Cross My Heart, Hope To. . .

Ryan Howell, Guest Writer

“On your feet, maggots! Get in line before I bust your hole with my boot heel, maggots!” Army Captain George Williams emphasizes his point with the toe of his boot into his first victim, Thomas Putnam. Each of us, well aware of the power of a kick, hop into line quicker than we had the food lines back in the POW camp we’d just been liberated from. “Now, we’re all going to be boarding the Sultana, and I don’t want to hear one word about ‘Oh but my best friend’s dying uncle is on that ship.’ Ya hear?” Captain Williams kicks us into gear, and we march out of Vicksburg aboard a lovely 260-foot steamboat.

*  *  *

After about an hour belowdecks, I’d decided I hated the tight conditions, so I vacated to the upper deck for some fresh air, where I remained the entirety of my first day. By the mouth of a braggadocios sailor, I had the opportunity to learn a few things about our dear homeward-bound vessel. Built in 1863, only two years ago, in Cincinnati, the boat has only a few more passengers than normal. By a few he means about 2,000 more, all of us crammed anywhere we can fit. Although we are more than five times over the legal limit for our vessel, the deck hand doesn’t care, as long as the weather holds. “That’s what Cap’n Mason said, and he’s a real smart guy.” Finally, closer to dawn than dusk, my nameless informant ambled off through a door marked BOILER ROOM, and I could finally shut my eyes to rest.

Captain J. Cass Mason, what a man. He offers to take a boat load, and then some, of Howell 2

us soldiers up to St. Louis, seeming like the gallant knight come to grant us safe passage back to the North, and then I overhear he receives a nice little stipend for his efforts, hence the overloaded ship. Power, riches, and status motivate everyone nowadays.

Another worrisome fact: The Sultana doesn’t normally dock in Vicksburg, according to the schedule I spied in the mess hall. I want to say we just got lucky, but after you’ve fought through a bloody Civil War against brothers and friends, you tend to stop believing in “luck.”

*  *  *

I wake the next morning, April 27th, and realize that I don’t see that many folks on deck. When we’d first boarded, crew members bustled around the deck, but now only soldiers remain on deck. I sprint through the boat, struck by the irony of the sheer numbers of soldiers teeming through the ship and the scarcity of crew members.

Once I clear the main deck, I stumble into a sub level stuffed to the brim with sealed crates, although a few of them appear to have popped open, dispersing their contents across the floor. I pick one up, and its content thrusts all boat-themed apprehension from my brain. President Lincoln… is dead? It can’t be. I tear through the other papers, and there remains a dreaded consistency: “Lincoln and Seward Assassinated!

That man made me who I am today, he inspired me to join the war. The 16th president of this great nation, encouraging me since I was 16. And just like that, another corpse added to the thousands. Death: The Great Equalizer. As I sit wallowing in my devastation, the boat lurches, sending papers and boxes flying. My earlier concerns come flooding back, heightened now by my frazzled emotions.

More frantic than ever, I scramble to resume my search for anyone native to the planks of this ship. Coincidentally, I stumble into the mess hall, where the army men had congregated. Howell 3

Much to my surprise, a boat hand holds their attention. As the captain’s liaison, he informs us of our progress whenever we pass a major city. “We’ve just reached Memphis, Tennessee.” Wow, we’ve made it farther along than I thought. “Founded May 22, 1819. Population 22,623. We’ve caught some unlucky weather, so we expect some turbulence, but don’t worry about it.” As the words leave his lips, a weary crew member bumbles into the hall and whispers something to the first. They both exit in a hurry, the second stumbling in the direction of the bunks, but the first sprinting toward the upper deck. The army men return to their menial tasks, but I can’t handle the suspense any longer.

As I make my way topside, my racing mind picks up on anything and everything. The fact that the boat moans from the hull to the smokestack. The fact that she rocks through the river instead of gliding. As I breach the upper deck, the fact that the BOILER ROOM door has broken off its hinges. I rush to the door, dismayed to find one of the boilers riddled with stress fractures. The crew crowds around it like ants, trying in vain to apply a patch. I barge into the fray, determined to aid, but before I take three steps, a violent explosion throws me backward.

Scraping the deck, having lost feeling in my left side, I lift my head and realize that luck actually favored me. The amount of men riddled across the deck dwarfs the amount that had stocked the boiler room, and even still, not all of the bodies deck side live. I crawl to my feet as two more explosion follow in rapid succession and the boat starts to list.

Despite my hard-earned sea legs, I stumble like a drunkard back toward the boilers. A man lies halfway between the door and the flaming remains of the exploded boiler, inching toward safety with his one good arm. I swoop in, scooping him up the best I can in my own condition, and haul tail toward the exit.

I set him down on the deck, and a single, disheartening thought penetrates my jungle of a Howell 4

brain. This man will die no matter what I do. In spite of that, I hop back into the flames, plundering for survivors. As the boat unleashes a massive groan. I turn to. . .



Hamilton, Jon. “The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives.” NPR History 27 April 2015. Accessed 17 April 2019.

Holzer, Harold. “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln.” March 2015.                                   Accessed 17 April 2019.

“Memphis, Tennessee Population 2019.” World Population Review.                                                                          Accessed 17 April 2019.

Serena, Katie. “9 Interesting Historical Events You Never Learned About In School.” ATI 9 November 2017. Accessed     17 April 2019.

“The Sultana Disaster.” American Battlefield Trust Accessed 17 April 2019.