The 29th Annual Reunion of Sultana Descendants and Friends met in Knoxville, this last weekend (April 22-23, 2016) and was a big success, with more than 80 people attending.
We gathered at the Mt. Olive Baptist Church on Maryville Pike, south of Knoxville, where Sultana survivors met until they all passed on in 1930. After a time of greeting each other and looking at Sultana related displays brought by attendees, we moved upstairs for a welcoming program, led by Norman Shaw, founder of our descendants group.
The Appalachian Harmonizers, an excellent local quartet, sang a medley of Civil War songs during the program. This group has been singing together for many years, and has always been a part of our Knoxville reunions.
The next morning we boarded a comfortable bus for a tour of Civil War related sites in Knoxville, including the National Cemetery there, where we viewed several graves of soldiers who were on the Sultana. (It is interesting to note that eastern Tennessee was very pro-Union when the war began in 1861, unlike the western part of the state, which influenced Tennessee to become the 11th state to
join the Confederacy. It wasn’t until 1863, when the state was taken over by the Union, that men in The Knoxville area were able to safely join Union regiments, like the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry. Nearly the entire regiment was captured near Athens, Alabama in September of 1864, and were taken to the Confederate run prisons of Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia. The survivors ended up on the Sultana.)
The last stop on our bus tour was the cemetery back at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, where many of the Sultana survivors are buried. One item that was always on the agenda of the Sultana Survivors Annual Reunion was the issue of trying to get the
Federal government to erect a monument to mark what was then, and is now, the worst marine disaster in United States history…the loss of the Sultana. It was never accomplished, so these Tennessee survivors had one created and erected it themselves. The ceremony we had there was led by the Major William A. McTeer Camp No. 39, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The opening featured a march down the cemetery road to the monument by the Honor Guard of the Mabry Guard Fife and Drums, 79th New York Highlanders. Linda Kerr Wells and her brother John Kerr were introduced as descendants of a Sultana survivor who was part of the group that had the monument erected 100 years ago this year. There then was a Fife and Drums rendition of the National Anthem, followed by Taps, answered by a member of the Boy Scout troop which was present. William “Dewey” Beard closed out this moving ceremony by singing a Medley of Civil War songs.
The last event of the weekend was our farewell dinner held at the Bearden Banquet Hall in Knoxville. The food was delicious! There were short presentations including one by Gene Salecker on Rueben Hatch, and a 10 minute viewing presented by Mike Marshall of the hour and a half Sultana documentary which will be sent out in about 45 days to those who helped fund it last year. We are so excited about this wonderful film. The evening ended with our traditional Sultana Soldiers Memorial Candlelight Ceremony.