On Sunday, May 3rd the Major William A. McTeer Camp No. 39 Sons of Union Veterans sponsored the final event of the Tennessee Sesquicentennial Signature Events. The rededication of the Sultana Monument was held in the Mount Olive Cemetery near Knoxville. The marker which was the first dedicated to the victims of the Sultana disaster was originally dedicated on July 4, 1916. Modern attendees were greeted by Civil War era music provided by Craggy Top Brass. This was reminiscent of what those soldiers might have heard as they awaited to board the vessel in 1865.
The Sultana Monument was placed to commemorate the explosion of the paddlewheel Steamboat which occurred on April 27, 1865. an event recognized as the worst maritime disaster in US history. The US government had contracted transportation for Union soldiers recently liberated and those “swapped” with remaining Confederate authorities for their own POWS. These men were crowded onto various boats for the ride up the Mississippi River. One such vessel was the Sultana designed to hold 376 passengers in addition to cargo. In what is described as greed or simply many of the soldiers desire to return home. More than 2,000 soldiers loaded onto the boat in Vicksburg.
With the river swollen and flooding from the wet winter and spring rains in the north, the Sultana left the port in Vicksburg Mississippi heading north. While there have been claims of espionage, apparently the boats boilers overheated due to being overloaded combined with the struggle against the fast moving water. The ship exploded just seven miles north of Memphis. Sunday’s guest speaker, Norman Shaw, founder of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, said those not killed in the explosion “could stay on board and burn to death, or they could jump into the cold, swirling waters of the Mississippi in the dead of night.” It would be difficult to find the darkened river banks even for those who could swim, and most could not, or were too weak. More lives were lost here than on the Titanic. Shaw related that “for a time, it felt like we had forgotten our worst maritime disaster,” he continued, “So some Tennessee boys took matters into their own hands. They said never mind what everyone else is doing, we’ll put up our own monument.”
More than three hundred of the over 1800 dead were from Tennessee. The monument was placed in 1916 as organizers felt the event was fading from the memories of all Americans. Events such as the end of the war, Lincoln’s assassination, and reconstruction have cast a shadow over the memory of the Sultana. It was only fitting to honor the memory of the Sultana on the 150th anniversary of the event and the 99th year of the memorial’s dedication.
McTeer Camp Commander David McReynolds saw the shadow was again darkening in the collective memories of Americans, and the story should be brought to light once more. As the hour of the rededication approached more than 150 people came to the sun drenched cemetery to share in the memory of those who perished and those who survived the Sultana’s fate. Michael Downs, Tennessee Department Commander SUVCW, brought greetings and introduced the guests. Downs introduced Courier Publisher Tim Massey who had two ancestors, John Massey and Ephraim Parman, on the Sultana. Downs next introduced the speaker, Norman Shaw, who gave a “historical perspective” of the events leading up to and after the disaster.
The McTeer Camp “swore in” three new members, one by way of Skype from Belfast, Northern Ireland. The William Blount High School Jr ROTC presented the colors and fired a rifle salute. A “prayer of rededication” was led by past McTeer Camp Commander George Lane. The rituals of rededication were led by Commander McReynolds. The program concluded with the sweet tenor melody of Tenting Tonight and Rally around the Flag sang acappella by William Beard.
Following the program, as the many visitors milled about taking photos and visiting, the Craggy Top Brass again provided the smooth period tunes that wafted thought the peaceful valley, echoing against the nearby hills once ringed by Union forts overlooking Knoxville. It was a fitting tribute rededicating the fine marker of Tennessee stone, on a green Tennessee hill, honoring her native sons. The day could not have been finer.
-By Tim Massey
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