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Civil War Carnage

by Sheri White

Remember when you sat in history class, zoning out because the teacher was droning on about events and dates, but never offering anything interesting that happened on those dates? This is why so many people (kids and adults) are so bored with history.

So while it was important to know that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater on April 15, 1865, I think it would have been more interesting to discuss a major event that happened a few days later, and that hardly anyone knows about.

On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River, about seven miles north of Tennessee. Sultana was built in 1863, entirely out of wood, and was intended to be used for the cotton trade. During the Civil War, between 1863 and 1865, Sultana was commissioned to carry troops.

On this trip, Captain James Cass Mason had agreed to transport Union POWs currently held in Confederate prisons. He would return them to the North. Knowing he could make a lot of money from this task, he agreed. Although Sultana’s capacity was only 376 including the crew, Captain Mason accepted 1,960 prisoners, as well as 22 guards—and some livestock. Now Sultana lurched through the Mississippi River, causing one of the boilers to rupture.

A mechanic was brought in to fix it when they docked and told the captain some serious repairs were needed. The captain refused, only wanting a stopgap measure so he wouldn’t lose the prisoners to other vessels, and therefore, lose a lot of money.

You know where this is going, right? History is repeated every damn day.

Sultana’s boilers exploded on the Mississippi River before 2:00 am. The force was so great, many of the passengers were flung far off the boat. Almost 400 were burned to death by the steam during the beginning of the tragedy.

Have you ever lifted the lid off a boiling pot of water or tomato sauce to see how it’s coming along? You put your face over it to look inside, maybe to give it a stir, not thinking, and suddenly a cloud of moist steam hits you.  You know that pain that makes you shut your eyes and slam the lid back on, then run to the sink to splash cold water on your face? That is a steam burn, but not even first-degree; you forget about it while eating your spaghetti.

Now imagine that pain times a million, maybe, all over your body, and you can’t run or splash water on yourself. As the steam hits your body, your skin blisters and sloughs off. It’s a pretty grisly way to go.

Others drowned or died of hypothermia. Hypothermia sounds better than dying while burned by steam, but it’s its own hell. If you fall in icy water with clothes on, you will get a false feeling of warmth after a few minutes. But as your core body temperature falls, you can’t stop shivering, your internal organs begin to shut down, and your body stiffens. It can take up to 15 minutes to die.

We all know Jack would have had a better chance if Rose has just scooted over.

I’ve written all this to show you that history can be fascinating. There are events that couldn’t be sanitized for your protection as a delicate teenager, so they weren’t taught. You may have learned that the First Battle of Bull Run was fought in Prince William County, Virginia on July 21st, 1861, but did you know that there were spectators? Both Confederates and Union soldiers were convinced the war would end with just a battle or two; no big deal.

People packed picnic baskets, pies were sold from covered wagons. When the battle began, some were splashed with blood from fallen soldiers, but were thrilled instead of horrified. As the Union finally retreated, spectators got caught up in the crowd, but somehow all of the spectators avoided death.

There are so many stories like this to be found. Deathly situations that would lead to regulations to protect workers from harm. Children working in dangerous sweatshops where some would die of conditions that would alarm OSHA these days.

If you are as interested in and fascinated by this stuff like I am, start Googling. Wikipedia is also a great source of information. Be prepared to fall down a bottomless rabbit hole.

More horrific history lessons to come!



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