Gene Eric Salecker’s Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History is a combination of modern and historical who-done-it writing. It is as good as it gets! This book, at first glance, is a carefully researched discussion of the horrible steamship explosion (April 27, 1865) that resulted in–literally– the worst maritime disaster in American history. The Sultana was a Mississippi steamship designated to carry released Union prisoners–mostly from Andersonville Prison–from Vicksburg, MI, to Cairo, IL, where they would be discharged from the Army. After leaving Memphis, TN, late on the evening of April 26, the steamship’s boilers exploded, the ship floundered, caught fire, and at least 1,547 people died. Immediate casualties resulted from drowning, fire, injuries suffered during the explosion, and hypothermia. Survivors lived the rest of their lives suffering from injuries and illness. This is the Sultana story most readers know. However, author Salecker takes readers so much further–right into the middle of a mass-murder mystery that includes a coverup, a bribery scam, and government complicity.
Eric Salecker, currently the historical consultant for the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, AK, knows how to write history. That he also knows how to construct a mystery becomes apparent as well. First, he introduces the main characters–the men who own and operate the steamboat and the ones in the Army whose mission is to get the long-suffering prisoners of Confederate prison camps from the South back home to the North. Slight hints as to the issues that will eventually sink the Sultana are scattered throughout the text. Readers who know little about the actual incident can choose their villain. Sometimes it seems every Union officer is in on some deal involving the amount of money the Army is willing to pay to ship their officers and enlisted men back home. Two other steamboats jockey for position, trying to get in on the deal, and no one is willing to admit that 2,000 men on one vessel (the Sultana) might be just a tad much, especially considering that her boilers were recently patched with a temporary fix involving inferior iron. When the time comes for the Sultana to blow, the writing is so riveting that a reader cannot put the book down. Those poor women! That baby! Those brave soldiers! It is a scene worthy of a movie with tremendous special effects. The aftermath is, of course, tragic.
One of the admirable consistencies of the author is to follow every soldier’s name with their identifying information. For example: Joe McKelvey [Pvt. Joseph M. McKelvey (Co. C, 102nd OH Inf)] (p. 216). Every soldier mentioned is identified in this manner, indicating the utmost respect for these men. As readers work their way through the book, this identification method contrasts with the lack of respect given them by the government and the army officers in charge of their well-being.
The book ends with several chapters analyzing the discharges (honorable and otherwise) of some men suspected of being responsible for this tragedy. The investigation into the particulars of the explosion, the illegal dealing, and the overloading is meticulous in its research. The court-martial of Captain Frederic Speed, master of the Sultana, reads like a court transcript. Finally, author Salecker goes beyond the disaster to follow up on the lives and experiences of many of the remaining victims, clearly delineating for readers that these people were affected by the selfish carelessness of folks in whom they trusted their lives.
One interesting fact about reading Civil War non-fiction is that the reader is never surprised by the outcome of an incident, a battle, or the War. Of course, the North eventually wins, and Pickett’s Charge never makes it, but readers keep reading anyway. Gene Salecker combines old legends and the most modern science to create a comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date look at the wreck of the steamship Sultana. He does his job so well that even with the outcome known ahead of time, readers will cheer for all to survive and for Captain Reuben Benton Hatch to get his well-deserved comeuppance. This reviewer says “Huzzah” for Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History.
Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana: The Worst Maritime Disaster in American History
By Gene Eric Salecker
Naval Institute Press, 2022, $33.35 hardcover
Reviewed by Meg Groeling