Thomas H. Banks via Library of Congress

The overloaded steamboat Sultana is seen at Helena, Arkansas, on the Mississippi River on April 26, 1865. The next day the steamer’s boilers exploded, killing upwards of 1,800 people. About 500 people survived.

An East Texas playwright and historians around the South are hoping a new community theater musical will, at long last, bring attention to the worst maritime disaster in American history.

Cherokee Civic Theatre in Rusk will premier Minette Bryant’s musical “Sultana” on Feb 15. It is the first play written about the 1865 explosion of the steamboat of the same name. More people were killed aboard the Sultana than in the sinking of the Titanic.

“Everything about this story is fascinating,” Bryant said. “The fact is that it isn’t told; it isn’t known; it isn’t widely talked about and portrayed in any way. It’s time. Something more needs to be done. If all I can do is this little area, this will be great,” Bryant said.

The story of the Sultana is filled with the trappings of a Oscar-winning Hollywood blockbuster — senseless tragedy facing men returning home from war, greed, hope, sorrow, perseverance, and a miscarriage of justice. Yet far fewer people know about the Sultana than the Titanic, the subject of the 1997 three-hour epic love story by James Cameron.

“What we need for people to learn about the Sultana is something like they did with the Titanic. It sounds like she’s done it with this musical. People don’t know about the Sultana at all,” said Rosalind O’Neal with the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas.

Lost in the news

The Sultana exploded near Marion on April 27, 1865, killing upwards of 1,800 people, many of them Union soldiers headed home from the most notorious Confederate prison camps. The news 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.

“I understand that at the time people were in news overload. There was so much going on. They were so saturated in tragedy. What’s our excuse now? Where’s the box office blockbuster with a sweeping John Williams score for this tragedy? We are the first one to bring this to the stage,” Bryant said.

Bryant is surprised when she meets anyone who has heard of the Sultana, let alone anyone who has studied it’s plight at great length. That subject matter is typically left to descendants of survivors and a niche group of historians who specialize in the western theater of the Civil War.

No one knows the exact number of lives lost aboard the Sultana, but U.S. Customs Service records list 1,547 dead — 30 more than killed aboard the RMS Titanic in 1912. Most estimates place the true death toll at somewhere around 1,800.

Discovering the disaster

Bryant was unfamiliar with the disaster before her doctoral course in western literature offered her the opportunity to write a historical novel rather than a dissertation. A novel, she said, sounded more fun.

“I stumbled upon a Wikipedia page that was just a list of maritime disasters and there was the Sultana on top of it,” she said. “It just became kind of an obsession. The novel I just needed a little something to tie into ended up being almost entirely about the Sultana.”

After her most recent play wrapped production, someone asked what she planned to do next. Without much thought, she said she would produce the story of the Sultana.

“In that moment there it was and within two weeks of closing the other show, I had several songs worked out. Within three months I had it finished,” she said.

Making history buffs

A work of historical fiction can be the catalyst for renewed interest in a forgotten historical topic, said Dr. Scott Sosebee, an associate professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University and director of the East Texas Historical Association.

“It’s one of the most effective mediums there is. What it does is it makes history accessible to the public, to people who are not history buffs,” he said. “It makes it entertaining. Historical fiction has turned more people onto history than anything else.”

Sosebee points to the success of the 1989 film “Glory” and Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer-winning novel “The Killer Angels” along with its movie adaptation “Gettysburg” in renewing public interest in the Civil War during the latter part of the 20th century.

“Unfortunately, many of us know a lot, but we don’t write worth a damn sometimes,” Sosebee said of nonfiction works by historians. “Historians are not really good at writing things for people who are not historians.”

Bryant’s play uses a mix of real life Sultana passengers and fictional characters. Members of the musical’s chorus drew names from a hat of soldiers aboard the boat. There were more than enough names to go around.

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 — some of the South’s most notorious camps. 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.

Other passengers included dozen nuns, an opera troupe and another 100 or so paying customers.

The cargo included about 100 horses and mules, a passel of hogs, 120 tons of sugar, 94 cases of wine and a live alligator that served as the boat’s mascot.

Trouble and greed

The boilers aboard the 260-foot boat were constant trouble for Captain James C. Mason, and the Sultana needed repairs again in Vicksburg.

Boilermaker R.G. Taylor told the steamer’s crew that it would take several days to fix the boat. They suckered him in to making quick, shoddy repairs by promising to get the boiler overhauled in St. Louis.

Mason, whose true age is unknown but was believed to be about 35, met that same night with Col. Ruben B. Hatch, who promised him all the men he could take at the price of $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer. Mason stood to make a fortune. Adjusted for inflation, that price is $78 for enlisted men and $157 for officers, according to the Consumer Price Index.

Capt. Fredrick Speed, a 24-year-old who had been placed in charge of filling out prison transport rolls, was Mason’s final obstacle. Speed told him it was impossible to fill out the paperwork in time, but he later agreed to let all the men board the Sultana.

By some accounts, Speed accepted a bribe of 5 cents a person from Mason in exchange for the prisoners.

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.

The deck was pure pandemonium. Men, women and horses rushed back and forth. The agitated alligator began chomping at people. Many passengers were trampled or pushed into the water. Some cried like babies. Others cursed the names of Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln and anyone else connected with the war. One group prayed aloud; another sang old hymns.

“The horrors of that night will never be effaced from my memory,” Sultana survivor Chester Berry wrote in his memoir “Loss of the Sultana.”

About 800 people were rescued from the water, many of them had clung to bits of flotsam and jetsam. At hospitals in Memphis, 200 of the survivors died. Only 200 bodies were ever recovered from the river.

The play takes on some of the melancholy of survivors such as Anna Annis. She was wife of the white officer in charge of a regiment of U.S. Colored Troops garrisoned at Vicksburg. Her husband was too sick to make the trip home alone. He and their daughter were lost in the disaster.

The mother waited in Memphis for months hoping they would reappear. It was the third time she was widowed because of a maritime disaster.

“We’ve got sad stories and then the happy ones of the father and son who reunite, and then we have fictional characters for whom we can tell more stories, and at the end they reunite as well,” Bryant said.

Speed, a native of Maine, got the most blame for the disaster. He stood trial in the stately courtroom of what is now the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg, charged with neglect of duty by overloading the Sultana. He was cleared of the charge, which some historians believe was because of his connections within the Masonic community.

Speed remained in Vicksburg the rest of his life and became a judge and powerful political figure.

The Sultana today

Today, the Sultana Disaster Museum and Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg are two of a handful of places where visitors will discover anything about the Sultana.

“Very, very rarely do we have anyone ask about it, but we have had a few. We’ve got a small display on it here and we sell the books, but most of the time people have never heard of the Sultana,” said Jordan Rushing, a historian with the Old Court House Museum where Speed stood trial for months.

The disaster-focused museum in Arkansas draws about 1,000 visitors a year, O’Neal said.

“Most of them are history buffs. I’m always interested in how they found out about it,” she said.

Arkansas only recently passed a resolution commemorating the disaster — 153 years later — and the Sultana is not mentioned in the state’s history textbooks, O’Neal said.

Bryant hopes to bring more national recognition to the Sultana through her play. She’s having it professionally recorded for history groups and museums and hopes other theaters will perform it.

“I think that anybody who enjoys musical theater at all is going to really love this and anybody who enjoys history at all is really going to enjoy this,” she said.

In Marion, O’Neal is hoping to have the local high school perform the play, and Rushing said he would suggest the musical to one of Vicksburg’s community theaters.

On Feb. 22, Bryant will present a program on the history of the Sultana, and perhaps others will wonder the same question that’s been burning in her mind since first discovering the worst maritime disaster in American history.

“Why is there not a six-night Ken Burns documentary about this by itself?” she said.

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