Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sultana disaster: New museum, events, documentary to mark 150th anniversary

Overloaded Sultana awaits its destiny (Library of Congress)

The campaign to keep alive the story of the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history has come to fruition, with the upcoming opening of a Sultana museum, a 150th anniversary weekend in an Arkansas river city and the private screening of a documentary backed by actor Sean Astin, best known for the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy.

“The Sultana is beginning to receive her acknowledgement as the great tragedy to end the Civil War,” said Louis Intres, an adjunct history instructor at Arkansas State University.

The steamboat, traveling on the Mississippi River, exploded and caught fire early on the morning of April 27, 1865, at war’s end. It claimed about 1,800 lives. Most of the victims were freed Union prisoners headed north, believing they were going home.

The incident received little publicity because Americans were weary of the Civil War and still mourning President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated only two weeks before.

Intres and others expect that anniversary events in Marion, Ark., and nearby Memphis, Tenn., planned for late April will bring folks from around the region and country to check out the museum, hear lectures, attend a wreath-laying ceremony and take a bus tour and a “riverboat cruise into history.”

Gene Salecker with Sultana model (Courtesy of Mark Randall)

On Saturday, April 25, passengers will board a vessel in Memphis, and travel on the Mississippi River to the site of the disaster and the wreckage, which lies beneath a cultivated field on the Arkansas side near Marion. The site is on private property, and the field may be underwater because of flooding this time of year.

“The captain has agreed to take the boat upstream, farther than ordinary, in order to get into the area where the (ship) remains are,” Rosalind O’Neal of the Sultana Historic Preservation Society told the Picket.

The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends (ASDF) will be holding its annual reunion in Marion from April 23-27. Members who go on the cruise may drop roses into the water as a tribute to relatives who died or survived.

In 2012, the Picket wrote extensively about the Sultana, quoting several people as saying they hoped a temporary exhibit that year in Marion would be a precursor to a lasting memorial.

The first step in a permanent Sultana museum will occur April 9, said O’Neal, one of the organizers of the April 23-25 commemoration in Marion.

Sultana artifacts, memorabilia belonging to Gene Salecker

That’s when members of the Arkansas Historical Association will tour the interim Sultana Disaster Museum, leased at 104 Washington St. near the courthouse.

Among items on display will be memorabilia, a large riverboat model and Sultana artifacts belonging to Gene Salecker, who has written and lectured extensively about the vessel. A wall in the building has a list of known passengers.

“It’s almost like a memorial wall for the people on the Sultana,” said O’Neal.

The historical society, the city and the Marion Chamber of Commerce are planning a second, permanent location for the museum. The city, hoping for the benefits of heritage tourism, last year voted to spend $400,000 for such a facility.

(Interesting, an ancestor of Mayor Frank Fogleman was among residents who came to the aid of badly injured or burned Sultana passengers).

“We are in the beginning stages of planning for a permanent museum, and are close to retaining a firm for architectural and exhibit design services,” Michael Demster, president of the Marion Chamber of Commerce, told the Picket. “We have received some nice seed money, but will need to raise more to get the museum worthy of the Sultana.”

Salecker defies sabotage theories (Mark Randall)

O’Neal said there’s a desire for a small theater and interactive exhibits in the future permanent location.

For now, the community’s focus is on the anniversary weekend. Officials encourage people to register now for key events, because many spots are filled.

They hope about 200 people will sign up for the lectures, museum tour, reception, bus tour of Civil War related sites in Arkansas and Tennessee and the $50 riverboat cruise, which includes a barbecue dinner and lecture by Salecker, entitled “It Was Not Sabotage!”

PBS’ “History Detectives” examined whether the ship’s destruction was the act of Confederate sabotage, faulty machinery or “dangerous conditions.”

The overcrowded steamboat sank 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.

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.

Salecker collection includes passenger's comb

The Sultana, with nearly 2,300 people on board, was way above passenger capacity at the time of the explosion. Hundreds of Union soldiers died only a day and a half from a prisoner exchange and freedom.

Local residents, including freed slaves, helped the passengers, who found themselves swimming for shore, or thrashing about in the chilly Mississippi River.

“There were some amazing stories of heroism," said Intres. About 700 people were saved, with 200 dying for their wounds. Bodies were recovered over the next several months.

The South, focused on its own devastation, wasn't particularly sympathetic about enemy soldiers perishing, said 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 in 2012. "I just lost it. A few people felt that way, but few people knew about the Sultana.”

Jimmy Ogle, a tour guide and community engagement manager for the Riverfront Development Corp. in Memphis, that same year said it was up to societies and local communities to build a Sultana museum. “It was just perceived as a small steamboat disaster in the South.” 

That’s appears to be changing. More Americans are learning about the disaster, and Intres believes the 150th anniversary and the new documentary on the disaster will do even more.
Sean Astin and Mark Marshall have created the “Remember the Sultana” through a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Monument in Hillsdale, Mich. (Stephenie Kyser)

A private screening is planned for Monday evening, April 27 (the actual sinking anniversary), at the Paradiso in Memphis.

O’Neal said a Civil War encampment in Marion on April 25 will feature re-enactors, a Civil War medicine wagon and an exhibit on the role of African-Americans during the war. Organizers are bringing in students taking Advanced Placement history.

“If they can feel it, see it, touch it, it makes an impression,” she said.

Norman Shaw, of Knoxville, Tenn., a member of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, said he expects about 100 members to attend their reunion and related events in Marion.

About half may remain for the documentary screening Monday, an event independent of Marion's plans. Shaw is planning a visit to the presumed wreckage site for that Sunday, weather permitting.

The cruise the evening before will be an emotional experience, he predicted, especially with the tossing of roses into the Mississippi River.

“I think it will be very moving. It is very meaningful to our people,” Shaw told the Picket. “One person emailed me this is the closure to the story” of an ancestor who was among the victims.

The Sultana Disaster Museum will be open Thursdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Contact the Chamber of Commerce at 870-739-6041 to arrange a group tour. Admission is free for April. Beginning May 1, the cost is $8 for adults, $5 for children under 12. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for helping to keep the Sultana alive via your excellent Civil War blog. Two years ago I first learned of the disaster purely by chance. How could I never had heard of this event? It inspired me to research and learn as much as possible, then to write a novel on the tragedy. Why a novel? Because I write historical fiction and felt I could breath life into the disaster from a soldier's perspective.

    "Sultana Awaits" follows 2 fictional brothers, Andersonville & Cahaba survivors, from Vicksburg to Memphis. I took great pains to accurately weave historical events into their experiences onboard. I'm happy to say the book is now epublished. You can learn more at my website. I would be honored to have the opinion of a Civil War historian such as yourself. Thank you in advance,.