April – 1865
At only seventeen, with a year of prison camp and slightly over a year of war behind him, Jake had seen enough horrors to last a lifetime.
Being held for thirteen long, torturous months in the Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia - with little food, hard physical labor, and no medical care – had taken its toll on both Jake Adams and his father Seth. Since being captured, Jake had lost over fifty pounds and couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t hungry.
Seth Adams had fared worse.
Before joining the Union army just over two years previously, Jake had been strong. He’d always been large for his age and the daily grind of farm work had chiseled his 6-foot tall Nordic frame with rock hard muscles. His light brown, almost blond hair and soft brown eyes guaranteed that most of the local girls would have found him attractive… if the war hadn’t destroyed any opportunities for romance.
But at last, the war was over. Seth, Jake, and all the other Union prisoners had finally been released from the prison camp and were now working their way northward (home) as quickly as possible.
Prior to the war, Jake and Seth had been sharecroppers which meant that since they’d been working on rented farmland, now they didn’t really have anything to return to… but to them, just getting out of the south was enough. They’d find a way to feed themselves and stay alive once they got back home to Ohio.
However, getting home was proving to be a real challenge.
Ships, trains, stagecoaches, horse, and buggy - literally every mode of transportation capable of heading north was packed. Those that couldn’t find some sort of ride or squeeze aboard a ship had started walking if they were physically able. Soon all the northbound roads were blocked and had become nothing more than impassable ribbons of humanity.
Thousands or even tens of thousands of prisoners had all been released at the same time and all of them were eager to get out of the south - just like Jake and Seth. All of them were finding it a major struggle to find transportation home.
Unfortunately for most of them, it wouldn’t have mattered even if they could have found a train or stagecoach – after months and sometimes years of captivity, none of the ex-prisoners had any money and couldn’t have paid the fare.
They were stranded with no food, no money and no way to leave the area except by walking – which wasn’t possible for many of the ex-prisoners. Many of the men had been wounded during the war and were crippled. Even of those that hadn’t been wounded, all of them were weak from years of starvation.
It was a far too common to see dead bodies littering the side of the road.
In an attempt to help with the mass exodus, President Lincoln had authorized the government to pay for the ex-prisoners northbound ship’s passage.
All the released soldiers would have to do was find their way to the docks along the Mississippi and board one of the northbound ships.
Then tragedy struck! Before many of the prisoners had been able to take advantage of the offer - the president had been assassinated.
Now everyone was scrambling to get aboard a ship, any ship. It didn’t matter where it was going – just so it was heading north. They were all afraid that with the president dead, the free passage program was going to be stopped and they would – once again - be stranded.
In their weakened condition, it hadn’t been easy, but Seth and Jake Adams had managed to work their way to the docks near Memphis, Tennessee and were eagerly awaiting their chance to board the “Sultana”.
They were not alone, there were literally thousands of soldiers – all of them in a huge rush and fighting for a place on board the “Sultana”. They all wanted to get started northward while they still could.
The “Sultana” was a huge and majestic looking paddleboat and both Seth and Jake thought it was the most beautiful sight they had ever seen. As farmers, neither Jake nor Seth had ever ridden on one of the numerous Mississippi River boats.
Down on the docks, waiting for a chance to go aboard, Jake was caring for his ailing father and couldn’t leave him alone.
The long trek had taken its toll and it was only through sheer force of will that Seth had managed to stay alive as long as he had.
The loud chirping of hundreds of crickets and other nighttime insects had attracted the attention of a multitude of bullfrogs looking for a quick meal.
Listening to the bullfrogs croaking, Jake’s mouth started watering. He wished he could spend a couple hours and go scavenging for some food. He knew a good meal would help his father regain some strength, but in Seth’s condition, there was no way Jake could leave him alone.
Still, a few fat and juicy frog’s legs would really hit the spot. In fact, Jake was so hungry, at this point, he’d even settle for a handful of the crickets! But, there was no time. The ship was nearly full and they had to get on board.
Suffering from severe malnutrition, the hike to the docks had sapped all of Seth’s energy and he was totally spent. He was lying on the dock gasping for air as though they had run all the way from the prison camp.
Jake was worried about his father and knew he had to do something, but he had no idea what to do. Seth was so weak that even swallowing was a chore and he wound up coughing and choking.
Hoping to help his father recoup some energy, at least enough to make it up the ship’s gangplank, Jake had been feeding him the last of their meager supply of food.
Gently lifting his father’s head, Jake spooned in a bit of dandelion tea to help wash down the last of their hardtack.
Around the camps, the soldiers had referred to hardtack as molar busters! The rock hard flour and water biscuits had been a staple of their diets for their entire time in captivity, and now even that was almost gone.
“Just think, Pa. A couple more days and we’ll both have steaks so big we won’t even be able to lift our plates. You’ll never have to eat hardtack again…”
Seth didn’t have the energy to do much more than give his son a weak smile.
Wiping the sweat off of his father’s brow with an old rag, Jake was worried that if he wasn’t able to find them some decent food - and soon - his father wasn’t going to make it.
The moon scurried behind a thick layer of clouds, but it was not dark by any means. Blazing torches were burning brightly all along the dock as well as on both sides of the ship’s gangplank and had also been spaced evenly along the railing of the ship’s decks.
For several hours, Jake had been watching the never ending stream of ex-prisoners boarding the ship. It was by no means an orderly progression. Pushing and shoving as they jostled for position, the stronger ones were edging out the weakest among them.
Finally Jake spotted a minuscule gap in the disorderly melee. Helping Seth struggle to his feet, Jake said, “Come on Pa, just a few more steps then you can sleep.”
Seth struggled to his feet while thinking that it was a good thing Jake was there to help him up, he would never have been able to stand on his own.
Pushing a few of the soldiers back, and threatening others with his fists, Jake managed to get the two of them in line.
Jake and his father both looked up the ship’s gangway toward the deck - it seemed to stretch on and on forever – and shivered with excitement.
Finally, just a few more steps and the worst of their struggles would be over. They were only steps away from being aboard the “Sultana” and leaving this godforsaken hellhole.
“Come on Pa, we have to get aboard. Think you can walk? I need at least one hand free in case someone tries to push us out of line.”
Seth managed an almost imperceptible nod.
They couldn’t wait any longer. It had to be now or never. Soon their chance at getting aboard would be gone. While he disliked resorting to violence and having to fight for their position in the line, Jake could see that the ship was almost full. Having pushed and shoved their way into the never ending stream of ragtag soldiers climbing up the gangway, Jake wasn’t willing to give up their spot and would do whatever it took to keep it.
Groaning and wheezing with the effort, Seth Adams gamely tried to keep up with Jake and the mass of other soldiers steadily climbing the gangplank. Just a few steps more and he could rest.
The sun had long since dipped below the horizon, but the heat of the sweltering southern day still radiated from the ground and clashed with the cold, northern fed water of the Mississippi River.
Roiling banks of fog coated the surface of the water and slicked the gently swaying ship’s gangplank. Footing on the gangway soon became treacherous.
Maneuvering up the slippery gangplank in the flickering torch light, seventeen-year-old Jake Adams couldn’t help but be concerned about his father. This frail, broken, shell of a man bore no resemblance to the robust, constantly cheerful man that had always been ready and eager to help a neighbor in need.
“Just a few more steps, Pa,” Jake had his arm around his father’s waist and was more carrying him than helping him to walk.
It wasn’t just the soldiers that were anxious to get going. The “Sultana’s” captain and crew were just as eager to get underway as the ex-prisoners. The sooner they got to St. Louis, the sooner they got paid.
They were trying to squeeze as many bodies on board as possible. No one knew how long the government program was going to last and they intended to get at least one huge payday before it was canceled.
The soldiers didn’t mind the overcrowding. In their rush to get home, no one was much concerned about a couple days of discomfort. They were just eager to get started on this leg of the long journey home.
The “Sultana” was a beautiful ship. It was a huge, steam operated, side-wheeler paddleboat carrying a crew of eighty-five. In normal day-to-day operations, their regular run was from New Orleans to St. Louis - with numerous stops along the way.
Now, every square inch of the “Sultana” was packed… all of the decks, all of the cabins, even the pilot house was wall to wall bodies.
By law, the “Sultana” was rated to carry 376 people - including the crew - yet while on the docks waiting their chance to get aboard, Jake and his father had seen at least 1500 people go aboard the ship and that wasn’t even counting the 500 or more who had boarded long before they’d arrived at the docks.
The repatriated soldiers were so densely packed together, there was no place on the entire ship to sit down. (Or even to fall down for that matter.)
Smells carried across the frigid water as easily as sounds and the odor of the soldier’s unwashed, sick and sometimes even gangrenous bodies could be detected hundreds of yards from the ship.
Jake and his father were both gaunt to the point of emaciation. In reality, they were little more than walking skeletons. Thirteen months in the camps with little to eat but hardtack - and the occasional insect that had wandered too close - had taken its toll.
They weren’t alone. Jake had seen hundreds of prisoners starve to death in the camps.
The stresses of having been constantly surrounded by starvation, disease, and death - of having to constantly fight for every morsel of food – had nearly been too much for Jake. But, it had hit Seth even harder.
In his weakened condition, Seth had been unable to fend for himself and what little food he’d been given was quickly stolen by other prisoners.
Day by day Seth had gotten weaker but was too proud to say anything to Jake. Eventually, Jake had figured out what was happening and started guarding his father’s food rations.
At first, he’d been forced to fight off the other prisoners and had bloodied more than one nose. After a while, the thieves had decided that the tasteless bit of hardtack wasn’t worth the effort and left Seth and Jake alone.
With Jake’s help, Seth finally got all of his allotted food (and most of Jake’s as well).
The increased nourishment – what little there was – had helped improve his condition a little, but not much. It was a case of too little, too late.
“Just a little further, Pa.”
Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity of climbing, they made it to the top of the gangplank.
Stepping onto the deck they found it to be so crowded that they couldn’t go any further. There just wasn’t any more room on board - free deck space was totally nonexistent.
Seth and Jake had boarded just in time and were the last of the soldiers to get aboard the “Sultana”.
With no more room available on deck, the ship’s crewmen - amid cursing and yelling from the soldiers who hadn’t yet cleared the gangway - started shoving everyone back down onto the docks.
Soldiers who put up a fight and refused to cooperate were quickly shoved off the gangplank into the frigid water, or were violently beaten back down to the docks with a few swings of a club.
Amid riotous shouting and raised fists, the instant the gangway was cleared, it was lifted away from the docks. The lucky ones on board all looked at each other and grinned.
They were almost ready to get underway.
The “Sultana” was riding very low in the water from the sheer weight of all the bodies, but everyone was so anxious to get home they just didn’t care.
All involved knew that the ship was overloaded. No one, crew and soldiers alike, had ever seen a ship this crowded. The ones with any sense were deeply concerned but, they found it easy to put aside and ignore their fears.
After all they had been through - the war, prison camp, starvation – they could put up with a little overcrowding for two or three days. Couldn’t they?
Despite the soldiers’ various physical ailments and the ship’s deplorable conditions, to a man, they were in high spirits. Just a few more days and they would be back home with their loved ones - and plenty of urgently needed medical care and food.
Deckhands cast off the last of the mooring lines and Jake felt a tremendous shudder going through the ship as the steam boilers were stoked and the side-mounted paddle wheels started rotating, slowly at first then rapidly gaining speed.
The muddy waters of the Mississippi were churned up by the giant paddle wheels as they fought through the resistance of the water.
Water cascading off the paddles permeated the air with a rich, humid aroma that almost, but not quite, masked the diseased, sickly smell of the Union soldiers.
At last, the “Sultana” eased away from the docks to a boisterous and mighty cheer from all of the Union soldiers. The gathering speed of the ship forced a gentle breeze across the decks giving the soldiers the first relief they’d had that day from the oppressive southern heat.
It was a giddy time. Finally, after years of war, captivity, starvation, and suffering they were on their way home!
A mighty cheer rang out, “Hip, hip, hooray!”
Far off in the distance, Jake heard the sounds of a single banjo playing; “Home Sweet Home” which, over the last few years, had become an unofficial theme song of the war. It was popular and frequently sung in both Confederate and Union camps.
“Hear that Pa? We’re on the way home.”
Seth grinned a mostly toothless grin (malnutrition had made most of his teeth fall out), but was unable to muster the strength to say anything.
The infectious sounds of that lone banjo rippled through the soldiers like wildfire. The troops were laughing and cheering with excitement as the “Sultana” slowly eased its way further out into the fast-moving southbound current of the Mississippi.
The sounds of the paddlewheels churned a lively accompaniment to the cheers of the nearly 2000 joyous soldiers - laughing, crying, slapping each other’s backs and singing along with the banjo…
“Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home…”
Beaming, tear-streaked faces were everywhere as the singing got louder and louder. The banjo music was quickly drowned out and could not have been heard even if it had been on the ship itself and not down on the docks.
“… A charm from the sky seems to hallow us there, which, seek thro’ the world, is ne’er met with elsewhere. Home…”
None of the soldiers seemed to be able to carry a tune, but no one cared. The song was more than just music to their ears. That lone, strumming banjo represented the ultimate release of the stress and tensions that had been building up over the years of war and incarceration.
“… Home! Sweet, sweet home!
There’s no place like home.
There’s no place like home…”
The “Sultana’s” paddles valiantly churned, but the going was torturously slow. A heavier than normal springtime thaw had been dumping ice cold water into the Mississippi all the way from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The runoff had swollen the river to the point of cresting its banks and there had been massive flooding along the length of the river - in addition to creating a very strong current which the “Sultana” would be fighting throughout the entire trip to St. Louis.
The black gang (so called because they worked at stoking the furnaces in the boiler room and were constantly covered in coal dust) were feeding the boilers as fast as they possibly could. Even so, the current was so strong that the ship was barely making any headway.
It didn’t help that the “Sultana” was carrying at least six times its maximum rating of passengers.
The sheer weight of them would have made headway difficult even in the best of times. Against a stronger than normal current, it was an almost losing battle.
While the “Sultana” laboriously churned its way north, the crew - from the captain on down - were all eagerly looking forward to a huge payday once they reached St. Louis and offloaded the soldiers.
To keep ahead of the never ending battle against the current, the black gang constantly shoveled more and more coal into the boilers. As they did so, the steam pressure in the boilers built higher and higher, putting extreme pressure on the aged and weakened welds and seams.
At each of the “Sultana’s” previous two landings, the crewmen had noticed that the old, worn out boilers were leaking and they had done what few patchwork repairs they could while at the docks.
It had been a temporary fix at best and the crew was looking forward to the end of the trip where the worn out boilers could be replaced – or at least be properly repaired.
Finally at 2:00 AM, on April 21 - approximately 7 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee - the overtaxed and over pressurized boilers gave out. They just couldn’t handle it anymore and the overburdened boilers blew up.
The explosions were horrific.
The night turned to day as fireballs leaped into the air. Broken and dismembered bodies of soldiers were thrown - screaming - into the water as far as 100 yards from the “Sultana”.
Many of the lucky ones who’d managed to stay aboard through the explosions, were scalded by the escaping steam pouring out of the ruptured boilers.
Scrambling to find any sort of shelter from the scalding water, hundreds of them jumped off the ship. Others wound up slipping and sliding on the blood-soaked decks, often sliding right off the “Sultana” and into the icy water of the Mississippi.
And that was just the beginning...
The victims that had been thrown, jumped or slid into the frigid April water, eventually surfaced only to find themselves in the middle of a fiery lake of burning oil and debris.
The ones that weren’t burned alive quickly died of hypothermia.
Later reports would indicate that the “Sultana’s” explosions had been heard all the way to Memphis.
In an effort to offer assistance, every available boat on the river immediately headed towards the wreckage but, for the vast majority of the soldiers, help arrived too late.
During the explosions, Jake and Seth had somehow managed to be in the right place to avoid being thrown off the “Sultana” (or scalded by the steam), but the shock waves from the blast had thrown them, and many others, violently to the deck.
Jake slowly managed to get up and - after a frantic search for his father - saw that Seth was conscious but he’d hit his head and seemed groggy and unsure of where he was.
Jake’s ears were ringing from the blasts and he couldn’t hear much of anything. The muffled sounds that were coming through seemed as though they were muted and at the end of a very long tunnel.
Being temporarily deafened by the blasts may have been a blessing. It meant that he was unable to hear the screams of the soldiers being burned alive in the water or the moans and whimpers of the ones still on deck who were suffering from broken bones and dismembered limbs.
But, that wasn’t the end of the nightmare.
The wooden decks of the “Sultana” had caught fire and the entire ship would soon be completely engulfed. There was no time to spare. The ship was going to go down, fast.
Jake struggled to lift his father up off the deck. He could see that the bow was the only area that wasn’t burning - yet - and if he had any hope of saving their lives, he had to find a way to get the two of them to the front of the ship. Hopefully, they’d be rescued before the “Sultana” completely burned up and sank.
Half carrying and half dragging his father, Jake made his way across the bloodied deck toward the crowded bow. They weren’t the only ones trying to escape the flames and Jake was forced to fight for every inch.
Adrift with no one at the helm, the current was slowly turning the “Sultana” around in the water. It quickly became apparent to Jake that even at the front of the ship, they were only temporarily safe.
Soon the wind that was fanning the flames would be blowing the fires forward. As the ship slowly rotated, the fire was rapidly spreading down the entire length of the deck. They would soon be engulfed.
Clearly there was only one choice, they were going to have to take their chances in the water.
Jake frantically looked around for something he could use as a makeshift flotation device.
Spotting a wooden hatch cover that had been blown loose in the blast and was hanging by one badly damaged hinge – he ran over to it and wrenched it free.
Some of the other terrified, panicked soldiers saw what he was doing and desperately grabbed at the hatch cover, trying to wrench it from his grasp.
Fighting off the grasping hands, Jake was wildly swinging his precious hatch cover back and forth in a wide semi-circle in front of him as he worked his way back to his father.
Anyone that came too close was battered and sent flying. All pretense at civility was gone, it was every man for himself.
Finally reaching his father and - praying the hatch cover would float - Jake tucked it under his arm, grabbed Seth by the collar of his shirt and leaped off the boat, launching the two of them overboard into the black, oily water.
The force of hitting the water tore both Seth and the hatch cover out of Jake’s grasp as he went under. He quickly sank in the freezing water and tumbled head over heels, plunging him deeper and deeper as the swiftly moving current whisked him downstream.
The shock of the cold was intense. His first impulse was to gasp – which immediately filled his mouth and lungs with water. Coughing only made it worse and he wound up taking in even more of the foul tasting liquid.
Desperate for air, he flailed his arms, struggling to get to the surface.
When he finally broke the surface, coughing and gasping – he saw that the racing current had carried him several hundred yards from the ship.
The hatch cover and his father were nowhere to be seen.
“Pa!” Jake screamed over and over. “Pa!”
Soon his voice gave out and he was only able to manage a hoarse, dejected croak… “Pa!”
Never a great swimmer, Jake floundered through the current. Fighting to control the coughing jags brought on by his having inhaled so much water, each stroke of his arms and each kick of his feet seemed heavier and more taxing – quickly using up what little strength he had left.
The tattered remnants of his uniform absorbed water like a sponge and the sheer weight of it threatened to pull him under at any second.
The shoreline seemed tantalizingly close and was glowing in the reflected light of the burning oil slicks coating the water. Yet the harder he swam, the safety of solid ground seemed to get further and further away.
Suffering from hypothermia and fighting both the current and exhaustion finally became more than Jake could handle and he slipped under the water…
… And almost immediately felt the bottom.
He’d made it!
Jake crawled to the bank in total exhaustion and he lay gasping and shivering on the shoreline, half in and half out of the water.
What seemed like hours, but must have been only minutes later, he became aware of being roughly dragged higher out of the water and onto the shore.
Groggy and lying face down in the mud, Jake felt someone pumping his arms and pushing on his back.
Through ears still ringing from the explosions, Jake heard a thick muted voice as someone (sounding as if they were at the end of a long tunnel) was saying, “Breathe, damn you…”
Jake coughed and became violently ill – expelling the muddy Mississippi water from his lungs. Gasping for air, he was roughly turned over onto his back and that was the first time he saw the photographer, Veronica Rose.