|(Photos courtesy of Robert Burke, Marion, Ind.)|
One by one, they dropped the long-stemmed roses into the Mississippi River to remember their Sultana ancestor: A red flower if he survived, a white one if he did not.
The Saturday ceremony and dinner cruise was a highlight of this year’s reunion of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends (ASDF).
Today, April 27, is the 150th anniversary of the deadliest maritime disaster in American history. An estimated 1,800 Union soldiers, many of them Andersonville and Cahaba prisoners heading home at war’s end, were killed in the overcrowded steamboat’s explosion and fire a few miles above Memphis, Tenn.
Robert Burke of Indiana (above) was among those who crowded the Memphis Queen III’s rail for the ceremony. He dropped a custom wreath and white rose in honor of his ancestor, Enoch Nation, 9th Indiana Cavalry, who was a Cahaba prisoner near Selma, Ala.
“They never found his body,” Burke told the Picket on Sunday. “My only hope is he’s in an unknown soldier’s marked grave.”
The descendants group Sunday visited the national cemetery in Memphis, which has 23 marked headstones of Sultana victims and many more unknown dead, said member Norman Shaw.
|(Photos courtesy of Robert Burke)|
The reunion was based in Marion, Arkansas -- the closest city to the wreck site – which held sesquicentennial events over the weekend. The ASDF also toured Civil War-related sites in Memphis and those still in town Monday evening were to attend the screening of a Sultana documentary backed by actor Sean Astin.
About 150 people Saturday boarded the Memphis Queen III, a 110-foot true stern wheeler.
“We went up 7 miles north of Memphis,” said Shaw. “We tried to replicate (the position of the Sultana). It was close enough.” What’s left of the boat lies beneath a soybean field on the Arkansas side. That field, on the unprotected side of the levee, was underwater this weekend.
Memphis tour guide Jimmy Ogle was the cruise director for the ASDF’s ride up the Mississippi, which included music from the area's 52nd Regimental String Band.
|52nd Regimental String Band provided entertainment|
Aboard the descendants’ cruise, Greg Barats of Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. presented a $5,000 check to Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman of Marion for a permanent Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion. Author Gene Salecker gave a lecture entitled "The Sultana Disaster: It was NOT Sabotage.”
|(Courtesy of Ken Keene|
Re-enactors gave a four-musket salute and there was a solemn “burial” of a replica Civil War-era U.S. flag wrapped around a cobblestone from the historic Memphis wharf, where the Sultana made a stop shortly before the disaster. (Shaw emphasizes the flag burial was not an act of desecration)
A wreath from the Marion Chamber of Commerce also was dropped into the river.
In essence, victims of the Sultana disaster were given a funeral they never received in 1865.
“It was emotional, especially for each particular ancestor represented in turn,” said Shaw.
|(Courtesy of Jimmy Ogle)|
Clinton Riddle, 94 and a World War II veteran of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, came to remember six ancestors, members of the Federal 3rd Tennessee Cavalry and 11th Tennessee Cavalry, who were on board the Sultana. Most of them died on the Sultana or in the river.
He was taken by the power of the Mississippi River and its strong current. “It reminded me of crossing the Atlantic during World War II and the rocking of the boat.”
He, too, dropped roses into the water. “It was an honor to be able to do that,” the Sweetwater, Tenn., resident said. “Having been in combat so much, seeing so many soldier friends killed, Sultana brings back a lot of memories.”
Riddle is the author of a poem, “The Fate of the Sultana,” on the descendants group’s website.