The Last Voyage of the Sultana
By Morgan Gates
An anniversary of a great American disaster quietly passed recently, no flags flew at half-mast because of it, no moments of silence were observed, no orator solemnly intoned the names of the lost, and I doubt that any of the national media outlets even mentioned it. Don’t feel too bad, for few people of the era in which it happened knew much about it either! In fact, if I asked you to name three or four historic American disasters just off the top of your head, chances are it wouldn't be on your list even today. Just for fun let's try it… 9/11, The Challenger, Pearl Harbor Day, The Hindenburg maybe even The Titanic … bet you didn’t list the Sultana!
One hundred fifty-three years ago the steamboat Sultana exploded and burned in the middle of the flood-swollen Mississippi River in the middle of the night. To this day nobody is quite sure how many people died that night, but the estimates range between 1192 to 1547, the higher total would be more than perished aboard The Titanic 48 years later. To add injury to insult most of the victims were recently released POW on their way home after release. Well, what does this have to do with Vicksburg you ask? The Sultana had begun its fateful journey In Vicksburg only a few days before. The fate of the Sultana and Vicksburg it seems, were inextricably linked in more ways than one, however.
The City of Vicksburg, the key to regaining control of the Mississippi River, had resisted the best efforts of both the Union Navy and Army for over a year and finally fell to the second longest siege in U.S. Military History on July 4th, 1863. The Confederate Commander was brought to negotiation by 47 days of privation and near continual bombardment as terms of surrender he demanded parole for his beleaguered men. Grant who had earned the nickname Unconditional Surrender Grant at Fort Donelson initially refused, to which his opponent replied, “You will bury many more of your men before I unconditionally surrender Vicksburg!” Grant, who likely was just “negotiating from a position of strength” realized the impracticality of processing the tremendous Vicksburg garrison into POW camps relented and allowed the parole*. Still, he must have questioned this decision especially after he discovered that many of the same men who he had paroled at Vicksburg were captured again at Chattanooga. On April 17th, 1864 Grant, now the chief Union General, ended all parole! Neither side was prepared for the vast influx of POW that ensued, but the South was in especially dire straights for by this time in the war they were having trouble feeding their own people. The hastily constructed Andersonville Prison in Georgia was an especially nightmarish combination of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and exposure. By the spring of 1865 a limited amount of parole had resumed and even before the War was officially over the South had started paroling prisoners at Andersonville and Cahaba to Federal authorities at Vicksburg. A parole camp was established just outside Vicksburg, and emaciated walking scarecrows that had been prisoners were housed and cared for until transportation north could be arranged.
Enter the Sultana! The steamboat had been headed down river spreading the news of Lincoln's assassination along with its regular passenger and freight duties. On a stopover at Vicksburg the federal quartermaster offered the financially strapped captain a deal he could not afford to turn down, on his upriver leg he would load 1400 former POW aboard the Sultana for the princely sum of $5 per soldier and $10 per officer for a small kickback! The Sultana had been designed to house only 376, but Wartime exigences had caused such cautions to be dispensed with before. Upon her return trip, one of the Sultana's four boilers sprang a leak a potentially deadly problem, but a proper repair at Vicksburg would have meant the Captain would have missed this financial windfall, so he opted for a quick patch up job instead. The next day, not 1400 but almost 2000 former POW were loaded aboard the Sultana. The doomed ship backed away from the docks at Vicksburg on the night of April 24th with 2, 125 people aboard and heading upriver fighting a strong spring floodwater swollen current. At about 2 a.m. on the night of April 27th, the boilers exploded in mid-river the loss of life that night was perhaps the greatest maritime disaster in American history! But coming on the heels of the assassination of Lincoln and the unimaginable losses of the bloodiest war in American history this tragedy hardly stirred a ripple in the peoples conscious, for America had absorbed about all the bad news it could at that time, and few people know about this tragic incident even today. But you do now dear reader. Until next time, never forget the past for it is the ladder to tomorrow!
* Lacking a means for dealing with large numbers of captured troops early in the war, the U.S. and Confederate governments relied on the traditional European system of parole and exchange of prisoners. The terms called for prisoners to give their word not to take up arms against their captors until they were formally exchanged for an enemy captive of equal rank. Parole was supposed to take place within 10 days of capture. Generally, it was granted within a few days, especially after a major battle where thousands of troops were involved. Sometimes parolees went home to await notice of their exchange; sometimes they waited near their commands until the paperwork was processed. (civilwarhome.com)
The Yankees Are Coming -- Again!
By Morgan Gates
One hundred fifty-five years ago Vicksburg was the center of world attention. Earlier in the year, President Lincoln was making daily walks to the telegraph office to check on the progress of Grant's attempts to bypass Vicksburg. By April Grant himself had given up on these efforts and given his 13th Corps commander the task of building a road through the swamps down the west side of the Mississippi. On the moonless night of April 16th, 1863, a fleet of Navy Ironclads and Army transports had run the guns of Vicksburg. The Army of The Tennessee was in the process of moving south of the City to attempt a crossing of the Mississippi. Everybody knew the Yankees were coming! This July 4th, 2018 they will be coming – again!
The first Annual Vicksburg Civil War Symposium will be your chance to meet these legendary men of American History portrayed by the nations best living historians scheduled to appear are:
Major General Ulysses S. Grant (Curt Fields) – The commander of the Army of The Tennessee that besieged Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863 Grant was one of the most Iconic generals in American History. His is the classic American story, rising from humble beginnings and surviving a string of professional setbacks that would have humbled a lesser man. The surrender of Vicksburg sets him on a path into the history books as the man who won the war. If that was not enough, he served two terms as President and his memoirs became one the bestsellers of the 19th century.
Major General William T. Sherman (Dean Cass Jr.) – The man who made Georgia howl did his dress rehearsal in Mississippi, transforming Jackson Mississippi into Chimney Ville. Sherman was Grant’s best friend and right hand man. At Vicksburg he commanded the 15th corps he attacked Vicksburg in the winter of 1862 at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou and again on May 19th and 22nd 1863.
Major General James McPherson (Scott Thomas) – promoted to Major General at Corinth for bravery he was Grant’s 17th Corps Commander at Vicksburg he fought the Battle of Raymond and anchored Grant’s center during the siege. His stellar performance caused him to rocket up the ranks, he was killed in action in 1864 the highest ranking Union officer to die in the war.
Major General Henry Halleck (Richard Weil) – Grant’s immediate superior during the Vicksburg Campaign. His relationship with Grant was somewhat rocky during the early part of the war.
Major General Henry Slocum (David Bonham) – A hero of the Battle of Gettysburg he was the military commander of Vicksburg in the summer of 1864.
Brigadier General Rufus Ingalls (Mike Trapasso) – while not a key player in the Vicksburg Campaign Rufus Ingalls was a key player in the Civil War as a whole. He was the chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac in the summer of 1862 and in the summer of 1864 Lt. General U.S. Grant made him quartermaster of the entire Federal Army.
---Oh, the Confederacy will be well represented as well, but more on that later
By Morgan Gates
Before U.S. Grant made plans to capture Vicksburg he first made plans to simply by-pass it! This was an old and valid plan of action. Since time immemorial military bastions, be they walled cities in ancient times, Medieval castles, or Civil War river fortifications, were only as effective as the choke points they controlled. If they could be by-passed, they were rendered useless.
In the winter of 1863 there were three separate projects on going to by-pass Fortress Vicksburg. The most well known was Grant’s Canal. It had been begun the summer before by Brigadier General Thomas Williams. Between June 27- and July 24 his brigade of men from, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Michigan tried to dig a ditch across the base of DeSoto Point just west of the city -- OMG what was he thinking! The Confederates didn’t have to lift a finger, Col. Summer handled that campaign all by himself. Disease and heat exhaustion took care of the Northern soldiers, and they impressed slaves to continue the work but to no avail. Work was abandoned ad the soldiers pulled out with Farragut’s naval withdrawal.
Grant’s men took up the task again in January. In Grants opinion it at least kept the men busy and in shape. This time it was Old Man River himself who took a dim view of the work. A sudden river rise flooded and nearly backfilled the canal, until two steam dredges were brought in, but Confederate artillery drove them off, and work was abandoned once more. Thirteen years later when the Mississippi decided it was read to change its course it did so a mile north of Grant’s Canal. A small segment of Grant’s canal still exists under the I-20 bridge today.
The second attempt was the Duckport Canal. In the 19th century the land immediately west of Vicksburg was mostly swamp interspersed with cotton fields, the land was crisscrossed with a number of small waterways know as bayous - small sluggish rivers typically found in marshy areas. The idea was to dig a canal of about two miles length that would connect the Mississippi (several miles NW of Vicksburg) with the headwaters of Walnut Bayou, which emptied into the Mississippi about 15 miles south of the city. This was a long shot and even Grant admitted it, but he gave the OK to begin work on it anyway. The Bayou was shallow and clogged with trees, but by mid April they were able to get four steam dredges into the canal but in early May the Mississippi began to drop, and two dredges and 20 barges were marooned, work on the canal stopped.
The most audacious attempt was the Lake Providence Canal. Lake Providence is an oxbow lake about 45 airline miles above Vicksburg. a canal was dug to connect Lake Providence to the levee that separated it from the Mississippi. The levee would then be blown allowing flood water from the Mississippi to enter the lake flooding it to a depth sufficient that it would allow riverboat passage from the lake to Bayou Macon, then through various connecting waterways all the way to the Red River, over 200 miles of torturous tree clogged waterway that would have required extensive tree removal and dredging to be and effective by-pass. The levee was blown, and Lake Providence flooded but it was not until March 23 that the waters were high enough for work to begin. By this time Grant had decided to move his troops overland and cross the Mississippi and engage Vicksburg and he ordered work stopped.
Unintended consequences: The work at Lake Providence stopped, but the levee breech and canal to the lake caused extensive flooding in eastern Louisiana, this actually helped shield Grant’s movements along the west bank, not that he had much to worry about from that sector as Kilby Smith the CSA commander on the west bank had his hands full elsewhere. Unmentioned in the annals of history is the catastrophic flooding of countless small farms and plantations in this area. But there was another unintended consequence that did not happen, only by the Grace of God! Vicksburg is home today to the Mississippi River Commission a cooperative effort of Government/Civilian assets that has spent decades studying the flow of the Mississippi and all its related waterways in order to control the damaging potential of floods and enhance navigation. In a recent presentation to our Vicksburg Civil War Roundtable a retired engineer dropped a real bomb of information into our laps. If the river flood levels had been just a little bit higher that fateful spring of 1863, the levee breech at Lake Providence might have done much more that flood eastern Louisiana, it might have permanently changed the course of the Mississippi River leaving not only Vicksburg bypassed but every river city south of Lake Providence as well! Maybe U.S. Grant himself said it best in the opening of his Memoir “Man proposed but God disposes”!
Cooking with J.M. Swords
By Morgan Gates
I suppose civilized man has always depended on some version of social media. Long before Facebook and Twitter news both real and fake circulated via whatever media was available. Perhaps town criers and town gossips being the oldest. The invention of the movable type printing press in the in the 1400’s revolutionized the social media world in a way unmatched until the present day’s internet. Books once rare and the province of the very wealthy were now widely available. The next evolution of this information revolution was the newspaper in 1605. That is a single current-affairs series regularly published at intervals short enough for readers to keep abreast of incoming news! For 400 years newspapers ruled the roost of social media. Full of Notable Events Sports and Weather (NEWS) they kept people current on matters both great and small. Some of the most popular of the short but enjoyable features common in “papers” were both social events and recipes.
Nineteenth-century Vicksburg as a thriving community had several newspapers. One was the Daily Citizen published by J. M. Swords. Swords continued publishing throughout the Siege of Vicksburg despite hardships such as running out of proper newsprint and substituting wallpaper. In its July 2nd edition, The Citizen records one such social event with at least a suggestion of a recipe:
…poor defunct Thomas (and old cat of the neighborhood) was prepared not for the grave but for the pot, and several friends invited to partake of a "nice rabbit." As a matter of course, no one would wound the feelings of another, especially in these times, by refusing a cordial invitation to dinner, and the guest aided in consuming the poor animal with relish that did honor to their epicurean tastes. The “sold” assured the meat was delicious and that “pussy” must look out for their safety.
There is no mention of just how hapless old Thomas was prepared for the pot in this article, however, at the very end of this edition of the Daily Citizen there is a “late edition edit” added July 4th by Union troops who had recently entered the city.
Two days bring about great changes the banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg… The Citizen lives to see it. For the last time it appears on wallpaper. No more shall it eulogize the luxury of mule meat and fricassee kitten—urge southern warriors to such diet nevermore…
Until next time Bon Appetit from your friends a Rediscovering Historic Vicksburg
Our History runs Deep—Literally by Morgan Gates
Vicksburg is most famous for its role in the Civil War of course, but much more happened around Vicksburg than just the turning point of this terrible war. This area is as rich in history as its soil is fertile! Both before and after the war.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a local relic hunter. He had brought in some recently unearthed artifacts and was looking for some information on his finds. Before we go any further let me assure you that these relics WERE NOT found on the battlefield! Relic hunting within any military park is illegal! He was hunting on land owned by his family, many miles from the battlefield, but there were more Union soldiers in and around Vicksburg/Warren County in 1863, than the current population of the city and county combined! So, artifacts can be, and routinely are, found throughout this area.
The objects he had were apparently from the 19th century but seemed to be post war civilian and perhaps connected to an early leader of the post war African- American community whose grave he found on the property. The struggles of the African-American community after the war are yet another layer of the deep history around Vicksburg. Prewar slave laborers knew only their work. They had never dealt with the aspects of daily life that most men took for granted --making a living, finding a place to live, supporting themselves and their families, etc. Post war, they were thrust suddenly into the cold cruel world with very little to no preparation--they had to start from scratch! Over the next few generations they were excluded from white society by racist policies, so they built a society within a society. They built their own communities within the larger white communities, with their own churches, stores etc. They survived and, in many cases, thrived in spite of the forces working against them. The first African- American woman in America to earn a PhD lived in Vicksburg!
Another object he found upon digging even deeper was a stone arrow head in nearly perfect condition. The arrowhead likely was of Choctaw origin, meaning it could have been no more recent than 1830 and likely significantly older. The majority of the Southeastern tribes were removed to what is today Oklahoma by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, yet another layer of history!
Let’s delve even deeper, shall we? I am a member of the Historic Vicksburg Advisory Committee, and one of the many projects we are working on is the tricentennial commemoration of Fort Saint Pierre. Established in 1719, this French outpost on the Yazoo River –inside the boundaries of present Warren County – was bigger than the French settlement called New Orleans in 1720. The Fort was built on the site of and even older French Mission dating to 1698.
Deeper yet we dig, Mississippi has a newly established series of road side markers that designate the locations of Native American mounds. These mounds predate even the Choctaw. They are mostly associated with the Mississippian Culture which dates back as far as 800 A.D., but many may be even older than that.
So if you are a lover of history, come on down, for our history runs deep.
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