From his rail car, Sgt. John Clark Ely, Company C, 115th Ohio Infantry, saw the lush fields of winter grain and corn, "green like spring," roll by. That same day, March 25, 1865, between Columbus, Ga., and Montgomery, Ala., he savored a world in bloom -- crabapple, honeysuckle, woodbine, peach and dogwood.
Life's sublime pleasures, after months in Confederate prison camps, promised something even more precious for Ely (left). Soon, he hoped, he would be in the arms of his wife, Julia, and their children.
A March 31 notation in his journal mentions "the place we have looked for," a parole camp a few miles outside of Vicksburg, Miss. He was getting closer to home and release.
"Oh this is the brightest day of my life, long to be remembered," Ely, 36, wrote.
The gaunt school teacher from Ohio, who survived miserable prison conditions at Andersonville and other locations, would not live to see those brighter days.
Early the morning of April 27, 1865, Ely and nearly 1,800 others, most of them freed Union prisoners, would die in the horrific explosion and fire on the steamboat SS Sultana (below). The disaster, a few miles above Memphis, Tenn., on the Mississippi River, is the worst in U.S. history. The boat was licensed to carry 376 passengers; about 2,500 were on board.
Ely's journal, one of two (the first disappeared), was found on his body. Today, it is cared for by a great-grandson, Norman Ely, of Glenwood Springs, Colo.
"It took me a while to decipher the writing," Ely told the Picket. "Not that his penmanship was that bad."
Norman Ely's mother told him about the small diary, which captures the soldier's despair, anguish, privations -- and hope. On Christmas Day 1864, three weeks after his capture in Tennessee, John Clark Ely wrote: "Christmas Day and such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy. Will another Christmas find us
again among friends and loved ones?"
• Will Sultana's legacy rise from ashes?
Norman Ely said he became interested in the family's geneaology later in life.
"The fact that he went through this ordeal, the fact that he died there and left four children is very sad," he said.
The little-known disaster, which occurred 147 years ago Friday, is being remembered this weekend by descendants of those who died or survived the Sultana disaster. Few Americans know about incident; it was largely overlooked at the time because of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and other events. (Below, monument in Hillsdale, Mich., where many victims lived).
The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends is having its 25th annual reunion in Cincinnati.
Pam Newhouse, of Madison, Ind., is one of the group's leaders and for years published a newsletter. Her great-great-grandfather, Pvt. Adam Schneider, 183rd Ohio Infantry; was among the victims.
“This man had no luck at all," Newhouse said of her Prussian-born ancestor, who had a wife and three children. "He was captured on his first battle of the war. He went to prison and died on the Sultana. He was always at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
There is a terrible irony, of course, that Schneider, Ely and hundreds of other half-starved and sickly men would survive Andersonville, Cahaba and other camps -- only to die in the flames and frigid waters near Marion, Ark. A few hundred would survive.
“Every man who got on the boat has a unique story," said Norman Shaw of Knoxville, Tenn, also active in the descendants and friends group. "They went to battle as a young men and had survived the battles and diseases in the war. They had to survive the prisoner of war camps. They had to survive the Sultana disaster.”
The disaster was not without controversy.
Authors Gene Salecker and Jerry Potter have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially-strapped captain, J. Cass Mason, the steamer's captain and master, and an Army quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben B. Hatch. According to Potter, the transport fee was $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer. Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.
Mason, who died in the disaster, rushed upriver to pick up the prisoners, putting a temporary patch on one of the steamboat's boilers. To this day, historians argue over whether the failed patch is responsible for the explosion and fire.
• (Read article about alligator box made by Sultana survivor)
But they do agree the Sultana was overcrowded and top-heavy with all of the men packed together, causing the vessel to rock and putting stress on the boilers. At least one other vessel was available to carry soldiers to St. Louis, relieving the passenger load on the Sultana.
“In some places the guys couldn’t even lay down. It was so crowded. In some cases if they went to the bathroom or go to eat their place would be taken," Salecker, author of "Disaster on the Mississippi," told the Picket.
“It was crowded but they were happy. They were going home.” The soldiers were to disembark at Cairo, Illinois, and take a train to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, to formally complete a prisoner exchange.
• (Read article about scale model of Sultana)
Potter, a Memphis attorney and author of "The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster", began researching Ely and other soldiers on board the Sultana.
“They became real people. The real tragedy was they were basically murdered by their own army. It was just gross negligence," said Potter.
Ely, who was supposed to get a promotion to lieutenant at the end of the war, was captured by forces under Nathan Bedford Forrest on Dec. 5, 1864, near LaVergne, Tenn.
“I became fascinated with him because he was the only soldier I could find a diary (left)," said Potter.
Ely, from south of Cleveland, Ohio, was buried at the national cemetery in Memphis.
“When you read in his diary, he talks about longing to be with his wife and kids. He goes through the day-to-day activity of being a soldier," said Potter. He helped correct Ely's headstone, which initially said he served with the 115th Illinois.
Most of the Sultana victims buried at Memphis are listed as unknown.
John Clark Ely, born in Franklinville, N.Y., wrote about a march to Corinth, Miss., time in Meridian, Miss., and two harrowing months at Andersonville in middle Georgia. The passages by the soldier, who enlisted in 1862, are permeated with rumors of possible exchanges.
"He had all the great hopes. He couldn't wait to get home," said another great-grandson, Clifford Ely of Connecticut. "When he got on the steamboat, he kept writing to her (Julia)."
Clifford Ely also was touched by his ancestor's time at Andersonville. "There was a lot of sickness around. Other people stole things from him. It was just a sad thing, day by day. People tried to escape, (but) he never did."
Andersonville National Historic Site has a copy of Ely's journal (click photo to enlarge). Selected excerpts capture just a small portion of Ely's ordeal:
Dec. 5, 1864: Rebs came in sight early in large force under Gen. Forrest. Capt. Hake surrendered the fort and the Co. are prisoner, were marched out to North 5 miles of Nashville to General Hoods quarters.
Dec. 10: Broke camp at 9 a.m. and marched 27 miles to a church and school house between Franklin and Spring Hill near a Mr. Combwill who treated me very kindly, gave me some supper, we had no rations today, very slippery walking, I am very lame.
Dec. 25: Christmas Day and such a day for us prisoners. Hungry, dirty, sleepy and lousy. Will another Christmas find us again among friends and loved ones? We got to Meridian at 5 p.m., took us to prison corral, pretty hard place for prisoners to live. Balance of prisoners came up in night, also the officers.
Dec. 28: Usual routine of prison life, nothing new or strange. The war news is good, Hood has been thoroughly whipped with a loss of half his artillery and 9000 men and that Sherman has taken Savannah, tis good news.
Dec. 31: Nothing new, all usual scenes such as cooking, washing and catching lice. John Fitzwater sent to hospital.
Jan. 12, 1865: Beautiful morning, heavy white frost this morning. Some sneak stole all our mess rations last night. May they set heavy on his belly. Many rumors today of Hood and Thomas.
Jan. 26 (one week after transport to Andersonville): Usual duties and same rounds of prison life. Many men suffered severely, it was so cold. Men die every day, went over to see the hospital for our men, it is like a smoke house.
Feb. 9: Cold morning with wind. Rebs got scared yesterday, took all the axes out of camp, put on an extra guard and planted a battery East of camp. Do not know whether they are afraid of out or inside, the commissioners returned from their visit to Washington, old Abe’s reply: lay down arms before negotiations.
Feb. 12: Again a fine day, news that Sherman has taken Branchville near Charleston, may it be true. Feel much depressed in feeling today, anxiety of home weighs heavy.
Feb. 22: Washington birthday. How different from where I was a year ago, some scalloway opened our tent at bottom and stole from me one shirt, one pair drawers, one () and haversack with 4 days rations meal.
March 19: Beautiful day but cool night. I feel quite poorly with diarrhea. The monotony of camp again broken by the Johnnys coming in for men to go out on parole. Carpenters, woodchoppers etc took out nearly or quite 100 men.
March 24: Very fine morning, peach and cherry trees all in full bloom outside, for the Co bought our chance to go by the first train. We gave eighty dollars greenback, 80 confed and my watch valued at 60 dollars, hope the chance will prove a good one. Late p.m. a train came for us and we bid goodby to Andersonville. Left at 8 p.m. and arrived at Columbus (Ga.) at daylight.
April 9 (near Vicksburg): Rain in night and this morning, feeling some better this morning, quite a number of ladies out yesterday p.m. from town. Looks like being among humans again. War news good, cloudy and rain all day. Clothing was issued to company today.
April 13: Cool wind, cloudy and lowrey, no very important doing, a few men exchanged most every day. Oh! How I wish I could hear from Julia, it seems as if it would do me more good than anything else. Went out with Boody and got some sweet river roots for pipes. Heavy cannonading in Vicksburg, tis reported that Lee has surrendered and that Mobile is taken. Wrote Julia p.m. Was news glorious, Lee has caved to Grant, bully, bully, glorious bully,if any man can save the union, why General Grant is the man, rumored that Johns(t)on has also surrendered to Sherman, if this be ture, the confederacy is most certainly pretty nearly played out for this time, bully news bully.
April 24: Beautiful day but very warm sun, about 10 a.m. we were ordered to take train for Vicksburg and then up the river, went from cars to boat Sultana, a large but not very fine boat. Vicksburg is truly a city set on not only a hill but hills. Left sometime in night for Cairo.
April 25: Fine day, still going up river very high over country everywhere, no places along the river where white people live but very many monuments of where people had been.
April 26, Ely's last full day alive: Very fine day, still upward we go.
Coming Friday: The Sultana's legacy and hopes for a museum.
Photos of Sgt. Ely and his journal, courtesy of Norman Ely. Photographs of Sultana and Andersonville, Library of Congress. Hillsdale, Mich., monument photo, courtesy of Stephenie Kyser, Osseo, Mich.