With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 100th anniversary of the Titanic converging this year, it's a perfect time to remember the wreck of the Sultana, still the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. (We last remembered the Sultana on this blog back in December.) On April 27, 1865, the steamer, recklessly over capacity, exploded just a few miles from Memphis on its way to Cincinnati. Two-thirds of the 2,400 passengers crammed aboard the doomed steamer were killed, most of them Union soldiers freed from Confederate prison camps.
The Sultana never became a cultural and historical phenomenon on the scale of the Titanic. We in Memphis know something about it as it took place on our doorstep and hundreds of the dead are buried at Memphis National Cemetery. Now, a singer-songwriter from Binghamton, N.Y., has recorded a concept album dedicated to the disaster. "The Sultana: April 27, 1865" will be released at a "reunion" of scholars and Civil War buffs this weekend in Cincinnati. Jeff Stachyra was inspired to do the project to keep alive the lore of the Sultana and the memory of those who died, not Astors and Vanderbilts, but hundreds of common soldiers, emaciated from disease and crippled by wounds.
The whole thing with the Titanic versus the Sultana, where the Titanic gets all the attention and the Sultana gets none, I'm for the man on the street, the average Joe, the 99 percent," Stachyra said in an interview last week.
"Here are the poor guys who are coming home from the war after serving their country and creating the freedom we have today, and they don't get any recognition for that. In our world of fancy and glitzy, we're all driven toward the glamorous story."
Stachyra learned the full story on and off over four years -- as long as the Civil War lasted, he realizes now -- by reading every book on the Sultana and also doing his own research in St. Louis, Memphis, New York City and elsewhere.
Many elements of the sorry tale resonate today. War profiteering may have played a role: The Sultana's legal capacity was only 376, but more than 2,400 were crammed onboard in Vicksburg, allegedly because the captain had taken bribes to transport as many
soldiers as possible. Also, one theory posits that poorly repaired boilers were sabotaged by a Confederate agent getting one last act of revenge on the North.
In addition to his original song cycle, Stachyra recruited an orchestra to record a forgotten 1879 piece called "Sultana" that he discovered at the Library of Congress. A few groups have approached him about developing a "Sultana" musical based on his songs.
Off hand, other musical tributes include the early-'70s funk-rock track "Sultana" by a band incidentally called Titanic, and Son Volt's 2009 song "Sultana," written by frontman and Belleville, Ill., native Jay Farrar (I wouldn't be surprised to hear that one when Son Volt performs next Saturday at the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.)