Today, 27 April 2015, is the 150th Anniversary of the sinking of the steamboat Sultana in the Mississippi River near Memphis.
Most of the passengers were Union Soldiers from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, that had been Confederate prisoners of war, many held at Cahaba Prison in central Alabama, near where I lived for fourteen years. This was actually the worst maritime disaster in the United States. Total number of passengers, as well as the total number of the dead, has never been exact. There were approximately 2500 persons packed almost standing-room only, as you can see from the picture. At one point when the passengers crowded near the rail for a photo, the steamboat almost tipped over, and they had to be warned back. The boat's legal capacity was 376. The captain was paid per person - $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer.
A badly repaired boiler exploded about 2 AM on April 27th, causing a chain reaction of explosions and fire and eventual sinking of the Sultana, about seven miles upriver from Memphis. The water was still cold, the prisoners, many who could not swim, greatly debilitated. Estimates of the dead range from 1500 - 2000 - the total will never be known.
I was always greatly fascinated by this story of horror, primarily because it has been such a little known historical tragedy - but never did I think I would have a personal connection.
One of my great-grandfathers was Enoch Reuben Adamson, born 19 February 1841 in Indiana, died 7 January 1910 in McAlester, Pittsburg County, Oklahoma, on a trip away from his home in Rogers, Benton County, Arkansas. I knew, of course, that he fought in the Civil War - he received a pension for many years for chronic health problems as a result. I have placed a military marker at his grave which had gone unmarked. Enoch was one of eight siblings and I knew that others in his family had fought in that War. Several members of the family moved to Iowa right after the War, though not all stayed there.
Enoch's sister Mary Emily Adamson, married Benjamin Franklin Learner, right after the Civil War - 5 December 1866, in Janesville, Bremer County, Iowa. By 1870, they were back in Howard County, Indiana where they remained the rest of their lives. Benjamin's parents, immigrants from Baden Germany, were living next door in the 1870 census. I had quite of bit of information regarding these families, but not until I found Benjamin's obituary did I know that he had been on the Sultana when she went down. He had, in fact, been reported as one of the dead.
Here's the story:
Kokomo Daily Tribune, Saturday, 31 Jan 1925, p.1, column 1
B. F. Leaner Passes Away at Age of 82
One of County's Worthiest Citizens and Most Interesting Characters
Was Born Here in 1842
Knew the Indians of That Period - Was Survivor of Sultana Disaster
Benjamin F. Leaner, age 82, years, a native of Howard County and resident here most of his life, a Civil war veteran and one of the few survivors of the wreck of the Sultana, the greatest steamboat disaster of the Civil War period, died at his home, a mile east of Kokomo, on the north Greentown Pike, at 11 o-clock today, of septic poisoning.
An injury received by Mr. Learner in the explosion which destroyed the Sultana and snuffed out the lives of several hundred men, was really the cause of his death. He was frightfully burned on one of his legs in that explosion. The hurt was one which never healed; though he lived nearly sixty years after receiving it. Always it was threatening him, and finally brought on the condition which resulted in his death.
Mr. Learner had been failing for several months, and had kept to his home since the beginning of winter. He was able, however, to be about until a week ago last Tuesday. On that day he was unable to arise. It was the beginning of the final issue. He failed slowly, but steadily, from that time on. His vitality was remarkable. His death had been expected for several days, but he withstood the destroyer's encroachment with the same tenacious courage that he had met every experience in his long life. He had no fear of going, but it was like him not to die until he had to.
The death of this man removes from the community not only one of its most worthy citizens, but one of it most interesting historical figures. Benjamin F. Learner's life spanned all the years in Howard County between the days of the Indians and the cabin in the clearing and the days of the airplane and the radio. He was born in Howard County, on May 29, 1842, in Harrison township, in what was familiarly known as the Seven Mile Strip of the Miami Indian reserve at a point five miles southwest of Kokomo. His birth was two years before Howard County was organized, and from the time memory awoke in him down to the day of his death he knew Howard County history from actual participation in it.
Mr. Learner was the son of Bernhart and Catrina Learner, who came to the Wildcat Valley, settling in what later became Harrison Township in 1841. That was three years before Kokomo was founded. The father was a native of Germany, of the state of Baden, and his boyhood was spent near the Rhine. He died at his home five miles eat of Kokomo 23 years ago. All older residents of the city and county remember him well, as a man of the sturdiest of virtues and finest type of citizenship. He was one of Howard County's first shoemakers.
When B. F. Learner was a small child he moved with his parents to the Vermont neighborhood where he grew to manhood. A tribe of Indians had their village near the Learner home, and as a boy Mr. Learner knew them all, bucks, squaws and papooses, well. They were friendly Indians and furnished him with many an interesting memory that remained with him to the end of life. He had a distinct recollection of the removal of the tribes by the Federal government to lands that had been provided for them beyond the Mississippi, and was able to recall many incidents of the visit which the chief and all his followers paid to the Learner home just before departing. Some of these incidents were related by Mr. Learner at the celebration that was held last May, in the Union Street Friends' Church, by the Howard County Historical Society, in celebration of the eighteenth anniversary of the founding of the county.
Mr. Leaner was united in marriage with Mrs. Mary Emily Adamson, a member of a pioneer family of Taylor Township, December 5, 1866. The Adamson family resided in a brick dwelling, on what is now known as the Githens farm, three miles southeast of Kokomo, on the banks of Kokomo Creek. The marriage took place, however, in Iowa.
The surviving members of the immediate family are: The widow, Mary Emily Adamson Learner; and the following chidren: Ulysses Learner, city; Leavitt C. Learner, Abbeville, Louisiana; Ernest R. Learner, Buffalo; Ellis M. Learner who resides at the home place; Harry M. Learner, Buffalo; Donald H. Learner, Houma, Louisiana; and Mrs. Ruth L. Copp, Kokomo. There are eleven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. J. W. Learner of this city is a brother.
Mr. Learner was a member of the 57th Indiana Infantry and was principal in numerous heroic services during the civil war. In (Continued on Page Two)
the battle of Franklin he was a member of the detail under command of Col. Willis Blanche which was holding the road and was cut off from the rest of the troops. Finally the ammunition ran out. Col. Blanch said that he would not order any one of his men to take the hazard of crossing the blaze of fire to replenish the stock but would call for volunteers. Mr. Learner was the first to volunteer for the service which promised instant death. When it came the moment for departure upon his hazardous undertaking Col. Blanch and Mr. Learner bid each other goodbye, for it was recognized that probably would never return.
Mr. Learner succeeded in getting to the spot where the ammunition was to be obtained without a shot being fired, as the Confederates did not suspect his purpose at the time and could scarcely believe that any man would hazard the trip. But in returning to where his comrades were breathlessly awainting his return, the nature of his undertaking was suddenly realized and a rain of bullets pored around him. One ball struck him on the side of his shoe, turned the round of his heel and left through the opposite side of the shoe, but the shock was so great that Mr. Leaner was thrown to the ground. Fortunately the enemy believed him dead when he was seen to fall and by dodging from behind trees he gained his objective and afforded the much needed ammunition.
That Col. Blanche had a supreme confidence in his accuracy of observation and his integrity of recital was evidenced in a remark Col Blanche once made concerning him which was, "If Comrade Learner should give his version of how any incident happened in the war I would accept his account against the combined account of all his comrades."
An affection of a tender kind existed between the two warriors. It was said that they never met but that they clasped hands, and after a moment of silence tears sprang from their eyes.
It was at the battle Missionary Ridge that Col. Blanche was seated upon a cream white horse, a conspicuous target for the enemy. His finger had been shot off and the blood was streaming down the sides of the horse when Mr. Learner begged of Col. Blanche that he dismount to save his life.
One of the eleven hundred prisoners being taken to Vicksburg for the exchange, and leaving the Cahawba Prison in Alabama, where he endured horrors for three months, Mr. Learner was one of the Union soldiers aboard the ill fated Mississippi River steamer Sultana, the boilers of which exploded. Scenes of indescribable misery and horrow ensued, and Mr. Learner was scalded so badly that the flesh came off his left leg. He was so weak from the injury that for three months he was unable to feed himself. During the ensuing years he often battled for his life when poisoning would arise from the old wound which never healed but gave him incessant pain.
The funeral will take place, probably at the United Brethren Church, this city, Tuesday at 2 p.m., the Rev. J. W. Lake officiating. The burial will be made in Crown Point Cemetery. Mr. Learner had been a member of the U. B. Church for many years, having his membership at Hillsdale, a few miles east of his home. The pastor of that church, the Rev. Mr. Rosenbarger, will assist in the funeral services.
The G. A. R. burial service will be given by members of T. J. Harrison Post, with which Mr. Learner had long been affiliated. The active pallbearers will be from the local post of Veterans of Foreign Wars. The honorary pallbearers have not yet been designated.