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  John Lesley & The Sultana Disaster  

The Sultana was a 260 foot civilian wooden steamship.
Most of the passengers on its final trip were Union soldiers
on their way home from Confederate prison camps.

McMinn Countian Recalls Escape from the “Sultana” Fifty-Eight Years Ago When 1,238 Lost Lives

Etowah, [Tennessee] Dec. 8 [1923].   Of the eleven thousand white soldiers Tennessee furnished the Union forces in the War Between the States during the [Eighteen] Sixties, McMinn County gave her share and today we have living in Etowah Mr. John Lesley and just out of town Mr. F.M. Jack, who survived the terrible accident of the sinking of the Sultana near Memphis on April 27, 1865.

Mr. Lesley is now 75 years of age born in Monroe County near the line of McMinn in a log cabin that his grandfather [Thomas] Lesley lived in when he settled in this state in 1818.

The Indians had built this house, ceiling it with bark.   The house still stands and is in use today.   There is a stone chimney to the house, which was added by the paternal ancestors of the subject of this sketch, which was erected in 1826 -- so an inscription on the rock foundation shows.

Monroe County Pioneers

Mr. Lesley is the last child of three brothers who began to settle in Monroe County in 1800 and the last grandson living of Alexander Shaddon and Dora Shaddon who were pioneers and prominent in planting the Presbyterian Church and faith at Sink Hole on Tellico river, just north of Tellico Plains, where a church of that faith is today actively known as Sink and where Mr. Lesley’s ancestors father and mother are buried in the church graveyard.

One grandchild of the couple was a noted Presbyterian preacher.   Rev. George A. Caldwell coming from sturdy Scotch ancestors and his environments in young manhood.   Politically Mr. Lesley is a republican and when a call for volunteers was made in 1865 he at the age of 16 enlisted in the U.S. Army at Knoxville and was assigned to the Cavalry, served twenty months in the war under the command of Captain J.T. Bryant, Company “F” Regiment Tennessee, Cavalry Volunteers.   (Several of the relatives of Captain Bryant, who was a gallant leader and bachelor, now live in Englewood, they being prominent financially and socially.)

How Times Have Changed

Mr. Lesley claims the distinction of having been sixteen years old before he ever saw a woman’s foot and seventy-five years old before he ever saw a woman in a barber’s chair.   When a boy it took sixteen yards of homespun cloth to make a dress –  now he claims it’s a guess if three yards are used.

The Cavalry was used largely in scouting duty and in this service they covered the larger part of middle Tennessee.   While in performance of duty-guarding his gallant Captain, who was paying homage to a young lady in Wilson County, near Nashville, he visited only one home during his entire service.

The hardest service they met with was when making a raid from Nashville to Pautatoc, Miss. Having been sent into this territory to destroy and make useless the Tenth Law which the Confederate government had passed requiring all farmers to pay a tenth of their crops to the Confederate government for their support.   This raid was a success.   Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cotton and farm products went up in smoke.

When near Memphis, they stopped at German town and a forced forage brought in all the grindstones they could find to grind their sabers to a keen edge which had been dulled by the hard work of the previous weeks in cutting corn, etc.   This force consisted of three brigades of cavalry, eighteen pieces of artillery and a train of pack mules.   It took three weeks to make the march into the Confederate lines, and only three days and nights forced marching to get back to Nashville and into the Federal lines.   The Confederates were pushing them so closely.

On returning to Nashville, Mr. Lesley says, they began scouting duty and securing new oaths of allegiance to the Federal government.   One day while on this duty their gallant Captain Bryant met with a true Confederate woman, who proved to be proud and defiant.   The Captain thinking to have some fun at her expense demanded she take the oath of allegiance to which she replied with all the vehemence of an outraged and insulted princess:   “If I must swear, the sin of this oath must rest upon your shoulders.   I swear at your compulsion…May the Omnipotent One damn the Yankees to hell and into all its infernal regions sir!”   To which Captain Bryant saluting, exclaimed, “Madam, your fervor does honor to a Confederate gentleman - I am almost persuaded you are masculine.”

Shortly after this raid they were ordered again throughout Middle Tennessee on another scouting expedition, crossing the Tennessee River at Decatur, Ala., where they were temporarily held for duty, from thence to Athens, Ala., to intercept the Confederate forces under that gallant leader Joe Wheeler who at the age of 27 years was the senior Cavalry General of the Confederate forces who was reported to be in that vicinity.

However, the movements were slow and while advancing they met up with the Confederate forces under General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who soon ran them into Sulphur Springs, Ala. Where there was a colored regiment in charge of a fort under Col. Lathron, who made a stubborn resistance against the Confederate forces, this officer having sworn he would never surrender or be taken alive –  when this demand was made upon him, was soon shot - and some think by his own men.   “That as it may be Col. John B. Minnis, late of Knoxville, who was our Colonel and in charge of the detachments of which we were a part was next in command, he too was seriously wounded Adjutant Barn being next in command and realizing further defense was suicide ran up a white flag of “truce” says Mr. Lesley.

Put In Box Cars

“After the surrender we were marched on foot from that fort to Corinth, Miss., where we were loaded into box cars moving to Abberdeen, Miss., thence to Montgomery, Ala., and by boat to Cahaba, Ala., where we were in prison from Sept. 25, 1864 to the last of March 1865.

“While in prison at Cahaba, several hundred prisoners under Major Kirk formed a mutiny or plot to escape.   The outposts, or guards in charge of our prison permitted some of the prisoners to come to the fires and warm.   We were to take advantage of this kind consideration and at a given signal –  some one groaning like in intense pain –  one hundred of the prisoners were to fall upon the guards and we to make an escape.   However, when the crucial moment arrived, Confederates were onto our plans and soon had us under control and in prison.   We remained until an exchange of parole prisoners was effected.   Shortly after this the parole having been perfected we were ordered to Vicksburg, Miss., where we were loaded on a packet en route for Camp Chase, Ohio.

On Ill Fated Steamship

When the steamship Sultana on which we were traveling was about seven miles north of Memphis, Tenn., at two o’clock in the morning, 27th of April 1865, the boiler exploded, caused by low water.   The war record as found in volumes XLVIII page 277 of the records of the Union Confederate armies, show there were 1,866 troops on board this boat, including thirty-three paroled officers, 1 officer who had resigned and the captain in charge of the guard.   Of these 765, including sixteen officers were saved and 1,101, including nineteen officers were lost.   There were 70 cabin passengers and 85 crew on board, of whom 12 to 18 were saved, giving a loss of 137, making total loss 1,238.   Only one woman escaped, she lost her husband and child.

The boat was so crowded many of us were sleeping on the decks, or any place we could find to sleep.   Myself and six others with whom I had buddied for twenty long and weary months were sleeping on top of the wood rack for in those days they used wood for fuel instead of coal, the wood being stacked alongside the boilers and of these six, John Lesley was the only man left alive, he having received some frightful burns from escaping steam.

“Having never learned to swim, I did not jump into mushy ice which the river was full of at that time and not until the Pilot house fell in and the boat was surely doomed to sink did I attempt to make an escape, for all around us was a mass of human beings, making all the confusion and noise one could imagine, some crying, some praying, and some cursing, and men and women   and children, drowning on every side.

At last jumping into the icy water, I caught a scantling on which another trooper was riding he a member of Company “G” 7th Ohio Cavalry.   Together we floated down the Mississippi river for nine miles, or two miles below Memphis, when we effected a landing after daylight on the Arkansas side of the river where first aid was given.   From there, we moved into Memphis and were placed in a hospital.   I was the last of the survivors to leave the hospital in Memphis on the 7th day of June 1865.   Given transportation by boat I traveled boat from Memphis to Nashville as follows:   Memphis to Cairo, Ill., thence to Paducah, Ky, thence to Columbia, Tenn., and last to Nashville, Tenn.; where I was honorably discharged from the service on June 10, 1865.
Among The First In Etowah

Returned to Monroe County to take up farming where I lived until 1900, moving from there to my son’s farm just out from Etowah.   When Etowah was started in 1907, I bought me a lot and built my present home.   When moving here there were only two houses in the town.   Horace Thomas on the corner of Ohio avenue and tenth street and Doctor Foreman on the corner of Ninth street and Washington Avenue.   So ends this story in the words of the poet Foss:

So let me live
By the side of the road
And be a friend of man.

Note:   One of the worst marine disasters of history occurred on April 27, 1865 when the steamboat Sultana, carrying about 2,289 people, exploded on the Mississippi River.   The loss of life is officially listed at 1,400 while it was the general belief of the survivors that owing to incomplete records around 1700 perished.   However, the 1400 loss places the Sultana fatalities as 250 above those of the Lusitania and only 117 short of the number lost on the Titanic.   The ship was licensed to carry 376 passengers.

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Last updated March 26, 2002