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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

          Art: Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana
Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History
By Gene Eric Salecker
Naval Institute Press, 2022, ISBN 978-1-68247-743-4, US $39.95
Also available in e-book format
And those poor fellows who died in that awful catastrophe! They had gone through four long years of war, had undergone countless hardships, and suffered hunger, pain, and sickness, on the battlefield, and in the prison, and after all these, they were now going home to loved ones, their hearts filled with a great shout of joyous thanksgiving that all war and strife and danger were over, and that they could once more greet the dear ones at home who they knew were waiting anxiously for their return. (387) ~ James R. Collins, survivor
We sometimes come across a disaster of the past that strikes a particular chord within us. For me, Sultana is one such episode in American history. Twenty-twenty hindsight suggests any number of ways in which the calamity might have been avoided, but the dominos of greed, arrogance, shoddy construction, avoidance, weather, and conditions on the Mississippi led to disaster a mere eighteen days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. More than a century and a half have passed since that fateful morning of 27 April 1865, and yet what occurred in the wee hours of that day remains the most wretched disaster in America’s maritime history.

Sultana, a sidewheel steamboat, was launched on 2 January 1863. She measured 260 feet in length and 42 feet wide. The diameter of each of her two paddlewheels was 34 feet, and she could carry up to 1,000 tons of cargo safely. Her original owner sold her the following year to four residents of St. Louis, Missouri. One of these became her captain, James Cass Mason. At the time of the explosion, she carried nearly 2,000 Union soldiers who had recently been released from prisoner-of-war camps, including the most notorious one, Andersonville. After time spent in horrendous conditions, these men were finally going home to reunite with loved ones. There were also around forty civilian passengers aboard – including a minstrel company, a couple returning from their honeymoon, children – and about eighty-five men and women who worked on the vessel. She also carried cargo – more than 200 hogsheads of sugar and almost 100 boxes of wine, sixty hogs, and forty to fifty horses and mules – and the sidewheeler’s mascot, a live alligator in a wooden box. Two years after her launch, Sultana exploded, caught fire, and sank. Many on board died. Some survived and lived to share their stories.

Twenty-nine chapters comprise this account of the Sultana and those aboard her at the time of her demise. In addition to the who, what, when, where, and why, Salecker shares what happened afterward and what became of her survivors. He provides extensive notes, a bibliography, an index, maps, and photographs of people and steamboats connected to this story.

In the intervening years, much has been written about the disaster, but as often occurs over time, legend and myth have crept into the historical details. One might wonder why another book needs to tell this story, but what sets Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana apart is two-fold. First, the author undertook a deep-dive into many different archives to provide the first exhaustive study of the subject that relies principally on primary documents. Secondly, Salecker is a leading authority on what occurred and is the Sultana Disaster Museum’s historical consultant. He also owns the largest collection of materials pertaining to the event. In writing this book, he set out to answer four specific questions:
What caused the explosion?
Exactly how many people were on board at the time?
How many people survived, and how many died?
Who were these people?
He succeeds in doing this and, in the process, separates the wheat (the facts) from the chaff (the myths and legends). He uses the actual words of those involved to relate the truth about what transpired.

Witness and survivor accounts vividly bring the events into focus. Details that the study unearthed are enlightening. Salecker has been able to identify beyond a doubt the majority of people who were aboard Sultana during her three-day voyage upriver. Equally telling is the fact that when compared with the number of dead in Civil War battles, this disaster ranks twelfth. Nearly half of those aboard lost their lives.

This is far more than just an examination of the sidewheeler and those aboard. Salecker also delves into the people ashore who were involved in the overloading of Sultana, as well as local residents who went above and beyond to help the survivors, including Southerners who had spent the last five years fighting the North. The condition of the POWs upon their release, as well as what they had endured, is also recounted.

If you just want a book that recounts the story of the Sultana and what happened, any number of books will fulfill that desire. If, however, you want an in-depth analysis that relies chiefly on firsthand evidence, Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana is the volume to read. You will come away knowing what happened, but, more importantly, remember the people, the sacrifices they made, and their determination to survive.

Review Copyrighted ©2022 Cindy Vallar

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