Sabotage of the Sultana…
Gene Eric Salecker,
author of “Disaster on the Mississippi,”
offers his rebuttal to the article by D. H. Rule,
“Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”
The owners/authors of Civil War St. Louis—D. H. Rule and G. E. Rule—have offered to host Gene Salecker’s rebuttal to the article “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” that was published in issue 5.1 of North & South magazine. Due to copyright considerations, the full text of “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” cannot be offered online at this time. Issues of the magazine with the article are available from the publisher.
Though both Gene Salecker and we (author of the article D. H. Rule, and co-researcher G. E. Rule) express our viewpoints with vigor below, we have no personal animosity between us and are, indeed, on quite friendly terms. Gene was a great help to us in our research and we freely acknowledge his mastery of the subject of the Sultana. As historians we are both interested in uncovering the truth which, when lost in a tangle of conflicting history and scanty records, is often a matter of interpretation. We interpret the evidence surrounding the Sultana incident differently and so present both sides of the issue. Gene said to us, “I appreciate the fact that you are willing to add my rebuttal to your website. I still do not believe that the Sultana was sabotaged, and I think that I make a strong argument against such in my rebuttal. However, I also think that it is good that people get both sides of the story.”
Civil War St. Louis is pleased to host Gene Salecker’s rebuttal to “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”:
| SULTANA: A Case Against Sabotage
©2002 Gene Eric Salecker. No reproduction or distribution without the consent of the author.
| SULTANA: A Case for Sabotage—The Counterargument
D. H. Rule
| Disaster on the Mississippi
by Gene Eric Salecker
a new reprint by Broadfoot Publishing now available
$25.00 plus $4.00 priority shipping to:
Gene Eric Salecker
“Sultana: A Case for Sabotage”
by D. H. Rule
in Volume 5, Issue 1 of North & South magazine
copies available from publisher
|Volume 5, Number 1 of North & South featured an article entitled, “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” by D. H. Rule. At best the article is entertaining. At worst, it is filled with hearsay evidence and speculation, neither of which would hold up in a court of law. There are at least five main arguments against Rule’s supposition. 1) The person that claimed that he destroyed the Sultana lacked credibility and made his claim under questionable circumstances. 2) His closest associate did not corroborate his supposed sabotage. 3) The witness who heard the testimony appears to have suffered from a bit of hero-worshipping. 4) The way the perpetrator supposedly placed a destructive device aboard the Sultana is highly suspicious. 5) The way that Rule claims the boat was destroyed is inconsistent with the facts and eyewitness reports of the actual destruction.||“…filled with hearsay evidence…” whereas Mr. Salecker offers only his own unsubstantiated opinion in the first three of his main areas of dispute and ignores significant facts in the other two.
Would it hold up in a court of law? That’s a matter of speculation. Robert Louden, saboteur of the Sultana, WAS convicted in a court of law of sabotaging steamboats on the Mississippi (Dec. 1863). Though he pleaded not guilty at the time, he later confessed that the charges were true. He also confessed to destroying the Sultana knowing that with the Presidential Pardon he had he was safe from prosecution in the matter. 1
|Rule’s article contends that the Confederate mail runner and boat burner Robert Louden smuggled a lump of coal containing a hidden torpedo into the coal bin of the Sultana while the boat was stopped at Memphis on April 26, 1865. Supposedly, it was this device that ultimately doomed the Sultana and cost the lives of over 1,700 people. Although the article went on for some length, the ONLY concrete evidence that Rule provided to support her claim was a statement made by William C. Streetor to a reporter for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1888.1||It’s a significant point that it was not a “lump of coal” as Salecker says. It was a cast iron bomb, then called a torpedo, designed to look like a lump of coal. This type of bomb was known as a Courtenay Torpedo and was greatly feared by the Federals as it was known to be highly effective in blowing up the boilers of Mississippi River steamboats.Both of our cases are, by necessity, largely circumstantial. The case for sabotage is bolstered by the confession of the saboteur with considerable “concrete” evidence offered to establish that he met the classic standards of “means, motive, and opportunity.” Pains were taken to find confirmatory evidence from both Confederate and Union sources.2|
| 1) The person that claimed that he destroyed the Sultana lacked credibility and made his claim under questionable circumstances.Robert Louden was a convicted murderer, a mail smuggler, and an arsonist.2 In the 1888 newspaper article William Streetor stated:
[Louden] was cool and calculating in his disposition, but at times he drank heavily, and when in his cups was disposed to talk a little too much about the war, and the burning of so many boats by the Confederate agents came up in the course of the conversation. He told me that he had fired no less than a half dozen steamboats on the Mississippi. I asked him in an offhand way what he knew about the Sultana explosion. Then he told me the story of the torpedo in the coal, and, using his own expression, “It had got to be too — ticklish a job to set the boat afire and get away from her.”3 [my underlining]
As Streetor admits, Louden was “in his cups” and drinking “heavily” when he made his statement about the Sultana. It is also interesting to note that it was Streetor, and not Louden, that brought up the topic of the Sultana (underlining above). In a court of law this is known as “leading the witness,” i.e. putting the idea of something into someone’s head. Rule even admits in her St. Louis in the Civil War Website, that “I had decided that Louden must have made his confession to Streetor while drunk as I had a good bit of evidence that Louden was very much inclined towards spending time in saloons.”4 In a drunken state of mind, Robert Louden, a convicted murderer, smuggler, and arsonist (not the most credible witness) was likely to admit anything to anybody.
|The question of Louden’s nature is, in many ways, at the heart of the matter as regards his confession to Streetor. Louden had many less than admirable traits. After spending years trying to get inside his head, so to speak, and tracing down every element in his life, I don’t like him. He was a convicted killer but it was a manslaughter conviction, not murder as Salecker says.
Louden was also a mail smuggler. Whereas Mr. Salecker presents this as a negative trait, mail smuggling was probably one of Louden’s kindest, most selfless activities. He placed himself at considerable personal risk to carry letters between lonely soldiers and their families. Mail smuggling was a very dangerous occupation that carried the death penalty. It was an occupation that required steady nerves, resourcefulness, bold—even brazen—actions, and the ability to pass through Federal lines and into Union-held places where he was well known, and which were well guarded, without detection.
Louden wasn’t the sort to betray his secrets unless there was something to loosen his tongue, in this case being “in his cups.” Yet even when drinking, he’s still described as cool and calculating. You’ll notice what didn’t happen that night with Streetor… Louden didn’t go back the next day and retract what he’d said. There was no legal action Streetor could take against Louden (who had a pardon), yet very shortly after his confession Louden left St. Louis and never returned.
Credible witness against himself? With his record and proven actions? None better.
| 2) His closest associate did not corroborate his supposed sabotage:Absalom C. Grimes, the “Official Confederate Mail Carrier,” and a partner of Louden in smuggling and boat burning, wrote his memoirs after the war but never mentioned the Sultana or Louden’s supposed connection to it. Although Grimes wrote that Louden was busy during the war “amusing himself burning government steamboats,” and admitted that Louden had set fire to the steamboat Ruth while it was carrying military stores and $2.6 million in greenbacks, he never mentioned the Sultana, which would have been the biggest “prize” ever for the boat burners. Grimes never intended for his memoirs to be published so he had no reason NOT to mention the destruction of the Sultana. And, since Louden died in 1867, Grimes should have had no fear of causing harm to Louden by telling the truth, if indeed Louden had committed the heinous act. If Grimes felt no qualms about mentioning Louden in connection with the Ruth, why should he fail to mention the Sultana and Louden’s supposed part in it’s destruction? And, since both Grimes and Louden lived in St. Louis after the war, it is hard to believe that Grimes would not have known that his compatriot and friend had been the cause of the worst maritime disaster of all time (at that time) and would not have put it in his memoirs!5
Robert Louden supposedly told William Streetor that he “had fired no less than half a dozen steamboats on the Mississippi,” while Rule states that Louden was “notorious for the destruction of steamboats along the Mississippi River.”6 In truth, however, only the destruction of the Ruth can be positively attributed to Louden. Although Rule writes that the destruction of the U.S. gunboat Baron De Kalb was committed by “Grimes, probably accompanied by Louden,”7 (my underlining), she gives no concrete evidence to support that Louden was present. “Probably” would not hold up in a court of law!
|This argument unfortunately demonstrates Mr. Salecker’s unfamiliarity with the overall situation in regards to Confederate agents, and secret service activities, at the time of the war and in later years as memoirs were being written and published.
It is not an exaggeration to say there was a “code of silence” among the Confederate agents. The code of silence was published and came from the highest authority. When John B. Castleman and Basil Duke announced their intention to publish stories of Confederate secret service activities, Jefferson Davis himself wrote to them and implored (ordered?) them not to reveal the secrets.3 Castleman and Duke complied. Castleman also is responsible for sabotaging steamboats on the Mississippi and was connected to the very organization of saboteurs of which Louden was a part.
Absalom Grimes’ memoirs reflect his adherence to both the code of silence as well as to protecting his own safety. He tells his personal tale of mail smuggling and escapes, with Louden included where the adventure requires. He leaves out material pertaining to the Confederate secret service activities and other agents even where contemporary documentation makes his knowledge and connections evident. Of the burning of the Ruth, Grimes says [my underlining], “at this late date it is safe to say…” Consider that. In 1911, at age 76, Grimes finally felt it was safe to acknowledge that Louden, who had been dead for over forty years, really did commit an act for which he had long since been convicted and confessed.
As to the destruction of the Baron De Kalb, space limitations in the published article did not permit more lengthy discussions of some areas, this being one. Louden’s location can be established to within days either side of the DeKalb, with every indication he was a participant and no contradictory evidence that he was elsewhere. Still, the careful historian must say “probably”.
Grimes’ own position in 1865, the time of the Sultana incident; in 1888, the time of Streetor’s article; and in 1911, the writing of his memoirs, all have one other overriding thing in common: His pardon was dated December of 1864. He could not, and does not, admit to wartime connection to Louden after that date. Even ignoring that, as our current debate here demonstrates, there is and was no time in which the destruction of the Sultana was not a volatile subject.
What could Grimes say of Louden and the Sultana? There is exactly one thing he could say: “Louden didn’t do it.” And that one thing, he does not say, not in 1888 nor in 1911. Grimes’ silence on the subject is more damning than his words.
|3) The witness who heard the testimony appears to have suffered from a bit of hero-worshipping.William C. Streetor, the ONLY witness to Louden’s claim, had been the chief clerk and assistant keeper at Gratiot Prison in St. Louis during the Civil War when Louden was held prisoner there in 1862 and 1864. After the war, in 1867, the two men worked together in St. Louis as painters. Louden had fled St. Louis in October 1864 but, as Rule states, “by the spring of 1867 Robert Louden was back,” cleared by a full pardon from President Andrew Johnson. In Streetor’s own words, “It was after his return home [to St. Louis] that he told me the story of how he smuggled the torpedo on board the Sultana.”8 Since Louden died in New Orleans on September 22, 1867, this leaves only a short period, from about March to September 1867, in which Louden could have made his confession to Streetor.9||The short time between the time of Louden’s confession and the time he left St. Louis suggests that, lacking any legal actions that could be taken against him, his admission to Streetor still presented Louden with a very real peril to life and limb.|
|According to Rule, William Streetor was a “Union man of high character, [and] well respected…” She also called him “a loyal Union man, …and a respected member of the Grand Army of the Republic.”10 If so, then it seems inconceivable that just two years after the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, in which more than 1,700 “loyal Union men” lost their lives, that this respected veteran should discover the perpetrator of the disaster and then keep the information to himself for more than 20 years! The court martial trial of one of the officers accused of overloading the Sultana had ended only a year before (in June 1866) and in an important river town such as St. Louis, the home port of the Sultana, the memory of the Sultana would have been alive and well.11 And, with the inquisitive nature of newspaper reporters, it is a certainty that Streetor never leaked this information to anyone prior to 1888 or else the story would have made headlines long before it finally did. If Streetor truly was a “Union man of high character,” why than did he wait more than twenty years to break a story about a Confederate mail runner, an arsonist, and a murderer, that had been dead since 1867?||William C. Streetor is the man I have portrayed him to be. I have a great deal of documentation stretching from 1860 to 1920 supporting this. Streetor wasn’t a famous man and doesn’t seem to have craved fame. His letters show a man of modest good humor, of forthright and unassuming character. His role during the Civil War was one of highest trust, a position he maintained through several Department of Missouri administrations and Provost Marshals. I have found not one word of reproach or doubt expressed by any of them about Streetor. His loyalty is unassailable. That he enlisted in Union service in May of 1861 in St. Louis speaks volumes about the loyalty of this man. I’d sooner take Union Provost Marshal James O. Broadhead’s and Union Provost Marshal George E. Leighton’s opinion of Streetor over that of Gene E. Salecker.The court martial for overloading the Sultana had nothing to do with the explosion’s cause. Nothing relating to the cause of the explosion affects the equally heinous crime in loading so many men on the boat.
It is not “a certainty” that Streetor’s story did not come out before 1888. The article itself says Streetor spoke “in reply to an inquiry.” Until we found the May 6, 1888 St. Louis article no one, including Mr. Salecker, knew it existed. Even in 1888 it “made headlines” only in St. Louis with the Memphis version of the article being only a short summary. What else may lie in unexplored archives remains to be seen.
|The answer to that question may appears as though it lies in the 1888 newspaper article in which Streetor called Louden “a young, vigorous daredevil”, “cool and calculating”, “a remarkable man” who “possessed bravery of a certain kind, I think, equal to that of any man who ever lived.”12 Clearly, William Streetor was mesmerized by Louden. It appears as though Streetor hung on every word that Louden uttered. With a man like Streetor at his elbow, a drunken Louden could clearly make outlandish claims of notoriety, fully expecting that his words would be believed beyond a shadow of a doubt. The story of the destruction of the Sultana, plus another unbelievable story that Louden told Streetor about floating past Union gunboats while hiding inside a water-tight coffin, smack of alcohol and are fine examples of Streetor’s hero-worshipping of Robert Louden.13When Streetor finally talked to reporters in 1888 he was either lying about what he had heard in 1867, if anything; he was “pumping up” his hero; or he wasn’t the “loyal Union man…[and] respected member of the Grand Army of the Republic” that he appeared to be!||What sounds to Mr. Salecker as “mesmerized by Louden” and “hero-worship” sounds to me like frustration and disgust that Louden got away with it. (Here’s the article, decide for yourself) Present day sensibilities would have us calling Louden a “coward” in such an article. Such was not the case at that time. To call an enemy, even a reprehensible one, “brave” did not imply admiration. At that, Streetor qualifies it was “bravery of a certain kind“. Streetor even called Louden “notorious”. Hero worship?The story about floating down the river in the coffin certainly is one of boldness and daring and might, at other times and from other people, be taken for baseless, drunken bragging. But, as Mr. Salecker is apparently unaware, the story is not particularly unusual for that time and place, with comparable actions documented by numerous others. It’s not even one of Louden’s most brazen actions (even of those carefully documented by Federal sources from Federal witnesses). Louden and Grimes floated through the gunboat blockade of Vicksburg clinging to a rowboat submerged to within an inch of the surface. Others got through holding to floating logs or debris.4
When Salecker speaks of Louden making “outlandish claims of notoriety” he is writing nothing but opinion. Louden’s notoriety is clear, evident, and well-documented. As well as contemporary newspaper accounts, the 280 pages of Louden’s trial transcripts are a matter of public record.
However, we must take responsibility for Salecker misunderstanding the “remarkable man” comment. Formatting of the article on the website revised some original punctuation (now corrected). The “remarkable man” description was the reporter’s comment. It was also the reporter relaying the coffin story.
We’re to believe that Streetor, this alleged hero-worshipper, would bait his “hero” into admitting an act that could get him lynched? The publication of which could cause serious discomfort for Louden’s surviving wife and children still living in St. Louis? And that didn’t even reflect particularly well on Streetor himself? Nonsense.
|4) The way the perpetrator supposedly placed a destructive device aboard the Sultana is highly suspicious.Could Robert Louden, carrying a coal torpedo “packed with ten pounds of explosives”14 and measuring about the size of a man’s head, board the Sultana, without being seen, while she was docked at Memphis and place the torpedo into one of the empty coal bins?
The 1888 newspaper article quotes Streetor as stating, “A torpedo in a lump of coal was carried aboard the steamer at Memphis and deposited in the coal pile in front of the boilers for the express purpose of causing her destruction. The man who placed the torpedo on the boat is [Robert Louden.]” Rule states in her article that “Louden had the perfect opportunity, under the cover of darkness and in the confusion of crowds of people, to place his bomb.”15 Are these statements true? The facts and eyewitness statements suggest otherwise.
|“…measuring about the size of a man’s head” is Mr. Salecker’s interpretation. The physical size of the Courtenay Torpedo is such that it was 1) large enough to cause the destruction of boilers, yet 2) small enough not to attract notice among the other lumps of coal.|
|Taken literally, Streetor’s statement infers that Louden personally placed his torpedo into the empty coal bins, and that the boat was docked at the city proper. Let us analyze this possibility.||Quoted correctly, Streetor says, “…deposited in the coal pile in front of the boilers…” He also does not say that the boat was docked at the city proper, just, “at Memphis.”|
|The Sultana, carrying about 2,100 recently released Union ex-prisoners-of-war, and over 200 civilian passengers, crew, and guards, arrived at Memphis about 7:00 p.m. on April 26, 1865. The boat docked by nosing into a wharfboat (usually a derelict steamboat tied parallel to the levee). By “nosing” up to the wharfboat, only the bow of the Sultana touched the derelict boat. In this fashion, other steamboats could slide up beside the Sultana and a number of boats could utilize the wharfboat at the same time. (Similar to parking cars side-by-side, as opposed to parallel parking.) Lanterns aboard the Sultana, and aboard and around the wharfboat, would have illuminated the entire area.||Areas specific to the Sultana are Mr. Salecker’s greatest strength. His long years of research show and provide vivid and interesting background for the various scenarios.|
|Once docked, a large cargo of sugar was removed from the hold of the Sultana. While this was taking place, twenty-two guards from the 58th Ohio Infantry, which were traveling with the prisoners, were placed around the bow of the Sultana to keep the men from “jumping ship” and going into town. Some, however, managed to get away before the guards were in place while others got away by helping to roll the huge hogsheads of sugar to the top of the levee and then sneaking away.16While the deckhands were unloading the sugar, the engineers decreased the pressure in the boilers from a running pressure of 135 to around 100 pounds.17 Clearly the fires within the furnaces were banked, or reduced, and the stokers would have been given a brief rest from their job of shoveling coal. Since almost every inch of deck space on the Sultana was covered with soldiers, it would be natural to assume that the stokers relaxed near, or even inside, the coal bins (which were nearly empty).||In his own book, “Disaster on the Mississippi”, Salecker says “a large number” got past the guards as they docked, and dozens more snuck past with the sugar hogsheads. When one of the casks spilled sugar “onto the Memphis wharf” the soldiers “descended on the spill like ants at a picnic.” This image is a far cry from the orderly, controlled scenario Salecker is trying to portray here.|
|While the Sultana was at Memphis, a few civilian passengers left the boat and a few got on.18 In typical steamboat fashion, these passengers would have been met by the captain and a clerk at the foot of the gangplank and then sent up to the cabin deck for room assignment by another clerk. In other words, with the guards crowded around the bow of the boat, the stokers relaxing near or inside the coal bins, and the steamboat officials doing their usual job of welcoming passengers, it is highly unlikely that Robert Louden could have carried a “torpedo in a lump of coal… aboard the steamer at Memphis and [deposit it] in the coal pile in front of the boilers…” without being noticed.||Mr. Salecker is quite correct. As he mentions several times in his narrative, the torpedo could not have been placed at the bottom of the empty bins.|
|Furthermore, Rule, in her article and in her Website, speculates that J. Cass Mason, captain and part owner of the Sultana, probably knew Robert Louden from a couple of earlier encounters and from the fact that they were both residents of St. Louis.19 If Mason did indeed know Louden, then it would have been nearly impossible for Louden to board the Sultana with a large lump of coal without being recognized. Captain Mason, who was in financial straits, had everything riding on the successful completion of this trip. If he could get the paroled prisoners to Cairo, IL, without any trouble, the Federal Government would pay him $5.00 for every enlisted man and $10.00 for every officer.20 He never would have let a known Confederate boat burner climb aboard the Sultana at Memphis and threaten his precious boat and cargo without raising some sort of a fuss.||Yes, even if Mason and Louden did not personally know each other they certainly would have known of each other’s reputations. Mason had been smuggling for the Confederates and changed sides. He captained the boat that carried Louden’s wife into forced exile. Louden would have had no fondness for Mason and many causes to wish him harm.5 Salecker, in his book, says, “Mason turned to the bottle” and offers evidence he was drinking heavily during this trip. Yet now we are to believe this man was efficient enough to check every face of the over two thousand on board for one man he didn’t know he was looking for and may not have recognized if he did?|
|Likewise, in her article, Rule states that “Advisories with [Louden’s] description and orders to arrest him were sent from St. Louis to a number of other cities.”21 Most certainly one of the “other cities” would have been the important river city of Memphis and the authorities there would have been on the look out for Louden. He would have had a difficult time, at best, boarding the Sultana while she was docked at Memphis.||And yet Louden wasn’t caught, not at Memphis nor anywhere else, and he even had Allen Pinkerton after him.6 It’s a measure of how good Louden was at this sort of thing. He was a professional and he had a strong support network in Memphis and the surrounding area.|
|Near 12:00 midnight, the Sultana cast off her lines and went up the river to a series of coal barges. There, she took on 1,000 bushels of coal.22 This coal would have been dumped into the empty coal bins – directly on top of any “torpedo” that Robert Louden may have previously placed there! If Louden had been able to elude the guards, the steamboat officials, and the stokers, and had been able to place his coal torpedo in the empty coal bins, then it would have been covered by tons of fresh coal when the new coal was hauled on board. If the coal torpedo had been covered by the new coal, then the torpedo would not have been shoveled into the fires of the Sultana until most of the new coal was gone, and the explosion of the Sultana would have occurred much further up river and much later than it actually did.||We’ve already established the torpedo couldn’t have been put at the bottom of the piles in empty bins.|
|But, if the deadly lump of coal had already been thrown into the furnace, it would not have been buried under the new coal. Indeed. However, the Sultana remained at the coaling barges for nearly an hour, keeping up steam the entire time, which meant that her furnaces would have been constantly fed.23 If the coal torpedo had been shoveled into the furnace during this time, the device surely would have exploded while the Sultana was taking on coal. Since the Sultana did not explode while taking on coal, it is safe to say that no coal torpedo was shoveled into her furnaces while she was stopped.||Yes, it is indeed extremely safe to say that!|
|But, what if Streetor’s statement is not taken so literally. What if the words “carried aboard the steamer at Memphis” actually meant “carried aboard the steamer while she was in the Memphis area, i.e. at the coal barges?”Even Rule speculated that Streetor’s statement should not be taken so literally. In her Website she presents a “scenario” detailing how Louden “may have” carried his bomb on board the Sultana. “At the coaling station,” she suggests, “[the Sultana] took on fuel. In the darkness and confusion of men no one noticed an extra worker carrying coal on board… Among the other workers, Louden carried aboard a lump of coal… that wasn’t coal, though. It was cast iron in the shape of coal, coated with coal dust. The inside was hollow and packed with ten pounds of explosives… Louden placed his torpedo in the coal bin, placing it where he knew it would be used in a few hours. Then he slipped away into the night.”24 Could Louden have personally smuggled his coal torpedo aboard the Sultana while she was at the coal barges? It is highly unlikely.||On the contrary, it is highly probable that this is exactly what happened. Remember, this had been done before, many times. March 1864 Union Admiral David Porter said, “Amongst other devilish inventions is a torpedo resembling a lump of coal, to be placed in coal piles and amongst the coal put on board vessels.”7 On the Mississippi River alone sixty steamboats had been destroyed by sabotage. Louden had sneaked onto and off of numerous steamboats during the war years when he was a wanted man with a reward offered for his capture. His trial in 1863 emphasized his use of disguises. Getting aboard the Sultana would not even have been the most difficult thing he did in his career.|
|The coal barges were anchored about a mile above Memphis. The Mississippi River was at flood stage and the barges were surrounded by water.25 Louden would have had to procure a rowboat, row over to the coal barges, board the Sultana, and place his dangerous lump of coal in the coal bins. All without being seen or raising suspicion by the thousands of soldiers and civilians on board! And, since no eyewitness ever stated that they saw anything like this being done, it most definitely was not.Steamboats were refueled by the deckhands of each boat, under the direct supervision of the first mate. They were not refueled by the proprietors of the coal barges. The proprietors sold the coal, the steamboat crews put the coal on the boat. The entire area would have been lit by lantern and torch light, eliminating much of the “darkness,”26 and most of the paroled prisoners would have been lying down or asleep, eliminating most of the “confusion.” Any person not connected with the boat crew who was helping to carry coal on board the Sultana would have drawn suspicion from the first mate as well as from the deckhands. The first mate of the Sultana, William Rowberry survived the disaster. He was interviewed by one of the committees investigating the disaster and never once mentioned a suspicious character at the coal barges, or at the wharfboat either.27||This smacks a bit of an “if a tree falls in the forest” argument. If no one saw him, it only means that no one saw him. Or in seeing him, saw nothing that aroused suspicion.Louden wasn’t a bumbling fool, nor was he a novice at this. He knew steamboats extremely well and how they operated. There were a considerable number of Confederate agents associated with Louden in and around Memphis. One of them, a man named Keaton8, owned a boat supply store near the wharf. Any help he needed to pull off the act, Louden would have had at his disposal.
The number of successful steamboat destructions on the Mississippi, including the Memphis area, demonstrate most clearly bombs could and had been smuggled aboard steamboats. Nothing about the Sultana exempts it from being as much at risk as the other 60 boats destroyed by sabotage.
|Then, it would have been nearly impossible for Louden to have simply “slipped away into the night,” as Rule speculates. Are we to believe that after placing his torpedo on board the Sultana, Louden simply walked to the edge of the barge, dropped into a waiting rowboat, and rowed quietly away, all without being noticed? The proprietors of the coal barge, most of the crew of the Sultana, and even a few of the thousands of soldiers were still awake at this time, and yet not one single person ever reported such activity. Why? Because it never happened.If Louden had rowed over to the coal barges prior to the arrival of the Sultana the barge tenders would have remembered, and reported, such an act. The barge tenders helped save a number of drowning victims and went to work trying to collect the dead almost immediately after the disaster. Most certainly the tenders would have reported the suspicious activities of Louden if he had rowed over to the barges and then stayed around to personally place his torpedo aboard the Sultana. A few days after the disaster, it was reported in the Memphis newspapers that a piece of a shell was found on the remains of the wreck. (see below) Under the circumstances, the barge tenders would have come forward to report any suspicious activity. Since they did not, Louden never did row over to the coal barges.28
Additionally, just one day previously, on April 25, a Union gunboat crew, fearful of guerrilla activity, had gone up and down the river destroying all privately owned skiffs, rowboats, and canoes in the Memphis area. Young William H. Wooldridge, who lived on a farm above Memphis, remembered hunting in the city for “several hours” before procuring a small skiff so that he could tend his mother’s livestock that had become stranded on high spots around the farm because of the flood. Then, it took him several hours to row over flooded fields and up back rivers, being extremely careful to avoid the watchful eyes of the Union pickets camped along the river.29
|Louden slipped away from the White Cloud without being seen, though a Federal detective was trying to keep track of him.Louden slipped away from the Ruth after planting an incendiary that destroyed the boat and killed twenty-six people. The Ruth had $2.6 million dollars in cash aboard, eight Union paymasters, and considerably tighter security than the Sultana.
Louden slipped away from a steamer in the Potomac River when he was spotted by Federal agents. He swam away.
Louden cut off his handcuffs under the eyes of a guard of twenty-one—a lieutenant, four non-commissioned officers, and sixteen privates—on the Hurricane deck of the City of Alton. He rolled up his sleeves, picked up a tray and, blending in with the boat’s waiters, walked away from the guard. He then slipped over the side of the boat and swam away.
Louden went through the blockade of Vicksburg twice. The second time (Federal documentation) he got away from the city two days after the Union had taken control of it. Several Union steamers were destroyed by sabotage at Vicksburg though they had General Grant, his army, and the Union gunboat fleet protecting them.
These examples did not come from Louden. They came from his enemies, the ones who wanted to see him hang. Are we to believe that the Sultana was so specially and particularly guarded that it was “nearly impossible” for one man to slip away from it unseen in the night?
Union General Benjamin Butler’s steamer Greyhound was destroyed by Confederate sabotage November 27, 1864. It came near to taking the life of Rear Admiral David Porter who knew well the power of the Courtenay Torpedo and had issued reports on it.
General Grant came close to being killed at City Point, Virginia by a Confederate bombing August 9, 1864. The agents slipped in. The agents planted their bombs. The agents slipped out and got away. This was at General Grant’s headquarters, guarded by the entire Army of the Potomac!
|The Union pickets stationed around Memphis certainly had reason to be watchful for guerrilla activity. The tinclad Grossbeak, the ironclad Essex, the gunboat Tyler, and the picketboat Pocohontas, along with several steamboats, were all docked at Memphis. The sentries, both north and south of the city, were so watchful that during the morning of April 27, they actually fired shots at the unknown survivors and rescue boats as they moved “suspiciously” about on the river. In fact, the sentries had standing orders “to bring to [shore] all small boats passing up and down the river, by discharging their pieces.”30 To suppose that Robert Louden could have procured a boat in a short time and rowed unseen across the river to deposit his coal torpedo in the coal bins of the Sultana is preposterous.||There’s no need to “suppose”. Louden didn’t need to procure a boat in a “short time.” He had time, help, and resources on his side, as much as he needed while he waited for a good target to arrive. He had agents in Memphis and his brother-in-law, Capt. Arthur C. McCoy9 of General Shelby’s command, nearby on the Arkansas side—McCoy who was sending spies into and out of Memphis regularly. What’s preposterous is to assume the Federals had such a strong grip on the area when they so clearly did not. Look at some of the other documentation provided on this website and note how many times “Memphis” is mentioned. Memphis, whether occupied by Unionist or Confederates, was a hub of Confederate secret service activities, including sabotage.|
| 5) The way that Rule claims the boat was destroyed is inconsistent with the facts and eyewitness reports of the actual destruction.Near 1:00 a.m., on April 27, 1865, the Sultana left the coal barges and headed towards Cairo, IL, her next stop. After going only seven miles above Memphis, at 2:00 in the morning, the center of the Sultana suddenly erupted. Rule reports, “Without warning, an explosion ripped through the boilers, scalding steam burst out, and a shower of flaming hot coal shot upward into the night, raining down on the crowded boat, which in moments was engulfed in flame.”31 Dramatic, but not factual.
The furnace of a steamboat was built directly under the front 1/3rd of the boilers.32 If a torpedo had exploded inside the furnace, the blast would have gone in a 3600 circle or sphere, sending pieces of the “cast iron” explosive in all directions at once. An exploding device inside the furnace would have blown out the top, the bottom, and the sides of the furnace. Cast iron shards hurtling downwards would have torn through the bottom of the furnace, through the main deck, and into the hold, perhaps even tearing through the hull of the Sultana. The fact that the Sultana stayed afloat for another seven hours after the explosion, shows that the hull was not damaged.33
|Here we run into the single biggest problem with Gene Salecker’s counterargument:
Salecker does not believe a Courtenay Torpedo could destroy a steamboat.
His entire argument in this section—section 5)—is based on that single flawed premise. We can argue details of the Sultana’s destruction and iron shards and flying coals and furnace doors from now until doomsday without resolution, but without Mr. Salecker’s realization that the Courtenay Torpedo was an effective means of destroying steamboats his other points are futile to debate and are contradicted by numerous authorities on the subject—Union and Confederate; contemporary and current.
Not only did Union authorities recognize and fear the Courtenay Torpodo, but even as late as World War II it was still in use by the OSS! (David W. Gaddy, co-author of “Come Retribution” advised me of this in an email he sent me about the Sultana article10).
Thomas E. Courtenay, inventor of the coal torpedo, said in November of 1864: They have destroyed many Steamers on the Mississippi River and a few months ago blew up the new Gun Boat Cherrango [sic: Chenango] at Brooklyn, New York.11
|Sgt. Andrew T. Peery (3rd TN Cav.) wrote, “When the explosion occurred, I was asleep on the lower deck about the center of the boat… I ran to the side of the boat but could see nothing but water… I ran back and grabbed some clothes and started for the bow of the boat. Then the fire shot up…As we passed, the fire was getting a start and we had to pass it… Somehow I… got to the bow of the boat.”34 Peery was one of the few soldiers who actually moved from the back of the boat to the front of the boat, thus proving that the decking around the furnace was still intact and the sides of the furnace had not been blown out.||J. Thomas Scharf in “History of the Confederate States Navy” says that when a Courtenay Torpedo was taken aboard steamboats with the coal it “exploded with terrible effect in their boilers.”I have found no descriptions or accounts suggesting the bottom of the boats or the sides of the furnace were blown out. The coal torpedo acted on the boilers.|
|Any shards of metal from an explosion of a torpedo inside the furnace also would have gone upward, into the bottom of the boilers. Punctured at the bottom, the tremendous steam pressure inside the boilers would have instantly forced its way out through the hole caused by the metal shard, i.e. through the bottom of the boiler. The force of escaping steam could be tremendous. A 1903 test demonstrated that water contained in a high-pressure boiler, heated to 150 pounds of pressure, had “enough energy to hurl the boiler over two miles into the air.”35 Such escaping pressure, coming through the bottom of the punctured boilers, would have torn the bottom out of the Sultana. But again, the hull was not damaged, proving that the explosion did not occur in this manner.||Correct. Salecker’s hypothetical scenario did not occur and would not occur in Courtenay Torpedo explosion.|
|Rule wrote, “Several of the statements made by witnesses of the disaster lend credence to Louden’s story. William Rowberry – the first mate of the Sultana – blamed sabotage, claiming the ship [sic] was running well until the moment of the blast. The theory of a shell exploding in the furnace was ‘actively discussed and [had] many believers among experienced river men.’…A newspaper reported a witness seeing the furnace door burst open before the boilers burst. Survivors mentioned flaming coals flying about.”36First, William Rowberry made no such statement that he “blamed sabotage!” Within two weeks of the disaster, Rowberry gave a statement to an investigative committee set up by Gen. William Hoffman. He stated that he “had charge of the boat” when the explosion occurred, recounted his survival, and told about the patching of the boilers at Vicksburg. He made no statement whatsoever that he “blamed sabotage.” Both the Memphis Daily Bulletin (April 28) and the Memphis Argus (April 29) wrote of Rowberry’s survival but neither paper reported that the first mate “blamed sabotage.” In fact, the Memphis Daily Bulletin reported, “He can give no idea of the cause of the accident; says the boat was going at ordinary speed, and that all seemed well up to the moment the explosion occurred.” First mate Rowberry, nor any other member of the Sultana crew, never “blamed sabotage” for the destruction of their steamboat. Being “in charge of the boat” at the time of the explosion, it would have been convenient for Rowberry to latch onto the sabotage theory, yet, he never did.37||Rowberry on sabotage:The Missouri Republican, April 29, 1865, says, “I conversed with the first mate of the ill-fated steamer, Wm. Rowberry—who in company with six others clung to a plank, from which five fell off before they were rescued, from exhaustion, and were drowned; and he thinks there must have been some infernal machine put in the coal, as the boat, at the time, was running very steady, and so little steam on that an explosion was impossible.” [my emphasis]
This article, datelined Cairo, April 28, was also carried in the Chicago Times and the New York Times. The New York Times article ended with a further citation to the Memphis Argus, which said “Mate Paberry [sic] says that the steam was near as high on the Sultana as it was usually carried. He thinks a torpedo shaped like a lump of coal must have caused the explosion.” [my emphasis]
As you see, the first mention of sabotage by a coal torpedo came the day after the disaster. It came from the first mate of the steamer, William Rowberry, who had been in the pilot house at the time of the explosion.
Mate Rowberry of the steamer Sultana disagrees with Mr. Salecker; Rowberry certainly thought it was possible for a saboteur to get past their security.
|Second, the first mention of sabotage occurred on May 2, 1865 when the Memphis Daily Bulletin reported, “…The probability of the explosion having been caused by the bursting of a shell in the furnace of the ill-fated steamer is actively discussed, and has many believers among experienced river men. One circumstance in favor of this cause is the fact that a witness before the investigating committee swore that he saw the doors of the furnace blown open, just before the explosion, and a more important circumstance is the fact that on Sunday [April 30] Capt. [William C.] Postal found a piece of a shell weighing nearly a pound among the bricks near the starboard guard knee. It was much blistered, and gave evidence of having been in intense heat.” Asked the Daily Bulletin, “Was it a Fiendish Atrocity?”38It seems strange that the “witness” who testified before the investigating committee that he saw the furnace doors blow open is not mentioned by name. The Memphis Daily Bulletin had been reporting the names of almost every other person connected with the disaster; from the men at the coal barges, to the men that drove the wagons that took the survivors to the hospitals, to the many, many rescuers. Now, suddenly, when something as horrendous as sabotage is unveiled, the newspaper declines to identify the man by name. The National Archives in Washington, DC contain the eyewitness statements from all three separate committees that investigated the Sultana Disaster and not one witness ever claimed that he saw “the doors of the furnace blown open…” This statement is entirely false and appears to be the workings of some reporter’s overactive imagination!39||It was hard at that time for them to figure out what was sabotage and what wasn’t. Many were revealed after the war was over for having been the sabotage they really were. The explosive technology being used was new. With the Courtenay Torpedo explosions triggered boiler explosions. Forensic evidence of sabotage was lost, or masked, due to the nature of the device.|
|As to the piece of shell that was found on the guard of the Sultana once the wreck was examined, Captain Postal reported, “We found among the rubbish portions of fire brick, pieces of coal & etc. and a piece of shell. It looked to me as if it had been subjected to severe heat.”40 Anything on board the Sultana on April 27, 1865 would have been subjected to “severe heat.” The entire superstructure of the boat burned to the water’s edge! And, if Robert Louden had been able to smuggle a coal torpedo aboard the Sultana, it certainly would not have looked like a “shell,” i.e. an artillery shell. The illustrations, which accompany Rule’s article, make that perfectly clear, and Streetor claimed that Louden had deposited his “lump of coal” on board the Sultana, not a “shell.” What did Captain Postal find? Perhaps it was a piece of the boiler, or perhaps not. We will never know. However, the three commissions that investigated the disaster came to the conclusion that the “shell” had no bearing on the explosion of the Sultana. On May 13, after two weeks of investigation, the Memphis Argus reported, “From indications about the wreck, and upon examination of the fragments of bodies raised, the idea advanced by some that her blowing up was from effects of the bursting of a shell, is explored, as is also that it was caused by the way in which she was loaded and the number of human beings on board. The true reason, as near as can be ascertained from ocular [visual] proof, is that the water was too low in her boilers and her fires were too hot, hence this sad calamity.”41||What did an exploded “shell” look like to Postal? How many had he seen and of what type? Whereas an unexploded Courtenay Torpedo would look like nothing other than coal, the exploded remnants of one may have looked to Postal like the remnants of an exploded artillery shell. Did he see interior fragments of the cast iron torpedo? Did he see a fragment of the fuse area of the torpedo?Postal’s observations may be irrelevant. Or they may be very relevant. They are part of evidence to be given due consideration, not dismissed out of hand. The three commissions barely investigated sabotage. Their focus was on responsibility for having so many people loaded on the Sultana. None of the three very brief commissions offer anything that conclusively rules out the possibility of sabotage.
Again, I emphasize a key point that Mr. Salecker is trying hard to avoid:
A Courtenay Torpedo is not a lump of coal. It is a cast iron shell shaped to look like a lump of coal. It was then covered in coal tar and coal dust to perfect the disguise. It was effective against steamboats and their boilers.
|Third, regarding Ms Rule’s claim that “Several of the statements made by witnesses of the disaster lend credence to Louden’s story.” This statement appears to be a bit of an exaggeration. After studying the Sultana Disaster for more than 23-years, I have managed to accumulate the statements of 218 survivors (out of a total of about 550). Out of that number, only 4 men ever wrote that they believed in the “sabotage theory,” and three penned their reminiscences after 1888, after William Streetor managed to make his outrageous claim.42||When I said “several” I believe I was referring to three particular accounts. Thank you, Mr. Salecker for providing me with more evidence!However, it was descriptions of the explosion I was referring to, not survivor opinions about sabotage. Though on the boat at the time of the explosion, survivors really weren’t in a good position to have valid opinions about what caused the boilers to explode (unless they were steamboat men, or torpedo experts). Their personal narratives, while interesting and often heart-wrenching are of limited use in this venue.|
|Finally, although Rule stated that “Survivors mentioned flaming coals flying about.,” only 6 of the 218 statements that I have accumulated report “chunks of coal,” “burning coals from the furnace,” or “hot coals and cinders,” being scattered around. Undoubtedly, some hot coals were scattered around but not enough to convey the wild image of “flaming coals flying about.” And, if the “flaming coals” had been thrown all over the boat – on the bow, in the stern, all along the sides – fires would have broken out all over the place. The eyewitness statements suggest otherwise.43||“…flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks.” “The Sultana Tragedy” by Jerry O. Potter, page 83.”…hot ashes and flaming coals rained across the entire length of the vessel…” Potter, page 88.|
|When the boilers exploded, they disintegrated and left the top of the furnace exposed. The fire that ensued broke out when the shattered decks above the boilers collapsed and fell into the open furnaces. Corp. Erastus Winters (50th Ohio Inf.) had been asleep on the cabin deck, “just forward of the smokestacks…” When the explosion tore upward through the center of the boat, Winters said, “I found myself slipping down an incline, and landed on my feet on the coal pile in front of the furnaces.” Chester Berry (18th MI Inf.) recalled, “The upper decks of the boat were a complete wreck, and the dry casings of the cabins falling in upon the hot bed of coal was burning like tinder.”44Every soldier that wrote about the start of the fire reported that the flames started in the center of the boat, proving that the furnace had not exploded outward, sending a “shower of flaming coal upwards into the night” or “flaming coals flying about!” The fire started in one place and one place only, when the shattered debris from above fell into the open furnace. In fact, had the soldiers not panicked, they might have been able to put out the fire.
Simeon Chelf (6th KY Cav.) wrote, “The men rushed to the bow of the boat and jumped overboard… After the main rush was over I had more room and could see what was going on. While gazing about I saw a fire start up in the coal that lay near the furnace. I looked for a bucket so as to get water to put it out, but couldn’t find any.” George Kayton, the pilot of the Sultana, said, “The fire could have been easily put out but all [the] buckets were blown overboard.” Corp. Thomas Sharp (2nd WV Cav.) agreed. He wrote, “Three or four men with buckets could have kept the wreck from burning.” Added Chester Berry, “A few pailsful [sic] of water would have put the fire out, but alas it was ten feet to the water and there was no rope to draw with, consequently the flames swept fiercely up and back through the light wood of the upper decks.”45
|An explosion in the furnace would most likely send burning material upward through the stacks, which is consistent with the accounts of coals and ash falling, driven toward the back of the boat by wind. Salecker’s insistence that an explosion in the furnace would burst “outward”, other than through the furnace doors, seems to be his own speculative interpretation. The furnaces are not sealed units, as the pressurized boilers are. The force of the blast would direct to openings (doors, stacks) and into weak areas (boilers) with the shrapnel piercing the relatively thin boiler iron. Sides of the furnace, and the floor are the least likely areas to be damaged.A Courtenay Torpedo is not a particularly large bomb. By itself it is unlikely to cause major damage to a steamboat. It’s effectiveness, and the reason it was used, and used successfully, is that it had sufficient explosive force and shrapnel to cause the secondary explosion—it made the boilers blow up.|
|So, what then caused the explosion? If it was not a coal torpedo in the furnace, what was it? Again, let the facts and the eyewitness accounts tell what really happened.The Sultana carried four newly designed high-pressure tubular boilers. Each boiler measured 46-inches in diameter and 18 feet in length. The four boilers were set side-by-side over a brick and mortar furnace and connected underneath by a water pipe to maintain a common level of water in each boiler. Flues, or tubes, ran from one end of the boiler to the other, allowing hot air from the furnace to pass through the boilers. The average 1865 boiler contained two flues, ranging from twelve to sixteen inches in diameter. The Sultana, however had newly designed boilers with each boiler carrying twenty-four flues measuring five inches in diameter.46||Yes… the “facts and eyewitness accounts” that have failed for over 135 years to provide any conclusive proof as to the cause of the explosion.Mr. Salecker now provides a list of “the usual suspects.” None of these listed causes are actually proven and most of the “facts” are speculative observations and unproven theories.
There is little to say in counterargument as none of these hypothetical causes contradicts or disproves the assertion a Courtenay Torpedo triggered the boilers to explode. We know the boilers exploded. The question is what triggered the boilers to explode; a point on which Mr. Salecker does not offer conclusive proof.
|To say that the Sultana had problems with her boilers would be an understatement. The boilers of the Sultana had been repaired two times in March, and again on April 24, 1865, while the paroled prisoners were being placed on board the boat at Vicksburg, The last repair had been necessitated when the chief engineer, Nathan Wintringer, discovered “a small leak in the larboard [i.e. left] boiler at the third sheet from the forward end, a few inches below the horizontal diameter of the boiler…” While the Sultana was being loaded with the prisoners, an experienced boiler mechanic riveted a temporary patch over the leak and declared the work, “a good job.” However, the mechanic felt that “from the appearance of the boiler when I repaired it, I think the iron was burned and that the boilers were used with little water.” (my underlining) Additionally, the mechanic felt that “so long as there is a sufficiency of water in the boiler there is no danger of an explosion.”47||A little further down Mr. Salecker says, “the path of the explosion proves that it was not the patch that failed.”Salecker has successfully refuted the repair at Vicksburg as the cause of the explosion. Next…|
|The problem with the boilers seemed to be in the design itself. The water of the Lower Mississippi was filled with silt. Since the water from the river was used inside the boilers, the silt got into the boilers and collected in pockets around the many flues. These “pockets” had a tendency to heat up, especially if the boat careened or tilted. When the Sultana went up river from Vicksburg, after having her boilers cleaned and repaired, the boat was a bit top-heavy because of all of the prisoners crowded onto her upper decks. At times, the boat careened in such a way that the crew of the boat feared that the Sultana would either capsize or that her boilers would explode. When a vessel careened, or tilted to one side, the water within the interconnected boilers flowed from the high boiler to the other(s). In other words, if there are four interconnected boilers set side-by-side, and the boilers are tilted to one side, the water in the highest boiler will flow into the lowest boiler. With no water inside the high boiler, the metal is exposed to the direct heat of the furnace and dry pockets of silt can form. These unprotected pockets turn red-hot and when the boat rights itself, the water rushes back into the boiler, hits the red-hot pocket, and immediately turns to steam. This increase in steam results in a sudden increase in pressure and if there is a weak spot on the boilers, a resulting explosion could occur.48||Mr. Salecker said the boilers had just been cleaned. So he has successfully refuted silt as the cause of the explosion. Next…|
|To demonstrate, present-day boiler mechanic and expert Donald Cooper of Hayes Boiler & Mechanical, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, suggested taking a glass of water and tipping it about five degrees. “The water level drops on the one side,” he wrote. “In a glass it only amounts to a fraction of an inch, but on a boiler (depending on its width) could be four to six inches.” He further suggests that to see an example of the “violent reaction of water against an overheated metal,” all one has to do is heat a frying pan and then pour some water on it. “You have to be very careful not to get burned from splashing hot water and steam.”49||The “careening” theory does have some support though not a great deal. Kayton, the pilot, who was in the pilot house at the top of the boat where effects of careening would be magnified, does mention careening but—interestingly—not at the point at which the explosion occurred. Rowberry, the first mate, was also in the pilot house and does not mention careening. Rowberry initially blamed sabotage. Careening seems to have come up as an afterthought to most who mention it at all. Most of those who do talk about careening weren’t even on the boat. How severe could any careening have been if so few onboard mention it? Wouldn’t any great degree of careening have sent a good percentage of the thousands on board to the railing puking, instead of sleeping peacefully?
Further, Hoffman, whose investigation was the most credible of the three done at the time, and who listened to the testimony of Rowberry, Kayton, and others on this point, concluded in his report that “There is nothing to show that there was any careening of the boat at the time of the disaster” [my emphasis]
|The explosion that tore through the Sultana went upward and back at about a 30-degree angle. (It did not go downward!) The blast tore through the main cabin on the second deck, leaving a gaping hole in the floor and ceiling. Capt. J. Walter Elliott (44th USCT), asleep inside the main cabin, recalled, “Suddenly I find a yawning opening in the floor… The cabin, roof and texas are cut in twain; the broken planks on either side of the break projecting downward…” The blast continued up through the small collection of cabins occupied by the officers of the boat, known as the Texas cabins. Chief engineer Wintringer was asleep in his cabin, about midway on the Texas, and recalled, “I do not know how much, if any, of the Texas in front of my room was injured, but most of it behind my room appeared to have sunk down on the cabin or lower deck.”50Two men, pilot George Kayton and chief mate William Rowberry, were in the pilothouse as the blast continued upward. Only the back portion of the pilothouse was ripped off by the blast, sending the chief mate flying through the air, while the forward portion simply crumpled down into the gaping hole. Rowberry recalled, “We were seven miles up the river when the boilers exploded and I found myself in the river.” Added Kayton, “I was at the wheel and fell on top of the boilers where I was wedged in by the wreck. I crawled out [from] under the pilothouse…”51
The explosion clearly came from the back of one of the boilers, and from the top since the blast went upward and back. Since the patch that had been put on at Vicksburg was placed on the forward end of one boiler, the path of the explosion proves that it was not the patch that failed.
|Again, Salecker’s interpretation of the nature of a sabotage explosion is his own contrivance and is not to be construed as having any connection to claims made in the article “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage.”|
|Just prior to the explosion, Corp. Robert M. Elza (3rd TN Cav) was near the boilers and was watching second engineer Samuel Clemens, the man on duty at the time of the explosion. Elza wrote:Nathan Markham [4th KY Cav.] was my bunk mate and he had made a bunk near the boilers on some poles. Between 12 and 1 o’clock I was sitting on the steps talking to J.F. Haun [Joshua A., 3rd TN Cav.], as we were going around the northwest side of the Hen and Chickens Island, endeavoring to enter what is known as Chute No. 40 to Mississippi rivermen. At this juncture I heard the engineer complain of his boilers being too full of water to make Chute No. 40, as it took a great deal of steam. He then blew some water out and closed the valve and struck the gauge, the boiler being still full of water. The engineer said, ‘D—m, it is not enough,’ blowing the water out the second time. He closed the valve and struck the gauge, and a dry steam whistle began to sound. At once I realized the danger, and went to my partner [Markham] and woke him, at the same time starting to tell Whittenbarger [Drewey A., 3rd TN Cav.] of the danger of the explosion. I said, ‘the engineer had –’ and at that juncture she blew up.52||In providing Elza’s account, Salecker damages one of his own earlier arguments. He criticized Streetor’s truthfulness and integrity because he hadn’t published his Louden/sabotage claim until 1888.Now we have the account of Robert Elza who didn’t publish his allegedly significant account until 1912!
Worse than just using a double-standard in his selection of evidence, Salecker offers no reason why Elza withheld his information for so long. Given Salecker’s earlier criticism of newspaper reporters, are we supposed to now accept an article from the Knoxville Sentinel without any secondary evidence?
|Engineer Clemens was mortally scalded by the explosion but lived long enough to supposedly tell Chief Engineer Wintringer that there was “plenty of water in the boilers, and there was not an extra pressure of steam.” Perhaps Clemens was lying when he made his statement, after seeing what his “tampering” had caused, or perhaps he honestly believed that the boilers were full of water. When interviewed by the Washburn Inquiry, Wintringer admitted, “The water in boilers sometimes ‘foams’ as it is called, giving the appearance of plenty of water when there is little or none…”53 When Clemens let the water out of the boiler upon approaching Chute No. 40, he may honestly have felt that there was enough water in the boilers, when in reality there was not.||A deathbed statement is a powerful thing, taken very seriously by courts of law. In an era more religious than ours, would Clemens imperil his immortal soul by going to judgment with both a lie and a guilty secret charged to him? Refuting a deathbed statement is a difficult matter.|
|Although the soldiers were asleep at the time of the explosion, the 1865 supervising inspector of steamboats, J.J. Witzig, rented a tugboat and followed the exact course of the Sultana just prior to her explosion. When the Sultana exploded, she had just completed crossing diagonally from the right side of the river to the left side, passing through the strong flood current. Witzig reported that when the tug followed the same course, “[it] did careen some.” When he was asked if “the Sultana with 1800 [sic] passengers on board, and no ballast or freight in the hold” would careen, Witzig replied, “My opinion is she ought to careen certainly.”54||J. J. Witzig, inspector of steamboats in St. Louis testified that he thought the numbers of men on board would cause the boat to careen and pose a danger of explosion of the boilers. However, he also reported that it was the patch that caused the explosion. Salecker has already said that the patch wasn’t the cause thus discrediting his own best witness in favor of careening. Witzig was scorned as an incompetent drunk by engineer Wintringer who said Witzig had even drunkenly fallen off the boat on the way to Memphis.12 And by early 1867 Witzig had been removed from his position for malfeasance!13 Next…|
|Chief engineer W. W. B. Richardson of another 1865 steamboat, reported:”The fires under the boilers of the steamboat are very intense, and but a few moments are required to heat to redness any part of the boiler not covered by water, exposed to it; and when, by the careening of the boat, the water is thrown from the highest boiler to the lowest ones, the exposed parts of the boilers may be so heated in a very little while, as to cause an explosion on the boats being righted, causing the water to flow back into the heated boilers, the sudden generation of steam thus caused being too powerful for the weakened iron. On this account a boat that is top heavy as the Sultana was, is in much more danger than a boat with its load in its hold.”55||Speculation.|
|Richardson went on to state that, “When a boiler bursts from the giving way of a weak place or a patch, the fracture is not confined to the point that gives way first, but it covers more or less of the boiler, which is generally wholly destroyed, and with it much of the boat, by the great power of steam which is so suddenly let loose.”56Another engineer and boilermaker, Isaac West, was interviewed on May 14, 1865. He stated, “Boilers may be destroyed either by bursting or destroying… In the second case, one or more boilers of the set are entirely destroyed by the sudden development of steam by some unusual cause, which acts on the boilers like the ignition of so much gunpowder. This explosion is in all cases occasioned by the want of sufficient water in the boilers, in which case the boilers or the flues become heated to redness, and when the water is again forced into them, the sudden development of steam, which is caused by the water coming in contact with the heated iron, acts like the burning of a mass of gunpowder, and the immediate destruction of the boilers is the consequence.”
“In the case of the Sultana,” he concluded, “…I am inclined to believe that the explosion took place from a deficiency of water in the boilers… The Sultana’s boilers were of the tubular kind, having about twenty [flues] in each boiler, and if at any time the water should be below the upper tier for a few minutes, they would become red-hot, and on the return of the water to its proper level, they would in all probability collapse which would probably result immediately in the explosion of the boilers.”57
J.S. Neal, captain of the 1865 steamboat Indiana, was interviewed and stated, “In my opinion boilers never explode except from the absence of sufficient water in them.” When asked, “What would be the effect on a steamer crossing diagonally the current of the Mississippi River if it was heavily loaded, on the cabin and hurricane decks, and lightly freighted in the hold and on the main deck?” Neal’s answer was, “It would careen even if its lower decks were freighted and much more if the boat was top heavy.”58
And finally, even Chief Engineer Wintringer had an opinion on the cause of the disaster. In his testimony before the Hoffman Investigation he stated, “…I can only assign as the probable cause of the disaster that the boat was top heavy and was consequently inclined to careen over from side to side and in this way the water has been thrown from the upper boilers to the lower ones, exposing some parts of the upper ones to be heated, which parts gave way, where the water was suddenly brought back to its proper level.”59
|This is also what would happen if a Courtenay Torpedo exploded in the furnace. As with the others on the list of hypothetical causes, this in no way contradicts a coal torpedo as the cause of the boilers exploding.
New York Times, May 18, 1865:
“This was the awful contrivance employed with so much success by rebels in blowing up our transports on the Mississippi, and it is suspected that the awful disaster to the Sultana was accomplished by one of these diabolical things.”
This article is talking specifically about the Courtenay Torpedo pictured in the article; the one found in Jefferson Davis’ office in Richmond. The Courtenay Torpedo was a popular, and successful, means of destroying steamboats.
Noted historian William A. Tidwell in “April ’65” says:
“The whole truth about the Sultana may never be known, but the circumstances surrounding its sinking are almost exactly what they would have been if it had been ‘hit’ by a Courtenay torpedo.”
Tidwell also says:
“Capt. Thomas E. Courtenay developed a torpedo of cast iron in the shape of a lump of coal… At some point the device would be shoveled into the firebox of the engine along with the coal. Within a few seconds or minutes the bomb would explode and tear open the boiler, causing a secondary explosion of steam. The steam explosion would mask the cause of the disaster, making it appear to be an industrial accident instead of enemy sabotage.”
“Major Norris of the Confederate Signal Corp recommended to the secretary of war that the use of the disguised torpedoes be extended to additional places behind enemy lines.”
|Instead of the impractical sabotage scenario put forth by Rule, boiler expert Cooper put forth a scenario of his own:”The Sultana, running with 135 pounds per square inch of steam pressure, top heavy, and slightly low on the water, lists thus exposing [a] portion of the boiler metal… to direct heat with no water against it. This area of the boiler overheats and the metal fatigues. The boat moves out of the main current and rights itself. The water returns to level against the overheated, fatigued metal, causing the area to explode out…”60||From St. Louis, April 25, 1865:
“Since the outbreak of the rebellion to the present time over seventy steam-boats owned in Saint Louis have been destroyed… Of this number only nine have been fired by rebels in arms, and there can be little doubt but the greater portion of the balance were fired by the above [list of organized boat-burners, including Louden] or similar emissaries of the rebel government.”
The Confederates did not find sabotage “impractical”.
|Supervising Inspector J.J. Witzig concurred. In 1865 he stated, “I can only assign one cause [to the explosion] – over-pressure at the time.” Over-pressure caused by a sudden increase in steam, caused by the careening of the boat and a lack of water in the boilers. As Corporal Elza witnessed, the reason for the low water was the questionable actions of Second Engineer Clemens.In January and February of 1866, the boilers on the steamboats Missouri and W.R. Carter, respectively, exploded without warning. Steamboat historian Frederick Way, Jr., wrote, “Both were equipped with tubular boilers then considered the rage because of their fuel-saving attributes. The U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service outlawed them almost overnight. Many steamboats were withdrawn from service and were given regular Western-type boilers immediately thereafter.”61 The Sultana had been another victim of the explosion of tubular. Wrote Chief Engineer Wintringer:
“Now what did cause this explosion? The explosion of the ‘Walker R. Carter’ and ‘Missouri,’ in rapid succession, I think fully answers that question. It was the construction of those boilers. After these three fatal explosions they were taken out of all steamers using them and replaced with the old style of boiler. They were en experiment on the lower Mississippi. They had been used with some success on the upper Mississippi, where the water at all times is clear and not liable to make sediment or scale. As I said before, those boilers were an experiment on the lower Mississippi, and had not been long in use there, and it was the opinion of experts that it would have been only a question of time for all steamers using those boilers to have gone the way of the ‘Carter,’ ‘Missouri,’ and the ‘Sultana’ went, had they have not been taken out and replaced by others.”62
|Witzig assigned at least three different causes to the explosion, at least one of which Salecker himself refuted.
One of the things that bothers me most about this whole Sultana sabotage question I’ve ended up immersed in is the image of Sultana as somehow existing in a bubble of uniqueness, isolated and untouched by all surrounding events and activities. This is why Mason’s connections to the Confederates and to Louden come as a surprise to so many. You can see this attitude in many of Mr. Salecker’s arguments. Sultana could not possibly have had a saboteur sneak on board because of the amazing security and guarding it had. No, it didn’t. It was a commercial transport in Union service. It wasn’t the only one. It was far from being the only one. If there had been only 200 people on board Sultana instead of 2000… there would be no controversy. There’s no controversy about Louden destroying the Ruth. Salecker’s not disputing that one. Does he know—do you know—about the Campbell with its individual tales of death as horrific as any on the Sultana? How about the Champion, the Imperial, the Hiawatha, the Post Boy, the Jesse K. Belle, the Forest Queen, the Chancelor, the Glasgow, the Welcome, the Sunshine, the E. M. Ryland, the Sam Kirkman, the James Wood, the Minnetonka, the Sally Wood, the Skylark, the Catler, the Mussellman, the W. H. Sidell, the D. A. Taylor, the A. J. Sweeney, the Venus, the West Wind, the J. W. Cheesman, the Allen Collier… do you know these names and remember them as reverently as you do the Sultana?
60 dead on the Champion. 26 dead on the Ruth. Over 100 dead on the Robert Campbell. As many as 156 dead on the City of Madison. Do you remember these lives lost as you do those on Sultana?
|In summary, it was a number of factors that caused the destruction of the Sultana, including poorly designed boilers, top-heaviness, lack of ballast in the hold, careening, and low water in the boilers. However, it most definitely was not sabotage! In spite of all of Rule’s statements that “it is possible” or “may have been” or “probably” or “seems to have been,” it still remains that her only concrete evidence to suggest that it was sabotage that caused the destruction of the Sultana is the statement of a questionable “loyal Union man” reporting the drunken ramblings of a convicted murderer and arsonist. When all of the facts and the eyewitness accounts are taken into consideration, the case for sabotage simply falls apart.Dismissed. Next case please…||Bear in mind this all took place during a war; a vicious, mercilessly fought war. Despite the popular—and inaccurate14—notion that the Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender it did not. The Mississippi River was still a war zone at this time. The Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi had vowed to fight on, and did. This was Louden’s department. Louden, McCoy, Tucker… and numerous other known steamboat saboteurs were unsurrendered and still fighting a war on the Mississippi River. Moreover, in April 1865 they were fighting a last-ditch, desperate war, a war which they would not be allowed to quit; not be allowed to go home.15Mr. Salecker can fling away the cautious “probably” if he likes in favor of his “most definitely”. Ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit his multiple theories doesn’t prove his case, nor disprove mine.|
1) D. H. Rule, “Sultana, A Case for Sabotage,” North & South, Vol. 5, No. 1, 78.
|Footnotes1) Louden Trial transcript, 280 pages, National Archives; Louden letter in Provost Marshal records M345, roll 170, Louden was convicted of burning the Ruth and several other steamers, mail carrying, and spying. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, May 6, 1888
2) The original manuscript of “Sultana: A Case for Sabotage” was 6600 words and included 127 footnotes of sources (for comparison, Mr. Salecker’s rebuttal here was 7800 words with 62 footnotes). The published version of the article in North & South had about 1000 words removed and the footnotes were condensed into 61 footnotes with each footnote encompassing several sources. No single source was taken at face value but was backed by at least one independent source, in many cases two or more, wherever possible using sources from both the Union and Confederate sides.
3) John B. Castleman, “Active Service,” citing an 1886 correspondence from Jefferson Davis regarding Duke’s magazine “Southern Bivouac.” In 1917 Castleman still complied with Davis’ wishes.
4) “Blockade Runners of Vicksburg,” Valley Trust Magazine, 1926; A. A. Hoehling, “Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege”; John N. Edwards, “Shelby and His Men”; Louden Trial transcripts, NARA; Provost Marshal records M345 (several rolls); numerous others
5) The White Cloud Incident (original sources for the White Cloud Incident include trial transcripts, witness depositions, newspaper accounts, witness accounts, Federal detective reports, the Official Records, Gratiot Street Prison records, and genealogical records)
6) Provost Marshal records, J. W. Tucker file, M345, roll 270
7) Boat-Burners in the Official Records (take note of the other red-highlighted sections as well)
8) M. M. Quaife, “Confederate Mail Runner” 1926 Yale University Press
10) Additional citations: “OSS Special Weapons and Equipment: Spy devices of WWII” by H. Keith Melton. New York: Sterling, 1991, page 97. Coal bombs were also carried by the German Spies who landed on Long Island in 1942 (Operation Pastorius). “Germany’s Spies and Saboteurs” by David Allen Johnson. Motorbooks International, 1998, page 66.
11) Thomas E. Courtenay (at a website by Tom Thatcher, a descendant of Courtenay, from published article “Military Collector and Historian”, the journal of the Company of Military Historians, Vol. XI, Spring 1959 by Joseph Thatcher). Tom Thatcher will soon be publishing an article on Courtenay and the Courtenay Torpedo which will greatly expand upon the effectiveness, targets, and physical characteristics of the torpedo.
12) Jerry O. Potter “The Sultana Tragedy” pg. 157. Quoting letter of Wintringer.
13) Senate Executive Journal, Journal of the executive proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America, January 22, 1867
14) In the foreword to Salecker’s “Disaster on the Mississippi” Jerry O. Potter says, “It [the war] ended when the tattered Army of Northern Virginia surrendered at Appomattox.” This is a popular notion but is profoundly inaccurate, especially as concerns the Department of the Trans-Mississippi, of which Louden was a part. They had vowed to fight on-and did-not surrendering until May 26th (or June 2nd, depending on who you believe had authority to surrender the department). Gene Salecker assures us that he recognizes this fact as well.