The sinking of the steamboat Sultana in late April 1865 is an episode whose horrific importance has eluded wider coverage in Civil War history. The grotesquely overloaded ship—filled with businessmen, families, idle travelers and, most critically, nearly 2,000 Union troops recently discharged from Confederate prison camps—went down into the cold Mississippi north of Memphis after its boiler room exploded. Approximately the size of a smallish football field, Sultana took on the task of transporting the soldiers mainly because the army paid per head, but also because the war was over, and bedraggled, undernourished and sickly ex-POWs needed immediate care. When the crowded vessel caught fire early in the dark morning, chaos ensued and about 1,700 lost their lives, eclipsing the death count of Titanic 50 years later.
Sultana is Mississippi-based journalist Alan Huffman’s account of the disaster, and his moment-to-moment description of desperation and death is totally riveting. But Huffman doesn’t get to the Sultana until the final third of his book, which up to that point is loosely focused on three soldiers and their service in the Civil War’s western theater, which led to their incarceration and eventual harrowing trip home as survivors of the ill-fated voyage. Huffman’s early narrative focuses on profiles of the trio—two Indiana farm boys, Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, and also J. Walter Elliott, a man who later recorded his experiences of the river tragedy.
More generally, Huffman describes the mental state of humans while in battle mode or in extreme circumstances of self-protection, which serves as a kind of foreshadowing of the grim behaviors of the Sultana passengers. He draws upon the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga to set the stage for his conjecture—many of the soldiers aboard the boat had fought in that brutal campaign—and also details the conditions in Southern prison camps. More committed Civil War buffs won’t mind plowing through Huffman’s lengthy set-up, but the climactic events make for adventurous reading for anybody who loves a true-to-life disaster story.