Private Chester Dawson Berry
Company I, 20th Michigan Infantry
Chester Berry was born in South Creek, PA but moved to Michigan at a young age. On August 18, 1863 he joined Company I, 20th Michigan Infantry. He was captured at Cold Harbor, VA on June 2, 1864 and held captive at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He was released and reached Union lines near Vicksburg, MS on April 1, 1865. On April 24, he was sent on board the steamboat Sultana.
“I understood at the time, and have had no reason to change my mind, that it was a contrived plan with the United States’ quartermaster at Vicksburg and the captain of the boat…. All went gay as a marriage bell for a while. A happier lot of men I think I never saw than those poor fellows were. The most of them had been a long time in prison, some even for about two years, and the prospect of soon reaching home made them content to endure any amount of crowding. I know that on the lower deck we were just about as thick as we could possibly lie all over the deck, and I understood that all the other decks were the same. The main thought that occupied every mind was home, the dearest spot on earth. I well remember, as the boat lay at Memphis unloading over one hundred hogsheads of sugar from her hold, that my thoughts not only wended northward, but I put them in practical shape. The Christian commission had given me a hymn book. At the time I left home the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” was having quite a run. I found this, and before the darkness had stopped me in the evening I had committed those words to memory and sang them for the boys, little dreaming how soon I should have to test the power of prayer as well as the hour when it was held. The last that I remembered that evening was that the boat was taking on coal, across the river from Memphis, preparatory to going up the river. There had been considerable talk among the boys, that it would be a grand opportunity for guerillas. If they only knew that there was such a boat-load of prisoners coming up the river, how they could plant a battery on the shore, sink the boat, and destroy nearly if not all of the prisoners on board; consequently, when the terrific explosion took place, and I was awakened from a sound sleep by a stick of cord wood striking me on the head and fracturing my skull, the first thought I had was that, while the boat lay at Memphis, someone had gone up the river and prepared such a reception for us, and what had only been a talk was now a realization. I lay low for a moment, when the hot water soaking through my blanket made me think I had better move. I sprang to the bow of the boat, and turning I looked back upon one of the most terrible scenes I ever beheld. The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder. A few pailsful of water would have put the fire out, but alas, it was ten feet to the water and there was no rope to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks.
I had often read of burning vessels and nights of horror on the deep, and almost my first thought was, “now take in the scene,” but self-preservation stood out strongest. I went back to where I had lain and found my bunk mate, Busley [Pvt. Levi Busley, Co. M, 5th MI Cav.], scalded to death, I then secured a piece of cabin door casing, about three or four inches wide and about four feet long, then going back to the bow of the boat I came to the conclusion I did not want to take to the water just then, for it was literally black with human beings, many of whom were sinking and taking others with them. Being a good swimmer, and having board enough to save me, even if I were not, I concluded to wait till the rush was over.
The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory – such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat – imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping. I stood still and watched for a while, then began wandering around to other parts of the boat when I came across one man who was weeping bitterly and wringing his hands as if in terrible agony, continually crying, “O dear, O dear.” I supposed the poor fellow was seriously hurt. My sympathies were arounsed at once. Approaching him, I took him by the shoulder and asked where he was hurt. “I’m not hurt at all,” he said, “but I can’t swim, I’ve got to drown, O dear.” I bade him be quiet, then showing him my little board I said to him, “there, do you see that; now you go to that pile of broken deck and get one like it, and when you jump into the water put it under your chin and you can’t drown.” “But I did get one,” said he, “and someone snatched it away from me.” “Well then, get another,” said I. “I did,” said he, “and they took that away from me.” “Well, then,” said I, “get another.” “Why,” said he, “what would be the use, they would take it from me. O dear, I tell you there is no use; I’ve got to drown, I can’t swim.” By this time, I was thoroughly disgusted, and giving him a shove, I said, “drown then you fool.”
I want to say to you, gentle reader, I have been sorry all these years for that very act. There was little or no rush for the water at that time and had I given my board to that poor fellow, then conducted him to the edge of the boat and seen him safely overboard, he might, perhaps, have escaped, while, as it was, I have no doubt that he was drowned. If he was not, and should ever see this, I wish he would write me the fact. But someone may ask, “what would you have done without your board?” I could have got another from the pile of rubbish, which would have been a very easy matter, and I have not the faintest idea that anyone would have tried to take it from me, for, as the boys tell about, “I was not built that way.”
After looking at the burning boat as long as I cared to, and as the waters were comparatively clear of men, I sprang overboard and struck out for some willows that I could see by the light of the burning boat, they appearing to be about one-half mile distant. I had gone but about twenty or thirty rods when, hearing a crashing of breaking timbers, I looked back. The wheelhouse or covering for the wheel, (it was a side-wheel steamer,) had broken away partially from the hurricane deck, and a poor fellow had been in the act of stepping from the hurricane deck onto the wheelhouse. I presume it was then the hurricane deck fell in. When it reached an angle of about forty-five degrees it stopped, for some unaccountable reason, till it nearly burned up. He succeeded in reaching the wheelhouse but got no further, for it broke and let him part way through, then held him, as in an iron vice, till he burned to death, and even now, after the lapse of years, it almost seems as though I could hear the poor fellow’s screams, as the forked flames swept around him. I then turned and pressed forward towards my haven of safety, but soon became aware that I was not gaining upon it. The fact was, I was swimming toward a small island and was, in fact, now swimming upstream but was not aware of the truth. The icy water was fast telling upon my weak system, and the moment I became aware that I was being carried away from the timber instead of gaining it I became completely discouraged, the only time I think in my life.
Being now quite despondent, I had about concluded that there was no use of my trying to save myself, that I would drown in spite of my efforts; and that to throw my board away and sink at once would be only to shorten my misery. I was just in the act of doing so when it seemed to me that I was transported for the moment to “the old house at home,” For ten long weary months she had received no tidings from her soldier boy, now she had just learned that he was on his way home and her thoughts were almost constantly upon him; and for him her earnest prayer was made. I fiercely clutched the board and hissed between my now firmly set teeth “Mother, by the help of God, your prayer shall be answered.” I started out for a grand effort.
Just then I heard a glad cry from the burning boat and looking around discovered that past the boat, down the river, two or three miles as near as I could judge, was the bow light of a gunboat. I turned and was now obliged to swim past the burning boat, for I was up the river about eighty rods above it; when nearly past the boat, which I kept a safe distance to my left, I ran into the top of a tree that had caved off from the bank and whose roots were now fast in the bed of the stream, upon which I climbed and was nearly asleep when a number of men from the boat came along and climbed upon it also. Their united weight sank it low into the water, whose icy coldness coming upon my body awakened me. Then, to more fully arouse me, a man got hold of my board and tried to take it away from me. I remonstrated with him, but he claimed the board belonged to him and that I was trying to steal it. This fully aroused me – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Giving the board a quick jerk I sprang backward and went swimming down the stream on my back, holding my board high least I might lose it. I soon turned over and proceeded more slowly. I began again to have an almost irresistible feeling of drowsiness. I was cold and sleepy. Just then I came across or thought I did, a dry black ash sapling about two and one-half or three inches in diameter at the but and six or eight feet long, that pronged in two branches about three feet from the butt end. I put this with my board and trying them found they would float. I then gave myself up to sleep and did not awake until long after sunrise. I then stood upon a large snag in the river that was pronged or forked, something like I imagined the black sapling was in the night. I stood on the lower prong which was about a foot under water, while the upper prong was nearly two feet above the water, and, what to me was stranger than all, I had, instead of the little board four inches wide and about four feet long, a two inch plank about four inches wide and about six feet long.
I was out of my head and imagined that some terrible danger threatened me, but if I could only get that plank upon the upper prong of the snag, all would be safe, I soon came too enough to know that I was working a useless scheme; then I realized that it was worse than useless as it would take some of my strength to hold the plank on the snag while it would do me no good whatever. I then abandoned the project and began to cry with the pain of my fractured skull, but I soon stopped that also, saying to myself, crying does not ease pain. Then came the first clear thought of the morning and I realized what had happened and that I was but about five rods from the woods upon the Arkansas shore, the shore itself being under water.
Quickly shoving my plank into the water and starting for the place where the shore ought to be, which was the most foolish move of all, for when I arrived there and had pulled myself up a small cottonwood tree I was surrounded by a perfect swarm of buffalo gnats, which made lively work of me, and although I had firmly seated myself upon a limb of the tree and employed both hands with bushes whipping them off my neck and breast – the only parts that were exposed – which were a solid blotch in less than an hour. Had I remained on a snag in the river I would have been free from the gnats and nearer passing steamers, by which I hoped to be carried away. I remained in this tree but a short time, perhaps an hour or more, when the steamer Pocahontas came along, picking up all the men they could find.
I soon attracted attention and was taken on board the steamer, and soon after landed at Memphis and was taken to Washington hospital, where my wound was poorly dressed, as I remember it, none of the broken pieces of skull being taken out. I remained here a little over a week, and although I gave my name, company and regiment to a reporter, and also to the hospital steward, yet about two or three months afterward my mother received official notice from Washington that her son was killed upon the Sultana; and my name stands today upon the Michigan Adjutant General’s Report for 1865 as killed by the explosion of the steamer Sultana. Yet, when in after years, I applied for a pension for that fractured skull, which was so bad that the surgeon at Washington hospital told the man in the next bunk to mine that I could never get well, I was obliged to prove that I was upon the Sultana and that I was hurt or had my skull fractured at that time. Such is the ease with which pensions are procured, and such the liberality of the government officials when they have the official evidence in government reports before them.
After was placed on the steamer Belle Memphis and taken to Cairo, remaining there overnight, then via Mattoon, where we were obliged to go hungry, or beg from the citizens, although I had a meal ticket at the eating house given me by the Christian commission, but the landlord refused to honor it. From here we were taken to Indianapolis where another halt was made, then on to Columbus, when I was sent to Tripler hospital and doctored up for about two weeks; then sent to Jackson, Mich., to be mustered out of the United States service on special telegraphic order from the War Department.”
Taken from Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors