Earlier this year, I received a letter from Dee Cody of Columbus, Ohio. She wrote to the Internet Archive, asking for our help in keeping alive the story of a Civil War-era tragedy. 155 years ago today, on April 27, 1865, the steamship Sultana exploded on the Mississippi, killing more than 1100 passengers—most of them Union soldiers returning home from Confederate prison camps at the end of America’s most bitter war. Dee writes:
The story of the Sultana is personal to my family, for my paternal great-great-great grandfather survived the disaster. His name was Daniel Garber, a private in the 102nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He enlisted in 1862, was captured in 1864, and then sent to the Cahaba prison camp in Alabama. His first-person account of enduring the tragedy can be found in a book called Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors which was compiled by fellow survivor Chester D. Berry and first published in 1892.
The story of Daniel Garber and his fellow soldiers intrigued me. I discovered in the Internet Archive this Librivox Audiobook of “Loss of the Sultana,” where you can hear Garber’s first-person account from 1892. To honor Dee’s wishes to preserve “this almost forgotten story,” we put together the Sultana Maritime Disaster Collection of books, audio and even the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, April 29, 1865 edition, recounting the “Shocking Steamboat Disaster” in vivid detail:
The scene following the explosion was terrible and heart-rending in the extreme. Hundreds of people were blown into the air and descending into the water, some dead, some with broken limbs, some scalded, were borne under by the resistless current of the great river, never to rise again. The survivors represent the screams as agonizing beyond precedent. Some clung to frail pieces of the wreck, as drowning men cling to straws and sustained themselves for a few moments, but finally became exhausted and sunk.
Daniel Garber was one of those survivors, who in Chester Berry’s 1892 Loss of the Sultana recalled:
By this time, all was confusion and men were jumping off into the river to get away from the flames. I looked around for a clear place to jump, for I knew if I jumped in where men were struggling, they would seize my board and I would be lost, because I could swim, but very little.
That night, the Sultana was carrying 2100 passengers, even though the ship’s official capacity was 376. Dee explains that avarice was the blame. “The Captain would have lost out on the money,” she told me. “He was paid $5 for every enlisted man transported and $10 for officers.” Although the death counts vary, anywhere between 1100-1700 people died due to the sinking of the Sultana, making it the worst maritime disaster in US history—more deadly than the Titanic or the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
And yet, who today remembers the Sultana? Why isn’t this story in textbooks, or captured by Hollywood on the screen? One reason may be timing. The Sultana exploded just hours after John Wilkes Booth had been captured and killed, while Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train was still winding its way cross country to Springfield, Illinois. In April 1865, after 620,000 soldiers had lost their lives during the Civil War, perhaps the Sultana was just one more tragedy.
But not to Daniel Garber’s great-great-great granddaughter. By her own account:
In 2016 I came up with the idea of sending letters to museums, newspapers, civil war roundtables, and any other group that might be interested, to tell the story of the Sultana and help raise awareness about the annual meetings of what is now called The Sultana Association. While I’ve stopped keeping track of the exact number of letters I’ve sent, I estimate there have been over 500 altogether.
Including the letter Dee Cody sent to the Internet Archive. From Dee I learned that after Daniel Garber jumped from the burning deck of the Sultana, he went on to work as a shoemaker and a farmer in Ohio, fathering eight children, 29 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren by the time he died in 1906. A century and a half later, his story lives on thanks to Dee, who shared this simple wish: “My hope is that anyone who hears the story will always remember the Sultana.”