The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies

No. 3.--Report. of Bvt. Brig. Gen. William Hoffman, U. S. Army, Commissary-General of Prisoners.

Washington, D. C., May 19, 1865.

SIR: Pursuant to your instructions of the 30th ultimo, I proceeded direct to Memphis, Tenth., and Vicksburg, Miss., to inquire into the circumstances of the destruction of the steamer Sultana in the Mississippi River near Memphis on the 24th [27th] ultimo, by which calamity a large number of paroled prisoners, who had embarked on her at Vicksburg, lost their lives, and I have the honor to submit the following report of the result of my investigations:

At Memphis I learned that a court of inquiry had been ordered by Major-General Washburn, commanding District of West Tennessee, to investigate the facts and circumstances of the burning of the Sultana, and at Vicksburg I learned that a commission had been ordered by Major-General Dana, commanding Department of Mississippi, to make a similar investigation. The court and the commission were about closing their proceedings when I arrived at Vicksburg, and finding upon a perusal of their records that all the testimony taken would be useful to me in forming an opinion as to the merits of the case, I determined to avail myself of a copy of them, which I was permitted to do through the courtesy of the generals by whom the investigations were made. In addition to the above I obtained such further testimony that was within my reach as I thought necessary to a full understanding of the matter. Upon a careful consideration of all the facts as presented in the testimony herewith submitted, I am of the opinion that the shipment of so large a number of troops (1,866) on one boat was, under the circumstances, unnecessary, unjustifiable, and a great outrage on the troops. A proper order was issued by the general commanding the department for the embarkation of the paroled prisoners, and there were four officers of his staff who were responsible that this order was properly carried out, viz, Col. R. B. Hatch, captain in the quartermaster's department, chief quartermaster; Capt. Frederick Speed, assistant adjutant-general, U. S. Volunteers, adjutant-general Department of Mississippi; Capt. George A. Williams, First U.S. Infantry, commissary of musters and in charge of paroled prisoners, and Capt. W. F. Kerns, assistant quartermaster, U.S. Volunteers, and master of transportation. If there was anything deficient or unsuitable in the character of the transportation furnished, one or more of these officers should be held accountable for the neglect.

The testimony shows that it was well understood by the four officers named that the troops in question were to embark in the Sultana. She was provided by the master of transportation, with the approval of the chief quartermaster, upon the order of General Dana, though not upon a formal requisition, and Captain Speed and Captain Williams were to superintend the embarkation. Nothing was known positively as to the number of men that were to go on board, but it was the impression that there would be from 1,200 to 1,500; nor was any inspection of the boat made by either of the officers above named to determine her capacity or her condition. Neither one of them knew whether she had proper apparatus for cooking for so many men or other necessary conveniences required for troops on transports. The troops were sent to the steamer from the camp in three parties, as is shown by the testimony of Mr. Butler, superintendent of military railroads at Vicksburg, though Captain Speed and Captain Williams knew only of the first and third parties. The second party consisted of between 300 and 400 men. As the men were being embarked Captain Kerns seems to have been satisfied that too many were going on one boat, and he so reported to Colonel Hatch, who agreed with him in this belief but failed to interfere himself, as it was his duty to do, or to make any report of the matter to General Dana, because, as he states, he had had a day or two before some difficulty with Captain Speed about the shipment of troops. There were two other steamers at the landing during the day, both of which would have taken a part of the men, and there was therefore no necessity for crowding them all on one boat. It only required an order from Colonel Hatch or a representation of the facts to the commanding general.

Both Captain Speed and Captain Williams acted under the impression that there were only about 1,400 men to be forwarded, and having also a conviction that bribery had been attempted to induce the shipment of part of the men on the Pauline Carroll, they, during the day, resisted the proposition to divide the command between the two boats, in the belief that in doing so they resisted all attempt at fraud. It was not until the troops were all on board that they became aware of the fearful load that was on the boat, and then they seemed to think it too late to make any change, but neither of them made any inspection of the boat to see whether there was room enough for every man to lie down. The testimony shows, and by a calculation of the area of the three decks, I am satisfied that there was scant sleeping room for all the men when every part of the boat, from the roof of the "texas" to the main deck, was fully occupied. At night it was impossible to move about, and it was only with much difficulty that it could be done during the daytime. The cooking was done either by hot water taken from the boilers or at a small stove on the afterpart of the main deck, and owing to the limited nature of this arrangement, the difficulty of getting about the boat, and the want of camp kettles or mess pans, the cooking could not be very general. Before the troops embarked there were on the boat about sixty horses and mules and some hogs, 100 or more. The great weight on the upper deck made it necessary to set up stanchions in many places, in spite of which the deck perceptibly sagged. The impression seems to have been entertained that the paroled troops, having been so long suffering together in rebel prisons, were particularly anxious to go home together in the same boat, but there is no foundation for this belief. The men were exceedingly anxious to return to their homes and were willing to put up with many inconveniences, but they felt that they were treated with unkindness and harshness when they were crowded together in great discomfort on one boat when another equally good was lying alongside willing to take them.

From the foregoing I am of opinion that the four officers above-named are responsible for the embarkation of so large a number of troops on an unsuitable vessel, Colonel Hatch and Captain Speed being the most censurable. It was their duty especially to see that the service was properly performed. Captain Williams was assisting Captain Speed and seems to have felt that there was no special responsibility resting on him, but there was a manifest propriety in his knowing the number embarked, and if there was a deficiency of transportation he should have reported it. Captain Kerns made no inspection of the steamer to see that she was properly fitted up, but he did report her to Colonel Hatch, and also to General Smith, as being insufficient for so many troops, and his report should have been noticed. He made no report of the repairing of the boilers, which he seems to have been aware was going forward, and which it has not yet been decided positively was not the cause of the disaster. Lieut. W. H. Tillinghast, Sixty-sixth U.S. Colored Infantry, was the only other officer connected with this service, but he had no directing control. It is shown by his own testimony that a bribe was proffered to him to induce him to use his influence in having some of the troops shipped on the Pauline Carroll, which he showed a willingness to accept--at least he did not reject it--and which he failed to report until after the loss of the Sultana. The testimony of the four officers above referred to is very contradictory, and I have formed my opinion from the general tenor of the testimony and the circumstances of the embarkation. Brig. Gen. M. L. Smith, U.S. Volunteers, had command of the District of Vicksburg at the time, but he had nothing officially to do with the shipment of the troops; yet as it was officially reported to him by Captain Kerns  that too many men were being put in the Sultana, it was proper that he should have satisfied himself from good authority whether there was sufficient grounds for the report, and if he found it so he should have interfered to have the evil remedied. Had he done so the lives of many men would have been saved.

In reference to the immediate cause of the calamity, the testimony which I have been able to collect does not enable me to form a positive opinion. The testimony of the two engineers of the Sultana and of the inspector at Saint Louis establishes that her boilers were in good condition on her leaving that port for New Orleans, and apparently continued so until her arrival within ten hours' run of Vicksburg, when a leak occurred in one of her boilers. On the arrival of the boat at Vicksburg this leak was repaired by a competent boiler maker, and was pronounced by him a good job, though he qualifies the character of the work by saying that to have been thorough and permanent the two sheets adjoining the leak should have been taken out, and that in its then condition it was not perfect. The first engineer, Mr. Wait-ringer, testifies that after leaving Vicksburg he watched the repaired part of the boiler, which was near the front end, just over the fire bars, carefully, and it did not at any time show the least sign of giving way. When he was relieved from charge of the engine by the second engineer the boilers were full of water and in good condition, and on their return to Memphis the second engineer, Mr. Clemmans, who, being on watch at the time of the explosion, was fatally scalded, told him before he died that the boilers were all right and full of water. I was told by another engineer at Cincinnati that he had said the same thing to another person on landing at Memphis, but this other person was not within my reach. There is nothing to show that there was any careening of the boat at the time of the disaster, or that she was running fast; on the contrary, it is shown that she was running evenly and not fast. A piece of boiler was obtained from the wreck, by order of General Washburn, which I examined. It seemed to have been broken from the bottom of the boiler the breadth of a sheet and torn tapering to near the top of the boiler, tearing the iron like paper, at times through the rivet holes and then through the middle of the sheet. The lower or wider end seems to have been exposed to the fire without the protection of water, and if so, this doubtless was the cause of the explosion. But this piece of iron may have been exposed to the fire of the burning vessel after the explosion, in which case some other cause must be found to account for it. The testimony of some of the most experienced engineers on the Western rivers is given, to throw some light on the matter, but until the boilers can all be examined no reliable conjecture can be made to account for the explosion. Thus far nothing has been discovered to show that the disaster was attributable to the imperfect patching. It is the common opinion among engineers that an explosion of steam boilers is impossible when they have the proper quantity of water in them, but the boilers may burst from an over-pressure of steam when they are full of water, owing to some defective part of the iron, in which case there is generally no other harm done than giving way of the defective part and the consequent escape of steam. One engineer, who is said to be the most reliable on the river, says that even in such a case the great power of the steam, having once found a yielding place, tears everything before it, producing the effect of an explosion, and his view seems to be reasonable. What is usually understood as the explosion of a boiler is caused by the sudden development of an intense steam by the water coming in contact with  red-hot iron, which produces an effect like the firing of gunpowder in a mine, and the destruction of the boilers and the boat that carries them is the consequence.

The reports and testimony show that there were 1,866 troops on board the boat, including 33 paroled officers, 1 officer who had resigned, and the captain in charge of the guard. Of these, 765, including 16 officers, were saved, and 1,101, including 19 officers, were lost. There were 70 cabin passengers and 85 crew on board, of whom some 12 to 18 were saved, giving a loss of 137, making the total loss 1,238. I have the honor to submit herewith the following papers in support of the foregoing opinions, viz: testimony taken before the court of inquiry ordered by Major-General Washburn, marked A; testimony taken before the commission ordered by Major-General Dana, marked B; testimony taken by myself, including testimony of Capt. James M. McCown, Sixth Kentucky Cavalry, taken before Colonel Badeau, of General Grant's staff, marked C; and the report of Major-General Dana, commanding Department of Mississippi, marked D.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant.


Bvt. Brig. Gen., U. S. Army, Commissary-General of Prisoners.

 Hon. E. M. STANTON,

Secretary of War, Washington, D. C.

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