Pvt. Eppenetus Washington McIntosh
Company E, 14th Illinois Infantry
I embarked on the steamer Henry Ames at Vicksburg, with about 2,100 soldiers on board returning from rebel prisons. I remained on said steamer until we arrived at Memphis, where we landed. I, supposing she would remain some time, went into town to look around and buy some articles I needed, and while gone she moved off and left me. Along in the evening the steamer Sultana landed loaded with another lot of prisoners, so I embarked intending to go to Benton Barracks and join the comrades I left on the Henry Ames.
When some miles from the city (I cannot state the exact distance) she blew up, and I was sent whirling into the water, which I reached without any trouble from the steam, although many were scalded to death before reaching it. As I struck the water I heard groans and screams of agony on every side. O, the scene! It is impossible to describe. I knew that immediate action was necessary. I decided to keep back from the crowd, but found it was not an easy matter, as the drowning were making for any who could swim, and catching at a straw. It was hard work to keep clear and save one’s own life. I made for the shore, but it looked so far away in the midst of night that my courage almost failed me.
After eight or ten hours I touched sand on the Arkansas shore. My strength was so near gone that I even then came near having a watery grave. It was with much difficulty and suffering that I was enabled to walk or crawl onto dry land where a colored man saw me and came to my assistance. I needed such assistance very mush as I was destitute of clothing, having stripped myself as I swam along to lighten the load. In twenty minutes after reaching land I was bloated so much that I could scarcely see, and believe that if I had not been cared for at once I would have died. I remained there until the next day, when a boat came across the river picking up the boys and they took me to Memphis, Overton Hospital, where I remained two days. I was then put on a boat called the Bell of Memphis and taken to Benton Barracks and remained there until I got a furlough.
During my prison life I suffered agonies untold. Tongue cannot tell it all, but this awful struggle for life in the waters was above all else I ever endured. Owing to the necessity of constant motion, without rest to any part of the body, being reduced to a mere skeleton through being confined in rebel prisons was in my favor, as I could never have survived that awful disaster had I weighed as much as I did before my prison experience. My weight now was eighty pounds…. When I was captured I weighed 175 pounds.[i]
I was born in Terre Haute, Vigo County, Ind., Nov. 25th 1843, emigrated to Bloomington, Ills., in 1852, resided there until 1861 when I enlisted in Co. E, 14th Ill. Inf. at Jacksonville, May 25th. Participated in many hard fought battles and to day carry scars received from the same; was finally captured by the Rebs at Ackworth Georgia, Oct. 4th, 1864; was then taken to Andersonville prison, where through intense suffering and frightful starvation I became a physical wreck the effects of which remain with me to this day. I am one of the survivors of the fatal steamer Sultana, which was blown up on the Mississippi river April 27th, 1865, and was in the water until the afternoon of the 28th, when I was rescued by some colored men and taken to Overton hospital, Memphis, Tenn. I was discharged at Springfield, Ills., June 30th, 1865 and have been under the doctor’s care ever since. I now travel for my health and sell my photos to defray expenses…. I also sell my songs with music, “Dixie’s Sunny Land.” Patronize an old vet.[ii]
You know about how we looked with our bones sticking through the skin; my feet and ankles were so swollen with ulcered scurvy that it seemed like my head and feet were the largest part of me. I was on the Sultana, going to God’s country to see the loved ones at home. I had suffered so much in Andersonville that now, under the new conditions and bright prospects, I seemed to suffer but little. I lay on the crowded hurricane deck and listened to the boys talk about the good times so near at hand until I went to sleep, and knew nothing more until I was awakened by a sudden push, and discovered I was flying through the black night air. I struck the water forty or fifty feet from the boat; I soon came to the surface and began swimming, not being able to understand just what had happened. Coming in contact with a floating scantling, with a few shattered boards attached, I clung to it. All was now confusion on the steamer; I could see fire, and hear steam, groans and screams, and see the scalded people jumping into the river. Knowing the danger of coming in contact with drowning people, I worked with all my might to shove my piece of wreckage as far away from the boat as possible. The fire spreading rapidly soon lit up the surroundings; the river near the boat was swarming with people and wreckage, all in the greatest confusion; those on the burning boat were yelling, swearing, crying, and some were praying loud and passionately. Many of the poor skeleton-like fellows would slowly drag themselves to the side of the boat and, dropping into the cold black water, disappear forever. The explosion had thrown me out of range of the confused people in the river, many of whom were trying to secure a support on the wreckage; others clinging to each other in clusters would thus sink from sight. Those having a float of any kind were trying hard to keep others off of it. All was going down the river with the current. Turning my face from the sickening scene I endeavored, by paddling with my hands, to work my support towards the shore, which was wandering and all became blank. When I came to myself it was daylight, and the day far advanced. It took me some time to realize what had happened and where I was. All around were little bushes above the muddy water; these trees proved to be little cottonwoods on a sand bar, which was at that time covered with the high water nearly to the top of the trees, on which had lodged my faithful support. Near me was lodged a good sized log, which I thought would hold me out of the water. My struggle to get on the log freed it from the bushes, and I was adrift again. I now saw that I was not far from the Arkansas shore below Memphis, and I was discovered by two colored men who came out with a boat. These men had rescued a number during the night and early morning. We were taken to Memphis, and there the ladies of the Sanitary Commission (God bless their noble souls) met us at the river and, removing our scant clothes, they washed us as clean as possible, then clothed each of us in shirts and drawers of red flannel of the Sanitary kind; we were then sent to Overton hospital. Being in the cold water so long had reduced the swelling in my ankles and feet, and they looked like scalded beef; the scurvy ulcers were thoroughly cleansed by their prolonged bath in the sandy water, and I believe now that terrible bath had much to do with saving my feet from amputation.[iii]
[i] McIntosh reminiscence in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 252-54.
[ii] McIntosh autobiography on the back of the photos he sells, January 1868.
[iii] McIntosh reminiscence in Boggs, S.S., Eighteen Months A Prisoner Under the Rebel Flag. Lovington, IL: S.S. Boggs, author and publisher, 1887, p. 84-86.