Thursday, January 22, 2015

One-act musical about SS Sultana disaster juxtaposes the past and present

(Drawing by Rick Iacovelli)

Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(Yes there’s better days ahead, my friends) Hey you bag o’ bones
Hey you bag o’ bones we’ll be seeing better days ahead
(That’s right there’s better days) I’ll drink to that and shake your hand
-- “The Last Great March of the Skeleton Soldiers"

The image of gaunt and hungry soldiers, finally on their way home after enduring privation in prison camps, stuck with Jeff Stachyra while he researched the SS Sultana disaster.

Stachyra, a musician and producer in southern New York, put this little-known Civil War incident to lyrics and melody in a 2012 album that encompassed an array of musical styles, including Americana.

More recently, Stachyra and local playwright Laura Cunningham have made the tragic story of the last voyage of the Sultana the subject of a one-act musical, “Bag O’ Bones.” The production will have a free developmental reading at 2 p.m. Saturday (Jan. 24) at the Bundy Museum in Binghamton.

“I would like two things to happen,” Stachyra told the Picket this week. “I want people to come away with an understanding and curiosity of the story. So maybe they will proceed to do some of their own exploration on that and the Civil War. (The second thing) is I hope they enjoy the music. It’s what I do.”

This is a story of bravery, courage, loss and the greed of those who contributed to the disaster.

“Bag O’ Bones” features Olive, a doctoral student, who chooses the Sultana as her dissertation thesis. Her great-great-great grandfather was a paroled soldier about the vessel, heading home at the war’s end.

The 45-minute musical includes portrayals of four soldiers, “their struggles, and getting on this overloaded boat.”

The loss of the Sultana, 150 years ago this spring, is the largest U.S. maritime disaster. The mighty Mississippi River has changed course since the steamboat exploded and caught fire near Mound City, Ark., on April 27, 1865, leaving the ashes to slowly settle and be farmed over.

An estimated 1,800 men were killed. Most of the victims were released Union prisoners – many of them Andersonville survivors -- headed north.

The steamboat was traveling the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn., to St. Louis. About 2,400 passengers packed a vessel that had a capacity of fewer than 400

“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," Gene Salecker, author of "Disaster on the Mississippi," told the Picket a few years ago.

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. At least one faulty boiler exploded, flinging passengers into the chilly river.

Jeff Stachyra
Cunningham, the playwright, was in Stachyra’s studio for a recording session when he gave her CDs with music about the Sultana and why he made the album.

"The account of the survivors' pleas for help when they were in the river were just so moving, it wrote the story itself," Cunningham told the Press & Sun-Bulletin newspaper.

Salecker and author Jerry Potter have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially-strapped captain, J. Cass Mason, 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.

At least one other vessel was available to carry soldiers to St. Louis, relieving the passenger load on the Sultana. But the captain steamed ahead, the Sultana overcrowded and top-heavy with all of the men packed together. The load caused the vessel to rock and placed stress on the boilers.

Stachyra’s Sultana album features a song about Hatch:

Shaving off the lumber
Buy low – bill high
Grant’s investigation in Cairo
Assistant Quartermaster arrested for bribes
Hatch throws the ledger book into the Ohio
But it washed right back, back ashore

“We are trying to trick the audience into getting into a history lesson without it sounding like it,” Stachyra (pronounced stuh-hara) said of the musical.

He will play a banjo and various instruments at Saturday’s show. Other musicians will play a reed organ and marching snare drum, meant to evoke instruments of the time -- mixing old-time music with a "funky, contemporary style."

The producers hope they can take their work to history clubs and high schools and perhaps, one day, develop a full-scale musical. Saturday’s production is meant to elicit feedback from the audience.

Stachyra started writing songs about the Sultana in 2008.

(Courtesy of Jeff Stachyra)

Among the survivor accounts he’s been most interested in is that of Chester Berry of the 20th Michigan Volunteer Infantry. “He had the foresight to collect remembrances of other survivors.”

Years later, Berry had vivid memories of his comrades’ desperate bid for survival. Hundreds died only a day and a half from a prisoner exchange and freedom. Many survivors died of burns in the following weeks.

Berry wrote: “The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory -- such swearing, praying, shouting and crying I had never heard; and much of it from the same throat -- imprecations followed by petitions to the Almighty, denunciations by bitter weeping.”


The Picket has done extensive reporting on several angles of the disaster. Here are our previous articles:

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