Elderberrywine's Reviews > Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History

Sultana by Alan Huffman
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Jan 16, 12

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Tolbert and Maddox left Indiana as young Union soldiers. Although injured and only minimally treated, they managed to survive the bloody Civil War battlefields and brutal years of imprisonment in infamous Andersonville. But it was on the long-anticipated road home that they suffered the worst trial.

The paddlewheeler Sultana left Memphis late at night on April 27th, severely overcrowded, with 2400 passengers on a ship meant for 400. One of the four boilers had been patched, and the others were problematic. In the middle of the night, the worst happened when three of the four boilers exploded, causing the ship to split into burning halves. Passengers were thrown into the air by the explosion, many of them fatally scalded or burning to death. Most could not swim, but flung themselves into the rapid and frigid Mississippi, and in their panic, pulling those who could swim down as well. All in all, 1700 died, 200 more than when the Titanic sank.

How is it that the name of the Sultana is not as well known? It seems that Lincoln had just been shot little over a week before, and the Civil War was coming to its bloody close. No one had time for a naval disaster, even one of such magnitude as this one.

Huffman does a wonderful job of piecing together the tale using eyewitness accounts, primarily those of the returning soldiers, who often had, against all odds, kept diaries of their experiences. As he sums it up, "For most of the surviving veterans, the war trumped all of their previous travails. For those who were also former prisoners, captivity trumped the war. And for those who survived the Sultana, the disaster trumped everything."
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