Indiana Infantry, 42nd, Co. A, Pvt., McFarland, William A..png

William A. McFarland

Private, Company A, 42nd Indiana Infantry

 

Before the boat had cleared the landing at Memphis a number of the boys made their escape and went up town and got whiskey. They were in no fit state to drink it – being in such a wretched condition from the treatment in the prisons – and a guard was sent out to bring them back. The last to put in an appearance was a soldier hailing from Tennessee. He was a thin seven-footer, and he came down to the boat, shouting and cursing, at the point of bayonets, so drunk he could hardly walk. He was brought up to the hurricane deck, where he caused considerable disturbance.

 

I was quite young at that time, and it pleased me very much to tease this fellow. He tried to get at me, but the men were so thick he had to run over a number in trying to get me, and received a number of hard licks for his trouble. When the Sultana was chartered there were several families on board who were on their way from Louisiana to the north and they were permitted to retain their staterooms.

 

After we left Memphis it began raining and continued to do so all that night. When eight miles above Memphis, between two and three o’clock in the morning, the boilers of the boat exploded. I seemed to be dreaming and could hear someone saying, “there isn’t any skin left on their bodies.” I awoke with a start and the next moment the boat was on fire and all was as light as day. The wildest confusion followed. Some sprang into the river at once, others were killed, and I could hear the groans of the dying above the roar of the flames. As before stated, I was on the hurricane deck, clear aft. This part of the boat was jammed with men. I saw the pilothouse and hundreds of them sink through the roof into the flames, at which juncture I sprang overboard into the river. As I came to the surface of the water I saw a woman rush out of a stateroom in her night clothes with a little child in her arms. In a moment she had fastened a life preserver about its waist and threw it overboard. The preserver had evidently been fastened on too low, for when the little one hit the water it turned wrong end up. The mother rushed into the stateroom an instant and was then out and sprang into the water and grabbed the child – all of which occurred in the space of a couple of minutes.

 

The next thing that occupied my attention was seeing the seven-foot Tennessean, whom I had been teasing on the trip, close at my side. “A guilty conscience needs no accuser,” and I supposed he would drown me if he caught me. I began swimming away from him. I swam seven miles down the river and into a drift, where I caught onto a log and awaited assistance. As day dawned I found that hundreds had followed my example, and although it was a serious situation I could not help laughing at the comical appearance that all made. Imagine my surprise when I observed that woman, whom I had witnessed plunge into the river after her baby, sitting a-straddle of a log about twenty-feet in front of me with the little one before her. We were both picked up by a yawl sent out by the steamer Silver Spray. The next person the yawl approached was my long Tennessee friend, who was comfortably seated on a log. He asked how far it was to Memphis, and when told only a mile, he said to the crew, “Go to hell with your boat; if you couldn’t come to help me before now you had better have stayed away,” and with that he slid from his log and began swimming down the river.

 

When the survivors arrived at Memphis that morning all the hacks and omnibuses in the city were at the wharf to convey us to the Overton Hospital – not the Overton Hotel. There were enough conveyances for all and none were compelled to walk. The seven-foot Tennessean had arrived at the landing by the time the Silver Spray did, but it was found that he was still under the influence of liquor, after all the excitement of the night, and when he began to get into the conveyance he refused to ride. They tried to forced him into a hack, but in the shuffle two or three soldiers were knocked down. A guard was detailed to march him through the streets to the hospital. On the way up we passed through a street inhabited mostly by Jews, who kept second-hand clothing establishments, etc., and as the hack in which I was riding was slowly passing along the street I could see that long Tennessean pulling off boots, shoes, hats, caps and other articles from the signs hanging in front, and by the time he reached the hospital he had about a dozen Jews at his heels clamoring for their wares. “Dot ish my goat,” said one, and “dose vas my shoes,” said another, while a third would yell, “gif me pack my bants.” The Tennessean turned, and, glaring at the crowd, threw the lot at his feet, saying, “There, help yourselves,” and as they rushed forward and stooped over the pile he began to knock them right and left.

 

It was afterwards learned that out of 2,300 prisoners on the Sultana 1,500 were either blown to pieces or drowned. The boat was totally destroyed. At the place where the wreck occurred the river was miles wide, making escape almost impossible.

 

After being at the hospital a few days, and not being injured, I made my escape, determining to reach home as soon as possible. The first boat that came along was the St. Patrick, a handsome steamer plying between Cincinnati and Memphis. Like a burnt child dreading the fire, I dreaded getting on a steamboat for fear of an explosion. Adopting what I supposed was the safest plan, I crawled into the yawl hanging over the stern of the boat (as all sidewheel packets have) and never left my quarters until I arrived at the wharf at Evansville. Every time the boat would escape steam or blow the whistle I prepared to jump, supposing an explosion was about to take place.[1]

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            I was sleeping in the open in a rain, at the rear of the upper hurricane deck. It was about 2 o’clock in the morning. There was a loud report, a great jar and I was awakened by the cries and moans of the 1,700 that were lost. As I opened my eyes I saw the boat divide and saw seven or eight hundred carried down in its great jaws of death. I jumped from the hurricane deck, landed in the midst of the struggling mass of humanity, and swam seven miles before I touched land, and – well, here I am.

 

            I have never believed that the boat was blown up by Confederates. It was owned by southerners, and every one of the southern officers was killed. When a boy I learned to swim and could cross the Ohio river. My ability to get through the water and hold out for such a long distance was all that saved me. There was a swift current, and I only had to keep floating and pull for the shore a little at a time and let the current help me along. I shall never be able to get out of my ears the death cries of the 1,600 or 1,700 that went down with the boat.[2]

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            I was hardly 16 when I went into the service in September of ’61….

            We were about seven miles out of Memphis. It was about 2 o’clock, as well as I recall, on the morning of the 27th. Then we were all asleep, or as many of us as could rest in the cramped quarters we had. Suddenly there was a muffled roar. I have a recollection of the indistinct consciousness of some awful calamity overcoming me as I awoke. First, almost as if in a dream, I heard some men say, “Look at him; he has all his skin burned off.” Then I awoke to a full consciousness of what had happened. The next moment the boat was on fire and all was light as day. The wildest confusion followed. Some sprang into the river at once, others were killed, and I could hear the groans of the dying above the roar of the flames. I was on the hurricane deck, clear aft. This part of the boat was jammed with men. I saw the pilot house and hundreds of men sink through the roof into the flames. Just at this moment, after debating what to do, I concluded it was time to leave the boat, and I jumped into the river. As I came to the surface of the water I saw a woman rush out of a stateroom in her night clothes with a little child in her arms. In a moment she fastened a life preserver around its waist and threw it overboard. The preserver evidently was fastened too low, for when the little one struck the water it turned feet up, with its head under the water. The woman rushed into the stateroom an instant, and then came out to follow her child into the water. All this took place in less than two minutes.

 

            I swam seven miles down the river and into a drift, when I caught a log and awaited assistance. As day dawned I found that hundreds had followed my example. Imagine my surprise when I saw the woman who plunged from the upper deck after throwing her child overboard, sitting astraddle of a log, with her babe in front of her. We were both picked up by a yawl from the Silver Spray, which was sent to the rescue. I went to Memphis on the Spray and was sent to the Overton hospital. After being at the hospital a few days, recovering from the shock and exposure, I decided to come home as soon as possible. The first boat to come along was the St. Patrick, a handsome boat plying between Cincinnati and Memphis. Like a burnt child dreading the fire, I dreaded getting on a steamboat for fear of another explosion. Adopting what I supposed was the safest plan, I crawled into a yawl overhanging the stern of the boat, and never left my quarters until I arrived at the wharf at Evansville. It rained almost all the way up, but I stuck it through.

 

            I weighed scarcely sixty pounds when I got out of Andersonville, but after I got back to Evansville [IN] I rapidly regained flesh and strength and in a few months I was pretty much myself again.[3]

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[1] McFarland reminiscence in Berry, Loss of the Sultana, 248-52.

[2] “Survivor of the Sultana,” Waterloo [IN] Press, Oct. 22, 1903, p. 7. William A. McFarland is misidentified in the article as William A. McClelland.

[3] “In the Jaws of Death a Hundred Times,” Evansville [IN] Journal, May 13, 1906, p. 10.