The Sultana, Titanic of the Mississippi

Pencil sketch by Wendy Harty called “First Born” 2015

Why? Isn’t that an age old question? I would not have given myself carcinoid lung cancer; I could not be Abraham and take Isaac up the mountain as I couldn’t give up my first born; I don’t think I’d let loose a pandemic on the world and after the Civil War I would have let those boys get home on the Sultana.

I have heard about the Titanic all my life and saw the movie. But I had never heard of the Sultana until researching ancestry and the Hendrickson (Hendrixson) roots. Henry Roe Hendrixson was brother to my 2nd great grandfather James Gordon Hendrickson and their wives were Nevin sisters: Eleanor married to James and Nancy married to Henry. My great grandmother was Samantha Hendrickson and this is the story of her first cousin.

Pvt. George W. Hendrixson, was born April 22, 1840 in Brown County, Ohio to Henry Roe Hendrixson and Nancy Nevins. George enlisted in Co. E of the 175th Ohio Infantry fighting for the North and freedom from slavery. He was captured in Franklin, TN in November 1864 and first sent to Cahaba prison camp, then to Andersonville, a hell on earth. Released in April 1865 this is the rest of the story.

George was a 25 year old Civil War soldier, wearing dirty and tattered clothing, as he filed down the bluff from Vicksburg to a steamboat waiting on the docks on the Mississippi River. He had survived the battle fields only to be captured by the Confederate troops. Prison camp was a dirty, disease-ridden place short on food and medicine. By spring, the prisoners were released and told steamboats would carry them home. The Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat, which exploded April 27, 1865, in the worst disaster in United States history. She had a crew of 85 and a capacity for 376 passengers. She was carrying 2137 when three of the boat’s four boilers exploded and she burned and sank near Memphis, Tennessee. Perhaps history did not share this event because President Lincoln was assassinated and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth had been killed the day before. Thousands of recently released Union prisoners were awaiting release to the North. The government would pay $2.75 per man and $8 per officer to any captain would transfer the group home. A bribe was offered by quartermaster Hatch for a kickback and offered to the commander of the Sultana, if he was guaranteed 1400 patrolled prisoners. Hatch was known for incompetence, as a thief, bilking the government out of thousands of dollars. He was brought up later on court martial charges but refused the subpoenas. He escaped justice due to his highly placed patrons – including two presidents. (Sounds like history repeating itself not answering subpoenas and if you are friends with the president, receive a pardon? which was in todays news)

One of Sultana’s four boilers sprang a leak and rather than be delayed a temporary repair was ordered, hammering back the bulged boiler plate and riveting a patch over the seam. As the Sultana backed away from Vicksburg on the night of April 24, 1865, she was severely overcrowded with 1960 prisoners, 22 guards, 70 paying cabin passengers and 85 crew for a total of 2,137. The paroled prisoners had been weakened by incarceration in the Confederate prison camps and associated illnesses and were packed into every available space. Two days were spent traveling upriver, fighting against spring floods that overflowed the banks. Only the tops of trees were visible above the powerful swirling water. Near 2 AM on April 27, 1865, just seven miles from Memphis, its boilers exploded. The cause unknown? Perhaps too much pressure and low water in the boilers, or the boilers had cracked and gotten brittle when heated and cooled repeatedly, or perhaps the conspiracy theory is correct? Could it have been a deliberate act by a Confederate soldier, planting in the coal a bomb? The enormous explosion of steam demolished the pilothouse leaving the boat drifting, a burning hulk. When the forward part of the upper deck collapsed it shoved kindling into the open fire boxes and the structure became an inferno.

Did my great grandmother, Samantha Hendrickson’s cousin George W. Hendrixson, survive the initial explosion sending boiling water and burning embers onto the sleeping passengers? Did he risk his life in the icy spring runoff or burn with the boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some were plucked from the tops of trees, and some died from burns in the hospital. The official count of the dead was 1,547. In the end no one was ever held accountable and George W. Hendrixson was listed as body lost or destroyed.

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