Michigan Infantry, 18th, Co. F, Pvt., Smith, Commodore - Survived  (1) abt 1859 - Head sho

Pvt. Commodore Smith,
Company F, 18th Michigan Infantry

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. I struggled to my feet and tried to go forward on the boat, but could not on account of the wreckage and carnage of human freight which now covered the lower deck. The surface of the river for rods about the boat was covered with the same kind of wreckage. I remained on board the hull of the boat for perhaps 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.

And now occurred the hardest task of my life. The boat was on fire and the wounded begged us to throw them overboard, choosing to drown instead of being roasted to death. While our hearts went out in sympathy for our suffering and dying comrades we performed our sad but solemn duty. I say we because there were others besides myself who were fortunate enough not to be hurt or blown overboard by the explosion, and they too were doing all they could to alleviate the sufferings of their unfortunate comrades. We waited hoping, but in vain, to be rescued from the burning wreck. When at length the last shadow of hope had expired, and we were forced to leave the burning boat and try our luck in the seething, foaming, cold and turbulent waters of the mighty Mississippi, and this too at about two o’clock in the morning and almost total darkness prevailing, except the light from the burning wreck, we proceeded to perform carefully, but hurriedly, the most heart rending tasks that human beings could be called upon to perform – that of throwing overboard into the jaws of certain death by drowning those comrades who were unable on account of broken bones and limbs to help themselves. Some were so badly scalded by the hot water and steam from the exploded boiler that the flesh was falling from their bones. Those comrades who were doubly endeared to us through mutual sufferings and starvation while we were penned up in the rebel h—s, or so called confederate prisons, and who instead of throwing them thus overboard, we were wanting to render every kindness to, dress their wounds and soothe their sufferings. But, alas! this was impossible, the only alternative was to toss them overboard.

 

Reader of this narrative, do you not think that this was a hard task for us to perform? If not, just hearken to this a moment, listen to the heartfelt prayers of those suffering and wounded comrades and hear their dying requests as they commended their wives, children, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers to God’s kind care and keeping, and hear them thanking us for our kindness to them, notwithstanding the pain they were suffering. They fully realized the fact that their last day, hour and even last minute to live had come; and then to hear the gurgling sounds, the dying groans and see them writhing in the water, and finally see them sink to rise no more until the morning when all shall come forth. Was this not heart rending to us? My heart, even now, after twenty-seven years, nearly stands still while I write this sad story. After we had thus cared for the helpless ones, I leaped over the burning wreck into the mighty waters and headed for Memphis, Tenn., which, from this point, was about seven miles down the river. I was a good swimmer, and after encountering several whirlpools and being carried around and around in them, each time being carried back into the center of the river, by hard struggling, keeping a cool head and using my dexterity as a swimmer I finally reached a point half a mile above the city of Memphis where I lodged in a tree out in the flats of the river. The water at this point was about twenty feet deep. I remained in the tree until a boat came, just at dawn, and picked me up together with twenty-seven others. Was afterwards taken to the city when the Christian Commission cared for us until we were able to resume our journey homeward to “God’s country,” as we called it, there to meet our loved ones from whom we had long been parted, and once more to enjoy the blessings of a free and united country, which we had so dearly bought, the price being “blood.”[1]

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…Commodore hasent got home yet unless he came last night, he has had a perilous trip to get home, which has -------- us, untoled trouble but the ---- of Disaster turned out Victorious on our Side although hundreds fell, i Supose you read of the explosion of the Steamer Sultana on the Mississippi River on the 27th of April. Com was one of the crew, out of 2200 on board 1400 was lost it Seamed as there was no hope left but a weeks time and a lone one it was brought the glad tidings that he was Saved, he wrote at memphis but his leter didnt come through and then he wrote the 8th he was at Camp Chase Ohio. well, after the explosion he jumped in the water and Stared for the Shore a mile off, the currant being So Strong when he reached the Shore he was Six miles below, narrow escape from death, it Seams the Strong arm of god has Shielded him through, dangers Starvation and the raging waters, and i hope and pray that he Still will Shield him untill he returns home what hapy hour we have antisipated when our brother husbans friends all return from this cruell war… Com dident come last night i want to See him So bad.[2]

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[1] Commodore Smith reminiscence in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 319-22.

[2] Elizabeth “Lib” Ewing nee Smith to “Dear Brother Mc,” May 14, 1865.