Sabotage of the Sultana…
This is the first of the three Sultana articles appearing in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat between April 23 and May 6, 1888. While it can not be said with certainty that William C. Streetor saw this article, it certainly is possible.
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 23, 1888
Story of the Sultana
The Steamboat Explosion Which Cost
Two Thousand Lives
How a Soldiers Longing for a Drink and a
Par of Lieutenant’s Epaulets Saved
The Lives of a Chicago Man
and His Companion
[From the Chicago Tribune.]
Friday next a soldierly-appearing German, aged about 45, whose features wear an expression of settled seriousness that rarely changes for an instant, will celebrate the twenty-third anniversary of the Sultana disaster. He is Edward F. Hedrick, for fifteen years a member of the Chicago police force, now proprietor of a well-ordered little saloon on the corner of Centre and Halsted streets. Besides himself there are said to be now living but five of the 2100 passengers aboard the Sultana at the time of the explosion. It will be remembered that about 400 were picked up alive, but a large proportion of that number survived their wounds and exposure only a few days, and many others swelled the roll of victims within a year or two. Mr. Hedrick served two years in the 8th New York Infantry, at the expiration of which time he enlisted at Indianapolis for three years in the 9th Indiana Cavalry. He was captured at Sliver Branch Trestle and imprisoned at Cahaba, Ala. With 2000 other Union prisoners he was exchanged and sent up the river. These passengers taken on at New Orleans, were on the boat when her boilers blew up. Mr. Hedrick recently told the story of the disaster, including the details of his own remarkable escape, for publication in the Tribune, so frankly and graphically that it is best reproduced in his own words:
“When we boarded the Sultana at Vicksburg,” he began, “we were a jolly crowd. Two thousand of us had just been released from a Southern prison and we were happy. The Sultana was a regular Mississippi River packet boat of that period. A thousand passengers would have crowded her uncomfortably; with over 2000 she was like a hive of bees about to swarm.
“We steamed out of Vicksburg and moved slowly up the middle of the river. The spring floods were at their highest, the stream being in some places as much as forty miles wide. We reached Memphis at 8 o’clock in the evening. Three of my prison chums were on board—Johnny Hinckley, Montgomery Hall and John Wills—and as the Captain said he would not leave till midnight we made up our minds to land and have some fun. I’m going to tell you about this because if we hadn’t gone up-town Johnny Hinckley and I would have been blown sky-high with the others. Our main object in landing was to get something to drink. But we soon discovered that the town was under martial rule and that only officers were allowed anything stronger than coffee. We were so thirsty that we went into an alleyway to reconnoiter. When we were out of sight of the street Johnny Hinckley took out of his pocket a pair of lieutenant’s shoulder-straps he had picked up somewhere, put them on, and while we waited in the alley he entered the nearest saloon. He was gone quite awhile and came back a trifle unsteady, and wiping his mouth. Then I put on the shoulder straps and followed his example with equal success. By the time Hall and Wills had performed their part of the programme it was time to start back to the boat. None of us were drunk, but we were full enough to be happy and to care little whether school kept or not.
“It was just about midnight when the boat left Memphis. Everybody was in the best of spirits. There were a number of professional gamblers on board, and as we passed the cabin door I noticed that it was crowded with officers and gamblers who were playing for high stakes. We went to bunk in the middle of the middle deck, between the office and the bar room and directly over the boilers. Hall and Wills were sleepy. They rolled up in their blankets and were soon snoring. It was the last ever seen of them. I wanted to follow their example, but Johnny Hinckley wouldn’t have it. He was much elated over our luck with the shoulder straps. We were both a little top-heavy, so when he insisted on going to the back end of the boat and turning into a couple of the officer’s cots I readily consented. There were a great improvement over the hard floor of the deck, and we were soon sound asleep.
“The next thing I knew thee was a terrible crash. The passengers were shouting and screaming and jumping into the river on all sides. I got up, and as I moved forward to see what the matter was I bumped my head against a part of the upper deck which had fallen in. Then I saw flames creeping back toward the stern and knew that the boilers had blown up. I ran back to find Hinckley, but his cot was empty. The notion of jumping into the river, as passengers were doing all around, didn’t please me, so I slid down to the freight deck on one of the swinging bumpers that hung over the side. A big crowd of passengers had flocked to the stern, where a lot of mules were quartered. Many of the mules hand broken loose and were stamping up and down the deck. Several of us seized one and threw him overboard, intending to jump ourselves and let him swim us ashore. But the water was black with heads and arms of drowning passengers, and the mule sank instantly with a dozen men under and on top of him. We threw in several more, all with the same result. People were constantly jumping in and carrying others to the bottom with them. There wasn’t a clear space within jumping distance in any direction. The water was rough and churned the crowd of swimmers up and down as though there were logs in a broken raft.
“All the time Capt. Mason was working bravely on the upper deck throwing planks and barrels overboard and shouting to the passengers to keep cool. Many swam ashore on what he threw into the water, but he staid aboard too long to save his own life. After awhile, when most of the passengers had thrown themselves into the river, the boat seemed to drift away from them, leaving a clear space. I had thrown several shutters over, but they had all been seized by those in the water. Finally the flames had driven the terrified mules so closely about me that I was obliged to seize a bit of plank and jump for my life. By the light of the flames I saw what I took for the shore only a few rods distant, and congratulated myself that I was getting off so easily. But it was only an island, and in spite of all I could do the current carried me past the lower end of it. There was no shore in sight. Pretty soon a half-drowned man floating by caught hold of the end of my plank. He placed his whole weight on it, and we commenced to sink together. I cursed him and said: ‘Why don’t you help yourself a little so we can both be saved?’ But he was too exhausted. I let him have the plank, and started to swim with nothing under me. When I was nearly worn out a steamer came by picking up floating passengers so near that I thought of course she would take me on. But the wind was in the wrong direction. They couldn’t hear me, and I gave myself up for lost. Just then a brandy jug floated by. I worked it under me and plucked up courage again. In this way I floated down to where the current struck the bend just above Memphis, and caught the overhanging branch of a half-submerged tree. Dozens of people had floated in just as I had, and were clinging to bushes and trees. The water was so high we couldn’t touch bottom, and there was no land in sight. The blaze of the burning Sultana had been seen from Memphis, and we were presently rescued by one of the boats in search of survivors and bodies of the dead. The water was so cold that we were chilled through, but there was plenty of spirits and a blazing fire on the rescuing boat, besides piles of blankets in which we were wrapped.
“As I walked up the bank at Memphis in my blanket, almost the first person I met was Johnny Hinckley. Before jumping overboard he had secured a life preserver, and floated down to the bend without much difficultly. The people living at the principal hotel bought us new suits of clothes, and in a day or two we came North to Indianapolis. Then I lost track of Hinckley and haven’t seen or heard of him since. I would like to know where he is. You see, it was nothing in the world but his shoulder-straps that saved our lives.”
Story of Another Survivor
Frankfort, Ind., April 12—
James Payne, one of the few survivors of the Sultana disaster, lives in Hamilton County, this State, near Packard’s Mills, and there he was found by the Tribune correspondent. Mr. Payne was a private in the 124th Indiana, which was captured by the Confederates at Spring Hill, Tenn., in 1864. He spent three months amidst the horrors of Andersonville, and was then exchanged. “Orders came to the effect that 500 men should be taken out each day to be exchanged,” said Mr. Payne, “with the provision that the old men were to go first—that is, those who had been longest in the prison. But we found out that a little persuasion in the way of money had a great effect upon the officers of the prison, and as the boys of our company had succeeded in keeping a little money concealed, we bought our exchange, and consequently our company, which was now down to eleven men, got out on the first list. One of our boys went out on a dead man’s name. When the dead man’s name was called he answered to it. We were taken to Vicksburg, and the morning of the 1st day of May, 1865, we were marched down to the wharf to embark to be sent North and home. We lost no time in getting aboard the Sultana, as that time the largest boat on the Mississippi. She was a side-wheeler of unusual dimensions. She carried eighteen boilers. The boilers and machinery of the Sultana had been inspected at St. Louis just before her down trip, and at Vicksburg just before we started.
“We started from Vicksburg about noon. Everything went well, excepting our sickness, the result of our confinement, and the rough water, as the river was running high. We landed at Memphis at 11p.m., where we had about 400 hogsheads of sugar to unload. Here occurred my miraculous escape. A number of the boys, myself being one of them, got off here and went up into the town to see if they could get something to eat, and at least get some fresh air. A comrade, whose name I have forgotten, and myself wandered around until we heard the signal to start and then we ran for the boat, but we were too late, and the only result of our efforts was to get into the sand up to our knees. We saw that the Sultana was going to stop at some coal barges and take on some coal, and we in our desperation tried to get aboard here; but it appears that Providence was working in its own mysterious way, and we were again unsuccessful. While we were standing on the wharf, or rather in the sand, we were watching the Sultana, our hope, joy and pride, steam away, feeling our hearts sink within us.
“We watched the Sultana until she got to a point in the river where there is a small island called ‘Hen and Chickens’, seven miles above Memphis, where, to our horror, the boilers exploded, and then what was left of the vessel took fire, and, slowly drifting down the river, burned up. Of course a great many were killed by the explosion, but the greater part of them were either burned to death or driven by the fire into the water and drowned. Some few of the boys were able, by getting hold of some of the floating wreckage, to get ashore. One man, or boy, rather, J.W. Thompson, who was then only 18 years old, swam until he was opposite Memphis, which was seven miles, when he was picked up by a yawl. They were afraid to put out large boats until it became light, consequently no boats but skiffs and yawls were used until morning. A very dense fog also came up just immediately after the explosion. The river was very high at the time, all the bottom lands for miles on each side of the river being inundated. One soldier succeeded in getting upon a log, and also helped upon the log a lady passenger whom he found in the water, and by means of using his hands and feet as oars finally guided the log out of the channel and lodged it safely against some timber. She was, I think, a Chicago lady, and she has since handsomely rewarded him. As to the actual number saved I, of course, do not know, but I do know that it was comparatively few. John W. Thompson, whom I have named, lives now at Fisner’s Switch, Ind. Lieut. Elliot is now living at Indianapolis, Ind. Matthew Wright, the man who went out on the dead man’s name, is now living at Boxytown, Ind. These four men, besides myself, are all the men I think who are living, except Wesley Negley, whom I had almost forgotten.”
This is the second of the three Sultana articles appearing in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat between April 23 and May 6, 1888. Note that it appears on the 23rd anniversary of the disaster, and talks specifically about a reunion of Sultana survivors being held in Michigan. One way or the other, this article must be the key event that lead to the publication of the revelations contained in the May 6th article.
There are two possible explanations. The first is that Streetor saw it and came forward on his own, contacting the paper to tell his story. The Sultana survivors only began meeting about 1885, so it is possible that this was the first notice Streetor had that such a group existed and still memorialized the event. The second possibility is that Streetor had previously shared his story with others, who when they saw the article contacted the paper and said something like “You really ought to talk to William Streetor about this.”
St. Louis Globe-Democrat, April 27th, 1888
Reunion at Hillsdale, Mich.
Special Dispatch to the Globe-Democrat
HILLSDALE, MICH., April 26—
Of the eighty survivors of the great Sultana disaster on April 26, 1865, Joseph Stephens, of Buffalo, N.Y., is the most interested in the re-unions of the remnant of persons now surviving that historical casualty. Stephens is one of the veterans not lost on that occasion and takes the deepest interest in the annual gatherings, at which the attendance grows appreciably less each spring. Mr. Stephens formerly lived in this place, and offered last year to pay the expenses of this year’s reunion if held at his old home, which offer was accepted. The reunion is to last two days.
The programme consists of an address of welcome by the Mayor, response by the President of the society, election of officers and the spinning of yarns about the fatal day. The Grand Army veterans here and the Woman’s Relief Society are taking a leading part in the entertainment of the survivors. A banquet will be given tomorrow night. Only half a dozen of the survivors have arrived up to this evening. A fair representation of the total number is looked for to arrive on the late trains tonight and early in the morning. The celebration proper takes place on the second day.
Story of a Survivor
Special Correspondence of the Globe-Democrat.
FORT WAYNE, IND., April 26.
Two veterans of the late war were distinguished yesterday above the many hundreds of their fellow solider-citizens in Forth Wayne, by receiving circular invitations to attend a meeting of the survivors of the explosion on the Mississippi River steamer Sultana, perhaps the most melancholy incident of the rebellion. The survivors have long since formed an association, and the meeting referred to is to take place at Hillsdale, Mich., on Friday, April 27, the twenty-third anniversary of the catastrophe.
The two gentlemen referred to are Louis Schirmeyer, a clothing store clerk, and Geo. H. Fredericks, a fireman on the Wabash Railway. Mr. Schirmeyer was called upon today by a Globe-Democrat representative, and related his personal experience. It was a thrilling tale, and in substance is as follows:
“I was a member of the 32d Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and had been captured at Chickamauga. I was first sent to Libby Prison, then to Pemberton Prison, next to Danville, Va., and finally to Andersonville, where I remained until the war ended. I was then taken to Vicksburg and placed on board the Sultana with 2,100 others, mostly discharged prisoners. The boat stopped at Memphis at 8 o’clock in the evening and many of us went ashore, and an opportunity for drinking was not neglected. A friend of mine had money and I filled up with beer and almost missed the boat, which resumed its course at midnight. In fact, I was the last to cross the gang plank, which was at once drawn in after me. In the vast crowd it was difficult to find a place to lie down, but I found one on the top-most deck, just in front of the pilot house. Here I fell into a deep sleep. I was awakened by the noise of a terrific explosion of the boilers, and found myself being hurled upward through the air. I must have gone up 20 or 25 feet. In falling I struck the shattered pilot house. My face was cut and bleeding, and my hair was half singed off by a flame that burst over me. It was a rude awakening. I swung myself down a rope that hung over the boat’s side, and from a perch on the lower deck peered out into the river. The night was moonless, but the flames spread a bright gleam over the swollen stream. Never can I forget that scene. The heads of the people in the water were so numerous that it seemed as if an apple thrown in any direction must have surely hit one of them. Some cursed, some prayed, all cried out for help. Every few minutes a hand would be uplifted helplessly, and the next moment its owner would be swept out of my sight. The flames grew hotter, and approached more nearly. My place of observation could be held but a little longer. To remain would be to burn to death. To jump would be to drown, for I was an indifferent swimmer. The increasing heat decided me. I sprang into the water. A mattress, which had been thrown from the cabin deck, floated by me. Two Irishmen seized it. I cautioned them not to bear their entire weight upon it, but they gave no heed and were soon sprawled on its top. The mattress became water-soaked and sunk. The two Irishmen sunk with it. Scenes like this were constantly occurring. I paddled on as best I could. At last, when my strength was almost exhausted, I was struck from behind, and turning about, grasped a floating piece of timber that had probably been a deck support. I threw my arms over it, and in an hour had floated into the branches of a tree that overhung the swollen river. I clambered to a place of safety. Four others found places in the tree. Here we remained until daylight, when one of the many boats that had been sent up from Memphis for the relief of the survivors approached near enough to hear our cries. We were lifted on board. I fainted at once. In three days I was able to pursue my journey by another steamer to Cairo, and at Indianapolis I received an ovation and was mustered out.”