collect them; they were permitted to glide past untouched, and soon vanished around a river bend. They ended up the way the river’s dead always did—buried in the river mud or devoured by the alligators and the other carrion eaters of the lower valley.
The wreck of the Sultana was sunk about twenty feet down in a channel along the Arkansas shore, around seven miles north of Memphis. Over the next few years, the river shifted course, and the channel was emptied of its current. The great banks caved in, and the bottom was covered over by wash after wash of mud and silt deposited from upstream. Eventually the last traces of the channel and its islets were swallowed up. The soil grew rooted with meadow grasses and wildflowers and trees; then the land was cleared and cultivated, and the Sultana rested deep beneath the soybean fields of Arkansas.