Henry Nickerson, A.C. Brown, William Fies, Nathaniel Foglesong, J. Walter Elliott and Chester Berry. Who are these men? Or W.P. Madden, Daniel Garber, A.W. King, Robert Rule?
It is not surprising that you have never heard of any of them. These men, along with over 1,900 others, were all soldiers who had survived the deadliest war in American history and two enemy prison camps, and were finally going home. They had the bad luck of being sent north for home on the Sultana.
On April 27, 1865, the deadliest maritime disaster in American history occurred just north of Memphis when the steamboat Sultana exploded, yet the story is largely unknown. In April of 1865, the Civil War was ending, and the Southern prison camps were beginning to parole their prisoners. Thousands of Union prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba were sent to Camp Fisk outside Vicksburg, Miss. Through a combination of greed and corruption, about 2,000 of these soldiers were loaded onto the Sultana, which was only licensed to carry 376 passengers.
These soldiers did not seem to care that they had no bed in which to sleep and were herded onto the Sultana like cattle. They had made it out of the war alive and had survived horrific conditions in the prison camps. They were at long last going home. Most never made it. Approximately 1,200 died in the Mississippi River on the morning of April 27, 1865, about five miles from Marion, Ark. Many of those that did survive suffered life-altering injuries from the scalding steam.
The men on the Sultana deserve to be remembered by a country they fought to preserve. Our project will establish a permanent museum to honor and remember these men and preserve the memory of the Sultana. All Americans, but especially our youth, need the opportunity to be educated on this important event in American history.
Our country talks of honoring its veterans, but in many ways we have failed. Beginning in 1889, a group of survivors of the Sultana began to petition Congress for a monument somewhere along the Mississippi River to remember the Sultana. These efforts continued for every session of Congress from 1889 to 1914, and every effort failed.
All these brave soldiers wanted was a monument to remember this horrible tragedy and to honor and remember the soldiers. Some of these men became understandably bitter when it did not happen.
Sgt. James H. Kimberlin of the 124th Indiana Infantry expressed this frustration best when not long before he died in 1924 wrote: “The men who had endured the torments of a hell on earth, starved, famished from thirst, eaten with vermin, having endured all the indignities, insults, and abuses possible for an armed bully to bestow upon them, to be so soon forgotten does not speak well for our government or the American people.”
Sergeant Kimberlin, the people of Marion and the state of Arkansas have not forgotten. These survivors and the families of those who died deserved better, and we have the opportunity to do better. In Marion, we are on the cusp of completing the fundraising necessary to build a first-class museum and to provide state-of-the-art exhibits so that these soldiers and their comrades are never forgotten.
To build this museum, the cost is projected to be $10 million to renovate the old Marion High School Auditorium and Gymnasium, to build an entry addition, and to fabricate exhibits. In a matter of weeks this phase of the fundraising may be complete.
We have an unbelievable opportunity! FedEx has issued a $1 million Challenge Grant. To meet this challenge, the Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc. must have donations and pledges totaling $9 million no later than May 31. To date we have donations and pledges totaling $8,566,729. With the help of the people of the state of Arkansas, we will meet the challenge.
Donations may be made online at sultanadisastermuseum.com or by check made payable to SHPS and mailed to P.O. Box 211, Marion, AR 72364.
John N. Fogleman is president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc., based in Marion.