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Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History

Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History

4.2 8
by Alan Huffman

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“One of the most riveting war stories I have ever read….Huffman’s smooth, intimate prose ushers you through this nightmare as if you were living it yourself.”
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm


The dramatic true story of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, Alan Huffman’s


“One of the most riveting war stories I have ever read….Huffman’s smooth, intimate prose ushers you through this nightmare as if you were living it yourself.”
—Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm


The dramatic true story of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, Alan Huffman’s Sultana brings to breathtaking life a tragic, long forgotten event in America’s Civil War—the sinking of the steamship Sultana and the loss of 1,700 lives, mostly Union soldiers returning home from Confederate prison camps. A gripping account that reads like a nonfiction Cold Mountain, Sultana is powerful, moving, rich in irony and fascinating historical detail—a story no history aficionado or Civil War buff will want to miss.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The explosion and wreck of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana in 1865, which killed 1,700 passengers, mostly Union soldiers recently released from Confederate POW camps, is but the capstone of this engrossing survey of the many varieties of suffering in the Civil War. Journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa) doesn't even get aboard the Sultana until the last third of the saga. Before that, he fills in the backstories of four Yankee survivors as they fight in the battle of Chickamauga, go raiding with Sherman's cavalry and finally get captured and sent to the infamous Southern prison camps at Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Ala. There they endure the torments of starvation, exposure, festering and maggoty wounds, predatory criminal gangs, lice and diarrhea-a scourge, Huffman notes, that was far deadlier to soldiers than bullets. Making skillful use of war diaries and memoirs, the author makes these quieter ordeals just as moving as the Sultana's doomed voyage, with its "hellish scene[s] of hundreds of screaming people being burned alive" or drowning each other in panic. Huffman fits the climactic disaster into a meticulously researched, harrowing look at the sorrow and the pity that was the Civil War. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

Journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa) here chronicles the lives of three Union troopers in the Civil War, Romulus Tolbert, John C. Maddox, and J. Walter Elliott. Elliott recorded the threesome's impressions of the war, including their daily fight to stay alive in multiple Confederate holding pens throughout the Deep South, covered by Huffman in his long prelude to the maritime disaster of the subtitle. On April 27, 1865, upriver from Memphis, the paddle-wheeler Sultana's boilers exploded, and she sank, taking with her an estimated 1700 out of 2400 passengers, mostly Federal soldiers recently released from rebel POW camps and on their way home. Huffman's graphic accounts here are stories of both cowardice and selflessness, but certainly not recommended for the squeamish. The author rightly attributes this maritime catastrophe to corner-cutting and bribery involving steamboat captains, their agents, and the Union military in Vicksburg, all committed to getting as many of the newly freed troops aboard the Sultana as possible. There were tribunals and inquiries, but scarcely anyone was punished for overloading the vessel. Huffman's final chapter traces the later lives of survivors Tolbert, Maddox, and Elliott, showing how their earlier afflictions incurred during the war, captivity, and the Sultana debacle directly led to their incapacitation and ultimate deaths. His afterword is both a fascinating discussion of his historical methodology and his perspectives regarding both the triumphs and the long-term tragedy of human survival. Huffman succeeds in establishing the Sultana's rightful place in Civil War historiography. Recommended for all Civil Warand U.S. maritime collections and for all large libraries. (Bibliography, acknowledgments, and index not seen.)
—John Carver Edwards

Kirkus Reviews
The little-known story of a deadly steamship explosion at the end of the Civil War. On April 27, 1865, the Sultana was moving along the Mississippi River, writes freelance journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia, 2004, etc.). At 2 a.m., near Mound City, Ark., three of its boilers exploded and the ship sank. Some 1,700 passengers died, many of them Union soldiers recently liberated from Confederate prisons. Occurring less than three weeks after Lee's surrender and Lincoln's assassination, the disaster was lost among larger developments in American history and is known today mainly to Civil War enthusiasts. Huffman rescues the Sultana tragedy from obscurity and brings the people and events surrounding it to vibrant life. He focuses mainly on the stories of three soldiers: Romulus Tolbert and John Maddox, farmers and friends from Indiana, and J. Walter Elliott, who later wrote about his experiences. The author's descriptions of their travails during the Civil War, especially in Confederate prisons-Elliott was incarcerated in Georgia's infamous Andersonville-are unflinching and powerful. So is his account of the confusion and corruption that resulted from Tolbert, Maddox and Elliott crowding onto the Sultana with about 2,400 other paroled prisoners, more than six times the number the ship could safely hold. Steamboat owners, paid by the head, bribed army officials to squeeze as many soldiers as possible on each vessel; these thin, weak and sickly passengers were "in no condition for a major survival challenge." Huffman chronicles the explosion and its aftermath in startling detail with a wealth of strikingimages. "After the scalded swimmers were pulled from the water," he writes, "they were sprinkled with flour to relieve their pain."A short but moving history that effectively captures both the disaster and the soldiers' ordeal. Author events in Mississippi and Tennessee

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Chapter One

Midstream, April 27, 1865

Walter Elliott took three doses of quinine the Sisters of Charity had given him on the boat, all at once. It was a futile gesture, but it was all he had at the time. Elliott, an army captain from southern Indiana, lay shivering on a cypress log, snagged in drift on the Arkansas side of the river. He was so exhausted that for a while he could not sit up. He was tormented by mosquitoes. In the darkness nearby, he heard a young man gurgling and moaning. The young man seemed to be losing his hold on a flooded tree.

Elliott listened to the gurgling and moaning for hours, and not long after the source was revealed by the faint light of dawn, the young man died. By then, rescue boats were slowly pirouetting on whirlpools in the open channel, and he noticed another man a little farther away, fully out of the water, clinging to another flooded sapling, his grasp weakening, too. The man inched lower and lower until his head slipped beneath the muddy water, then unexpectedly broke the surface again, clawing at the trunk and pulling himself up, though not quite as high as before. The scene kept repeating, stuck in frustrating denouement. The man went under; the man came up; the man went under again. Elliott could not get to him because he could not swim.

When he was finally able to stand, Elliott focused his attention on a nearly naked man who lay at his feet on a thin, sodden mattress. The man was shivering uncontrollably, as everyone was. The shakes could represent the insistent quivering of life or the final shuddering of death. All of them had engaged in mortal parlay many times before,had felt their hearts in their throats at Perryville and Stones River and Chickamauga, had lain sleepless at night in the purgatory of the prisons, watching their breath fade out before them in the cold. They had been sick, wounded, or both. They had been close to giving up and could have done so in a single breath. Each time, when they thought they had endured the worst, it had reappeared ahead of them, but each time, when they thought they had reached the end, it had been delayed.

Elliott had feared death both on the burning boat and in the river, but he was still there, rhythmically striking the nearly naked man with a switch. He was intent on keeping the man alive, and pain was the only tool at his disposal. The man, whom he did not know, feebly begged him to stop. There were others nearby, and soon the bodies of two men and of a young woman lay at Elliott's feet, ­evidence of his failures. Up and down the river he saw men clinging to flooded trees, which bowed under their weight and in the tug of the currents. Some clung with death grips; others hung limply like snagged debris. For miles down the river, he could see ­people floating away lifelessly or barely alive, on driftwood and pieces of the boat. Somewhere among them was Romulus Tolbert, a private, also from southern Indiana, who grasped a board or a piece of driftwood (the detail would be lost in the telling). Tolbert had lost sight of his boyhood friend John Maddox, a fellow private, who until then had been with him nearly every step of the way. Tolbert and Maddox had served together in the local militia back in Indiana, had endured enemy fire and wearying marches through Georgia, and had survived the squalid Confederate prison in Alabama before boarding the Sultana on their way home.

Private Perry Summerville, who grew up not far from Elliott, Tolbert, and Maddox in rural Indiana, and had also been in the Alabama pen, was now miles downstream, carried helplessly on the unyielding currents, floating toward Memphis between two wooden boards, one clutched between his shriveled, aching hands, the other hooked under his feet. Another refugee from the Alabama pen, George Robinson, a private from Michigan, was already beyond the city, floating senselessly on a dead mule amid bobbing barrels, discarded clothes, deathly quiet bodies, and smoldering splinters of the boat.

From his perch on the log, Elliott watched men hanging over the sides of the distant boats, dragging survivors and bodies aboard. He heard voices echoing across the river, and here and there someone crying out deliriously or moaning so pitifully and interminably that it was a relief when the voices finally quieted and faded away. Men mimicked the calls of birds and the croaking of frogs, or sang favorite songs from childhood or the war: Come on, come on, come on, old man, and don't be made a fool, by everyone you meet in camp, with "Mister, here's your mule!" Beyond the man hanging on the tree ­Elliott saw a pirogue piloted by a misplaced Rebel soldier, nosing in and out among the trees. It was a curious sight. Elliott called out to him and pointed to the young man clinging to the tree, and the Rebel took his cue and saved him. In the distance, in a flooded field, he saw a group of men crouched together on the roof of a barn, hugging themselves against the chill, occasionally swatting stiffly at mosquitoes. It might have seemed strange, mosquitoes in the cold, raising welts amid the goose bumps, but there was no logic to anything now. The world and the mind played tricks.

He tried to commit every detail to memory. Years from now he would struggle to make sense of it all, to put it into words, to impose order, to impress anyone who was willing to listen. Nothing would be too preposterous to believe: The hapless man rolling over on a twirling barrel, like some macabre sideshow; the man who had tied a tourniquet around the ruptured, pulsing veins of his broken legs to keep from bleeding to death, who asked to be thrown overboard to drown rather than face being burned alive; the six or seven men clinging to the back of a terrified horse as it swam down the fire-lit channel; the sister who stood on the bow of the Sultana, attempting to calm the drowning masses until the moment the flames consumed her; the woman who drifted serenely through the mayhem, buoyant as a water lily in her hoopskirt, as if in a dream—which she may well have been. They would be characters in Elliott's stock scenes. He would use them to populate his mythopoeic tale.

Sultana. Copyright © by Alan Huffman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

A partner in the political research firm Huffman & Rejebian, Alan Huffman has been a farmer; newspaper reporter; and aide to a Mississippi attorney general and a Mississippi governor. A contributor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times, Smithsonian magazine and other publications, he is the author of Ten Point, Mississippi in Africa and Sultana.

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Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This should be a history book, mandated reading in our schools. What you realize early on is that you're getting an account of the Civil War that you've never heard or knew existed. What these men endured, these American men, fighting each other no less, is truly remarkable. By the time you get to the Sultana disaster, the author has woven a thorough and seamless story of men's lives and hardship of war, that you think there cannot possibly be more that life can throw at them. And then the shipwreck happens; the story becomes more intense as their lives are tested yet again. Meticulously researched, I can see the author sitting down with the relatives and descendants of these men, over yellowed pictures and diaries, piecing together the story. Then Mr. Huffman's effortless writing style puts you in the setting, you feel what these men must have felt. This is one of those books that you keep closeby because you know that, eventually, you'll be reading it again. It's a well-told story and account of unimaginable events that every American should know about.
neanderthal78 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. Last summer the wife and I went to Memphis where I was first told about this event. Like most American's I have never heard of the Sultana and I was curious to learn more. This book does a great job at describing the tragic event but the book is not just about the ship. Most of the book follows soldiers from Indiana and their experiences at Andersonville & Cahaba prison. The Sultana isn't really mentioned till the end and at the very beginning. So if you're looking for a book solely about the Sultana, this isn't it. But if you want to read a really good book about little know events that took place in the Georgia back country and on that fateful night on the Sultana...check this book out.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a reasonably well written and interesting Civil War history, though it is actually more about the experiences of Union prisoners of war than the steamship disaster. The author follows the experiences of several soldiers throughout the War and their capture and inprisonment culminating with what was to be their trip home on the ill fated vessel after their release at war's end. While the disaster was the worst in U.S. history, the causes seem fairly straightforward. A book only about the disaster would probably be rather short.