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Captain William Shields Friesner
Company A, 58th Ohio Infantry - Guard Unit 

 

Captain William Shields Friesner commanded the small unit of one captain, one sergeant, two corporals and eighteen enlisted men that were placed aboard the Sultana as a guard unit. It was their job to ensure that there was no roughhousing on board the Sultana and to protect areas of the vessel deemed off-limits to the paroled prisoners. Of the 22 members that made up the 58th Ohio guard unit, only six survived.

Here is Captain Friesner's account of the disaster:

            About 10 a.m., April 24, 1860 [sic 1865], “Orders for Captain Friesner,” said an orderly as he rode up to the tent door, where I was engaged with two sergeants... making out my ordnance return for the quarter including January, February and March, which was long, important and intricate – and long overdue.

            But I took the order, returning the receipted envelope, and read it, frequently repeating the formula used by the man who draws the “white elephant.” However, orders are orders, and I directed the sergeants to continue the work, the adjutant to make the necessary detail and to have it ready. Getting into my uniform, I mounted my horse, started for post headquarters to learn why I had been ordered aboard the Sultana, and either get the order rescinded or receive my instructions.

            When I arrived, the adjutant general greeted me smiling, and added in cheery tones, “Captain, you will get to Ohio this time.” I answered that I could not go, explaining the circumstances, and he said, “You need not report until seven this evening, and I will be at the boat with your instructions.”

            On my return to camp, I found it had been noised about that we were to go to Columbus, O., and everybody wanted to go. The fortunate ones, that is, those on the detail, were hustling around getting knapsacks, haversacks and canteens ready, and putting things in order for inspection.

            I was met with a storm of complaints of the utter ignorance displayed by the first sergeant in selecting the detail, or their own righteous claims to be put on the detail. All of which I answered by telling them I ordered so many men from each company, and who they should be was up to the company commander.

            At seven o’clock the happy detail started for the boat and the disappointed ones to their tents, laying up a particularly complete and highly-finished licking for their commander when they should get out of service.

            When we arrived at the boat, it was quite dark. And when I went to the adjutant general for my instructions, a gentleman in civilian clothes, whom I took to be the captain of the boat, was expostulating with him about the number of men put on the boat. He replied, “I cannot help it,” and more than that I did not catch in the confusion. He then informed me that I would not have charge of the paroled men, that Major Fidler [Maj. William H. Fidler, 6th KY Cav.], one of their number, would have full charge of them and that I would have charge of the government stores.

            These instructions surprised me, as I was commander of a regiment and should be with my command where my individual responsibility demanded my personal attention.

            I afterwards learned that my strange orders were the result of a quarrel between post and department headquarters respecting jurisdiction, all of which had a direct bearing upon the number of men on board the Sultana on this unfortunate voyage.

            An officer who claimed to know exactly how many men were put on the boat, told me there were 1,360 put on by the middle of the afternoon. He was not of rank to have had full charge, but probably did assist, as he was the principal witness at the subsequent court-martial. If so, it only proves that after he had put on the 1,360 men, another detachment estimated at 500 men went aboard later, which I supposed at the time to be a part of the main body.

            If we were both right, then the number of soldiers aboard was about 1,900. Although I had no official statement, neither had Major Fidler, for I was present when his assistant reported he had issued rations to 1,600 or more, which they estimated as the number on board.

            The clerk [William Jordan Gambrel] informed me there were 2,200 people on board. I presume he spoke from lists on his books, which would not include the crew – a very large one – not did it include those who in one was or another managed to work or steal their way, and for whom the crowded condition of the ship furnished excellent opportunities.

            To my personal knowledge, I found men from Illinois, when all troops were suppose to be from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky. The paroled officers generally estimated the number at about 2,500, and I considered their opinion of great weight.

            The Sultana, with a population equal to that of a flourishing country town, now swung out into the river. She was a fine, large steamer, running regularly between St. Louis and New Orleans and having been built for the cotton trade. She was high between decks, the saloon was large and elegantly furnished to which the hurricane deck formed the high ceiling. On the hurricane deck forward was the texas in which were quarters for the principal officers of the boat, above which extended the lofty pilot house.

            She had powerful engines and every first-class equipment belonging to a first-class Mississippi steamer of that date. Her boilers had been inspected before leaving Vicksburg [actually St. Louis] and pronounced in good condition. She was commanded by Capt. Mason, one of the best-known and most popular captains on the river, and the Sultana was one of the most popular boats on the river.

            To the soldiers, she had a record. For it was the Sultana… draped in mourning and bell tolling, that bore to Vicksburg the startling news of the assassination of President Lincoln, when the eyes of strong men were filled with tears and their hearts with sorrow and rage.

            … When we first got on board, there was some complaint that the men could not find room to lie down, but finally all found accommodations, and the fact that the hurricane and boiler deck were favored places would have made the load top heavy only by the fact of large amounts of sugar in the hull below.

            When we arrived at Helena, Ark., the next day, the spectacle of the mass of humanity covering the boat like so many insects aroused curiosity and brought out almost the whole population, and with them an enterprising photographer [Thomas W. Bankes] who wished to take a picture of the boat. This caused a general crowding to one side and the boat careened to one side, whereupon the captain [J. Cass Mason] and clerk [William Jordan Gambrel] came begging me to have the men stand back and trim ship or they would blow up the boat. I have never seen one of those pictures in which I was zealously commanding the men to trim ship.

            After leaving Helena, we went merrily up the river past homes with wide verandas, dark with the shade of protecting trees; groups of deserted Negro cabins near; past ugly mouths of swampy bayous with their rotting snags and slimy, pestilential waters; past miles of cottonwood brakes that could only raise their leafy tops above the water – for the flood of the Mississippi was on – the leaves so dense we could not see beyond, and we seemed sailing along the edge of the world and all the rest was shoreless water and its leafy inflorescence.

            On the boat, all was animation, gladness and joyous expectation as the black pipes spread their dark feathery vapors far down the river until they mingled with the dim sky. Even the ponderous engines seemed to catch the spirit and the decks quivered with excitement as the swift wheels hurried us past hamlets and broad level miles of rich cotton land whose blunt furrows filled with the weeds and litter of former crops and tumbled fences spun past us like a flood crest; of the muddy river with its floating drift – Hasten! Hasten! Good boat! Strain every iron nerve and let your great, fiery heart glow with the huge mass of love you carry and let the glad wheels sing at their work for the love that awaits us. Tonight Memphis – in the morning Cairo – tomorrow’s sun and “we will breathe the air again of a free land in our own beloved homes.”

            We arrived at Memphis about eight in the evening and began unloading the sugar. Large numbers of the paroled men went ashore.

            Having nothing special to claim my attention, about ten o’clock I told Major Fidler if he would take charge of things I would retire. He assured me that he and another major, whose name I cannot recall [Maj. James William Carlin, 71st OH Inf.], were going to remain up and attend to anything that might come up. We bade each other good night by shaking hands – but neither of us seemed to note it at the time. We never met again. I went to bed and closed my eyes in dreamless sleep to open them on scenes the most unaccountable and most terrible I have ever witnessed.

            I awoke with the impression of a double report. I thought I had just lain down and decided that they had dropped a hogshead of sugar on deck and I was going to finish my sleep when the confusion on the deck above made me think there was a fight in progress. I got up to stop it.

            The confusion increased with such intensity I tried to get out to see what was wrong , but could not. I then asked, “What is the matter out there?” and the answer was “I don’t know, sir, we’re all stove in here.”

            I threw on my coat that I might be recognized if orders were necessary, and opened the door into the saloon. The steam and smoke met me and told me the boat was on fire.

            I ran across to where my men lay and found where they had lain a large piece of the hurricane roof, the forepart of the cabin blown away, a mass of wreckage piled high as the hurricane roof on the forecastle, which was kindling in various places. The protecting part of the main deck had been broken down and the mass of debris formed sort of a beach to the water’s edge over which a number of men were endeavoring to pass water in their hats to quench the fire already started.

            My first impulse was to help, but stepping forward, a glance showed all was over, for the boilers lay scattered in a bed of fire. Even while I looked, the fire became a conflagration and on the port side I saw some four or five bodies, naked, looking as if scalded.

            An agonizing cry of “Help, help for God’s sake!” caused me to look, and there a man was fastened in a pile of wreckage, desperately trying to get loose, while the tongues of flames seemed to have caught sight of their victim and were reaching out for him. There was an impossible gulf between us and I turned from the horrid sight.

            Being an indifferent swimmer and seeing the boat was in the middle of the great, broad Mississippi and at flood tide, too; full when the deceptive tops of submerged trees showed the shore was not there, I yet stepped to the side of the boat to see what opportunity there was for me to use my little skill, and here the scene that met my view baffles description.

            When the forepart of the boat was blown off, nearly all those upon it were hurled into the water. The part that was not blown away fell back on the boat. The hull and afterpart of the boat were uninjured, and the greater number of those occupants, in their insane fright, had rushed unprepared overboard.

            The increasing fire and certainty of destruction had now driven the more cool and prudent overboard. Hence, where I was, there was a great, confused, frantic crowd of men, perhaps 1,000, struggling and drowning. Ah! Such begging, such praying, such fighting. Fierce, deadly, pitiless – a fight for life, more often to see who would die first. And this was taking place near the stern where the better prepared passengers were obliged to get off, where they would be attacked by the half-crazed, half-drowned, who had plunged overboard without preparation.

            Nearer and opposite the wheel was a cordon of similar struggles, not so fierce, perhaps, but in which more adroitness was displayed. The men seemed usually to be good swimmers, but to get away alone from the denseness of the crowd meant to fight their way out, which resulted usually in death of the weakest, sometimes all parties.

            This cordon surrounded a great crowd of men, grasping each other and forming a solid mass like a circular floating island, possibly 30 feet across. While I looked, it diminished from the center and grew in circumference, and a few who had escaped the neighboring contest, fastened themselves to it. But none could leave it, and fastened is the proper word, for those who attempted to get away from it could not.

            This monster, with many voices of despair, went round and round. A dreadful wheel, full of eyes wide and wild, a helpless machine of fate made up of men determined to miserably and entirely perish, evidenced as head after head disappeared from the center.

            Captain [J. Cass] Mason and others were throwing overboard what they could from the deck that might assist those in the water.

            This scene convinced me of the hopelessness of my case and I returned to my stateroom to await my fate. Life and the love of life was strong within me. I thought of my wife, my mother, my friends and all those things that make life worth living – they, too, with their sorrow and tears that is the bitterness of death.

            But through the mercy of God I thought of my duty to preserve the life He had given mw. A duty to Him, to my country and friends to make all effort in my power that I at least might die as I thought a man ought to die.

            I started in search of a life preserver. As the staterooms and the salon were deserted, I ran from room to room, but found none. But, I found a man. He was packing his valise. He evidently thought I wanted to rob him, and I thought, “When Gabriel blows his horn, he’ll stop to pack his valise.”

            I tore my stateroom door from its hinges, and carrying it I decided to see what I could do to save myself. The flames were now 100 feet high in the wreck, with that part of the cabin still standing rivaling that of the wreck. Seeing a pair of Army pants sticking out from between the fallen roof, I touched them. They kicked. I tried to lift the roof but could not. I called for help. Capt. Mason came, but was so exhausted he could not lift twenty pounds, and exclaiming “I can’t, I can’t,” left me, going to the stern.

            Inspired by the approaching fire and the efforts of the imprisoned man, I excelled myself lifting the roof and he began to squirm out, when one after another jumped from above on it about where the head of the victim lay, supposing him dead.

            I took my door to go, but again he kicked frantically and I again lifted the edge to my knee. He crawled out, said nothing but rushed headlong overboard. I recognized him, I thought, as James Suller of Co. K. [Pvt. James Stuller, Co. A, 58th OH Inf. – Guard Unit. Stuller transferred from Company K in December, 1864.]

            I started again with my door and heard again the cry of “Help me, for God’s sake, I have both legs broken!” The progress of the fire made it dangerous for me to return, so I continued on my way. He repeated the cry and I looked back and saw the men nearer him were gone and he and I were alone. I could not die easy if I left that man to burn. I hid my door and went to him and dragged him out to the edge where he could roll off into the water if he found he must burn, and I could do no more. He thanked me for my questionable help and told me he was from an Illinois regiment [McLeod].

            Here again was that wheel of death, reduced to half its size, still going round and round with the same helpless, hopeless eyes, but almost voiceless. The same fighting was going on by new recruits driven off the boat.

            There was one remarkable addition – a powerful man, whose massive, naked chest stood out of the water nearly to the waist. He was not swimming, but moved about with the utmost facility by apparently walking, using his hands to assist the rapidity of his movements. His eyes shone with excited brilliancy and his actions were uncanny, as with no apparent malice or purpose he would move up to a swimmer who seemed to be making his escape and strike him under. Or if two struggled and parted, he would strike both. He seemed to enjoy his powerful deeds as amusements. I have no doubt that he was insane. [Tall Tennessean]

            I managed to get down to the water’s edge with my door. I took off coat and vest, put pocketbook, orders, etc., in my shirt. My hope rose high, when Com. William Elder [Cpl. William H. Elder, Co. A, 58th OH Inf. – Guard Unit] came out of the water, hurriedly took his clothing off and jumped back into the water, turning the stanchion and sending me into the water with my pants on.

By vigorous effort, I freed myself from them. I was now well away from the suction of the boat, but had attracted the attention of the maniac. The end of the door was out of the water and when he came up against it, he seized it and I went under. When I came up he was running for some other poor fellow. I kept out in the water, clear of men, where numerous pieces of wreck were floating.

            I collected many of these, hoping to make a raft. However, they were very useful to me. Many of the swimmers, disheartened and weary, seeing me use a float, swam towards me to share it. To these I called out that my float would bear but one and shot them a board, which in every case they took and swam off.

            After I got out in the river alone, I had time to consider my condition and found I must husband my vitality to resist the cramp, for it seemed to be moving around my body like a great, fishy monster, gripping here and there as if to find the right place to wrench me. I rested as much as I could but kept up gentle exercise of the limbs.

            Looking up, I beheld the most beautiful, sublime and dreadful sight. Towering up into the starless sky was a mighty column of sparks, glittering and flashing as no jewels can. Up, up, most magnificent, until they came to the roof of the darkness where they spread and fell like bright stars as thick as winter snow.

            The roof of darkness seemed to over-reach the light of the burning boat like an upturned cup, and we in this hopeless prison whose icy waves flushed back reflected over all.

            Pervading all was a dismal, weary tone. Prayers could be heard on all sides, loud, vociferous and importunate, anxious and despairing, but lacking in the calm tone of trust.

            I thought of the maimed man by the wheelhouse and saw he was still lying there. While I looked, a breeze took the lofty pyramid of flame and bent it like white hot iron and spread it over him like an awful canopy. Lower and lower and nearer it bent to the helpless man. He raised his arm as if to ward off the fierce heat and light.

            Nearer and nearer it comes. Oh, why does he not roll off? Lower. Ah, now he burns. No, the wreck of the wheelhouse slowly toppled into the water and that man was saved. He sent for me to come to see him at the hospital. How easy for God to save the uttermost. A few other men who were clinging to parts of the boat near the surface were also saved. [McLeod]

            …As the fire grew lower and glared with more baleful light as if dying of hate and rage because it could reach no more victims, the dark walls of our prison closed slowly in upon us and seemed more hopeless as its vaulted roof came nearer, and in this death prison was no room for friendship, charity and pity.

            I was suddenly startled by the end of a board sticking out of the water and a man on the other end with all his clothes on, even his hat and shoes. He came alongside and said, “Stranger, can you swim?” I answered, “Not enough to get out of this.” He rejoined, “I never swam a stroke before tonight.” I immediately endeavored to widen the distance between us, not caring to make the acquaintance of a man who had taken that night and the Mississippi River in which to learn to swim.

            But he would not have it so. I acquiesced, partly because I could not help it and partly because I did not consider him more dangerous than myself. So we went on together, talking of what had happened, much as we might have done on a lonely walk, he being the more sociable. It is almost strange that he did not say, “It’s a little damp and cool this evening.”

            While we were going on in the neighborly way, a man came swimming downstream some distance in front of us. His eyes were very wide open and seemed to glow like living coals of fire. He went plowing along dog fashion. I called to him, “Turn to the right, you are swimming downstream.” He replied, without turning his eyes, “There’s a boat.” I repeated the call and he repeated the answer, never moving his eyes or altering his speed.”

            I said to my companion, “That poor fellow has gone crazy and will be drowned.” “Yes,” my friend asserted. “He’s crazy.” But unlike myself, he followed him with his eyes. Presently he cried, “There is a boat” and shot past me swimming like a frog.

            Another man gone crazy, thought I, as I looked after him. Then my eyes caught sight of a ghostly, white arch a mile or more below. Across its center in great black letters was “Bostona.” [actually Bostona (No. 2)] Our prison was open, there was a boat, and likewise I turned my course down the river.

            I started down carefully, but as I perceived I was gaining home and friends and life was nearer and dearer, a sort of delirium seized me and I found myself straining every nerve until exhaustion brought me to my senses, and had it not been for my door, it would doubtless have been the end of me. Then, I would try to use careful tactics, only to lapse again into the same exhaustive process.

            When within a quarter of a mile of the boat, I saw a man who had first announced the boat and whom I took for Lt. Earle [1st Lt. John E. Earl, Co. L, 1st MI Engineers and Mechanics] of Kalamazoo, Mich., turn aside and trying to climb an empty water barrel, and as it bounced he talked to it in most emphatic tones.

            I felt myself stiffening with incipient cramp, and my door was becoming nearly as intractable as Earle’s barrel, and worse than that, I could not keep my head. I saw a small rowboat as it pulled a man out of the water. I called and it started towards me. Oh, such a feeling of gladness – but lo, it crossed some distance in front of me, picking up another man. I shouted again as I steered straight for the boat. They again passed me within 15 or 20 feet, picking up my friend on the board. I again shouted. Although looking, they could not find me, but caught sight of Earle and his barrel and saved him. To be lost at the feet of deliverance, in the presence of safety and all it seemed unbearable, and as they passed me on their return I cried out, “If you intend to save me, you must do it now. I can’t hold out longer.”

            That was a bitter cry, but hope had died. I could no longer control my door nor longer see welcome letters, and the space was a dark, impassable gulf and the boat would surely run me down unless it changed its course.

            About this time, I felt what I found to be my pocketbook pricking me. I could not hold it in my hand but managed to get it between my teeth, and just then a brawny hand pulled me on board. My stiff fingers had clung to my coat and vest and a gruff voice said, “This is a pretty time to be saving clothes.” I could not answer for awhile. I seemed pressed as in an iron cage.

            Being the last of the load, we were immediately taken to the steamer. When put on board, none of us could straighten up and under other circumstances our appearance would have been exceedingly ridiculous.

            …Of the 1,900 soldiers, I took to Ohio all that could travel, 605 enlisted men and 39 officers, including my detachment.

            In conclusion, as to the cause of the disaster, I do not think it was anyone’s intentional crime; that the boat was overloaded is true, but certainly without criminal intention. Its officers were faithful, capable and vigilant.

            On my return from attendance as a witness in the court-martial held about this disaster in Vicksburg, Miss., in January, 1866, I made the acquaintance of the pilot [George J. Cayton] on duty at the time of the Sultana disaster, and one of the two or three of its officers who escaped. He gave me his opinion and reasons for it in which I sincerely concur.

            The Sultana had tubular boilers and if for any reason those boilers get dry, they grow red-hot in a very short time, and when the water is turned on this red-hot metal creates a gas and super-heated steam that no metal can withstand. Moreover, when a boat is crossing a slight current it will careen sufficiently to cause a flow of water from the boilers on the high side to the low side. Therefore, this would be even more the case with the top-heavy load, as was the situation when the Sultana discharged her sugar at Memphis.

            She had lost her ballast and as she went up the river she careened so far and so long that the boilers on the upper side became heated and when she righted herself the water flowed back into them and the inevitable happened.

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Taken from : “William S. Friesner of Logan Commanded Detail on Ill-Fated Sultana,” The Logan [OH] Daily News, June 27, 1966, p. 25-27