At five feet six, twenty-one-year-old Elisha Curnutte was one of the smallest soldiers on that dock. His dark eyes and black hair complemented a wiry frame made almost skeletal by eight months in a Confederate prison camp. His friend Henry Gambill didn’t look much healthier but, like Elisha, he was excited to be there in Vicksburg. They were going home!
It was April 24, 1865 and both men were boarding one of the largest Mississippi river steamers they’d ever seen. Their destination was Cairo, Illinois, 450 miles upriver and this was the next-to-last leg of their journey to their eastern Kentucky homes.
Lately, Elisha had had a lot of time to think and most of those thoughts centered on home. He couldn’t wait to hug his Ma and Pa and all sixteen of his siblings. He’d almost forgotten the taste of Ma’s home cookin’. Had it really only been two years since joining the Union army?
It seemed a lifetime ago that he and his neighbor Henry enlisted in the 14th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry. Initially, their regiment supported the war effort within Kentucky, but later they were involved in more wide-ranging engagements. In April 1864, with a year of action under their belts, the seasoned veterans of 14th Kentucky were ordered to join General Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign.
From May to August 1864, 14th Kentucky was attached to General Schofield’s XXIII Corps and participated in dozens of skirmishes and many significant battles—all leading up to Sherman’s encircling siege of Atlanta. As privates, Elisha and Henry weren’t privy to the grand plans of the generals’, but they knew their duty and they both saw plenty of action.
On August 8, 1864, as the 14th Kentucky and the XXIII corps were entrenched on the outskirts of Atlanta, Elisha Curnutte was captured by Confederate forces. His friend Henry was captured a few days later and both soldiers were sent to the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia.
Although neither the North nor the South had clean hands with regard to treatment of prisoners in their war camps, Andersonville was the deadliest and vilest of them all. It grew to hold 32,000 men in the most deplorable conditions. Food, medicine, and sanitation was severely limited and by the end of the war, over 13,000 soldiers had died there.
On April 9, 1865, eight months after their capture, news came of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. For all practical purposes, the war was over, and Elisha and Henry had survived!
Elisha and Henry and hundreds of their Andersonville comrades were paroled and sent by train to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they waited for the inevitable paperwork to be sorted out. Elisha and Henry didn’t mind waiting. They had enough food to eat, clean clothes, and both were mighty glad to see the Stars and Stripes again!
When the red tape was finally done, the parolees went to the river dock to meet their boat, the Sultana. She was 260 feet long and designed to carry 376 people. That day, however, the Sultana took on as many as 2,300 men, mostly parolees from Andersonville and other prisons.
This photograph was taken of the Sultana at that time. You can see just how incredibly crowded it was. The passengers knew the boat was overloaded and that the ride north would be uncomfortable, but they had just endured hell on earth during the war. They could take cramped conditions for a few more days.
What the photograph doesn’t show is the damaged boiler that had been hastily repaired the day before and just how unstable the ship would be when it got under way.
On April 24, 1865, the overloaded Sultana headed north on the Mississippi. They made good time and stopped at Memphis two days later to refuel. They left again around one in the morning on April 27th with every square foot of the Sultana draped with sleeping soldiers.
Seven miles north of Memphis, the passengers were shocked into wakefulness by a tremendous explosion. The faulty boilers had exploded, and superheated steam was gushing from the engine compartment. The furnaces had torn open, spilling hot coals onto wooden decks. Fires broke out everywhere and 2,300 men were thrown into a new kind of battle, one that most would not survive.
Many men died from the blast, others were scalded to death by the boiling steam. Those who survived the blast and steam had to contend with a burning ship and little choice but to jump into the river. The river was wide and swollen with cold spring runoff and many strong swimmers succumbed to the frigid waters. Throughout the nightmare, the darkness was complete, broken only by fiery reflections from the burning hulk.
Several hundred men made their way to shore and were rescued, but as many as 1,800 men died, making the Sultana incident the deadliest maritime disaster in U. S. history. If you’ve never heard this story, there’s a reason. Even though the scope of the disaster was horrific, the general public was already reeling from the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just two weeks before and newspaper editors across the country concluded that the American public was not ready for more bad news.
What of Elisha and Henry? In his memoir, Henry later wrote of that harrowing night and his narrow escape and reported that Elisha Curnutte, his comrade in arms and fellow Kentuckian, had perished in the initial blast. Elisha’s body was never recovered.
Why am I so interested in this story? My mother’s maiden name was Curnutte and I am Elisha’s first cousin four times removed.
That makes it personal.