Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Explosion of the S.S. Sultana - From Back Story to Prologue

For Abilene Gamble, I have often planned a certain scene. In anticipation, I spent quite a bit of time researching the explosion on the S.S. Sultana that took place on 27 April 1865.
S.S. Sultana on April 26, 1865

This steamboat was built in 1863 for the lower Mississippi River cotton trade. During the American Civil War, it was often commissioned by the Union Army to carry troops.

Toward the end of the war, the problem of how to feed and guard prisoners of war became desperate. In particular, the Confederacy was having a difficult time finding enough food for its own soldiers. It did not have enough to feed its Union prisoners of war in all the many prison camps. Because of this, talks had started in March regarding releasing prisoners of war and sending them home to be paroled on the condition that they would no longer fight in the war.

Artist rendition of the Cahaba Prison Camp
Much as been written about  Andersonville and the great suffering in this prison. Some paroled survivors from Andersonville were on the Sultana. Most of the soldiers on that boat at the time of the explosion were from Ohio.

For Abilene Gamble, I placed one of my main characters, Harry Bradford, in Alabama's Cahaba prisoner of war camp which opened in 1863. Several soldiers from Indiana regiments ended up in that camp. Some of those who survived the prison camp were sent home on the Sultana.

Once the soldiers arrived in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Union Army prepared to send them up the river by steamboat. For many men suffering from disease and malnutrition, the excitement of finally going home prompted them to quickly board the Sultana. Officers packed as many soldiers on the boat as possible, planning to account for the men who boarded once the boat started upriver. There were approximately 2,400 people, mostly paroled Union soldiers, crammed into a steamboat designed to carry 376 passengers.
Sultana on fire from Harper's Weekly

In the days prior to the explosion, the Sultana had been experiencing problems with leaking boilers. Twice efforts were made to provide quick, stop-gap repairs in order to keep the steamboat going so it could meet the demands of the Army.

At approximately 2:00a.m. on 27 April 1865, the top-heavy weight of the boat coupled with the swift spring run-off of the river proved too much for the poorly repaired boilers. Three of the four boilers exploded, blowing much of the structure apart and catching the rest of the boat on fire.

Some passengers were killed instantly. Some were blown into the freezing water where they either drowned quickly, or were overcome by hypothermia and then drowned. Only a relative few were fortunate and found something on which to hold that kept them afloat in the darkness long enough for the few rescue ships that arrived within hours of the explosion to pull them out of the water. Some ended up in trees along the banks. Some were crushed by the collapsing decks and, if not killed immediately, burned to death by the spreading fire.

Many of the survivors, including some with horrible burns, were taken to Memphis, Tennessee. Citizens there rallied to help them the best they could, even though these Union soldiers had recently been their enemies.

It is estimated that between 800 to 900 people survived. An estimated death toll of approximately 1,700 makes the explosion of the S.S. Sultana the biggest maritime disaster in United States history, bigger even than the sinking of the Titanic.

However, this event did not get much attention in the press at the time. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered on April 9th, General Joseph E. Johnston had surrendered the day before the disaster and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated thirteen days before. The country was tired of hearing about the horrors of war.

Living through bloody battles, only to spend months fighting starvation and disease in a prison camp and then suffering through a disaster like this explosion is the stuff of which post traumatic stress disorder, nightmares, and scars--visible and not visible--are made. Abilene Gamble is set in 1871, but I planned to add these experiences of my hero, Harry Bradford, as part of the back story/flashback so the readers do not think his life began as a whole, fully-developed adult person in 1871. I have not reached the point in the story where it was time for me to write this as back story.

This morning I awoke with the impression that I should use this scene as a prologue instead of back story later in the book. Not to worry--there will be other back story in this novel. But, too much back story in a novel is, well, too much. So, between my other obligations today, I started writing my Sultana scene.

The jury is still out on whether or not I will keep this as the prologue or go  back to "Plan A." But, in the past I have found it beneficial to pay attention to impressions I receive as I first wake up. Therefore, I am not writing any more chapters until I complete what I have to tell about Harry and his experience with the S.S. Sultana explosion.

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