Kenosha, Wisconsin Civil War Museum Sultana Display

by Gene Salecker

A few years ago the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin opened a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the Civil War, especially to the soldiers from the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, and Michigan. The 15,000 square feet permanent exhibit gallery tells the stories of those whose lives were changed by the Civil War and how those people shaped the course of American history.

According to their website, “No current museum explores this war as seen and experienced on the home front nor the connections between the home front and the battle front. Through state-of-the-art museum technology, life-size dioramas, and interactive engaging exhibits, visitors travel back in history to the social, political and economic influences that contributed to the Civil War.”

Since the museum is dedicated to soldiers from the Midwest, and since hundreds of soldiers from both Michigan and Indiana were aboard the Sultana on April 27, 1865, it seems fitting that the museum should host a display on the ill-fated steamboat Sultana.

At the beginning of February, the museum put up my collection of Sultana-related memorabilia and artifacts. The items can currently be seen in three large glass display windows on the second floor. The items will remain on display throughout the summer and early fall of 2011.

Being able to work with three large cases, I decided to sort the items in my collection into three separate categories: 1) the steamboat itself and the prisoners; 2) the disaster; 3) the reunions and survivors.

The first case contains a copy of the Form C Enrollment of March 24, 1865 which licensed the Sultana to operate on the Mississippi River carrying goods between her home port of St. Louis, Missouri and New Orleans, Louisiana. The license lists Captain J. Cass Mason as a 3/8th majority owner of the vessel. By the time of the disaster however, only one month later, Mason, who was in need of money, would have sold off most of his interest and been reduced to a 1/16th minority owner of the vessel.

Another interesting item on display is an actual framed Bill of Lading dated March 24, 1865. The bill is for the shipment of 31,000 pounds of dry hemp for the cost of .50 per 100 pounds from St. Louis to New Orleans. The document lists J. Cass Mason as the captain of the Sultana and is signed by her first clerk, William J. Gambrel.

The first display case also contains two original oversize cards and a songbook sold by Sultana survivor Epenetus W. McIntosh, 14th Illinois Infantry. One card shows a drawing of McIntosh as a thin, emaciated living skeleton, depicting how he looked just after his release from Andersonville Prison. The other shows him in later life with a guitar and a drum at his feet. Forever crippled by his experiences in prison and on the Sultana, McIntosh spent the rest of his life roaming around the country singing songs and selling the oversized cards and songbook, imploring people to “help an old vet.”

Display Case 1

Two framed images of the Sultana, showing the boat prior to the explosion, are also included in the first window case. The first, entitled “Fateful Voyage: The Packet Sultana Departs Cairo, Illinois April 17, 1865” by Michael Boss, shows the Sultana draped with black crepe and leaving Cairo with the first news of President Lincoln’s assassination. The second, entitled “The Sultana’s Last Voyage” by Robert Dafford, illustrates the loading of the steamboat at Vicksburg with over two thousand Union prisoners-of-war, which was painted as one of the panels of the Vicksburg, Mississippi riverfront murals a few years ago.

Perhaps the most cherished items in the first display window are the actual relics from the wreck of the Sultana herself. Several large pieces of furnace brick, including a few with silver paint used to reflect the heat of the fires, and three large, heavy pieces of shaker plate adorn the bottom of the case. The shaker plates are heavy metal bars that once sat near the bottom of the Sultana’s furnaces. Lumps of coal, about the size of a man’s head, were thrown onto the top of the plates to create heat to boil the water inside the Sultana four giant boilers. As the coal turned to ash, the shaker plates would be banged or shaken to shake the ash off and allow the coal to burn more hotly. Both the shaker plates and the pieces of furnace brick were found years ago in the Arkansas bean field which the Sultana now calls her final resting place.

The second display case, depicting the disaster itself, includes numerous framed prints and illustrations of the exploding Sultana. Among the depictions is the well-known color image of the burning vessel that came out on the back of a Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company desk calendar from 1990.

Display Case 2

Other framed images include the 1992 impression of the burning of the Sultanaby artist Marion Sue Thompson, an original edition of the May 20, 1865 Harper’s Weeklywoodcut of the burning of the Sultana, and a pencil sketch from my brother, free-lance artist Greg Salecker. I have always wanted a highly-accurate depiction of the disaster, with the Sultana missing her pilothouse, and with the collapsed smokestacks and crushed decks, so my brother presented me with the pencil image many Christmases ago.

The middle display window also includes an authentic photograph of the grossly overcrowded Sultana at Helena, Arkansas (the famous Sultana image), two ships-in-a-bottle of the Sultana (one pre-explosion, one post) created by my father Roy Salecker, a customized 1:160th scale plastic model of the burning Sultana built by me years ago, and a copy of the Chester Berry book, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, once owned by and signed by survivor William H. Norton, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

The third and final display case contains artifacts related to the survivors themselves. Dominating the display case is a large American flag from the 50th Anniversary reunion held at Toledo, Ohio on April 27, 1915. The flag is imprinted with the words “SULTANA Survivor’s Association Toledo, O April 27, 1915” was the personal property of William Fies, 64th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and has his name stenciled on the back.

Other framed, and cherished, items in the case include six reunion ribbons from the northern group of survivors. The different ribbons are dated 1893 (the 8th annual reunion, held at Marion, Ohio), 1907 (the 24th reunion, held at Xenia, Ohio), 1913 (the 30th reunion), 1915 (the 32nd reunion), 1917 (the 34th reunion), and 1919 (the 36th reunion). (The last four reunions were all held at Memorial Hall in Toledo, Ohio.) Of the six reunion ribbons, my favorite is the 1893 ribbon, which has an embossed image of famous photograph of the overcrowded Sultana at Helena, Arkansas.

The third display case also includes a much-loved full color copy of the “Life Membership” certificate in the Sultana Survivors’ Association for William C. Warner, 9th Indiana Cavalry, presented to me by his son Bob Warner many, many years ago. The original certificate was presented to Bob’s father in 1888, only three years after the association was founded.

Among the more curious items on display in the final window case are three curio boxes once owned by Sultana survivors. The first, once owned by Abraham Cassel, 21st Ohio Volunteer Infantry, is adorned with a small silver shield baring the words “A. Cassel, SULTANA, 21 O.V.I., Co. B.” Included with the curio box was a small gem-type image of Private Cassel and, more importantly, a hand-carved comb that he had made while a prisoner in Andersonville Prison and actually carried by him on board the Sultana!

The second curio box belonged to Albert Norris, 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and is handsomely adorned with four quarter-size white enamel discs embossed with the number and letters “76 O. V. I.” Written in white stencils across the top of the box are the words “Albert Norris SULTANA.” Along with the box when I purchased it were an enameled coffee cup stenciled with the letters “GAR” (Grand Army of the Republic) and a 1915 United States quarter that Norris had turned into a watch fob. Stamped onto the back side of the quarter-turned-watch-fob are the words “A Norris Sultana Survivor.”

Perhaps the most curious item in the final display case is the last of the three curious boxes. The box was once owned by William Lugenbeal, 135th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, who wrote in his memoirs in the Chester Berry book that he survived the disaster by killing the Sultana’s mascot alligator with a bayonet and then floated to safety in the pet’s sturdy wooden crate. Known as the “alligator killer,” the top of Lugenbeal’s curio box is adorned with an etching of an alligator and contains the words “Wm. Lugenbeal saved by a alligator”.

Lugenbeal Scrimshaw Display

Inside the box was a small glass bottle containing some dried red Georgia clay from Andersonville Prison. The handwritten note attached to the bottle states, “A reminder of my stay at Andersonville Wm. L.” Additionally, the box contained a hand-carved, scrimshaw ivory figure of an alligator, apparently kept to remind Lugenbeal of his miraculous escape from the burning vessel.

Lugenbeal Scrimshaw

It took me years and years, and literally thousands of dollars, to acquire such an outstanding collection of images and artifacts. It is nice to finally have a place to put them on public display so that everyone who sees them will know about and “Remember the Sultana!”

—Gene Salecker


“A Soldier’s Story” – from the Sultana

In April of this year, seventy-five members of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends came to the Carter House, the centerpiece of the Battle of Franklin, TN of November 30, 1865.  The visit was an important part of their tour of the Franklin battlefield area because many of them had an ancestor who was part of the Union army which defended itself against General Hood’s Confederates on November 30, 1864.

Most of the soldiers who were captured at Franklin ended up on the ill-fated steamer, the Sultana.  This boat, which exploded and burned to the waterline on April 27, 1865, was carrying approximately 2,400 recently released prisoners of war on their way home from Confederate prisons.  This event stands today as this country’s worst marine disaster.

The group listened in fascination as Carter House Historian David Fraley recounted the events leading up to and including the action around the Carter House.  It was agreed by all that his presentation  helped everyone see and feel what the soldiers and sequestered members of the Carter family felt on that day.

For those whose ancestors stood on this very ground it was an especially moving experience.  My own great-great grandfather, Pvt. Adam Schneider, 183rd Ohio Infantry, had been mustered into this newly formed regiment just weeks before in Cincinnati,  where he and his family had emigrated from Germany in 1854.  He was a “standby,” or a “100% man,” who was called into service when one of the original draftees from the city’s 12th Ward couldn’t fulfill his obligation.

At 42, he was three years shy of the cutoff age for the draft at that time.  When his regiment headed for Franklin after only three weeks of training, he left a wife and three small daughters at home.

Arriving at Franklin after joining Schofield’s army at Spring Hill, most of the183rd was placed near the Carter House among veteran troops, with the thought that Hood would not attempt a frontal assault against the entrenched Union army.  Of course, that is exactly what he did and my grandfather was captured that day, taken to Cahaba Prison near Selma, Alabama, and ultimately ended up on the Sultana that following April. I am sure he boarded the boat happily anticipating being reunited with his family.

He never had that reunion.  He, and nearly 1,800 others died when a faulty boiler exploded just after midnight as the boat made its way up the three-mile wide river, seven miles north of Memphis.  The water was frigid and the prisoners were fragile;  the death toll was fearful.

For many reasons, I’m sorry that grandpa Schneider didn’t survive.  Life without him was hard and sad for my great-great-grandmother, who now had to raise her children alone.  She never remarried and lived on the $12/month veterans’ survivor pension until her death in 1912, when another marine disaster, the sinking of the Titanic, shocked the world.  Her children never had a father, but thankfully all, including my great grandmother (Elisabeth, born in 1862) grew up to be well-adjusted adults who were happily married and raised upstanding families.

Instead of thinking of his death, I like to picture Grandpa Schneider coming back to reunions at Franklin with his family – standing at the Carter House and pointing toward distant Winstead Hill saying, “Mein Gott! What a day that was!  I can’t believe I lived to tell about it!”

—Pam Newhouse


Original article featured in The Washington Times- June 25, 2008



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