Soldiers

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.

McKelvey, Joseph M. (Private, Company I, 102nd Ohio Infantry)

(as told by Pvt. Philip L. Horn, Co. I, 102nd Ohio Infantry)

 

That night [April 26, 1865] few of us could sleep until late.... My bunkmate, Joe McKelvey and myself found a place just over the boiler room. We were lying there listening to the pleasant noise of the boilers underneath us, and dreaming of home. We steamed up the river on our way to Cairo. We stopped a little before midnight for coal and it was while the coal was being shoveled in the boiler room that I fell asleep.

            After that I knew nothing, but I believe I lived a thousand years in a minute.  My first conception that I was alive was that I was lost in the air. My body was whirling through space.

            When the explosion took place I was lying on the left side of the boat at the foot of the stairs that went to the hurricane deck with Joe McKelvey. I was either blown through the stairway or thrust out sidewise into the air. I struck the water feet first and went down twice. I could not swim but I attempted to paddle dog fashion. When I came to the surface of the water after the second time down I encountered a piece of wreckage which I seized along with seven other men.

            It was just before daybreak and the darkness was impenetrable. As we clung to the wood, we shouted as loud as we could and finally were heard by some men and they came to us in a skiff.

            As we were helped into the skiff, I saw my bunkmate, Joe McKelvey, for the first time since the explosion, although he had been clinging to the same bit of wreckage as I had. As I got into the skiff McKelvey recognized me and said, "For God's sake help me in." I asked him if he were hurt and he said, "Yes, scalded from head to foot."

            The two of us had been sleeping under the same blanket. He was scalded cruelly. Not a bit of the steam touched me.

            We helped McKelvey into the boat and the boatman put his coat around Joe to keep him from taking cold.... We headed up stream and met a steamer in anxious search for victims of the terrible disaster. One of the skiffmen signaled the steamer and we were taken aboard. McKelvey was suffering the most and received kind attention. A bed was made on the lower deck for him, his clothing was removed and his body sprinkled with flour to mitigate, if possible, his almost unendurable suffering.

            When we arrived at Memphis I was taken to one hospital [Washington Hospital] and McKelvey to another. [Adams Hospital] 

            The next day I wanted to find McKelvey and one of my comrades and myself climbed out of the hospital window and started on a search. We were clad only in flannel shirt and drawers, having no other clothing. My shoes I had placed underneath my pillow just a short time before the explosion.

            When we found the hospital where McKelvey was he was dead. It seemed a miracle that I was not injured when Joe suffered such horrible injuries.

            When the explosion happened I thought it was another railroad disaster. We had passed through an ordeal of that kind when we were taken prisoners of the rebels at Athens, Ala. It was the same sensation, that of being nowhere. But when I struck the water I realized it was no railroad wreck. I was slightly hurt on the left side but suffered no other ill effects, except from the shock and the exposure.[1]


[1] Howells, Maud M., "Wooster Men Tell of Civil War Horror," Canton [OH] Daily News, June 5, 1927, p. 50.



Learner, Benjamin Franklin (Corporal, Company G, 57th Indiana Infantry)

…he received the following wound, or disability, and that he was at Washington Hospt. Memphis Tenn. Then moved to the Gaoso [Gayoso] Hospt. Memphis, Tenn. Left leg badly scalded veins bursted rendering  him unable to perform manual labor… received above injury on or about the 27th day of April 1865 on steam Boat Sultana when she blew up near Memphis Tennessee; and his physical condition is leg swollen ulcerating and by using leg causes blood to gush out veins being bursted and growing worse….[1]

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            The story of the explosion of the river boat was one of the most ghastly of the war. When about ten miles from Memphis the boilers of the overloaded boat gave way, and hundreds of men who were sleeping on the upper decks were thrown into the river. Stunned by the force of the explosion, Mr. Learner was unable to move for a few moments. Everything was pitch dark and in confusion. Starting for the boat railing, he stumbled on a loose board. He threw out the board and jumped after it. In some manner he caught it and climbed on. A few moments later the boat caught fire….

            Mr. Learner floated down river and was picked up by a rescue party from Memphis. He was taken to a hospital, where he lay for days without hope being held out for his recovery. Almost his entire body had been scalded by steam. After weeks of treatment he was sent home on crutches, but he never recovered fully from the injuries. [2]

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Mr. Learner remained on the burning vessel about fifteen minutes after the explosion…. [He] was terribly scalded, but despite his agonizing burns managed to get a board from the steamer’s deck, push it into the stream and got away on it. He floated down the river until he was opposite the city of Memphis, which was nine miles below the point where the explosion occurred. There he was rescued and taken to the hospital. He remained there, as nearly as he can remember, about thirty days, recovering from his burns.

“…No two of us saw the same details,” said Mr. Learner, “but in a general way the scene presented itself to all of us alike. It was terrible beyond the power of words to describe…. It would be hardly possible to overdraw the picture of that awful hour.”[3]

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B.F. Learner, age 82, one of the last hundred survivors of the explosion on board the Sultana near the close of the civil war died here today. Burns suffered in the explosion, which never healed, led to his death from septic poisoning. Following the explosion, Learner clung to a board until he was rescued by a searching party on the Mississippi river….[4]

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            He An injury received by Mr. Learner in the explosion which destroyed the Sultana and snuffed out the lives of several hundred men, was really the cause of his death. He was frightfully burned on one of his legs [left] in that explosion. The hurt was one that never healed; though he lived nearly sixty years after receiving it. Always it was threatening to him, and finally it brought on the condition which resulted in his death.

             ...Mr. Learner was scalded so badly that the flesh came off of his left leg. he was so weak from the injury that for three months he was unable to feed himself. During the ensuing years he often battled for his life when poisoning would arise from the old wound which never healed but gave him incessant pain.[5]

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Please Note: This page is regularly refreshed with individual stories and excerpts from personal memoirs, original letters, and official reports.

 

For more information about the Sultana checkout these books and documentaries:

Disaster on the Mississippi
Author: Gene Eric Salecker
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
ISBN# 7742978161251
Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors
Author: Chester D. Berry
Publisher: Univ. of Tennessee Press
ISBN# 9781572333727
Sinking the Sultana
Author: Sally M. Walker
Publisher: Candlewick Press
ISBN# 9780763677558

The Sultana Tragedy

Author: Jerry 0. Potter
Publisher: Pelican Publishing Co.
ISBN# 9780882898612

 

For video based Sultana information:

Remember the Sultana
Genre: Documentary
Directors:
  - Mike Marshall
  - Mark Marshall
Starring:
  - Sean Astin
  - Thomas Ian Nicholas
  - Mackenzie Astin