Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Books for Pirate Apprentices and Young Adults
On 27 April 1865, Frances Ackley joins her husband on deck of the USS Tyler in the wee hours of the morning. The Mississippi River, where the gunboat is docked, runs higher than normal because of the winter thaw. At 2:30 in the morning, the sky should be dark, but glows orange. All around them, voices plead for help. Two navy cutters quickly launch and, despite her husband’s objections, Frances climbs aboard one. For the next hours, she helps rescue man after man. For each man saved, dozens more float past, too far to reach with the boat hook. Sinking the Sultana recounts the nightmare of that night, as well as the days and months before, and the terrible tragedy that killed so many who had endured so much, but were finally going home.
Walker begins this story by first laying the groundwork so readers understand the river, the evolution of travel on the Mississippi, and time period. Then she introduces some of the men who joined the Union Army, were captured by Confederate forces, and ultimately found themselves aboard the Sultana. Michael Dougherty was a recent emigrant from Ireland. Robert Hamilton came from Tennessee, but fought for the North because he opposed secession. Too young to fight, Stephen Gaston became a bugler. A lawyer in civilian life, J. Walter Elliott had to lie about his identity to stay alive. John Clark Ely, a teacher, kept a record his life in the army and in prison.
The next four chapters examine what life was like inside the notorious prisoner of war camp known as Andersonville, as well as the less familiar, but equally horrendous, Cahaba in Alabama. It quickly becomes apparent why so many died, but readers also learn how the five men mentioned above managed to survive until the war ended and were transferred to Camp Fisk in Vicksburg, Mississippi until transportation home could be arranged. Also covered are the use of steamboats during the war; the building and fitting out of the Sultana (including her lifesaving equipment); a problem that developed with her boilers; and how more than 2,000 POWs ended up aboard a boat that was only supposed to carry 376 passengers.
The final five chapters cover the explosion and its aftermath, how individuals reacted, rescue efforts, and the investigations into what happened and who was found culpable. Walker also discusses the rumors of sabotage, as well as what scientists of today believe caused the accident. To reinforce the magnitude of how many lost their lives, she compares the sinking of Sultana with the sinking of Titantic. Equally revealing are the reasons why the former tragedy isn’t as well known as the latter. In addition, she shares efforts by survivors, and later their descendants and interested parties, to make certain that no one forgets this tragedy. In her epilogue, Walker informs readers what happened to the five men she introduced early in the book, where the steamboat is now, and how the Mississippi has changed in the years since that fateful day.
Aside from Walker’s chronicling of events, what makes this book come alive are the passages from primary documents, such as Ely’s diary, and the many contemporary illustrations. Not only do these put faces to names, they vividly portray the realities of the prisons and the horror of that night. Two particularly poignant photographs show the effects of illness and starvation on an Andersonville prisoner, and the soldiers packed tighter than sardines on Sultana’s decks, while an engraving from Harper’s Weekly’s illustrates the burning inferno and survivors floating in the river. Also included are several maps, a glossary, source notes, a bibliography, and an index. Interspersed throughout the book are several special sections (pages with gray borders) that cover key points that require greater explanation than can be revealed in the normal telling of the story. These are explained in clear language that middle grade readers will readily understand without feeling as if they are being talked down to.
Walker’s depiction of this historical event is powerful, moving, and horrifying. After experiencing this book, readers come away with a better understanding that it’s never a single event that leads up to the crisis and that when the worst happens, people with disparate beliefs and life experiences willingly set aside their differences to help others, regardless of whether the disaster occurs today or in the past. Sinking the Sultana is a compelling retelling that graphically and realistically portrays the consequences of decisions made and the price paid by innocent people because of “fraud, greed, and clout.” (64)
Read an excerpt
Read Chester D. Berry's 1892 book Loss of the Sultana and reminiscences of survivors, which Ms. Walker recommends in her Author's Note.
Review Copyright ©2018 Cindy Vallar
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