The Sultana was a steamship that plied the waters of the Mississippi River at the end of the Civil War. It was hired to pick up northern POWs who had been released from Andersonville and other southern prisons. About 1,800-2,000 such worn and haggard soldiers made their way to Camp Fisk, about four miles from Vicksburg along the river, to await a boat to return them to the north. The vessel had an official capacity of 376 people, but on the morning of April 27, 1865 it was loaded with an estimated 2,400 soldiers, civilians and crew. About a third of the soldiers were returning to Ohio.
When the Sultana was just north of Memphis, a boiler exploded. About 1,900 people died either as a direct result of the explosion or by not surviving in the cold water of the Mississippi River. It resulted in the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history with even more deaths than the Titanic. There was little news of the event at the time, because the newspapers were still preoccupied with the April 14 assassination of President Lincoln.
The known soldiers from Licking County who died were Morris Allen, Joseph Leese, John Little and Marvin Wilcox, all of the 95th O.V.I. Company F; Charles Roberts of the 12th O.V.I. Company E; and Thomas Thomas of the 76th O.V.I. Company H.
As bodies were found by the recovery efforts, they were taken to Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis for burial. Sometime later, they were moved to the Memphis National Cemetery. As they brought up each coffin to prepare for the move, the name was printed on top in chalk. Then, before being reinterred, a rain storm washed away the names, which became the third disaster for those poor soldiers, following being imprisoned and death from the Sultana explosion. The Memphis National Cemetery is reminiscent of Arlington National Cemetery with a large section of row upon row of perfectly aligned grave markers for unknown soldiers.
Some Licking County men survived the disaster, however, such as James Anderson and Edward W. Evans of the 1st Cavalry Company D; James W. McCarty of the 6th O.V.I. Company D; Burriss Vanhorn and Robert Wilson, both of the 95th O.V.I. Company F; William D. Lugenbeal of the 135th O.N.G. Company F; and the following four from the 76th O.V.I.: Albert Norris and James Thompson, both of Company A, James Stone of Company D, and Emanuel Hush Yeisley of Company G.
Each of these survivors had their stories to tell, but that of William D. Lugenbeal became the stuff of legend. The captain of the Sultana kept a pet alligator on board in a crate, which was quite an attraction for travelers. Immediately after the explosion, Lugenbeal found something to kill the alligator, tossed the crate into the river, and then hung onto it for dear life until his rescue. Many of the survivors must have thought there was an alligator on the loose in the river.
- Brister, Judge E. M. P. The Centennial History of the City of Newark and Licking County. Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1909.
- Fleming, Dan, writer, editor and compiler. Shall Licking County Raise a Regiment? Newark, OH: Licking County Library, 2011.
- Ohio, Roster Commission. Official Roster of the Soldiers of the State of Ohio in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865. 12 v. Akron: Werner Co., 1886-1895.
- Potter, Jerry O. The Sultana Tragedy; America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub. Co., 1992.
- Salecker, Gene Eric. Disaster on the Mississippi; The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Pr., 1996.