FIRST IN A SERIES
It was quiet that day in Marion when I pulled up to the Sultana Disaster Museum at 104 Washington St.
I was the only visitor, but that didn’t discourage me. The museum tells a story that needs to be told, and it’s my first stop as I take U.S. Highway 64 from east to west across Arkansas.
The worst maritime disaster in U.S. history occurred April 27, 1865, in the Mississippi River near here. It’s estimated that between 1,200 and 1,800 of the Sultana’s 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded and the Sultana burned. The sinking of the Titanic claimed 1,517 lives.
The Sultana disaster didn’t receive widespread attention due to the timing. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated just 13 days earlier. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed the day before the explosion as Union troops tracked him to a Virginia farm and shot him.
Sultana survivors formed a national association in the 1880s, and their descendants began holding reunions on the anniversary of the tragedy. City officials at Marion joined forces with historians several years ago to create this small museum. The goal was to attract some of the tens of thousands of annual visitors to Memphis. The photographs and interpretive panels, which record the names of soldiers, crew members and civilians on the Sultana, explain the events of that night.
The museum has accumulated far more material than it has room to exhibit, and fundraising efforts are ongoing so a larger facility can be built.
“The way I understand it, they used a raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire,” says Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman.
The Sultana left New Orleans on April 21 with between 75 and 100 cabin passengers. Livestock bound for market in St. Louis was also aboard the ship. The Sultana docked at Vicksburg so repairs could be made to the ship’s boilers. It was also a chance to take on more passengers.
The boat had a defective boiler that should have been replaced. In order to save time and money, a small patch reinforced the area that was leaking. That repair took one day. A complete replacement would have taken about three days. Meanwhile, hundreds of new passengers came aboard.
Nancy Hendricks writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas that those who boarded were “mostly Union soldiers from Midwestern states such as Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Having been taken as prisoners of war, they were sent to the notoriously overcrowded Confederate prisons of Cahaba in Alabama and Andersonville in Georgia. Those who survived at war’s end were marched to Vicksburg for their return north.
“When the survivors came in sight of the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, they shouted and sang with joy. The Army was paying the Sultana’s captain — who was part-owner of the boat — $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer taken aboard. Those who boarded the side-wheeler found a boat built for 376 that took on, by some reports, almost 2,400 men, as well as women and children who were in passenger cabins.”
The boilers were taxed to their limits as the crowded ship made its way upstream against strong currents. The river was swollen by spring rains. It was 2 a.m. on April 27, and the Sultana was a few miles upstream from Memphis when the nightmare began.
“It was like a tremendous bomb going off in the middle of where these men were,” said Jerry Potter, the author of “The Sultana Tragedy” and a Memphis lawyer. “And the shrapnel, the steam and the boiling water killed hundreds.”
One of the boilers had exploded, leading two of the other three boilers to also explode. Many survivors ended up on the Arkansas side of the river, which was still under Confederate control. One local resident who helped rescue survivors was an ancestor of the current Marion mayor.
Most boats on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River had been confiscated by Union solders during the previous months in an attempt to discourage Confederate raids. Arkansas residents set out in what few boats they had. Logs were strung together to form rafts.
In a story for National Public Radio, Jon Hamilton said the best explanation for why the tragedy didn’t receive much attention is that “after years of bloody conflict, the nation was simply tired of hearing about war and death. Today, though, the city of Marion thinks people are ready to learn about the Sultana. The museum it has created near City Hall includes pictures, personal items from soldiers, pieces of the Sultana and a 14-foot replica of the boat. But what the museum really has to offer is a powerful story of soldiers who died just days away from seeing their families and loved ones.”
The New York Times devoted only three lines to a disaster that resulted in all those deaths. Most Americans were unaware of what had happened.
The Union soldiers had somehow survived two of the worst prisons in American history, only to die on the way home. The story is a sad one, but it’s one Arkansans should know. Thanks to the folks at Marion, the Sultana disaster is no longer a forgotten part of Arkansas and American history.
And the museum is about to get much bigger and better.
John Fogleman, who served 26 years as a circuit judge in this area, walks me into an old gymnasium near downtown Marion and lays out his vision for the future.
He’s part of a group trying to raise $10 million. Some of that money will be used to turn this gym, which was built by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s, into a state-of-the-art museum that will attract history buffs from across the country. The rest will be used as an endowment to fund future operations.
“We’ve already raised $3.4 million,” John Fogleman says. “And that was done during a pandemic.”
The gym was once a showplace in the Arkansas Delta. In 1939, LSU’s basketball team came up from Baton Rouge to play Southwestern of Memphis (now Rhodes) there. Fogleman remembers high school shop classes being taught in the building.
“We built furniture in here,” he tells me. “We’re giving new life to a historic structure.”
There will be more room to tell the stories of men such as survivor William Warner, who wrote: “I found myself floundering about in the water while the screams and cries of the injured and those who were unable to swim could be heard on all sides.”
Another survivor, James Kimberline, said: “The water around the boat for a distance of 20 to 40 feet was a solid, seething mass of humanity clinging to one another.”
In April 2021, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state will contribute $750,000 to the effort. On a day when more than 100 area business and civic leaders turned out, the governor said: “How can you understand the history of the Mississippi River without coming here to learn about the Sultana? This has never gotten the attention it should have received.”
Once the museum opens, it will mark the culmination of a decades-long effort to honor those who died. In 1885, Sultana survivors began meeting with the hope that the disaster wouldn’t be forgotten. The last reunion was in 1933.
In 1987, a Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer named Norman Shaw wanted to determine if there was still interest in the disaster. Dozens of people turned out at Knoxville’s Mount Olive Cemetery, and the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends was founded.
In 2011, the first public exhibition of Sultana artifacts took place on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro. In 2013, the History Channel presented the first professionally produced Sultana documentary.
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc. was formed in 2013, and the current museum opened two years later. In 2016, the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” aired a Sultana segment. The next year, a 90-minute documentary titled “Remember the Sultana” was released.
In 2019, the Arkansas Legislature established April 27 each year as Sultana Remembrance Day. That year also saw an exhibition of Sultana artifacts at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
Those working on the project are hopeful than an expanded facility (the current museum has 1,000 square feet; the new museum will have 23,000) will be an integral part of a future tourism corridor that will see people stay at the high-rise hotel now under construction at Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and then head north on Interstate 55 to visit the Sultana exhibit, the model Delta town of Wilson, the Johnny Cash boyhood home at Dyess and the Cold War museum that’s being developed on the grounds of the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.
The Marion Advertising and Promotion Commission has pledged $500,000 toward the project while Sultana Historical Preservation Society members have pledged another $150,000. Studies funded by the society estimate the museum will attract 50,000 visitors each year.
“That could lead to additional shops and restaurants downtown,” John Fogleman says. “I can see people spending an hour in the museum, an hour shopping and another hour eating out. The bulk of the money raised so far has come from this area, but we’re reaching out to foundations across the country who take an interest in Civil War sites. We’ll never know if we don’t ask.”
I first was made aware of the efforts in Marion by Louis Intres, a Fort Smith native who graduated from what’s now the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and then spent 38 years in banking. Interested in history his entire life, Intres retired from banking at age 58 and went to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro to obtain a master’s degree and a doctorate so he could teach history.
Being from Fort Smith, he was well aware of the patience it has taken officials there to raise enough money for the U.S. Marshals Museum. Those involved in that effort had hoped to complete the almost $60 million facility so its opening would coincide with the 230th anniversary of the Marshals Service in September 2019. The museum still isn’t open.
But consider how fascinated Americans still are with the sinking of the Titanic. If an Arkansas museum could bring to life a tragedy that claimed as many or more victims, a lot more of the tourists visiting Memphis would have a reason to cross the river.
“I get emails every day from people across the country who are fascinated by the Sultana,” Intres told me several years ago. “What’s left of the boat is 37 feet beneath a soybean field. It’s now a mile to the river channel. We consider this hallowed ground, and there’s no way to remove what’s down there.
“What we can do is to build a museum that will tell the story of the people who were aboard. There’s a lot of competition for charitable dollars these days. I realize that. I also realize that we have one of the most significant events in American maritime history, and that story needs to be told here in Arkansas where what’s left of the Sultana now rests. If we don’t tell the story now, it could be lost forever.”
When the Sultana was launched in 1863, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune described it as “one of the largest and best business steamers ever constructed.”
The Sultana was built to haul cotton. But the captain, J. Cass Mason, had financial difficulties and viewed it as his path to prosperity.
In Vicksburg, Mason entered into an arrangement with a Union officer named Reuben Hatch, whose family had connections to President Lincoln. Mason agreed to give Hatch a cut of his earnings if Hatch would guarantee a large load. Mason made the deal even though he knew that one boiler was dripping water through a ruptured seam.
Rumors were spread in Vicksburg that other available boats were tainted with disease. So it was that the Sultana was loaded far beyond capacity while two other steamboats left Vicksburg practically empty.
“The sites of most major battles of the Civil War have become either national parks or state parks,” Intres once told me. “People just don’t know about the Sultana. For more than a century, virtually nothing was written or said about it. A small group of people then began researching the incident.
“We’ve uncovered the life stories of those who were aboard the boat, and some of those stories are amazing. There are stories of heroism. There are stories of corruption. This has it all. We want to build the jewel of the Delta in Marion and use it to tell those stories.”