Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sultana disaster: Sister, brother recall learning of tragedy in family's long U.S. history

(Photos courtesy of Ely family)

David and Sharon Ely grew up as proud descendants of four brothers who came to the colonies only decades after the Mayflower Pilgrims landed on the shores of Massachusetts.

And while they could trace their family’s long American history to English ancestors who settled in Boston and Connecticut, it was only as young adults that they learned the full story of perhaps the most famous Ely of them all.

Sgt. John Clark Ely, an Ohio schoolteacher, was among 1,800 passengers – most of them Union soldiers released from prison camps – to die in the April 1865 explosion and fire on the steamboat Sultana above Memphis. It was the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.

What made Ely notable, according to Sultana author Jerry Potter, is that he maintained a journal that includes entries on the journey up the Mississippi River.

Sgt. John Clark Ely
To my knowledge, his diary is the only one that is in existence,” Potter recently told the Picket. “While we have many accounts written later, his is the only one that we have that gives a day-to-day account leading up to the disaster. Plus, he is one of the few buried at the (Memphis) national cemetery with a headstone with his name. Finally, he became my hero who through his own words I got to know him.”

Sharon Ely Pearson, 60, of Norwalk, Ct.; and David Ely, 57, of Alameda, Calif.; recalled learning the details of their great-great-grandfather’s Civil War experiences.

Their late father, Clifford Seth Ely Jr., and Clifford’s cousin, Norman Ely, had some of the soldier’s belongings – including one of two journals (the other is lost) and a Bible -- and began doing research. Norman had a chess set that was carved by John Clark Ely.

Norman Ely told the Picket in 2012 that the cousins and their wives traveled to a reunion of Sultana descendants. They visited Andersonville, the prison in Georgia where John Clark Ely was held shortly after his December 1864 capture in Tennessee.

Norman Ely's mother told him about the small diary, which captures the soldier's despair, anguish, privations -- and hope. Ely said he became interested in the family's genealogy 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. (Norman Ely, of Glenwood Springs, Colo., passed away in March 2013)

Pages from the diary recovered after Sultana disaster (Ely family)

Sharon Ely Pearson said she is not sure how John Clark Ely got to Ohio. He was born in Franklinville, N.Y. His widow, Julia, returned to Norwalk, where she died in 1873.

Clifford and Norman Ely pursued their interest in the Sultana while retired, and they set about writing their own memories.

Pearson was in her 20s when she heard of the diary. “My Dad didn’t share that kind of stuff.”

Pearson has since pursued an interest in genealogy and has wandered through cemeteries. “I think it’s very cool. It is not just my side. I have done on my husband’s side, too. We are New Englanders.”

(Courtesy of David Ely)

David Ely, retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, has a daily reminder of John Clark Ely’s Civil War service and sacrifice. On a wall of his home is a collage of photos of men in his family. From left:

-- John Clark Ely, Civil War

-- Clark Mead Ely, John’s son

-- Clifford Mead Ely Sr., Clark’s son and a U.S. Army veteran of World War I, European campaign

-- Clifford Seth Ely Jr., David and Sharon’s father, U.S. Navy, 1943-1946, Pacific campaign. He died in October 2013.

David and Sharon did not participate in observances this year marking the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the Sultana and are not active in the descendants group. They are busy with other matters. But nearly a decade ago, David made mention of John Clark Ely during a Memorial Day observation.

“It was Memorial Day and I brought the frame and four photographs and talked about the sacrifices our service members do. Sometimes, it is not in the heat of battle that they give their lives. But in this case, it can tell a story of men who were released from prison at end of war and on the way home to families, making that journey -- how tragedy strikes.”

Quilt made by Trinette Ely

One of last things he did with his father was to visit the Gettysburg battlefield. Clifford Ely’s late wife, Trinette, made a quilt honoring those on board the Sultana.

“It is inspiring to have that connection. The Ely came over in the 1600s from England but we don’t know much about a lot of the individuals, except for John Clark,” David Ely said. “The diary and story of Sultana is a very strong connection to the Civil War to our family …Now there is an incredible story.”

The surviving journal provides vivid details of the soldier’s transit to and time in Confederate prison camps.

Clifford Ely, who was a businessman in Norwalk, told the Picket in 2012 he 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."

"He had all the great hopes. He couldn't wait to get home," Clifford Ely said. "When he got on the steamboat, he kept writing to her (Julia)."

Sgt. John Clark Ely, Company C, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, boarded the overcrowded Sultana near Vicksburg, Ms. His last diary entry, written two days later, read: “Very fine day, still upward we go.”

Sharon Ely Pearson said her great-great-grandfather should have lived to see his family. Instead, he would perish in the April 27, 1865, disaster.

“It was sad and tragic, but so typical for what happened in the Civil War,” she said.


  1. 600 more people died in the Sultana than the Titannic, but is little known today because the appalling loss of life simply adding to the horror that was Andersonville and other Civil War prisons, to say nothing of the war in general. The majority of the soldiers who died were weakened by captivity. A very, very sad day.

  2. Phil, since we spoke and you wrote this, I had a conversation with my father's (Clifford) sister Barbara Ely Alley. She told me that J.C. Ely went to Ohio to be a school teacher, solving the mystery for me as to why he moved to Ohio from Connecticut. His wife, Julia, moved to Norwalk, CT after the War to be with his family and is buried in Union Cemetery in Norwalk. She lived in Danbury, CT with several of the other female members of the family who were widowed or "spinsters." She (and my dad and their brother, Leonard) would often go to Danbury on Sundays to visit the "Danbury ladies" with their parents: Clifford Seth Ely, Sr. and Helen MacKenzie Ely.

  3. Thanks so much for the colorful update, Sharon. Happy New Year!