Chronicles and tales describing the history of the Sultana, accounts of the passengers and crew in their own words, taken from the Washburn Investigation and the trial of Captain Frederick Speed are all detailed in this section. To view additional stories, click "View All Stories" at the bottom of the page.
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.
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.
I embarked with my husband [2nd Lt. Harvey Annis, Co. G, 51 US Colored Troops] on board the steamer Sultana at Vicksburg on the 24th Ult. [April 24, 1865] My husband was not a paroled prisoner but had resigned. Sometime during the night when both of us were awake, we heard a loud noise, something like the rattling of iron. My husband immediately got up, then looking into the cabin seeing that there was a considerable steam there, and fearing that it would come into the stateroom, he closed the door and tried to open the one leading out to the guards, but this was jammed by something, and someone outside said we were all stove in. My husband then put a life-preserver upon me and one upon himself, and took me and my child [seven-year-old Isabella "Belle" Annis] to the stern of the boat. He let himself down to the lower deck with the child, and followed him, but as I was descending the rope a man from above jumped on me and knocked me into the hold of the vessel. From this I was extricated, and my husband, with our child, jumped overboard. I followed as soon as I could but the life-preserver was not placed on me right and I held onto the rudder till I was obliged to let go by the fire.
While I remained there I heard a second explosion which seemed to be made up of three great reports like the explosion of shells or gunpowder. By this explosion there seemed to be a great deal of fire thrown all over the water about the boat to a considerable distance from her. I was obliged to take a small piece of board and upon this I was saved.Great fear was felt by everybody on account of the large number of passengers and the boat being top heavy. The clerk [William J. Gambrel] or mate [William Rowberry] pointed out to my husband and myself the sagging down of the hurricane deck in spite of extra stanchions which were put in a great many places. The boat was very much crowded, but the men behaved very well indeed. There was no carousing or quarreling, and only little moving about. The boat was perfectly quiet at the time of the explosion and was running very smoothly and not fast.
Annis statement, Hoffman Investigation, May 11, 1865.
Mrs. Annis says it was about two o’clock on the morning of the catastrophe that she and her husband [2nd Lt. Harvey Annis, Co. G, 51 US Colored Troops] were awakened by a heavy crash. Their state room was located near the center of the vessel and was supplied with two doors, one of which opened into the cabin and the other upon the deck. Almost in an instant after the report her husband was peering into the cabin which was already filling with volumes of smoke. Little can one imagine the terror which thrilled the hearts of the passengers who awake to find themselves in the midst of this awful disaster which increased in horror as the flames commenced their terrible work and the shrieks of the passengers pierced the stillness of the air.
It required only a short time for Mr. Annis to fasten life preservers on himself and wife; but he did not supply his little daughter [seven-year-old Isabella “Belle” Annis] with one owing to their extreme size. In his haste, however, the thoughtful father managed to get a piece of board from the side of the cabin, it evidently being his intention to use the same in keeping his child afloat when all should reach the water below. It was probably with a desire to better insure the safety of his little one that he afterwards lifted a door from its hinges and took that with him as he conducted his wife and daughter to the deck below.
He reached the latter deck by means of a rope; but when Mrs. Annis slid down this line she fell through a hatchway into the hold of the vessel.... Fortunately, however, she was pulled out of this dismal pit onto the deck from which she was expected to jump into the water, and trust to Divine Providence for delivery from the great peril.
Her husband and daughter had already made the descent and she, herself, was about to jump when she was stepped upon by a mule, a number of which were confined on the lower deck, and was firmly held for a considerable length of time. In the meanwhile, also, many of the human passengers, half frantic from the effects of their burns, fell around her upon the deck, where she was pinioned, and Mrs. Annis was soon more securely held by this network of suffering humanity whose groans and shrieks are terrible to contemplate.
At last, however, she managed to extricate herself and jump into the river. But her husband and child had evidently been swept down the stream on the swift current long ere this, for at the time of the catastrophe the water of the Mississippi is said to have been flowing at the rate of five miles per hour. The flames from the steamer illuminated the surroundings with a weird light, and the sight of the people in the water and the shouts which at intervals fell upon the air will probably never be forgotten by Mrs. Annis.
For a time she held onto the rudder of the boat, but at length the heat from the burning steamer became so oppressive that she relinquished her grip and floated with the current. [She received burns to her arms and hands and wore long sleeved gowns with lace at the cuffs for the rest of her life.]
Mrs. Annis was born rapidly down the stream towards Memphis. The icy chill of the cool water made her body turn purple, and when she was rescued near the Tennessee city about five o’clock in the morning she was in a terrible condition. She managed to scream, however, in time to attract the attention of a party in a passing boat, and in her opinion this scream saved her life, for at that time the rescuers were turning their attention only to those whom they took to be alive.
Mrs. Annis was placed in the boat and taken to Memphis, where she was taken care of in a hospital for a number of weeks. She learned from a nurse at the institution that a soldier, in speaking about the catastrophe, had said that he remembered seeing a man and little girl, the latter upon a window, going down the stream. The child seemed to have on a pink dress, and the fact that the daughter of Mrs. Annis was attired in a night gown of that color at the time of the accident leads the mother to believe that the people whom the soldier said he observed were the husband and child, struggling for life.
Mrs. Annis afterwards learned that the man and child were seen about the time they were nearing an eddy and that soon the child fell off the door and that when she sank the man dove after her. The unfortunate woman believes that both husband and child were drowned at this point. The former had been in the army and having been sick was coming home with his wife at the time the disaster occurred. He was consequently not very strong and it is considered remarkable that he braved life as long as he did. In the first instance where the man and child were reported to have been seen Mrs. Annis is of the opinion that the window which the soldier spoke of was the glass portion on the door upon which her daughter was riding as the child would most likely have been clinging or sitting upon the wooden portion of the door and the glass part would probably have projected out of the water. [The bodies of Lt. Harvey Annis and Isabella Annis were never recovered.]
After a number of weeks spent at the hospital Mrs. Annis partially recovered from the effects of her ride of nine miles in the water, and soon returned to her friends in the north. To this day, however, she exhibits the scars on her body which are the result of the burns that she received at the time of the horrible disaster.
“In the River Wreck: The Sultana Disaster Recalled to Mind,” The Oshkosh [WI] Northwestern, March 30, 1880, p. 1.