Friday, November 20, 2020

John H. Simpson, teen survivor of Sultana explosion, kept the memory alive to his dying day. A monument to men on the vessel is near his grave in Knoxville church cemetery

John H. Simpson (photos courtesy of Gene Salecker)

In both photographs – taken about 60 years apart – John Harrison Simpson’s gaze is steadfast, projecting confidence and resolve.

The image taken after the Tennessee boy joined the Union army at age 15 or 16 shows him gripping a revolver -- perhaps a photographer’s prop – that is wider than his torso. He wants the viewer to know he is ready for the battle.

In the later photograph, Simpson’s face is framed by a full white beard. He has led a long life, but this time he is displaying something else – a postwar Grand Army of the Republic badge affixed to his coat lapel. He is proud of having served the United States.

The intervening years in many ways defined Simpson, who was captured in battle, spent several months in a prison camp in Alabama and then survived the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, the explosion and sinking of the Sultana at war’s end in April 1865. The vessel was carrying released prisoners back to their homes in the North at war's end.

Memorial sits atop hill at Knoxville area cemetery (Picket photos)

Upon returning to the Knoxville area, Simpson became a businessman and farmer. But his real passion was ensuring those who died or survived the Sultana disaster would be remembered – a tall task since the tragedy was largely overlooked because it occurred shortly after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Simpson helped form the local chapter of the Union veterans group the Grand Army of the Republic and by the late 1880s, according to the Knoxville History Project, was convening meetings of Sultana survivors. These veterans and others around the country lobbied long and hard for a monument in Washington or one in Memphis, Tenn., near the site of the disaster, but those never came to be.

The East Tennessee chapter, however, was particularly ambitious. On July 4, 1916 -- having given up on the federal government to come through -- members dedicated a striking Sultana memorial on a hilltop cemetery belonging to Mount Olive Baptist Church, where Simpson was a member.

(Courtesy Gene Salecker)

A 2015 article by the Knoxville History Project gave this description of the ceremony:

“Dozens assembled there … old men in then-unstylish beards and hats, but also with children, perhaps grandchildren or even great-grandchildren, with flags flying, to unveil their monument, Knoxville’s last new monument to be witnessed by actual Civil War veterans -- just as their nation tried to stay out of another war.”

The Picket has written much about the Sultana over the years, but last month brought the first opportunity to see the memorial in person.

I wanted to learn more about how it came to be, and I began researching Simpson’s story. Here’s what I have learned.

He was raring to fight in mid-teens

In 1863, the younger Simpson and his father Green enlisted in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry (Federal), Company I. While there were divided loyalties, East Tennessee was largely pro-Union and towns across the region sent thousands to join the cause. The boy likely lied about his age so that he could join up.

Knoxstalgia blogger Mark Knox years ago wrote a couple posts about his second great-grandfather.

“I suppose no one will ever know if Green’s enlistment resulted from inspiration at John’s courageous act of patriotism, or if he simply joined to be able to keep a watchful eye on his obviously headstrong son,” he wrote.

Hundreds of names are etched on memorial (Picket photo)

The 3rd Tennessee eventually was assigned to help guard a supply rail line in northern Alabama in September 1864. Troops under Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest surrounded the Federal works at Sulphur Creek Trestle and the commander was forced to surrender. Among the 1,000 or so men taken prisoner were hundreds with the 3rd Tennessee, who had been sent to reinforce the garrison.

Knox wrote that his great uncle gave an account of what happened to John during the fighting.

“My grandfather often spoke of the tense moments spent waiting for the Confederate attack, and then suddenly hearing the awful ‘rebel yell’ and seeing the Confederate troops come charging in on their position with their sabers clashing,” the great uncle wrote. “Before he had time to react, he was overrun by one of the charging horsemen. The horse stepped down and smashed his thigh and side. He was soon after captured and removed to the Cahaba prison for Union soldiers. When I was a boy, my grandfather still bore the terrible scars on his side and leg from this occasion.”

The view toward cemetery entrance (Civil War Picket photo)

Headed home after prison ordeal in Alabama

While not as well-known as Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, Cahaba held thousands of men during it two phases of operation. It was closed for a time, and its prisoners were sent to Andersonville. The Alabama camp near Selma reopened for the final six months of the conflict.

“As Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camps go, Castle Morgan was not considered one of the hellish ones, that is, if you could suffer the central Alabama heat,” says the Knoxville History Project. “Its death rate was relatively low. Perhaps the worst they had to deal with was another flood, that February.”

The 3rd Tennessee Cavalry POWs were part of a large prisoner exchange in March 1865, only a few week before the war’s end. They had to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to muster out of service. They were sent from Cahaba westward to Vicksburg, Ms., where they would travel by boat to Ohio.

Harpers Weekly illustration of the disaster
Thousands of gaunt former prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba, exhausted by their ordeal, were jammed onto the Sultana steamboat. Simpson, then 17, was believed to be sleeping on the third deck when the disaster occurred just north of Memphis, near Marion, Ark.

The overcrowded vessel exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing nearly 1,200 passengers and crew. Local residents, including freed slaves, helped the passengers, who found themselves swimming for shore, or thrashing about in the chilly Mississippi River, About 750 people were rescued, with 31 dying from horrible wounds or exposure. Bodies were recovered over the next several months.

According to Knoxstalgia, John Simpson ended up in Nashville, where he mustered out on June 10. His father left the cavalry a short time later. (I attempted to contact Mark Knox for this blog post, but have thus far been unable to reach him.)

They wouldn't give up on monument

The Sultana Survivors’ Association was formed about two decades later. National meetings were held in Toledo, Ohio. Many survivors were from the Buckeye State, but those in the South eventually decided to mostly gather in Knoxville, meaning there would be two main survivors groups – one in Ohio, the other in Tennessee.

1920 Knoxville reunion; Pleasant Keeble at far left, John H. Simpson
second from right (Knox County Public Library, McClung Historical Collection)

The survivors wanted a special pension and a national monument to be erected, but Congress never authorized the money, for a variety of reasons.

So the Knoxville chapter raised money to have one built in Tennessee, procuring native marble. Simpson was listed as the promoter.

“The dwindling number of gray-haired survivors -- by then, all were all pushing 70, or beyond --got together and, without waiting for government help, established a permanent memorial,” according to the Knoxville History Project. “Simpson was a member of Mount Olive Baptist Church. He picked that church’s hilltop cemetery as the site, and it was his prerogative. But it was a pretty good place anyway, a pretty, quiet spot barely within view of an important road, Maryville Pike.”

The pink marble memorial bears the names of 365 Tennesseans who were on the Sultana. Most, like Simpson, served in the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry. The centerpiece is a bas-relief of the Sultana, smoke pouring from its smokestacks and the American flag fluttering.

Patriotic dedication in July 4, 1916 (courtesy of Gene Salecker)

Gene Salecker, who is a board member of the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion and a longtime Sultana historian and author, provided the Picket an article he wrote about the Knoxville monument, including details of dedication day.

“Present among the hundred or so people that attended the unveiling of the monument, were members of the GAR, the Daughters of America, four survivors from the Knoxville area, including “Colonel” Simpson, and a representative from the northern Sultana Survivors’ Association who gave a short speech on behalf of the aging survivors from the North who could not attend. The beautiful monument was christened by Rev. W. L. Singleton, pastor of Mt. Olive Baptist Church.”

Visitors to the memorial today will notice a column jutting from the top. It wasn’t there in 1916.

“I have been able to reach up and feel the top of the column or shaft,” Salecker told the Picket. “There is no hole -- nothing to put flowers in or put a flag pole in. We believe that it may have been put on the monument to make it look like a steamboat smokestack.”

Descendants ensure the story lives on

The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, which was organized in 1988, held most of first 14 annual reunions at Mount Olive Baptist Church, says founder Norman Shaw. A ceremony of some kind always took place at the memorial.

Bob Warner, son of survivor Pvt. William
Warner, at monument in 1997 (G. Salecker)

The group had the aging monument sandblasted about 20 years ago and it has been cleaned since, said Shaw, who is not a descendant.

John H. Simpson, as president of the Southern contingent of survivors, was active in affairs pertaining to the Sultana for the rest of his life. The group met at various locations and by 1921 there were just 14 Tennessee survivors.

The Knoxville History Project says Simpson and Pleasant M. Keeble, residents of Knoxville’s Vestal neighborhood, were the last two Tennessee survivors. (Keeble often served as scribe for the group.)

“The two who lived closest to their monument were the last to see it. Simpson, with the kind face and flowing white beard, died first (in 1929 at age 82). Pleasant Keeble, who wore an old-fashioned walrus mustache and still had some dark in his hair, seemed made of iron cable. He decided no further reunions need occur, that the tradition would die with him.”

(Courtesy of Kendra Kirk)

The last survivors' meeting in his city was held in April 1930, with only Keeble, 84, in attendance. The former private of Company H, 3rd Tennessee Calvary, died the following year.

His comrade, John H. Simpson, is buried at Mount Olive Cemetery, not far from the beloved Sultana monument. Next to him is his wife, Margaret Flenniken Simpson, who died just two weeks after her husband’s passing.

Pastor Kirby Ownby of Mount Olive Baptist says he is unaware of any Sultana descendants currently in the congregation.

The church does keep a  history written in 2004. "They Are Not Dead But Sleepeth: The Interments of the NM Cemetery at Mt. Olive" has details of many annual reunions. Simpson was active in all of them, and he would make appearances about the Sultana until his death. A 1901 Knoxville Sentinel article about that year's meeting noted, "the event has proven a success and one of general enjoyment to the survivors and their families there assembled to pay homage to their bravery and perseverance in the Civil War."

Kendra Kirk, a trustee with the church's cemetery committee, said they get inquiries from those curious about the memorial and will provide information. The marble was recently sandblasted, she said.

(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)

(This post was updated to correct the number of those rescued and who died later)

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