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Jennie A. Perry
Civilian Passenger


Among the few who survived the horrible results of the explosion and burning of the steamer Sultana, on the Mississippi river near Memphis, was Mrs. Perry, of Cincinnati, wife of Mr. C. Perry, Chief Engineer of the war vessel Tennessee.

At the time of the accident Mrs. Perry was returning from a visit to her husband, whose vessel was then lying near the mouth of the Red river.

As soon as the explosion took place, Mrs. Perry fastened on a life preserver and sprang into the river, at the stern of the boat, and immediately found herself floating in the midst of soldiers, horses, and all the debris incident to the wreck. Together with several soldiers, she managed to secure a door, which helped to sustain them in the water as they floated down the deep and rapid current of the mighty river, with which, for long, weary hours, they were doomed to struggle for life – their own feeble strength opposed to the overpowering flood.

The hours of their terrible suffering passed on slowly as they floated down the river, past Memphis, and many miles beyond. Of the gloomy half-dozen companions, the lady and a young soldier, boyish in years, but manly and noble in deed, were the most self possessed, for they alone raised their voices in words of encouragement or advice. The others, men who had faced death on the battlefield and in rebel prisons, were as babies in that trying hour. They wept aloud, and the waters echoed back their shrieks of utter despair.

One of them crawled upon the door and remained there, to the imminent peril of the others, and despite their repeated remonstrances. Another, who observed that Mrs. Perry had on a life-preserver, let go of the door, and grasped her arm, forcing her under the water. She managed to shake him off and regain the door, he taking his place by her side again.

The young hero of the hour here remonstrated with the other soldier, saying that he was ashamed to see him thus cowardly, after having fought with him on more than one battleground. But the other was too thoroughly overcome with fear to heed the remark, and he repeated the operation three different times, on each occasion dragging Mrs. Perry under the water, and nearly strangling her. Happening to perceive another door floating near them, Mrs. Perry attempted to secure it, but as she was about to lay hands on it, a soldier, who had been clinging to it, arose to the surface and warned her off.

She stated that the other poor refuge was so overcrowded that it would be impossible for all to cling to it. She then attempted to catch hold of the door, but the soldier thrust her off into the water, and compelled her to return to the other….

A few logs which had been caught near a small submerged island, at last afforded a halting place to the half dead castaways, and, when day dawned, they were rescued by a man in a skiff. Mrs. Perry was then taken to Memphis, experiencing the utmost kindness at the hands of the Mayor of Memphis and his wife, Gen. Washburne [sic], Capt. Smith, and the Captains of the steamers Marble City and Naugatuck. She is now slowly recovering from the effects of her terrible sufferings in the water.[1]


Mrs. Perry is a lady of about forty years of age, of somewhat below medium stature… of good complexion… with features of no striking peculiarity, excepting perhaps, a chubby double chin, and with dark hair and eyes.

…Mrs. Jennie A. Perry [is] the widow of William C. Perry, engineer on board the ram… Tennessee…. She was employed during the war as a nurse in Federal hospitals, and in April, 1865, left New Orleans in the steamer Sultana, having on board about 2,300 Union prisoners from Andersonville Prison pens. On the 27th of April the vessel stopped at Memphis to coal, and proceeded on her way North at 1 o’clock in the morning was blown to pieces and set on fire by the explosion of the boiler. After many trifling difficulties in escaping from the wreck, and after obtaining her life-preserver, which she had the misfortune to put on “hind side foremost,” she prepared to plunge from the wreck…. When the explosion occurred she was only half-dressed, and men were rushing in a few minutes panic-stricken through her stateroom; but singularly enough, she doubted if they even stopped to look what style of boot she wore or the size of her ankle. After many “hairbreadth ‘scapes and perils imminent” she was finally rescued by a fisherman.[2]


[1] “A Struggle for Life,” Chicago [IL] Tribune, May 13, 1865, p. 2.

[2] “The Washington Woman,” Evening Star, Washington, D.C., September 26, 1868, p. 1.

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