Tuesday, May 5, 2020

As Sultana Disaster Museum adds items to its collection, plans are being finalized to raise money to build out a bigger location

Harper's Weekly illustration of the April 1865 disaster in the Mississippi River
A writing desk, reunion ribbons and other items belonging to two survivors of the Civil War’s Sultana maritime disaster have been added to the collection of a small Arkansas museum that is preparing to go national in its bid to raise money for a state-of-the art venue.

Author and lecturer Gene Salecker, board member and unofficial “picker” for the Sultana Historical Preservation Society, purchased collections that belonged to Cpl. Albert W. King of the 100th Ohio Volunteer Infantry  and Pvt. Abram Wiechard of the 18th Michigan.

A.W. King, who was recently released from
Andersonville; was on way home (SHPS)
The society operates the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion. Leaders say they are nearing selection of a leader for a campaign to raise an estimated $5 million. While the pandemic has slowed efforts, officials hope to garner new momentum in the coming months.

The society once preferred a standalone building in the town of 12,500, but the project is now going with a 1938 former high school auditorium-gymnasium that will feature up to 17,000-square feet of exhibit space.The building has not yet been formally conveyed from the school district.

The Sultana museum, which is currently closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, wants to more completely tell the story of the vessel, including stories of heroism and sacrifice, along with claims of fraud and sabotage.

I believe the fundraising effort will take 18 to 24 months from inception to completion … A lot depends on what happens in the next nine months,” says retired judge and society president John Fogleman. Two of his ancestors rescued survivors of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Marion is a bedroom community just a 10-minute drive from Memphis, across the Mississippi River. It was the closest town to where the Sultana exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing about 1,800 passengers and crew. Hundreds of Federal soldiers, many recently freed from Confederate prisons, including Andersonville and Cahaba, perished on their way home, a cruel fate after enduring months or years of privation.

No one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana, despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers. Accounts of the tragedy were overshadowed by headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Gymnasium-auditorium will be the new home of the Sultana museum (SHPS)
It’s been a protracted march to raise awareness of the episode and bring in a large amount of money. A GoFundMe page has netted about $10,000 of a $35,000 goal.

The interim museum is on a quiet side street a few blocks away from the proposed new location. It brings in only about 120 visitors a month, although those who come provide positive feedback. A larger venue will require a lot more resources and marketing.

“We still believe only about one percent of Americans have even heard of the Sultana,” says museum director Louis Intres.

The current museum on Washington Street (Courtesy of Gene Salecker)
There have been plays and some film productions about the tragedy. Intres laments that a 90-minute documentary narrated by actor Sean Astin is no longer available on Amazon.

A major question is whether there is sufficient national interest now that the sesquicentennial is several years past. Still, community leaders believe a new museum -- with interactive displays and a “wow” factor -- is still worth pursuing. They’d like to see it open in 2023.

Society leader has a connection to tragedy

The story of the Sultana runs deep in the blood of Judge Fogleman and his cousin Frank, who is the city’s longtime mayor. Their great-great-grandfather, John Fogleman, after lashing two or three logs together, poled his way through the current of the Mississippi River and toward survivors.

He plucked dozens of people -- mostly Federal soldiers -- from the chilly river. It’s possible his sons Leroy and Gustavus assisted.

Franklin Barton and LeRoy and Gustavus Fogleman (Courtesy of John Fogleman)
Another great-great-grandfather, Franklin Hardin Barton, an officer with the 23rd Arkansas Cavalry, used a dugout canoe to reach survivors, many of whom were burned or scalded.

Judge Fogleman said he never heard much about the disaster until his father brought home a book on the Sultana and a pen-and-ink drawing depicting the chaos in the river. “I started trying to find out what I could about the Sultana and became fascinated by the story,” he told the Picket.

In recent years, Fogleman and cousin Frank Barton have made presentations on the subject.

“Without regard to my personal connection, this is a tragic story. In addition to the story of the soldiers, it is important to tell the story of the many, many people -- civilian and military -- that participated in the rescue,” Fogleman says. “It is shameful the way these veterans were treated and how little was done to remember all that they had suffered.”

Among steamboat-related items collected by Gene Salecker
Some remnants of the side-wheel steamboat are believed to lie beneath a bean field on the Arkansas side of the river.

“I have always been curious why the story was not big in my family when I was much younger in view of the fact that the hull came to rest essentially in the front yard of the Fogleman home place,” the retired judge said. “This home was the home of the very first Fogleman (George) to settle in Arkansas in about 1810. This property remained in our family until my grandfather sold the property when he was a young man.”

Scouring for grants and large donations

The society has hired Haizlip Studio of Memphis to design the proposed new museum. The studio produced some plans several years ago, but they will likely need to be modified for the gym, which features a 35-foot ceiling.

“As I understand it, the architects were licking their lips when they saw the possibilities presented by the old gymnasium,” said Salecker. “With such tall ceilings, they have already hinted at the construction of a portion of a full-scale mock-up of the Sultana as the main attraction, allowing people to walk across the steamboat and look at the troublesome boilers.”

The rear of the gymnasium-auditorium (SHPS)
Intres said the society has applied for grants to aid in the acquisition of artifacts, exhibit cases and materials and fund some of the infrastructure surrounding the building to improve public access. Officials have also sought the support of the governor (a $500,000 grant) and the area’s congressional delegation.

“My biggest hope is that somehow, someone with national name recognition will come on board and be our spokesman,” says the museum director. 

According to Fogleman, the $5 million will be raised through a combination of grants, large corporate and foundation donations, smaller donations from individuals and the city's Advertising and Promotion Commission, which has committed up to $100,000 per year for five years to be used as matching funds for grants and donations that require a local match.

According to a posting on the city’s website, if 30,000 visitors come annually, they would spend almost $2.4 million in the city and $3.2 million within the county/state. Spending would generate over $51,000 in tax revenue annually for the city, according to the projection.

The society’s board will meet next week with the fundraising candidate. “This candidate is so enthusiastic about the project that she has been making suggestions for contacts and grants to apply for since the day I first met her,” said Fogleman.

“We had hoped to have a formal kick off of our national fundraising campaign in August, but that is a decision we have not formally made yet.”

She made a kindly gesture after rescue

Much of the current museum’s displays can be credited to Salecker, who has written and lectured extensively about the vessel. Many items were once displayed at Grand Army of the Republic halls across the North.

The Sultana's story currently is being told from a third location, at 104 Washington St. Volunteers showcase a handful of artifacts directly related to the disaster, a 14-foot replica of the steamboat and associated items from survivors, including reunion items from the late 19th and early 20th century. Among the artifacts are a wooden comb belonging to a soldier and a unique alligator” box made by a survivor.

Wiechard's reunion ribbons (SHPS)
Some items are not from the Sultana, but are associated with a time when steamboats moved through America’s rivers. Recently, Salecker picked up a steamboat menu from 1862, a deck passage ticket, a cabin passage ticket, a steamboat meal ticket and numerous other period items.

The collection of Pvt. Wiechard of the 18th Michigan includes a collection of 18 reunion ribbons for the 18th Michigan Infantry and one POW reunion ribbon.

It includes a walking cane, made from a tree branch and attached with a small plaque that reads "A. B. Weigard 18 M.V.I. Sultana Survivor Co. K 1865." (Wiechard's name is spelled various ways in records.)

Wiechard, who lived until 1928, apparently was captured near Athens, Ala., in fall 1864, when a large Union force surrendered. They were scattered in prisons in Georgia and Alabama. Many of his regimental comrades were on the Sultana.

Wiechard cane (SHPS)
The museum now has material that belonged to Cpl. King of the 100th Ohio, including a large charcoal drawing of him in uniform and a small laptop writing desk.

King was the secretary of the Sultana Survivors Association and apparently used this desk, since it was filled with about a dozen envelopes with a return address to "A. W. King, Secretary, Sultana Survivors Assn."

According to the Defiance County chapter of the Ohio Genealogical Society, King fought in many battles, including Atlanta, and was imprisoned at Andersonville after his capture at the Battle of Franklin (Tennessee) in November 1864.

King in 1917 gave a riveting account of what happened after he and some comrades were awakened by the explosion of boilers on the packed Sultana as it steamed upriver from Memphis. Heat became so intense, King and others plunged into the river.

“I fought hard for freedom, and saw a chance to pass under the stern of the boat without being nabbed. When a lady jumped down upon me and getting a hold on my shirt and nearly strangled me, I soon broke away from her and swimming but a short distance where a board came up in front of me, which I grabbed for support and returned to help the lady who was loudly calling for assistance. When another board popped up in front of me, I placed one on top of the other and went back to her and placed the boards under her arms.”

Albert W. King writing desk (SHPS)
They made it to the Arkansas side and hours later were picked up by men in a large rowboat and taken to Memphis. As a gesture of appreciation, the woman gave him a ring that was on her hand.

She told King she and her husband lived in Cincinnati, but he was unable to locate them two decades later. (According to the papers of President Andrew Johnson, Jennie A. White – described as a Civil War and Sultana survivors – was married to William C. Perry. He was deceased shortly after the war; she may have passed in 1868.)

King, a German immigrant, ran a grocery store in Defiance after the war and was active in civic affairs. He died in February 1929 at age 86.

This article has been updated to correct how John and Frank Fogleman are related.


  1. Some really neat artifacts.

  2. This is a remarkable story, hidden from our American history by a conspiracy of people and events at the end of the Civil War. Now acknowledged by the U.S. Congress as "the greatest maritime disaster in United States' history," the creation of the Sultana Disaster Museum will tell what has been selected as "one of the ten greatest forgotten events in american history. The story is about greed, corruption, malfeasance in office and involves, intrigue, legal maneuvering and historical characters including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Edwin Stanton in the story. If you like history at all, this is a project you should help. Go to the website at www.sultanadisastermuseum.com