Sultana descendants returning to Old Cahawba

Published 10:31 pm Thursday, April 19, 2018

By Adam Dodson | The Selma Times-Journal

The Cahawba Archaeological Park will continue its event-filled month when it hosts members of the Sultana Association of Knoxville, Tennessee on Saturday, April 28.

The organization is visiting Selma, Orrville and Cahawba to commemorate the those who died as Civil War POW’s (prisoners of war) during the Sultana disaster of 1865, the largest maritime disaster in United States history, and to celebrate the 200th year of Alabama’s statehood.

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The group will stay in Selma on Friday night to host meetings before heading over to the park the next day.

While Cahawba frequently hosts tours open to the public, this event is strictly private and limited to the park’s members and the Sultana Association in order to give them a full historical experience.

According to Norman Shaw of the Sultana Association, Cahawba was one of many locations used to house the prisoners. Cahawba’s Union POWs, among others, were amongst those who died during the Sultana catastrophe, when over 1,000 people lost their lives in the steamboat’s explosion.

“We are descendants from all over the country, and a lot of us still haven’t seen the site. We have been to all the other (POW) sites, just not this one,” Shaw said.

The Sultana Association connects members who are descendants from lost POWs or those associated with the disaster. With a large-scale event planned for their visitors, Old Cahawba site director Linda Derry is excited to get to experience and share history with people who have direct ties to ancient Cahawba tales.

“I find it amazing to meet these descendants when they come back to Cahawba. About every day we see a descendant of one of those POW’s, but this is the first time we are going to have a large group of them here all at once. It is a nice link between the past and present,” Derry said. “I understand that they almost filled up two of our hotels. They will leave a lot of money here in Selma-Dallas County, so that’s always good for our community.”

According to Derry, their trip is going to be packed with historical lessons and activities.

This includes a trip to the site of the prison, which Derry said had the lowest death rate out of Civil War POW camps. The two groups will go where the old prison once stood and read letters left behind written by the POW’s themselves.

Derry describes this as a “heartfelt moment” for the descendants to read about their ancestors before their untimely deaths.

“Could you imagine? They survived the bloodiest war in U.S. History. They survived the prisoner of war camps. They were writing letters home to their mothers, wives and children saying they are coming back. Then, on the way home, they die in this horrible explosion. It’s just heart-wrenching,” Derry said.

As to what caused the misfortune of the ship, certain rumors have snowballed as the years have turned into decades, such as the possible sabotage of the ship.

However, Derry says it is far more likely that the ship’s malfunction was due to its poorly-manufactured hull and security maintenance stemmed from negligence at the hands of government contractors.

The ship, which was designed to hold 376 passengers, held over 2,000 individuals at the time of the disaster caused by three of the ship’s four boilers exploding, killing 1,192 passengers.

While they take tours of the park and remember their history, the gathering will also celebrate Alabama’s bicentennial and the 31st reunion of the Sultana Association.

Old Cahawba, which served as the first capital of Alabama, has been the focal point for multiple bicentennial celebrations.

For more information about the Sultana Association, visit

For more information about the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, visit