With a death rate of 5 percent, Alabama's Cahaba Federal Prison boasted a better survival rate than the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camps of Andersonville, Libby Prison, Elmira, Rock Island, Johnson's Island, and Camp Douglas. Yet it was a ghastly facility, a hastily converted agricultural warehouse so overcrowded that each man barely had space to lie down to sleep.
At the war's conclusion in 1865, however, in a harrowing reversal of the inmates' fates, captured Union soldiers were sent on a grueling overland march to the Mississippi River. Held there in camps at Vicksburg along with other prisoners of war, the soldiers embarked on the steamship Sultana for transportation north.
Traveling first to New Orleans and then heading north, the vessel held by some estimates six times more passengers than its safe limit, many of them ill, injured, or malnourished. The flow of the swollen Mississippi that April was wide, swift, and cold, and the Sultana struggled to make the journey. Then, on April 27, 1865, seven miles north of Memphis, a series of three boilers exploded within seconds of one another.
The lucky passengers were flung into the water as chunks of the Sultana blasted apart. The remaining wooden structure caught fire and the upper deck collapsed. Only an estimated one third of the passengers survived, hundreds of whom later died from their wounds.
First published in 1988, Bryant's account weaves together the many strands of the Cahaba story. Combining masterful storytelling and insightful analysis, he describes Civil War prisons, the history of the Cahaba Federal Prison and its construction, as well as the prison's commanders, prisoners, and local women who provided medical care and food to the prisoners. He tells of the violent struggles among Union inmates, a mutiny and flood that occurred during the final days of the camp, and the harrowing deaths of the liberated soldiers aboard the Sultana. Bryant's Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster remains a vital part of any library of Civil War history.