Massive Casualties On Old Man River

As the golden tide of autumn crept across the landscape drawing a myriad of colors from the northern Ohio foliage, I caught sight of a number of flags decorating a small country cemetery, informing those aboard any passing vehicle that veterans of our wars were interred there. I pulled my creaking Ford over to the side and went for a stroll.

I immediately noticed that one flag adorned a gravesite where lay a young man named John Cassel, who had died on April 27, 1865, shortly after most hostilities had ceased from the Civil War. It seemed strange to me at first that he had died after the war ended, perhaps from wounds incurred earlier. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox on April 9 of that year, and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated by the wretched John Wilkes booth on April 14. There were still armed outbreaks in some areas, though, and it would not be until April 2 of the following year that President Andrew Johnson would proclaim the end of the war. Still, I was clueless as to what had taken the young life of John Cassel.

At that base of his headstone was a single word, “Sultana.” At the time, I did not know what Sultana meant, only that there had been no battle by that name. It was not until a few years later, while perusing a book on the history of steamboats, that I came across the answer.

The Sultana was a side paddle steamboat that before the war had plied the waters of the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis. It was intended to transport a limit of 376 paying passengers. On what was to be its final voyage, though, it held anywhere from 1800 to 2200, depending upon which source one consults. Most were Union POW’s, who had been released from Confederate prison camps. Some had been incarcerated at the dread Andersonville, Georgia camp, where they had been cruelty deprived of necessities. As it turns out, John Cassel had been housed in the camp at Cahaba, Alabama, where POW’s are reputed to have been  treated much more kindly than those at Andersonville.

On that fateful day, April 27, 1865, the unfortunate Sultana exploded. Again, various sources provide  varying statistics, but anywhere from 1800 to 2100 passengers died. Among them were 80 civilians as well as a herd of forty mules. The remainder of the casualties were POW’s who had survived war and imprisonment and were on their way home to pick up their interrupted lives, rejoin their families, return to their farms and careers, live fulfilling lives. The Sultana remains the worst maritime disaster in US history.

All too often, it seems, some evidence of villainy lies behind such tales. Greed was not absent from the sorry tale of the Sultana. When the Sultana arrived at Vicksburg, Mississippi to take on passengers and unload a cargo of sugar, Captain Reuben Hatch, the greedy local military quartermaster, earned $2.75  for each enlisted man and $8.00 for each officer taken aboard. It was in his selfish interest to overload the ship. He bribed Captain James Cass Mason with promises of a kickback if would simply look the other way. Mason eagerly acquiesced. While figures vary, it seems that aboard were 1951 soldiers, 85 crew members, 22 guards, and the 80 paying passengers. The load was so heavy that the decks threatened to give way and required the addition of support beams. This was neither the first nor the last time that nefarious individuals have been eager to risk the lives of others for personal gain.

As they neared Vicksburg, one of the four boilers sprang a leak, and repairs were ordered. Sadly, the repair job was inadequate, causing three of the four to explode as the doomed ship neared Memphis, Tennessee. The Sultana, constructed of wood, immediately burst into flames.

Many who were not killed in the immediate explosion leapt overboard, but because they were so weakened by the lengthy periods of deprivation during their time of imprisonment, they were too weak to swim or to battle the powerful currents. The river was swollen with flood waters at the time, and many of the  men sought refuge in treetops as the river swept them along. Bodies were retrieved far downstream for weeks after the disaster.

Some years later, an official board of inquiry determined that the Sultana disaster was the consequence of mismanagement of water levels in the boilers as well as the craft being overloaded and top-heavy. Given that the captain had perished in the explosion, and that Quartermaster Hatch had hurriedly resigned his commission in order to avoid a courts marshal, no one was ever held responsible for their role in the disaster.

Famed author and undersea explorer Clive Cussler reports in his non-fiction book The Sea Hunters that photographs taken of the overloaded craft have a sort of eeriness about them, that, “All the shadowy figures clustered on the roof and crowding the decks, including the mules, resemble phantom wraiths..”

Was some form of mass premonition at work? As for the mules, animals have been known to sense oncoming catastrophe. Dogs are reported to howl as an earthquake is in the offing, for instance. Did the mules somehow sense that they would not survive the trip?

One can imagine that the paying passengers were relieved to have been able to book passage on the overcrowded ship at the last minute. The former POW’s were most likely relieved just to have survived the bullets and cannon rounds of the enemy and long months of imprisonment, yearning to get home and go on with their interrupted lives.

We know very little about John Cassel’s short life, only that he was 25 years old at the time of his death, that he hailed from rural Ashland County, Ohio, enlisted in the Ohio Volunteer Infantry on August 8, 1862, committed to a three-year hitch. He served in Company K 102 Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a unit plagued by misfortune as  it suffered 262 casualties, 247 of them from disease. 

Cassel was captured on September 9, 1864 near Athens, Alabama and sent to Cahaba. He was headed north on the Sultana as part of a prisoner exchange when the vessel met its fate. One can only wonder about him, what he was thinking, what were his plans for the future, whether he harbored dark memories of combat, the syndrome we now label PTSD, whether his parents and other family members supported his decision to enlist or if the girl of his dreams was eagerly awaiting his arrival?

We know that Cassel’s  remains rest in the Ricker Cemetery at the crossroads of a little traveled state highway and a county road, and that is all. As for the wreckage of the ill-fated Sultana itself, Clive Cussler and Col. Walter Schob of the National Underwater Marine Agency assisted the historian Jerry Potter in his quest for its resting place by utilizing a gradiometer. Given the manner in which the course of a major waterway can change direction with the passage of time, it should come as no surprise to learn that the bits and pieces of the unfortunate steamship were located two miles inland from the banks of the Mississippi, under 21 feet of earth in an Arkansas farmer’s soybean field, an anticlimactic end for a tragic tale.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Lorin Swinehart
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