Our mission is simple: to preserve the memory of the Sultana Disaster, the largest maritime disaster in American history, and the memory of the nearly 1,200 men and women who lost their lives that fateful evening of April 27, 1865.
THE HISTORY OF THE ASSOCIATION
The explosion of the steamboat Sultana on April 27, 1865 resulted in the greatest loss of life in a naval disaster in American history. 1,960 ex-Union prisoners-of-war from the Confederate prisons at Andersonville, GA and Cahaba, AL were crowded onto the boat that fateful night. When the Sultana’s boilers exploded, men who were already weakened from their imprisonment were either tossed or were forced to jump into the icy cold Mississippi river. Many prisoners were seriously burned and injured, while 1,169 lost their lives. Many bodies were never found, as some men floated down river and vanished forever.
The disaster was quickly overshadowed by other significant historic events: General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, VA on April 9, and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC on April 15. To a nation weary after four long years of war and death, the Sultana tragedy risked being lost in the annals of history.
The survivors of the Sultana disaster were determined, however, to have their story remembered, or at least for it to never be forgotten. In 1885, the first survivors met in Fostoria, OH and formed the Sultana Survivor’s Association, meeting annually near Toledo, OH around the date of the disaster. The next year, the southern survivors began meeting in Knoxville, TN. The last reunion was held in Knoxville in 1930 when a single survivor, Pvt. Pleasant Keeble (Co. H, 3rd TN Cav.), showed up, read the log, and went home. He died five weeks before the 1931 anniversary. In the north, the last reunion was held in 1933 when two survivors got together for the last time. The last survivor was Pvt. Charles M. Eldridge (Co. G, 3rd TN Cav.), who died in Texas on September 8, 1941 at age 96, seventy-six years after the disaster and only three months before the United States entered World War II.
At this point, the story of the men and women who died in the dark of the night in the distant last days of the Civil War seemed destined to be lost forever. In 1987, however, Norman Shaw, a Knoxville attorney and Civil War enthusiast, decided to see if there was still any interest in the Sultana. When dozens of people responded to Shaw’s query for a meeting at the Sultana monument in Knoxville’s Mount Olive Cemetery, Shaw and the others founded the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends.
Since that time, annual meetings have been held in cities across the South and the Midwest, all with ties to the Sultana disaster, and they are always held as close as possible to April 27 in honor of the victims who both perished and survived the Sultana Disaster. Anyone who is an ancestor of a victim or survivor of the Sultana disaster or who is simply interested in the Sultana, the Civil War, or history in general, are welcomed to join our association. There is no fee or charge to be a member. All we ask is that you… Remember the Sultana.
Since 1992, the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends has met for a weekend meeting and gathering to celebrate and remember the Sultana disaster and the men, women, and children who were victims that fateful night. We meet so that the goal of the original Sultana Survivor’s Association – to remember the disaster and the 1,169 people who lost their lives, and the 963 survivors, who were forever affected by the disaster – is not lost to history.
The meetings begin on Friday evening with the sharing of news and updates, which have recently included: information on the new Sultana Disaster Museum, which will soon be under construction in Marion, Arkansas; the Remember the Sultana documentary film, which was released in 2018; and numerous books, artistic and scholarly endeavors related to the Sultana.
The meetings continue on Saturday with a full day of sightseeing at locations connected to the Sultana and the people who were aboard her. On Saturday night, we hold an informal dinner and end with a candle-lighting ceremony to remember the ancestors of those present.