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Sinking the Sultana: A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed and a Doomed Journey Home

Review

Sinking the Sultana: A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed and a Doomed Journey Home

On April 27, 1865, over 1,500 souls lost their lives during the tragic sinking of the Sultana in the Mississippi River. At 2:30 in the morning, the rescue was excruciatingly difficult because it was hard to see the released prisoners, passengers and crew. Rescuers were guided by the sounds of screams and cries. It was toward the end of the bitter Civil War, but rescuers put aside their political differences in the hopes of saving as many lives as they could.

Two days before the steamboat sank, the boiler sprung a leak and was bulging. After a quick patch, the boat was deemed ready for use. Captain Mason pursued getting as many prisoners on board as he could because transporting prisoners was a profitable business --- bribery wasn’t out of the question. While the boat’s capacity was for 376 people, it is thought that over 2,000 passengers were on board the day the Sultana sank. The boat was beyond crowded. The irony is that it was suggested that another steamboat, the Lady Gay, take some passengers, but that boat left with no passengers on board.

"SINKING THE SULTANA is a well-researched book full of information ranging from how steamships were developed to the war to corruption. Kids, historians and Civil War buffs will be fascinated by this gripping account of the Sultana. "

In SINKING THE SULTANA, author Sally M. Walker explores the mystery shrouding the sinking of the Sultana. While it is known that the boiler exploded, there are questions as to how. One theory is that someone wanted to sink the ship and slipped a piece of artillery near the boiler or that a coil torpedo placed near the boiler caused the explosion. Another unsolved issue is bribery, which clearly played a key role in the investigation. While Frederic Speed, a scapegoat, was found guilty of neglect, the verdict was dropped and Speed was dishonorably discharged from the military. In the end, no one was found culpable for the sinking of the Sultana. Perhaps most interesting of all is that the remains of the Sultana haven’t been found. While scientist and historians believe they may have found some wreckage, the boat still remains a mystery as to its exact whereabouts.

My curiosity stems from family history as I had two relatives, both brothers, on board the Sultana. Only one brother survived. Unfortunately, one of the brothers was too weak from imprisonment at Andersonville that he couldn’t swim to shore.  The book describes the deplorable conditions of the prison like no sleeping quarters for the prisoners, vermin, lice, unclean drinking water and small food rations. There is a haunting photo of a prisoner who looks like a skeleton. It was truly awful.

SINKING THE SULTANA provides an in-depth account of what lead up to the tragedy and how it happened. It is dumbfounding that no real safety precautions were in place between allowing a ship to go way beyond passenger capacity to the fact that there was only one lifeboat. Passengers tore off doors, shutters and anything that would float to stay alive in the swirling, cold river below. The book gives such a strong account of the will to survive.

Mostly I enjoyed reading the personal accounts from passengers about what they went through from the Civil War, to prison and to the hope of returning home. Their stories brought history to life. SINKING THE SULTANA is a well-researched book full of information ranging from how steamships were developed to the war to corruption. Kids, historians and Civil War buffs will be fascinated by this gripping account of the Sultana.

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Purcell on October 30, 2017

Sinking the Sultana: A Civil War Story of Imprisonment, Greed and a Doomed Journey Home
by Sally M. Walker