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.
…[W]e was exchange on the 21 of March 1865 which found us verey tired werey but thare was as happy little crue as ever survived the recks of Andersonville prison when we saw the brave old flag that waved over our brave boys that came to mete us tho gave us sumthing to et and sumthing drink and sum clean close to wear I tell you we felt like we was at home with gods pepal we reman here in peac and plenty until about the 26 day of April 1865 & then we was orded to make reddy to go north to camp chase Ohio thare sent to our respective states to be dischar from a soldiers life. this was good nuse to us we marcht thrue Vicksburg a set of glad harted boys for we was now to be embarked on the Sultana which was wating at the warf for us. We marcht on the old ship and I tel you we was as thick as bees. the prisoners and passengers number about 23 hunded.
we moved out about ten o’clock the river was verey high and swift as the spring rains had set in. the Sultana move up sloly but we was a happy little band We land at Memphis about 9 o’clock in the evening we here then had to take off a large amount of sugar and take a lot of cole by doing this amount of work we had to stay sume time hre A lot of us boys got off to look aound and get something to eat and to get a little fresh air but I was listning all the time for the signal bell to ring about eleven oclock the signal to go back to the boat came.
The Sultana... rold up the gangplanks and as we were rolling sweetly I and sume of my mess mates thought we would select a place and take a sleep[.] we went around on the outside of the banerstors of the middle deck and her was spread our blankets and made our pallet and puled of our shuse and hats and coats and put them back for our bedding we was as thick as could li down I had not bin asleep longe when I was awaken by a loud noise and amita [a mighty] scrushing and sreking and screaming and now my reders I tel you here was the awfelist sight I ever saw two se men jumping overboard like sheepe when scurd as if the wolves was after them. Sum men was drounding and sum burning and sum was fos on [frozen] by the smashup and criing for help Sum was kild instantly and sum was scared to deth and sum borne away as for myself I was slitly wounded by a peas of timber which was scrused down by the smashup thare was two of my mes mates kild one on each side of me ones hed was mashed his name was Isaac Smith [Pvt. Isaac Smith, Co. C, 7th TN Cav.] the other name was guan fowler [Pvt. Green L. Fowler, Co. C, 7th TN Cav.] he spoke and said boys I am a dead man I never saw him eny more as he fel off into the river jest then[.]
I saw that I must do sumthing to save myself I spoke to one of my comreds who I had mest with all the time while in prison and said to him what we must do to make our escape he said to me tare sum strings off and I will tare up sum plank and we will tie them together and swim out on them[.] we dun so and just befoe we started to swim for our life I said to my pardner whose name was M.L. Gray [Cpl. Morgan L. Gray, Co. E, 6th TN Cav.] while he was tieing the plank together I would step to the bow of the boat and see if I could see eny chance for us to make our escape from the burning boat as the river was verey wide and the night verey darke I coyld decover no land so I went back to whare I left my pardner but he was not thare[.] I thought he was drownded[.] I then was left alone I did not like the idea of jumping into the river as I could not swim very well but the time had come when I had to do sumthing as the flames and smoke was busting thrue all parts of the burning boat[.] I thought that I had rather risk my self in the river than to be burned to deth on the boat so I got a pece of plank and jumped into the river but no sunner than I struck the water my plank was snatch away from me as the river was full of drounding men as the saing is true adrounding man will ketch at a straw. I then was left to help myself the best way I could but I was deturmed to du the best I could for myself.
I paddle around tring to save myself but jest then I was sesied by a dround man and cared [carried] beneth the waves of the turbl river. We struggle together until I thought I would haft to open my mouth for breth but I being strengthing by the God he made me, I broke his holt and by the rite present of mind I arose above the waves once and now me being weken by struggling with the drounding man I saw that I could not rech the shore I thought I would risk my chance around the hull of the burning Sultana and on my way back to the hull I was struck on the hed and sholder with a pece of plank which fell from the top of the boat, it knoched the blood out of me but I being determed by the help of God to save myself. I jest then reched the hull and as providence provide for me I caught hold of a steple [staple] which was fasten two the hul of the burning boat[.] I helt on two the steple til the brake of day when a large pece of timber fel from the top of the boat[.] it was not but a few feete from me I being verey tired and chilley I thought I would put my feete against the hull and spring to the log and I did so and succed in getting on the log. in doing this I was abel to rest myself.
Jes then I saw a man swingin two a rope jest before me. I paddle my life preserving log tward him i reched him and take hold of him and puld him up a little on the rope[.] He did not speke but he was not ded. About this time two men from a wood yard come two our releaf tha had a raft of logs and a scift tha fel to work verey bravely and in a short time tha had all that was hanging aroun the boat rescued. [The rescuer was John Fogleman and his sons.]
I was one of the first with nine others that got away from the burnin boat. We got on a raft and started for the shore but there was a large sickmore tree standing sum distance from us. We told our frends two take us to the tree and we could get on the limes and sta until tha could get the rest away from the burning boat and so we puld our little bark to the tree an all got on the tree verey easey as the watter was among the limes and while our two friends was rescuing the rest of suffers from the burning Sultana[.]
[A]nd now my reders while being wet and child with the cold winds that blown down the river, we past our wet tobacco around and after taken a good chew and amuse our selefs in fiting musketeers I think we was as happy a little band as ever set on the limes of a sickmore tree above the waves of the Mississippy River. It was now about sunup when our two frends came back to the tree after me and the res of my little chilley band that was setting on the tree and now as we reached the shore I turned around two veu the place whare I had bin, the sun was jest rising and sending its silver ras acrouse the river I veud the hull of the burning Sultana for the last, she went down beneth the waves.
[T]he boys now had a good fier and we was warming ourselves when a stemer came two our relief. the number which imbarked that steamer was about eighty we had ben paddling for our lives about three hours but now we was rescued. we wus taken back to Memphis, when we landed and got off the boat thare was a little grope standing around a fire trying to dry themselves. Sum of them had swame from the burning boat which was about seven mile and two my great surprise I met my frend M.L. Gray. we gave each other our hand in token of our frend ship and love as we expected each other to have bin lost. we now marched up thrue the streets of Memphis bare heded and barefooted as we had lost all of our hats and shuse and clothes[.] we was wet and cold but we sune reched the soldiers home. thare we got sume more close and sumthing to eat. tha was but eight of my ridgement on the boat, six of them was loust, myself and John Dereyberry [Pvt. John C. Derryberry, Co. A, 7th TN Cav.] who belong to the same ridgement was left to tell the story. my frend M.L. Gray and O.G. Shelton [Pvt. Olynthus G. Shelton, Co. E, 6th TN Cav.] was saved but tha belong to the Sixt Tennessee cavalry but we had mes together during our long prison life and tha seemed like brothers to me.
[W]e stade at the soldiers home a few days. we was then orded two camp chase, Ohio as it was a place whare the prisoners was to be sent to there one [own] states to be ditarge. we remaind here a few days. we was sune called in to line and all of the drounded boys was called out to be sent two ther own states two be distarged. I was glad to here that welkem word distarge call. I thought I would sune get home to meet with my loved ones thare. it had bin sixteen monts sence I had herd from them. I sune started two Nashville whare I was to be distarge. I reached Nashville safe all tho I had seved my country for thirty five monts and had bin thrue meney dangers bothe sene and unseen and had two leave so meny of my comurades beneth the sanda planes of georgey and benathe the waves of the mississippi river who had lost there lives for there country. I was yet spared two receive a honorable distarge.
I was glad two no that thare was not a mark of displeasure aginst me for my servis for my country. pece was now declared and the old baner of freedom was floting thrue the silvery breses of morning and evening tide. I received my distarge on the twenty-ninth day of June and on the thirteyth day of June 1865 I started home two the land of the free and the home of the brave. I landed home on the third day of July 1865 ware I met my wife and children and friends with a glad hart two think that I hadsene them once more. and now my reders you may think this little pamplet is not true but I have sum living witnes who was with me in Andersonville prison and sum that was with me on the burning Sultana and if you could only have sean sume of the sits and herd sume of the groans of the dieing prisoners of that harbel place you would not dout eny report that is made of Andersonville prison. So I will close my little book by saying I am only a little farmer and a siteson of henderson county, Tennessee. I am now reddy to return my meney and cincer thank two god for preserving my life threw that pered [period] of time for which I have rote and even down two this present time. My name is Isaac N. Davenport.
Davenport, “Story of the Sultana Steamboat,” unpublished manuscript. n.d.
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.