This weekend Cherokee Civic Theatre in Rusk will stage the world premiere of a musical about the worst maritime disaster in American history.
The curtain opens on playwright Minette Bryant’s “Sultana” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday with repeat performances at the same time Feb. 21-22. A 2 p.m. matinee is set for this Sunday. Tickets are $13 for adults if purchased online at www.cherokeetheatre.net or $15 at the door.
The musical tells the story of the steamboat of the same name that exploded near Marion, Arkansas, on April 27, 1865, killing upwards of 1,800 people, many of them Union soldiers headed home from notorious Confederate prison camps.
News of the disaster quickly faded into obscurity. The day before the explosion, actor John Wilkes Booth had been captured and killed for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the South’s last major army to Union Gen. William T. Sherman.
Bryant hopes the play will help bring awareness to the tragedy that only a handful of historians study. At 1 p.m. Feb. 22, she will present a program at the theater on the history of the Sultana.
“Historian Jerry Potter from Memphis is … coming down the second weekend to see the show and to lead our public forum about the Sultana,” Bryant said. “I am so excited that he is coming.”
The play mixes fiction with fact in telling the tragic tale of the steamer.
The legal capacity for the steamer was 367 people, but the passenger list included 2,100 Union soldiers, most of whom had been prisoners at Andersonville and Cahaba. With the end of the war in sight, Confederates made a deal to transfer them to Vicksburg, Mississippi, which was under Union control.
On April 24, 1865, the men loaded aboard the Sultana at the Vicksburg riverfront. Almost all of them were sick. Twenty-three of them were bedridden, and 277 were unable to walk without assistance. The majority of the troops also suffered from chronic diarrhea or dysentery — common ailments among soldiers of the time.
The boilers aboard the 260-foot boat were constant trouble for Captain James C. Mason, and the Sultana needed repairs again in Vicksburg. Mason lied and bribed his way out of repairs and loading requirements.
The Sultana departed Vicksburg on April 24, 1865. Under the extra-heavy load, the boilers gave out and burst near Marion three days later. The majority of that mass of humanity burned to ash, drowned or were scalded to death.