• Last of a series
What's left of the SS Sultana is in loam, 35 feet beneath an Arkansas soybean field. The mighty Mississippi River changed course since the steamboat exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, leaving the ashes to slowly settle and be farmed over.
“We know it’s there. It also is hallowed ground," said Louis Intres, adjunct history professor at Arkansas State University.
While Intres expects the charred timbers to stay put, he and a small band of scholars, authors and descendants have campaigned to keep alive the memory of the largest U.S. maritime disaster, which claimed about 1,800 lives. Most of the victims were freed Union prisoners headed north.
But it hasn't been easy.
Few Americans know about the Sultana, and there are concerns that future citizens won't wade deeply into history.
“Our younger generation is just not as fascinated by stories of the Civil War as we are," said Pam Newhouse of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends (ASDF). "My best hope is for people to talk about it. In that way, the story will never die.”
That was the mission of the Sultana Association, an organization founded in Ohio by survivors in 1885. Veterans shared their first-hand accounts and held reunions.
Survivors fought, to no avail, for congressional support for a national monument. Instead, communities home to the Union soldiers who were being transported after the war's end erected monuments. East Tennessee survivors put up one in Knoxville in 1916 (photo).
Pleasant Keeble (below) of Knoxville, survived the Sultana; his brother, John, did not. The last survivors' meeting in his city was held in April 1930, with only Keeble, 84, in attendance. The former private of Company H, 3rd Tennessee Calvary, died the following year.
Today, the ASDF is pinning its hopes for a lasting memorial on a museum, perhaps in Marion, Ark., a few miles north of Memphis, Tenn.
The overcrowded steamboat sank early in the morning near Marion. In the end, no one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana and sailing despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers. Hundreds of men died only a day and a half from a prisoner exchange and freedom.
The disaster received scant headlines.
America was weary of the Civil War and was still mourning President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated fewer than three weeks before.
Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had just surrendered his army in North Carolina.
The South, focused on its own devastation, wasn't particularly sympathetic about enemy soldiers perishing, said Jerry Potter, a Memphis lawyer who has written extensively about the topic.
“I was giving a talk one time, and a man made a comment that they were just Yankees, too bad more of them didn’t die," Potter told the Picket. "I just lost it. A few people felt that way, but few people knew about the Sultana.”
• Excerpts from Sultana victim's journal
The city of Marion and the chamber of commerce last month sponsored an exhibit on the Sultana, featuring a few items from the ship, reunion pins, photos and accounts of the disaster.
Intres, 63, a retired banker, expects Arkansas State to house the Sultana's permanent archives. Marion would like to restore an old bank building and use is at a first location for a steamboat museum.
"Of course, we would likely use the Sultana as the central theme, but it should celebrate the great era of steamboats from about 1820 to the early 20th century," he said. As a child, Intres learned about rivers from a retired steamboat pilot.
But it will take about 10 years and a lot of money to make that happen. "It is a wonderful dream right now," said Intres.
• (Read about alligator box made by survivor)
Intres and others say Marion and Memphis could benefit from increased heritage tourism. But governments aren't in a spending mode these days.
“There’s no state funding or local funding. It’s up to societies and communities," said Jimmy Ogle, a tour guide and community engagement manager for the Riverfront Development Corp. in Memphis. “It was just perceived as a small steamboat disaster in the South.”
“We’re trying to build that interest," said Ogle, who has led tours to the Sultana site. "The Civil War kind of skipped over Memphis.”
The city fell to Federal forces in 1862 and became a logistics and hospital center. “Sherman planned the March from the Sea here. There is no signature thing like a battlefield, such as Shiloh,” he said.
Memphis could serve as a hub to see additional Civil War sites, including Shiloh, Fort Donelson and Fort Pillow, according to Ogle. The Mississippi River Museum on Mud Island in Memphis has several galleries about the war.
Some people are afraid to discuss slavery and revisionism, according to Ogle. “All we’re trying to do is recognize history is an objective and historical perspective.”
Potter said he did not understand the magnitude of the Sultana disaster until he got into his research.
“I would love to see the national papers and networks pick up on the story again," he said. "There are still a lot of people who have ancestors on the boat who know nothing about it.”
Stories of those who died and survived are gripping.
In "The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster," Potter writers about Pleasant and John Keeble being on separate decks. Pleasant was pushed downstairs by a stampede but made it back on deck, unable to find John. (Photo: Sultana survivors in Knoxville, 1920. Keeble is believed to be on the far right.)
Pleasant Keeble jumped into the river and use a portion of a wheelhouse to get away. Gene Salecker, in his book "Disaster on the Mississippi, said an African-American man on the bank extended a pole to Keeble, pulling him to safety.
Pvt. James Collins, also of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, wrote in his memoris about his excitement on being on the Sultana, his wartime hardships over.
Suddenly, the ship trembled as the boilers exploded.
"Men lay everywhere scalded to death by the hot, hissing steam . . . and everywhere on the ill-fated boat death was visible in countless horrible and shocking forms," he wrote.
Badly burned by the cinders, Collins made his escape.
• (Read article about scale model of Sultana)
Local residents, including a freed slaves, helped the passengers, who found themselves swimming for shore, or thrashing about in the chilly Mississippi.
“There were some amazing stories of heroism," said Intres. About 700 people were saved, with 200 dying for their wounds. Bodies were recovered for the next several months.
“Those who had survived so much felt like a calling," said Intres. "A great many went on to do wonderful things with their lives.”
Salecker has a large collection of Sultana memorabilia, including a wooden comb (right) and a box made by a survivor. He loaned a portion of it to the Marion exhibit and would like to see it housed in a permanent museum.
A fitting time would be by April 2015, the 150th anniversary of the sinking.
“I have a funny feeling the Sultana will be pushed aside much like it was in 1865. There will be attention to the Lincoln assassination, hunt for Booth and it will be a side note, said Salecker.
The ASDF is holding its 25th annual reunion today and Saturday in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Norman Shaw, an active member, said he is worried about the organization recruiting enough new members.
“We have got a lot done in spreading the word," said Shaw, of Knoxville. “Even those who died had a story to tell. They didn’t get to finish their story.”
Intres, the historian, said most museums are at least 30 years old. But, he said, America would lose much by forgetting its past.
“How valuable do you think your past is? How valuable is your heritage?" he asked. "You can’t go out and remake history."
• Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends
Photos of Pvt. Pleasant Keeble and Knoxville monument, courtesy of Norman Shaw; photo of 1920 Knoxville reunion, Thompson Photograph Collection, McClung Historical Collection; photo of Sultana, Library of Congress; photo of Sultana tour, courtesy of Jimmy Ogle; photo of exhibit, Marion, Ark., Chamber of Commerce.