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

No. 4.--Report of Brig. Gen. Joseph Holt, Judge-Advocate. General, U. S. Army.

The following report in the case of Capt. Frederic Speed, assistant adjutant-general, U.S. Volunteers, is respectfully submitted:

Captain Speed was tried at Vicksburg, Miss., the trial commencing January 9, 1866, and terminating June 5, under the following charge: Neglect of duty, to the prejudice of good order and military discipline. Specification 1 alleges, in substance, that accused "being charged by Major-General Dana, commanding Department of Mississippi, with the duty of receiving certain officers and men in the military service of the United States, paroled as prisoners of war" by the Confederate authorities, and also being charged with the duty of superintending the transfer of said paroled prisoners from Four-Mile Bridge, near Vicksburg, to Jefferson Barracks, Mo., "did neglect to avail himself of the services of Capt. R. B. Hatch, assistant quartermaster, chief quartermaster of Department of Mississippi, and Capt. W. F. Kerns, assistant quartermaster, in charge of water transportation at Vicksburg, in procuring the necessary and safe transportation for the said paroled prisoners up the Mississippi River, but did himself assume to discharge the duties properly belonging to the aforesaid officers of the quartermaster's department by deciding and directing that a large detachment of said paroled prisoners, about 1,886 in number, should be transported northward in one steamer, the Sultana, against the advice and remonstrances of the aforesaid officers," thus greatly overloading the said steamer,  which on her trip up the river exploded, whereupon about 1,100 men lost their lives who would not have so lost their lives but for the misconduct of the accused. This at Vicksburg on or about the 23d, 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th of April, 1865. Specification 2 alleges in substance that the accused "did assume unwarrantable authority in directing the arrangements for the transportation" of certain paroled prisoners, "and did without authority load and cause to be loaded a large number, to wit, 1,886, paroled prisoners on one boat, the steamer Sultana," being largely in excess of the number she could safely carry, "and when at the same time other and better conditioned boats were at the post of Vicksburg, ready and anxious to take a portion of said prisoners," the accused well knowing the same. "And Captain Speed, against the remonstrances of Captain Kerns, assistant quartermaster, against crowding so many men on one boat, did with criminal neglect and carelessness cause the whole number, to wit, 1,886 prisoners, to be placed on the said steamer; and afterward from the effects of which large load of paroled prisoners," the boilers of the Sultana exploded, whereby about 1,100 of said prisoners lost their lives. The court convicted the accused under the specifications and charge, striking out the words and clauses indicated above in red ink (here printed in italics), and sentenced him to be dismissed the service.

Major-General Wood, commanding the department, approves the proceedings, findings, and sentence, and forwards the record to the Secretary of War for final action. It is the opinion of this bureau, after a careful study of the record, that Captain Speed took no such part in the transportation of the prisoners in question as should render him amenable to punishment; that his connection with the events which preceded the disaster to the Sultana was a wholly subordinate one; and that the facts developed in the evidence point out with distinctness other officers, whose indifference to the comfort of those placed temporarily in their charge resulted in, though without causing, the death of over 1,100 of their number. An examination of the findings of the court, contrasted with the specifications as originally laid, will show, indeed, that this was in fact the opinion of the officers who composed it. The gist of the first specifications is that accused neglected his duty in that he failed to avail himself of the services of Captain Hatch, chief quartermaster, and Captain Kerns, assistant quartermaster, in procuring safe transportation for the paroled prisoners, and did assume upon himself to discharge the duties properly belonging to them; and that against their advice and remonstrances he insisted on placing all the men on the Sultana. The court find that accused did not fail to avail himself of the services of Captain Hatch, who was at the head of the quartermaster's department at Vicksburg, but only of the services of Captain Kerns, who held a very subordinate position under Captain Hatch; while the evidence shows that the Sultana was selected by Captain Hatch, and that Captain Kerns only advised against placing the paroled men aboard of her in the evening of the day she sailed, when he saw the crowded condition of the men, and when it was impossible under the circumstances to divide them into two detachments. It is further shown by considerable testimony that Captain Williams, chief mustering officer on General Dana's staff, and commissioner of exchange, was present when the men were put on the Sultana, counted them as they went aboard, declared them to be comfortable, and insisted, in a conversation with Captain Kerns, that none should go on any other boat. 

The gist of the charge being that accused assumed undue authority and neglected to consult the officers of the quartermaster's department, and the court finding that accused did in fact consult Captain Hatch, the officer who possessed exclusive authority in the premises, the accusation of neglect of duty, as laid in the first specification manifestly fails to be sustained. The second specification substantially avers that accused, without authority, overloaded the Sultana., against Captain Kerns' remonstrances, and that his criminal neglect occasioned the explosion of the vessel. The court, in strict accordance with the proofs, find that accused acted with authority; that Captain Kerns did not remonstrate with him, and that the explosion was not the result of the overloading of the steamer. What ground remains for visiting Captain Speed with a dishonorable and lifelong punishment, in view of the light in which the court regard his acts, is difficult to discover. The evidence shows that accused was appointed verbally by General Dana to act as commissioner of exchange during the temporary absence of Captain Williams; that Captain Williams returned the day before the men were sent to Vicksburg to go North, and that he immediately resumed the duties of his office. It is shown that Captain Kerns advised with Captain Williams against so many men going on one vessel, and that the latter insisted, very angrily, that they should all go by the Sultana; and it is further shown, by abundant evidence, that the boat, though overcrowded, was not overloaded; that in shipments of troops by steamer no attention was ever paid, throughout the war, to the legal carrying capacity of the ship; that the Sultana ran smoothly on the trip; and finally that the explosion was owing, not to the excess in the number of men she was conveying, but to the fact that since her last official survey, made ten days previous, and at which she was pronounced to be staunch, &c., her boilers had been burned, through the probable carelessness of her engineer, and had been repaired imperfectly with a patch of thinner iron.

Terrible as was the disaster to the Sultana, there is no evidence that it was caused by the overcrowding of her decks, and it is therefore difficult to say upon whom the responsibility for the loss of 1,100 lives should really rest. The engineer testifies that he considered the boilers well and sufficiently repaired, but his criminality in risking the lives of so many men, knowing, as he did, the condition of his boat, was great and without palliation. Whoever should be regarded as meriting punishment for his connection with the event, it is believed that it is not Captain Speed. The selection of the Sultana is shown to have been made by Captain Hatch, the chief quartermaster, not by the accused. Captain Speed is shown to have been in frequent consultation with Captain Hatch, who, moreover, is proved to have previously promised a full load to the captain of the Sultana, and to have sent the latter to Captain Speed in reference to the matter. Captain Williams is shown to have taken almost the entire direction of affairs on his return from the North, and to have insisted that the prisoners should not be divided; and Captain Speed, the accused, is proven to have believed the control of the arrangements to be so completely taken out of his hands that he went to the Sultana while the men were going on board only through an accident, and performed no services while there, convinced that his duties had ended when he brought the prisoners from Four-Mile Bridge to Vicksburg, and that to the commissioner of exchange, Captain Williams, and the officers of the quartermaster's department belonged the additional duty of shipping them to the North. 

It would be easy, though it would extend this report to too great a length, to introduce in full the testimony on which, in all these points, the judgment of this bureau is founded. It is believed to be unnecessary, however, inasmuch as the court have, by its findings, so emasculated the allegations of the charge as to absolve the accused of all responsibility for the catastrophe. Their findings under the specifications are believed to be fully warranted by the evidence, in the face of which they could scarcely have arrived at any different conclusions. How, then, however, they could proceed to inflict upon the accused a punishment so terrible for offenses of which they virtually find him not guilty, this bureau fails to understand. It is recommended that the sentence be disapproved and that Captain Speed be publicly exonerated from the charges which have been made against his character as an officer. It is not the design of this report to cast censure upon the conduct of Captain Williams. He is shown to have been absent at the North until the day before the steamer Sultana sailed with her living freight, and cannot, therefore, be held responsible for arrangements made before his return. His persistence in confining the entire detachment of paroled men to the Sultana is believed to be accounted for partly by his knowledge that the agents of other vessels were attempting to obtain their share of patronage by bribery, which, for a short time, he believed Captain Speed to have yielded to, though he soon after publicly admitted his mistake; partly also by a confusion which is shown to have existed in his mind as to the number of those who were to be sent North; and in part by the extreme difficulty of effecting a division at so late a period. That Captain Hatch felt a consciousness of some responsibility for the disaster is believed to be shown by the fact that though three times subpoenaed to give his testimony at the trial, and though the trial was prolonged three months that his presence might be secured, he refused to obey the summons; and that, notwithstanding every effort was made to compel his presence, the Secretary of War being finally appealed to to order his arrest as guilty of contempt, it was found necessary to finish the trial without his evidence.





(Captain Speed was honorably mustered out of service September 1, 1866)



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