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.
Nathan Wintringer was the chief engineer on board the Sultana when she carried her precious cargo home towards the North. He was on duty when a leaky boiler was patched at Vicksburg and although the boiler mechanic wanted to cut out the ruptured part of the boiler for a permanent repair, Engineer Wintringer talked the mechanic into hammering down the bulge and placing a temporary patch over the leak. Fortunately, it was not the patch that caused the explosion of the boilers on April 27, 1865.
On May 16, 1865, Chief Engineer Wintringer was interviewed by Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, who was investigating the Sultana Disaster. Here is his statement:
When the Sultana left New Orleans I was her Chief Engineer. The boilers were in perfect condition and continued so until we were about ten hours run below Vicksburg, when I discovered a small leak in the larboard boiler at the third sheet from the forward end, a few inches below the horizontal diameter of the boiler where it was exposed to fire. The outer sheet at the lap had cracked a little at the longitudinal seam between two or three of the rivets, and this was the cause of the leak.
From this time we worked along slowly until we reached Vicksburg, where the services of a regular boiler-maker were obtained, who thoroughly repaired the boiler by riveting in a patch some eight inches broad by twenty-four long. The old iron which was a little bulged was cut out below the seam and the patch was secured by a line of rivets at its upper and lower edges and at its ends. I think the patch was about five-sixteenths of an inch in thickness; I saw the work after it was done and was satisfied that it was a good job; and I believe the boilers were just as safe then as before the leak occurred. From the time of leaving Vicksburg until we reached Memphis we carried about 135 lbs. of steam, and during this time there was not the slightest sign of giving way at the patch or of leaking.
The boat laid at Memphis about four or five hours and put off about two hundred and twenty-five hogshead of sugar which were taken from the hold, and I think we put off some hogs there too. I noticed the boilers particularly at Memphis and they seemed to be in good condition. We kept up from ninety to one hundred pounds of steam while there. I was on watch when we left there, and continued in charge of the engines until we stopped at the coal-boats, about half a mile above the city landing, where I was relieved by Mr. Samuel Clemens, the 2nd Engineer. At that time the boilers were, as far as I could judge, all right.
I was asleep in my berth when the explosion took place. My room, which was about mid-ships on the larboard side of the texas, was not at all injured, and I do not know how much, if any, of the texas in front of my room was injured, but most of it behind my room appeared to have sunk down on the cabin or lower deck. I remained on the boat only about twenty minutes, in which time she was pretty much enveloped in flames. To save myself from the fire I jumped overboard with a window-blind in my hand, on which I floated until I reached a piece of stage plank. With this I picked up four soldiers and all of us but one man who became too exhausted to hold on, were saved.
Mr. Clemens was a first-class engineer, some years older than myself, and we served on the boat as equals. He was perfectly temperate, and always attentive to his duties. I talked with him about the patch and he agreed with me that the boilers were as safe with it as before the fracture took place. With my present information I can only assign as the probable cause of the disaster that the boat was top heavy and was consequently inclined to careen over from side to side and in this way the water has been thrown from the upper boilers to the lower ones, exposing some parts of the upper ones to be heated, which parts gave way, where the water was suddenly brought back to its proper level. The water in the boilers sometimes “foams” as it is called, giving the appearance of plenty of water when there is little or none, but I never knew it to occur in the boilers of the Sultana.
The boat was frequently careened to one side or the other, even before the sugar was taken out, but never so much so as to cause the water in any of the boilers to be so much lowered as to expose any part of it to the fire unprotected by water.
I spoke to Mr. Clemens [the second engineer] in Memphis after the disaster as to the cause of the explosion. He said he could assign no cause for it; everything, he said, was right; there was plenty of water in the boilers, and there was not an extra pressure of steam. I had this conversation with him a short time before he died. I don’t know what the habits of Captain [J. Cass] Mason were as to temperance. My impression is that he was not strictly temperate. I never saw him under the influence of liquor. He was considered a very good captain; was careful and was very popular. The man who repaired the boilers at Vicksburg, I have forgotten his name, said that the repairing was a perfect job, and that the boilers were perfectly safe. He gave me no caution about carrying steam, and nothing was said that I heard about putting in more sheets on arriving in St. Louis.
I heard but one explosion before I left the boat, but there was a good deal of the boat remaining when I jumped into the water. I can remember nothing more bearing on the matter, and I do not think the cause of the explosion can be conjectured until the boilers can be inspected.
Taken from: WIntringer testimony, Washburn Inquiry, May 16, 1865.
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.
Taken from : “William S. Friesner of Logan Commanded Detail on Ill-Fated Sultana,” The Logan [OH] Daily News, June 27, 1966, p. 25-27
Chester Berry was born in South Creek, PA but moved to Michigan at a young age. On August 18, 1863 he joined Company I, 20th Michigan Infantry. He was captured at Cold Harbor, VA on June 2, 1864 and held captive at Andersonville Prison in Georgia. He was released and reached Union lines near Vicksburg, MS on April 1, 1865. On April 24, he was sent on board the steamboat Sultana.
“I understood at the time, and have had no reason to change my mind, that it was a contrived plan with the United States’ quartermaster at Vicksburg and the captain of the boat…. All went gay as a marriage bell for a while. A happier lot of men I think I never saw than those poor fellows were. The most of them had been a long time in prison, some even for about two years, and the prospect of soon reaching home made them content to endure any amount of crowding. I know that on the lower deck we were just about as thick as we could possibly lie all over the deck, and I understood that all the other decks were the same. The main thought that occupied every mind was home, the dearest spot on earth. I well remember, as the boat lay at Memphis unloading over one hundred hogsheads of sugar from her hold, that my thoughts not only wended northward, but I put them in practical shape. The Christian commission had given me a hymn book. At the time I left home the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” was having quite a run. I found this, and before the darkness had stopped me in the evening I had committed those words to memory and sang them for the boys, little dreaming how soon I should have to test the power of prayer as well as the hour when it was held. The last that I remembered that evening was that the boat was taking on coal, across the river from Memphis, preparatory to going up the river. There had been considerable talk among the boys, that it would be a grand opportunity for guerillas. If they only knew that there was such a boat-load of prisoners coming up the river, how they could plant a battery on the shore, sink the boat, and destroy nearly if not all of the prisoners on board; consequently, when the terrific explosion took place, and I was awakened from a sound sleep by a stick of cord wood striking me on the head and fracturing my skull, the first thought I had was that, while the boat lay at Memphis, someone had gone up the river and prepared such a reception for us, and what had only been a talk was now a realization. I lay low for a moment, when the hot water soaking through my blanket made me think I had better move. I sprang to the bow of the boat, and turning I looked back upon one of the most terrible scenes I ever beheld. The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder. A few pailsful of water would have put the fire out, but alas, it was ten feet to the water and there was no rope to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks.
I had often read of burning vessels and nights of horror on the deep, and almost my first thought was, “now take in the scene,” but self-preservation stood out strongest. I went back to where I had lain and found my bunk mate, Busley [Pvt. Levi Busley, Co. M, 5th MI Cav.], scalded to death, I then secured a piece of cabin door casing, about three or four inches wide and about four feet long, then going back to the bow of the boat I came to the conclusion I did not want to take to the water just then, for it was literally black with human beings, many of whom were sinking and taking others with them. Being a good swimmer, and having board enough to save me, even if I were not, I concluded to wait till the rush was over.
The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory – such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat – imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping. I stood still and watched for a while, then began wandering around to other parts of the boat when I came across one man who was weeping bitterly and wringing his hands as if in terrible agony, continually crying, “O dear, O dear.” I supposed the poor fellow was seriously hurt. My sympathies were arounsed at once. Approaching him, I took him by the shoulder and asked where he was hurt. “I’m not hurt at all,” he said, “but I can’t swim, I’ve got to drown, O dear.” I bade him be quiet, then showing him my little board I said to him, “there, do you see that; now you go to that pile of broken deck and get one like it, and when you jump into the water put it under your chin and you can’t drown.” “But I did get one,” said he, “and someone snatched it away from me.” “Well then, get another,” said I. “I did,” said he, “and they took that away from me.” “Well, then,” said I, “get another.” “Why,” said he, “what would be the use, they would take it from me. O dear, I tell you there is no use; I’ve got to drown, I can’t swim.” By this time, I was thoroughly disgusted, and giving him a shove, I said, “drown then you fool.”
I want to say to you, gentle reader, I have been sorry all these years for that very act. There was little or no rush for the water at that time and had I given my board to that poor fellow, then conducted him to the edge of the boat and seen him safely overboard, he might, perhaps, have escaped, while, as it was, I have no doubt that he was drowned. If he was not, and should ever see this, I wish he would write me the fact. But someone may ask, “what would you have done without your board?” I could have got another from the pile of rubbish, which would have been a very easy matter, and I have not the faintest idea that anyone would have tried to take it from me, for, as the boys tell about, “I was not built that way.”
After looking at the burning boat as long as I cared to, and as the waters were comparatively clear of men, I sprang overboard and struck out for some willows that I could see by the light of the burning boat, they appearing to be about one-half mile distant. I had gone but about twenty or thirty rods when, hearing a crashing of breaking timbers, I looked back. The wheelhouse or covering for the wheel, (it was a side-wheel steamer,) had broken away partially from the hurricane deck, and a poor fellow had been in the act of stepping from the hurricane deck onto the wheelhouse. I presume it was then the hurricane deck fell in. When it reached an angle of about forty-five degrees it stopped, for some unaccountable reason, till it nearly burned up. He succeeded in reaching the wheelhouse but got no further, for it broke and let him part way through, then held him, as in an iron vice, till he burned to death, and even now, after the lapse of years, it almost seems as though I could hear the poor fellow’s screams, as the forked flames swept around him. I then turned and pressed forward towards my haven of safety, but soon became aware that I was not gaining upon it. The fact was, I was swimming toward a small island and was, in fact, now swimming upstream but was not aware of the truth. The icy water was fast telling upon my weak system, and the moment I became aware that I was being carried away from the timber instead of gaining it I became completely discouraged, the only time I think in my life.
Being now quite despondent, I had about concluded that there was no use of my trying to save myself, that I would drown in spite of my efforts; and that to throw my board away and sink at once would be only to shorten my misery. I was just in the act of doing so when it seemed to me that I was transported for the moment to “the old house at home,” For ten long weary months she had received no tidings from her soldier boy, now she had just learned that he was on his way home and her thoughts were almost constantly upon him; and for him her earnest prayer was made. I fiercely clutched the board and hissed between my now firmly set teeth “Mother, by the help of God, your prayer shall be answered.” I started out for a grand effort.
Just then I heard a glad cry from the burning boat and looking around discovered that past the boat, down the river, two or three miles as near as I could judge, was the bow light of a gunboat. I turned and was now obliged to swim past the burning boat, for I was up the river about eighty rods above it; when nearly past the boat, which I kept a safe distance to my left, I ran into the top of a tree that had caved off from the bank and whose roots were now fast in the bed of the stream, upon which I climbed and was nearly asleep when a number of men from the boat came along and climbed upon it also. Their united weight sank it low into the water, whose icy coldness coming upon my body awakened me. Then, to more fully arouse me, a man got hold of my board and tried to take it away from me. I remonstrated with him, but he claimed the board belonged to him and that I was trying to steal it. This fully aroused me – it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Giving the board a quick jerk I sprang backward and went swimming down the stream on my back, holding my board high least I might lose it. I soon turned over and proceeded more slowly. I began again to have an almost irresistible feeling of drowsiness. I was cold and sleepy. Just then I came across or thought I did, a dry black ash sapling about two and one-half or three inches in diameter at the but and six or eight feet long, that pronged in two branches about three feet from the butt end. I put this with my board and trying them found they would float. I then gave myself up to sleep and did not awake until long after sunrise. I then stood upon a large snag in the river that was pronged or forked, something like I imagined the black sapling was in the night. I stood on the lower prong which was about a foot under water, while the upper prong was nearly two feet above the water, and, what to me was stranger than all, I had, instead of the little board four inches wide and about four feet long, a two inch plank about four inches wide and about six feet long.
I was out of my head and imagined that some terrible danger threatened me, but if I could only get that plank upon the upper prong of the snag, all would be safe, I soon came too enough to know that I was working a useless scheme; then I realized that it was worse than useless as it would take some of my strength to hold the plank on the snag while it would do me no good whatever. I then abandoned the project and began to cry with the pain of my fractured skull, but I soon stopped that also, saying to myself, crying does not ease pain. Then came the first clear thought of the morning and I realized what had happened and that I was but about five rods from the woods upon the Arkansas shore, the shore itself being under water.
Quickly shoving my plank into the water and starting for the place where the shore ought to be, which was the most foolish move of all, for when I arrived there and had pulled myself up a small cottonwood tree I was surrounded by a perfect swarm of buffalo gnats, which made lively work of me, and although I had firmly seated myself upon a limb of the tree and employed both hands with bushes whipping them off my neck and breast – the only parts that were exposed – which were a solid blotch in less than an hour. Had I remained on a snag in the river I would have been free from the gnats and nearer passing steamers, by which I hoped to be carried away. I remained in this tree but a short time, perhaps an hour or more, when the steamer Pocahontas came along, picking up all the men they could find.
I soon attracted attention and was taken on board the steamer, and soon after landed at Memphis and was taken to Washington hospital, where my wound was poorly dressed, as I remember it, none of the broken pieces of skull being taken out. I remained here a little over a week, and although I gave my name, company and regiment to a reporter, and also to the hospital steward, yet about two or three months afterward my mother received official notice from Washington that her son was killed upon the Sultana; and my name stands today upon the Michigan Adjutant General’s Report for 1865 as killed by the explosion of the steamer Sultana. Yet, when in after years, I applied for a pension for that fractured skull, which was so bad that the surgeon at Washington hospital told the man in the next bunk to mine that I could never get well, I was obliged to prove that I was upon the Sultana and that I was hurt or had my skull fractured at that time. Such is the ease with which pensions are procured, and such the liberality of the government officials when they have the official evidence in government reports before them.
After was placed on the steamer Belle Memphis and taken to Cairo, remaining there overnight, then via Mattoon, where we were obliged to go hungry, or beg from the citizens, although I had a meal ticket at the eating house given me by the Christian commission, but the landlord refused to honor it. From here we were taken to Indianapolis where another halt was made, then on to Columbus, when I was sent to Tripler hospital and doctored up for about two weeks; then sent to Jackson, Mich., to be mustered out of the United States service on special telegraphic order from the War Department.”
*Taken from Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors
Born in Lynchburg, VA around 1831, James Cass Mason was brought to Missouri as a child and grew up beside the river. As a young adult he began work as a clerk on steamboats on the Missouri River and eventually became master and/or owner of a few boats. On November 27, 1860, he married Rowena Mary Dozier, the daughter of a well-known steamboat magnate, and eventually took over as master of the steamboat Rowena, owned by his father-in-law and named after his wife. In Februaty1863, during the middle of the Civil War, Mason and the Rowena were stopped for a routine inspection by the crew of a Union gunboat. Eventually, it was discovered that Captain Mason was carrying 2,000 pairs of pants for the Confederacy and the Rowena was seized as contraband of war. Initially imprisoned, Mason was eventually released but his steamboat was not. On April 18, with the Rowena now in government service, the boat hit a snag and sank about 30 miles below Cairo, IL. Although interaction between James Cass Mason and his father-in-law came to an abrupt end, the young captain landed on his feet and soon became master of the Belle Memphis. Always a daredevil, on May 9, 1863, Mason entered his new steamboat into a three-way race against the steamboats City of Alton and Sultana. Although Mason and his Belle Memphis won the race, Mason was impressed enough by what he saw in the Sultana that when she came on the market in March 1864, James Cass Mason was one of the purchases, buying a one-quarter share in the boat. With the Union capture of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, MS and Port Hudson, LA, the Mississippi suddenly ran “unvexed to the sea” and hundreds of steamboats began making the lucrative run from St. Louis to New Orleans. Over time however, there was more competition than commerce and James Cass Mason, now the captain of the Sultana began hurting for money. After a couple of mishaps with the Sultana, which needed costly repairs, Mason was forced to sell off most of his controlling shares until he had only a one-sixteenth interest in the steamboat. On the morning of April 15, 1865, Mason and the Sultana were at Cairo, IL when the telegraph reported that President Abraham Lincoln had been murdered in Washington, DC. Grabbing an armload of Cairo newspapers, Mason carried the first news of the assassination down the Mississippi River, thus becoming the unofficial “messenger of death.”
While stopped at Vicksburg, MS, Captain Mason was approached by Capt. Reuben Benton Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Thousands of recently released Union prisoners of war, fresh from the prison pens at Andersonville, GA and Cahaba, AL, had been collected outside of the city and were about to be released and sent home to the North. Hatch knew that Mason was hurting for money and offered him a deal. The US Government was paying a stipend to steamboat captains willing to carry loads of prisoners upriver. If Mason would agree to give a kickback of the stipend to Hatch, the quartermaster would agree that when Mason came back upriver, there would be at least 1,000 paroled prisoners waiting for him. Naturally, Mason took the bait.
On April 24, the Sultana returned to Vicksburg. Although one boiler had sprung a leak, which required immediate repair, Mason sought out Captain Hatch about his promised load of paroled prisoners. Through misunderstanding, unscrupulous activity, sheer ignorance, and wanton incompetence, close to 2,000 prisoners were crowded onto a boat legally registered to carry only 376 passengers. In the end, even Captain Mason, who would benefit from every single person placed on his boat, protested when the load became too great.
For two days the Sultana steamed upriver. All the time Captain Mason and his crew warned the prisoners to stay in one place and not move around, fearful that the Sultana would capsize or burst her boilers. After unloading over 135 tons of sugar from the hold, the top-heavy steamboat started upriver. At 2:00 in the morning of April 27, 1865, the boilers on the Sultana suddenly exploded, tearing a massive hole through the center of the upper decks. Within minutes, the boat caught fire and over the next five hours burnt to the water’s edge before sinking a few miles above Memphis.
Captain Mason was uninjured by the explosion and immediately began tearing off pieces of the wreck and throwing them into the water for people to float upon. He was seen helping people on all three decks and was last seen at the stern of the lowest deck, still tossing pieces of wood into the water. He was never seen to leave the wreck and his body was never recovered. James Cass Mason was just 34-years old.”