Friday, April 20, 2018

Annual Sultana festival will spotlight Civil War maritime disaster, plans for a new museum

The Sultana, a day before disaster (Library of Congress)

The greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history will be remembered Saturday in the Arkansas town near where the Sultana exploded and burned, with speakers focusing on why and how it happened and plans for a new museum about the Civil War tragedy.

The free 3rd Annual Sultana Heritage Festival in Marion will include a series of speakers from 9:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Trinity in the Fields Anglican Church.

The steamboat, chugging north on the Mississippi River, exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing hundreds. Many of those on board were released Union prisoners, including gaunt soldiers who were held in Andersonville. They were heading home at war’s end. Marion was the closest community to where the overcrowded 260-foot sidewheeler came to rest and residents helped rescue those thrown into the chilly water.

Gene Salecker: How many actually died?

While estimates have varied over the years, many histories list 1,800 killed passengers and crew members. Military historian and Sultana artifacts collector Gene Salecker has argued that number is much too high.

Salecker with a Sultana model in Marion

Salecker told the Picket he has checked government lists, adjustant general reports, pension and burial records, along with obituaries, newspaper accounts and genealogies.
He found a total of 2,137 on the Sultana, with 953 surviving – meaning an estimated 1,184 soldiers, crew members, civilians and guards died.

“If the Sultana disaster was a Civil War battle, it would rank number 12 among the most costliest battles in the Civil War -- and most of the battles were two and three day affairs,” he said. “The Sultana disaster lasted about five hours. By the way, we used to think that about 200 people died in Memphis hospitals after being rescued. I have found only 31.”

Louis Intres: Drumming up interest in permanent museum

The adjunct professor and Sultana expert was hired by the city to serve as museum development director and raise about $3 million for a new venue. Officials hope to draw visitors from all over the country, including from Memphis, Tennessee, across the Mississippi River.

Currently, the story of the steamboat is told in small museum staffed by volunteers. Intres will give an update on the plans, which he described in a Picket interview last year,

Intres told the Picket on the eve of the festival that he will begin work full time on the project beginning May 1, now that he is ending his teaching career in the history department at Arkansas State University.

He said a city advertising and promotion committee has committed $845,000 for the construction of a new venue and operation of the current museum.

Intres wrote: “I have also just completed a professionally designed promotional package for national distribution to targeted benefactors, foundations, trusts, and private philanthropies.  Lastly, I have begun to identify and recruit members of various segments of the national economy who have an interest in U.S. history, philanthropy and a history in supporting museums, libraries and large public educational attractions like ours. Thus far, several people have indicated a real interest in becoming a part of our national fund-raising effort.  Lastly, my committee and I are beginning to arrange appointments with private, state, and federal agency personnel for support and funding opportunities.”

Meanwhile, the city of Marion is giving the temporary museum a face-lift with a remodeling, Intres said.

Judge John Fogleman: Townspeople came to rescue

The circuit judge told the Picket he will portraying his great-great grandfather, John Fogleman, who along with his sons, Dallas and Leroy, and three neighbors helped get those who remained on the Sultana safely to the Arkansas shore.

“I will also be covering the efforts of another great-great grandfather, Franklin Hardin Barton, in helping the victims of the Sultana.”

The judge also will discuss the Federal burning of the Arkansas villages of Mound City and Hopefield in responses to Confederate guerrilla activities and the trial of a man accused of instigating the hanging of an abolitionist.

Jerry Potter: Why did the disaster happen?

Potter, a Memphis lawyer and Sultana expert, has 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. The Sultana was way above passenger capacity at the time of the explosion.

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. The Picket has reached out to Potter for comment on what he hopes to cover in his talk.

Current Sultana museum (Gene Salecker)

Jimmy Ogle: Memphis before, during and after the war

The tour guide told the Picket he will briefly cover early explorers and settler, then the development of the steamboat landing and cobblestone wharf. The opening of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad in the middle of the 19th century “led to Memphis to being an important center of transportation prior to the Civil War, and then a target for quick Union occupation.”

Ogle also will touch on the naval battle for Memphis, wartime occupation, immigration of formerly enslaved persons, yellow fever epidemics and the city’s first major bridge (1892).

Marion Chamber of Commerce President Tracy Brick told the Evening Times newspaper that the speaker series set for Saturday “is going to be factual enough so that someone who is a real historian will enjoy it, but also entertaining enough for the person who lives in town who wants to learn more about the Sultana. So I think we have something where we can reach a pretty broad audience.”

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