Along the river

Published 12:23 am Sunday, October 5, 2008

I’m sitting here on the banks of the Cahaba where it meets the Alabama River. Rivers are peaceful. They’re the first highways of this country. And you have to respect them for that.

Just a few minutes ago, my friend, Robert Bruce Smith IV from Tupelo, Miss., talked about one of the greatest maritime disasters in the history of the nation. Until then, I’d forgotten about it — the Sultana.

The Sultana disaster occurred on the Mississippi River in 1865. It claimed the lives of about 1,700 returning Union veterans, who had been prisoners of war in the South during the Civil War. Some of those had been housed here at the old prison in Cahawba.

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The prison was 16,000 feet and surrounded by a tall brick wall, according to historians. Prisoners claimed they slept on bare floors with one fireplace in the building to keep them warm. The Alabama River flooded often in those days. Sometimes, prisoners had to live in buildings with a foot or more of water in them.

You can imagine the joy these men felt as they boarded the Sultana in New Orleans or Vicksburg, Miss. She was a typical side-wheeler out of Cincinnati. War Department records show she carried Army personnel frequently.

When she left New Orleans in April 1865, she carried about 100 passengers and cargo of livestock and other goods. Legally, the Sultana could carry 325 passengers. Three days into the trip, the Sultana stopped in Vicksburg. An engineer saw the boilers leaked, so the boat laid up for repairs before heading north. The repairs were made quickly.

Because the government paid the company that owned the Sultana per head for transporting soldiers, the boat overloaded. After all, soldiers wanted to get home to their families and celebrate the end of the war. The boat took on somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 soldiers.

The boat’s captain, J.C. Mason of St. Louis knew his vessel was dangerously overloaded. He warned those on the boat not to rush over to one side or the other because the boat would tip or strain the boilers by forcing the scalding water over to one side.

The Sultana stopped in Memphis, Tenn., to pick up more passengers. It cast off and chugged. The boilers continued their work, but they were weak. The steam pressure built up and the boilers exploded, sending an orange flame up through the boat’s midsection and after that, a geyser of boiling water.

The few reports that exist describe the explosion and sleeping soldiers blown into the river, which had flooded and was three miles wide, making swimming in the rapid current difficult at best. Fragments of the boat pierced others like so many lethal needles. Steamy water melted skin.

Men died by the hundreds.

It’s uncertain because of the lack of reports the number of prisoners who died from Cahawba — not too far from where I sit right now, writing this on a notebook.

Rivers are peaceful at times. And like any other highway, they carry their histories.

Leesha Faulkner is executive editor of The Selma Times-Journal. You may reach her at 410-1730 or