April’s Cruelties: The Steamboat Sultana Disaster

Everyone knows about the sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, in which 1,517 lost their lives. Few have even heard of the steamship Sultana, which went down in the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865; the tragedy cost about 1,700 lives.

I’d never heard of the Sultana disaster until a brief mention of it in Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary. Even in its brevity, it was horrifying: The victims were primarily Union soldiers recently released from Southern prisoner camps. To think that they’d already gone through so much, from battle to the terrible prisons, only to be killed en route to their homes, and in such a agonizing way — it was heartbreaking and seemed so grossly unfair.

Later, as I dabbled in genealogy, I learned I might have a link to the Sultana. It took me completely by surprise.

My great-great-great-grandfather, James Conover, enlisted in the 175th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry in October of 1864. In November, he was one of several members of the 175th captured near Columbia, Tennessee; he was sent to Cahaba (or Cahawba) Prison in Albama. Here, according to his military records, James Conover died in February, 1865.

There’s conflicting information, though, regarding whether James Conover might actually have died in the Sultana disaster. One book I read on the event listed his name as one of the victims. The problem is, record-keeping was unreliable regarding what happened at the prison AND regarding prisoners who were loaded onto the Sultana. (One reason so many died was because far too many passengers were crowded onboard.) I’ve read other articles that say some bodies were dug up from the Cahaba Prison cemetery, but when they were being moved, there was another boat accident and some of the bodies floated away and were never recovered. So that makes definitive research even harder. There’s a wonderful Conover genealogical site, and it combines the data for James Conover’s death, stating he died February 17, 1865 — but seven miles north of Memphis aboard the Sultana. So it’s a difficult mystery to unravel.

I doubt I’ll ever know what happened for sure to my great-great-great-grandfather. My instinct is that he probably did die in Cahaba Prison; but no doubt many of his comrades, including friends from his home area in Brown County, Ohio, perished in the Sultana tragedy.

None of this was ever passed down through family oral history, which is curious to me. Grandma Martha loved to tell family stories; if she’d known anything about her great-grandfather, she would have shared it. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War, and I didn’t know until I started doing some research that I even had ancestors who had fought. (I have several.)

In Bloom Rose Cemetery in Brown Country, where a lot of my maternal ancestors are buried, there’s a white pillar near the front gate. I’d never read the names on that pillar in all the years I’d visited there with Grandma Martha, but out of genealogical curiosity I finally did one day. It turns out that pillar is a monument to those local soldiers who never returned from the war. One of the names on that pillar is James Conover. (The wife he left behind, who died in June of that same year, is buried nearby.) It’s only one of the things I’ve discovered about my mother’s family that I wish I could tell Grandma now. She would have been fascinated.

There’s another less personal connection to the steamship Sultana that I never knew until recent years. The Sultana was actually built in Cincinnati. A few years ago an historial marker was erected near Sawyer Point in the vicinity of the Cincinnatus statue (if I’m remembering correctly).

If you’re interested in learning about a maritime disaster that cost even more lives than the sinking of the Titanic, sites like this one have lots of information about the Sultana.





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2 Responses to April’s Cruelties: The Steamboat Sultana Disaster

  1. Alan Huffman says:

    I had the same reaction you had when I heard about the Sultana: How could anyone be subjected to as much as these guys were? My curiosity eventually resulted in a book, Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in History. I did not come across Conover in my research, but I did follow three soldiers through the long, phased ordeal that climaxed with the boat’s sinking as well as their lives after.

  2. Richard Osburn says:

    I have some info in my notes that may be of interest to you concerning your 3rd-great grandfather James Conover. He was a member of Company “F” of the 175th OVI, that company being commanded by my great-great uncle, Captain William Henry McCoy.

    At the approach of Confederate General Hood’s army to Columbia, Tenn., Captain McCoy, with a detail of men (whom I assume were of Co. “F”) was put on in charge of the rebel prisoners held by the 175th OVI. The detail became separated from the main body and was captured by the rebels at Thompson’s Station on the night of November 29, 1864.

    In a report dated December 4, 1864, Major E.E. Mullenix, then-commanding the 175th, named casualties which included dead, wounded and missing. Missing among Co. “F” were Captain W.H. McCoy: Sergeants Edward Zile and James Conover; Privates Francis Brace and Sanford Manker: and Drummer Edward Barnes. I inferred from reports of that time that they were sent to Cahaba, Ala.

    Prisoner William Conrad of Co. “B” 175th, was released from Cahaba on January 25th, 1865, and reported the whereabouts of upwards of fifty men he remembered.

    Some men were still in Cahaba, a few in a rebel hospital in Corinth, Miss., and some were sent to Andersonville, Ga. And among those sent to Andersonville were Captain W.H. McCoy, Summers Conover, and J. Conover.

    I don’t have anything further on your James Conover. But, if he was still alive on March 18, 1865 — the date William Henry McCoy was released from Andersonville — he may have been in the group that boarded the Sultana April 24, 1865, at Vicksburg, Miss. William H. McCoy died when the Sultana exploded.

    The Conover genealogical site is, more than likely, in error when it lists James Conover’s death date as Feb. 17, 1865.

    Just in case you want to know the sources for this info.
    Richard Osburn, Brunswick, Ga.

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