Rewriting History: Remembering the Sultana Disaster

The only difference between events that become history and experiences that fade beyond memory is that some are recorded and remain in our culture’s collective consciousness, while the others do not. But that fact does not mean that the unremembered stories are any less a part of our nation’s past. Unfortunately, chance and timing often determine our historical narrative instead of an event’s significance. 

But that hasn’t stopped local Marion residents from trying to change, or add to, their town’s history. Currently, several of the town’s citizens are telling a powerful story that was originally more or less forgotten, and left in the shadows of the past.

 By April 9th, 1865, the Civil War was over. Soldiers were heading home to their families, and some of those soldiers were onboard the steam ship Sultana.  On April 27th, 1865, in the dead of night and passing through the river channel near Memphis, the ship’s boilers exploded. The burning ship floated towards the Arkansas side of the Mississippi river near Marion. Almost everyone on board lost their lives. To make matters worse, the boat was severely overcrowded. Made for carrying around 400 people, the Sultana was packed by more than two thousand passengers. Adding insult to injury, almost all of the passengers were recently released Union soldiers heading home after long stays in southern prison camps. Ship ablaze, the soldiers not immediately killed jumped into the river to try and swim ashore. 

Because communication systems in the South at the time were severely limited during the war, many Southerners did not yet know the war was over, and according to the oral history passed down by local residents and Memphians, several of the passengers who managed to survive the explosion and the river current were shot. But other locals rushed to the victims’ aide regardless, some using logs to float out into the river to collect bodies and survivors(they used logs because the Union had confiscated most boats in the area). In the end, it is estimated that about 1,800 of the original passengers were killed, about 70% of those onboard.

Overshadowed in the news by the recent assassination of President Lincoln and largely ignored by a war-weary populace, coverage of the disaster in the news was very low despite it being the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, with more lives lost than even the Titanic. The event did of course receive some coverage. The New York Times ran a story covering the disaster, stating, “The hospitals, military and citizens of Memphis deserve great praise for their great exertions in behalf of the rescued.” But through the years the tragedy was largely forgotten, until now.

Several passionate local Marion residents are determined to add more cloth to the fabric of the town’s history by speaking out about the importance of the event, and have even opened a museum filled to the brim with local artifacts, like a piece of the boiler found in a Marion soybean field. The rest of the ship is located right outside of town.

The museum also contains a scaled-down replica of the Sultana, lists of all the soldiers’ names aboard the vessel, the history of the boat before the disaster, and other items found through the years. Some of the more unusual items in the museum are the small stuffed alligators. Lisa O’Neal, a member of the Marion Chamber of Commerce and a lead advocate for the museum and history of the event, explained that onboard the Sultana was a pet alligator named Sal, who was cherished by the passengers and crew. During the disaster, many passengers were very concerned about Sal’s survival and safety. For that reason, the museum pays tribute to the alligator’s role in the event with much smaller, less dangerous, and stuffed toys made in Sal’s image. 

On Friday, April 24th, more than 200 people from around the country (some of them descendants of survivors) flew into Memphis and drove across the bridge to Marion in order to celebrate the museum and draw attention to the event’s significance. Locals and the travelers enjoyed reenactments of an army camp, refreshments, several guest speakers, and of course the museum. Later in the weekend, many of the folks who have gathered in the area for the event will take a boat ride to the place in the river where the Sultana sank and will honor the memory of all those lost that night by dropping a grapevine wreath into the water. 

As more people visit the museum and learn about the Sultana disaster, the tragedy will finally have a place in our collective history and heritage that it earned a long time ago.

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