Sergeant James Harvey Kimberlin
Company C, 124th Indiana Infantry
To the Hancock Democrat:
…The vessel landed at Memphis about 4 p.m. on the 26th. Every available nook and corner was occupied by human beings, so much so that it was with difficulty that men could find room to lie down. The commissioned officers had found staterooms in the cabin and the common soldier piled down wherever he could find room.
A little after midnight on the morning of the 27th the Sultana left her landing at Memphis and moved up to the coaling wharf, two miles above, where she took on coal to run her to St. Louis. After re-coaling, the vessel again started on her northern journey, and when about seven miles above the city of Memphis and at the upper end and on the east side of what was known as Hen and Chicken Island, and at 3 a.m., April 27, 1865, one or more of her boilers let go with terrific force and destruction.
The force of the explosion was so great that the boilers were thrown to the east and partially from off the furnace, leaving a great mass of burning coal exposed, all that portion of the vessel over the boilers and furnace torn asunder and scattered, with its hundreds of human beings who had been sound asleep, in every direction, many of them far out into the water, much of the wreckage with its human freight, mangled and torn, many of them killed outright, dropping into the open uncovered furnace. Many who were not killed or badly injured or buried in the wreckage up with the wreckage and were burned to death.
All that part of the vessel to the rear of the boilers was uninjured. The rubbish or parts of the wreckage falling into the open furnace with its roaring blaze took fire instantly and in a few minutes the whole vessel was a seething, burning mass. Those who were badly injured or burned in the wreckage, some being completely covered up, were burned to death. Others who became suddenly crazed by reason of the appalling disaster lost all sense of reason and power to act. Some were crying, some singing, some praying, and others cursing. Everything one could think of, or man was capable of, one could see or hear in a very few minutes, for within twenty minutes after the explosion the boat had burned to the water line. The hull drifted down and lodged against the upper end of one of the small islands, where it was soon covered up with the drifting sand and silt of the Mississippi river, where it remained hidden from the eyes of man until eight or ten years ago, when some wreckage company with dredging machines removed the sand from around the old hull, raised and floated it to shore, and broke it up for the material and machinery.
When the explosion occurred everybody except a few of the vessel’s officers and crew were sound asleep. Instantly all who were not killed outright or badly injured sprang to their feet, knowing that something awful had taken place, but not knowing what. They made one mad rush as soon as they realized the fact that the boat’s boilers had blown up, and, thinking the vessel would sink in a few minutes, rushed to the sides of the vessel and jumped into the water from whatever deck they chanced to be upon. Those on the top or hurricane deck were twenty-two or twenty-five feet above the water. The poor crazed fellows never paused to look, but plunged as far from the vessel as possible, alighting in the midst of dozens who had preceded them. Some had secured a door or a window-shutter from some part of the cabin; others sticks of wood, plank, or anything that might act as a float – and with this would make one mad plunge for the water, many times landing on top or in the midst of perhaps hundreds who had preceded them, and thus many a poor fellow was killed through the mad frenzy of some comrade.
When your correspondent looked over the side of the vessel from the hurricane deck, or on top of the vessel, where he was sleeping the water around the boat for twenty to forty feet was a solid, seething mass of humanity, clinging one to another – the best or luckiest man was on top. I then went forward, climbing down on the wreckage to the guard on the west side of the boat. I then looked out over the water where a few minutes before I had seen hundreds of men struggling for supremacy. Now there were but few to be seen. The great mass of them had gone down, clinging to each other. Of those who went into the water with the first mad rush not more than one in ten escaped drowning; but of those who went into the water later, first taking off all their heavy clothing, including their shoes or boots, and securing some sort of a float, about one-half escaped and lived to return home.
At the time of the loss of the vessel the Mississippi river was very high. The lands west of the river in Arkansas are very low, and these lowlands were flooded for miles. Where the explosion occurred the regular boat channel was near the Tennessee shore, while from the Arkansas shore it was fully one to one and one-fourth miles, and the river being so high a man could not tell when he was on shore except from the trees or bushes.
The steamer Bostona [No. 2], another large river packet, had just passed the Sultana on her downward trip and was not more than two miles below when the explosion occurred. She turned about and started back to assist in rescuing as many as possible, but seeing the rapid progress of the fire and knowing that no one could live aboard the Sultana but a few minutes and that those who had escaped death in the explosion would be compelled to take to the water and fearing that the churning of the water by the wheels of their vessel would kill and drown more than they could rescue, they stopped and let their vessel drift with the current, lowered all their small boats and sent them out over the river and picked up scores of the unfortunates. I think at least 200 were picked up by the small boats belonging to the Bostona. Those who left on the east side of the burning vessel had but a short distance to swim. Yet at home we would think three or four hundred yards an impossible feat. Scores of men, however, swam to shore and thought nothing of it, when they considered the fate of the unfortunates who left the vessel on the Ark[ansas] side and had five or six times as far to go.
The writer of this study was one of the latter. I had prepared myself for a desperate effort to save my life by removing my shoes and all my heavy clothing; secured some small pieces of lumber, securely fastened them together to serve me as a life preserver or float. I remained on the guard of the vessel until I could stand the heat no longer. It must be remembered that on the 27th of April the water is still very cold. The night was very dark. None of us knew where we were. With a raging fire behind us, with pitiful cries and pleadings of the poor unfortunates who were pinned down by parts of the wreckage, and a broad expanse of water in front, certain death if you tarry or remain where you are – a chance to save yourself if you will but take it, I with many others took that chance in the great lottery of life. Many of them drew blanks and were never afterwards heard of. I went into the water from the west side, having remained on the boat as long as possible. The great mass of humanity that had preceded me had either drowned or the few who had escaped drowning were out and away from the boat, and I had plenty of room and no one to interfere. The burning boat was drifting with the current, while the current was carrying those in the stream down also. Most of those in the water had secured some kind of a float; the weak, timid and crazed with the badly injured and killed were either burned up with the vessel or drowned. The row boats from the Sultana, Bostona and a few from the shores of the river were in the river rowing for dear life, picking up a man here and another there until they would get a load of from two to eight, when they would return to the Bostona, unload and return back up the river to gather another load. One could hear the click of their oars in the rowlocks for a mile or more. Then it was that one could hear anything and everything – cursing, praying, crying, hallooing, begging for the boats to come to them. The boatmen would respond: “Here we come,” and would soon load up again. And thus the work went on down to the city, and a few were carried on down stream ten miles before they were rescued. To these brave boatmen were accredited the saving of over 400, at least half of whom must have been lost had it not been for them.
Of the 2,300 human beings aboard the Sultana at the time of the explosion something like 800 escaped with their lives.
I have the report of the Secretary of War, also the report of the Congressional committee appointed by Congress to investigate the loss of the vessel and so many innocent lives. Both reports show about the same loss – about 1,500; but blame was never fastened on anyone. It was said at the time that blame should be charged to the quartermaster at Vicksburg, that he forced an overload on the boat over the protest of Captain [J. Cass] Mason, in charge of the vessel; but Captain Mason and all the principal officers of the boat were lost, and for that reason the Government was unable to fix the responsibility for the disaster.
Of the command to which I belonged there were fourteen aboard at the time of the destruction of the boat, and of these five escaped. The other nine were never heard of….
Original text reprinted from:
“The Loss of the Steamer Sultana,” The Hancock Democrat, Greenfield, IN, Aug. 26, 1913, p. 4.