Monday, April 27, 2015

The Sultana Explodes

On this date in 1865 nearly 2,000 United States soldiers died in the greatest maritime disaster in America history, more than were killed in any single day of battle during the Civil War other than at Antietam, when the paddle wheel steamer Sultana exploded in the middle of the night, several miles south of Memphis, Tennessee.  Reporting on the tragedy was overshadowed by the news of the death of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, who was cornered and then shot in a tobacco barn in Virginia and of the surrender of Joseph E Johnston's army in North Carolina, both of which took place on the prior day.

The first steamship was built in France in the late 1700s but it was in the new United States that they came widely into use.  The first commercially successful steamboat was Robert Fulton's Clermont which began operating in 1807 between New York City and New Jersey and the first steamboats appeared on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in 1811 and 1812.
Paddle steamers have a romantic image (think of the musical Show Boat) and remained in common use on the Mississippi well into the early 20th century.  But they also were inherently prone to risk of catastrophic failure.

The steamers were powered by large boilers (usually four and consuming 5 to 15 tons of coal a day) located between the paddles to generate steam and turn the wheels. Operating at high pressure in an environment where pressure gauging was rudimentary and construction techniques and quality highly variable, safety often depended upon the constant supervision of the boilers by a competent engineer.  Disasters were not uncommon and there are many instances when boilers failed resulting in explosions, fire and scalding steam being sprayed over passengers and crew.

Samuel Clemens, later better known as Mark Twain, was a steersman on the Mississippi River steamer Pennsylvania.  A few days after he left the boat in 1858 it exploded killing most of those aboard, including Twain's brother.  The Pennsylvania disaster resulted in a couple of hundred deaths like most of these incidents.  The huge scale of the Sultana disaster in 1865 was a byproduct of the conditions surrounding the end of the Civil War.

As the Confederacy collapsed in April 1865, thousands of Union prisoners were released from camps operated by the rebels and the Federal army was seeking ways to get them home quickly, along with other sick and hospitalized soldiers.  Many of them, including some from the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia, were transported to the area around Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The Sultana was built in Cincinnati going into service in 1863.  In April it started a trip downriver making multiple stops, including at Vicksburg, before reaching New Orleans, where it loaded about 150 civilian passengers for the trip back upriver starting on April 21.

The Vicksburg stop on the downriver route was crucial.  Captain J Cass Mason met with Army officers responsible for arranging for the return of soldiers in order to arrange to pick up a load on his return trip upriver.  It was a lucrative contract for any steamboat owner, paying $5 a head per enlisted man and $10 for officers.

As Sultana neared Vicksburg on its return trip steam began escaping from a crack in one of the boilers and the boat limped into the city.  After looking at the boilers a local boilermaker told the captain that extensive repairs were required.  Under pressure to get underway quickly so he could board the soldiers before they could get on another steamboat the captain pressured the boilermaker to do some quick patches, promising he would make full repairs when Sultana reached St Louis.

During the 24th, the former prisoners boarded the vessel.  The rated carrying capacity of Sultana was 376, which since the crew was 80-85, meant about 290 passengers but on that day about 2,100 soldiers were allowed to board by the military authorities and the captain bringing the total onboard to around 2,300.

(Sultana at Helena, Arkansas the day before explosion from Wikimedia),_Helena,_Arkansas,_April_27,_1865.jpg

Sultana slowly made its way north on the river.  The soldiers, jammed together, slept on the open deck.  The crew had to work to control the passengers because any sudden movement in one direction could capsize the overloaded boat.  Then, without warning, at about 2AM on April 27, the boilers exploded.  Many of the passengers and crew were immediately killed and the rest thrown into the water or clinging to the remains of the boat as it sank.  There were only two small lifeboats and many of the soldiers who were ill and/or weakened from their captivity had little strength left to save themselves.

(The Sultana on fire from Harper's Weekly)
HistoryNet carried a vivid description of the horror of that night:
Suddenly, three of the huge boilers exploded with a volcanic fury that a witness on the shore described as the thundering noise of 'a hundred earthquakes.' The blast tore instantly through the decks directly above the boilers, flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks. Scalding water and clouds of steam covered the prisoners who lay sleeping near the boilers. Hundreds were killed in the first moments of the tragedy. The upper decks of the Sultana, already sagging under the weight of her passengers, collapsed when the blast ripped through the steamer's superstructure. Many unfortunate souls, trapped in the resulting wreckage, could only wait for certain death as fire quickly spread throughout the hull. Within twenty minutes of the explosion, the entire superstructure of the Sultana was in flames.

The burning wreckage began to drift slowly downriver, as those on board fought to survive. With only 76 life preservers and two small lifeboats available, most of those who survived the blast jumped for their lives into the river. In the hours before dawn, hundreds of soldiers and civilians struggled in the river as they awaited rescue. But help did not come until 3:00 a.m., an hour after the explosion. The Bostonia II, plowing downriver, came upon the Sultana engulfed in flames, and immediately began to haul the survivors from the water around the wreckage.
You can also read a New York Times account of the event from April 29, 1865.

Although several hundred were rescued, many were horribly burned and at least two hundred died in the next few days.  The death toll remains unknown but is estimated to be 1,700-1,800.  So many who had suffered yet survived the war dying so close to getting home.

An Army investigation concluded that its officers were negligent in allowing the overloading of the vessel but court-martial proceedings did not result in any convictions despite the clear evidence of negligence and incompetence (along with some indirect evidence of bribery).

The remains of the Sultana were discovered in 1982 in a filled-in former channel of the Mississippi River.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

April 1945: Germany's End, Germany April 1945 from

On April 25, 1945 American and Soviet troops met near the town of Torgau on the Elbe River, cutting the remaining and rapidly shrinking Nazi held lands in half.  Two weeks later the war in Europe would be over. & Soviets at Torgau, from

The path to that historic meeting began in an April twenty eight years before.  On April 6, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War One and three days later Vladimir Ilyich Lenin began his journey via a sealed railcar from exile in Switzerland across Germany to Russia.  Both events occurred because of massive miscalculations by German military leadership.  In the first instance it was the unleashing of unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping to Great Britain, including that of the neutral United States, the Germans understanding it would trigger American entry into the war but gambling they could starve England out of the war before the United States could bring its military to Europe in any meaningful numbers.

In the case of Lenin, the German strategy was to insert a virus into the ongoing chaos of revolution in Russia following the abdication of the Czar in March 1917 and thus knock Russia out of the war.  In the short-term the strategy worked; under Lenin's direction the Bolsheviks outmaneuvered their fellow, more moderate revolutionaries who were reluctant to use force against the violent Bolsheviks.  Lenin, perfectly willing to use force against his enemies, organized a coup and took over the reigns of government, dismissing the Constituent Assembly and establishing the Bolsheviks as the revolutionary vanguard and within a year of taking power setting up the initial prison camps for political prisoners that later became known as the Gulag.  By March 1918, the Bolsheviks had accepted a humiliating peace treaty with the Germans.  But it was too late for Germany.  The submarines failed to starve the British, the last German offensives in France ground to a halt, the Allies (including the Americans) counterattacked, German army morale collapsed and the German High Command panicked beseeching the Kaiser and politicians to seek a truce.  And longer term, the new Soviet Union was to arise as a much more formidable opponent than the old Russian Empire.

In 1941, Germany's Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, made his own miscalculations about the same two countries.  On June 22, 1941 he launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Germany's ally since August 1939, confident that his armies could easily overwhelm the Soviet military before the onset of winter but, along with his military commanders, drastically underestimating the resiliency of the Red military, the ruthlessness of Joseph Stalin and Soviet leadership in their conduct of the war and how the atrocious Nazi occupation policies would alienate many potential supporters in the recently occupied borderlands and The Ukraine.  The result was the largest and murderous military campaign in human history leading to the deaths of up to thirty million soldiers and civilians.

Later that year, Hitler compounded his mistake when he declared war on the United States only four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack of which he had no prior knowledge and an action he was not required to take under his loose alliance with Japan.  The reasons for his decision remain unclear and controversial among historians but what is true is that it rescued President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. military leaders from a dilemma.  They viewed war with Germany and Japan as inevitable but they saw Germany as by far the bigger threat and had already agreed that in the event of war with both countries the United States would direct 85% of its resources against Germany.  During those four days when Japan, but not Germany, was at war with the U.S., Roosevelt and his military commanders knew that public opinion would require all efforts to be directed against the Japanese, taking away from American military capabilities for what they still saw as the inevitable war against Germany.  With Hitler's decision, the bulk of the American war effort was directed against Germany and the opening of a Second Front landing in Western Europe became a possibility, something that Britain alone could never have done (it's also the most effective practical rebuttal to continuing conspiracy theories that FDR knew in advance of the Japanese attack and wanted the war; in reality it complicated his foreign policy).

June of 1944 again saw critical miscalculations by Hitler regarding the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  In the West he was convinced that the long-anticipated Allied landing would take place at the Pas de Calais region of France where he concentrated his best armored and infantry units but the invasion instead took place in Normandy against weaker German opposition and the Allies gained a foothold from which they could not be dislodged.

That same month, the Germans were anticipating a large Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front.  They believed the attack would come either in the Baltic region or in The Ukraine and made their dispositions accordingly.  Instead the massive assault, begun on June 22 (the third anniversary of Hitler's surprise attack), took place against the undermanned Army Group Center in what is now the country of Belarus resulting in a catastrophic defeat for the Nazis with Soviet armies advancing hundreds of miles into Poland and reaching the outskirts of Warsaw, where Stalin cynically ordered a halt (for more as to why, read Volunteering For Auschwitz).

By late March 1945, American, British and Canadian armies were crossing the Rhine and moving into the heart of Germany against crumbling, but occasionally fanatical, resistance (particularly from SS units).  To the east the Soviets began their final assault on Berlin on April 16, still desperately defended by the German army.  Though the war was clearly lost Hitler felt that Germany was not worthy of him and rather than surrendering deserved total destruction in a final orgy of bloodletting.  It took three days for Soviet armies to encircle the German capital and launch their final assault to capture the city.

Hitler emerged from his bunker in Berlin on April 20 making his last appearance above-ground to award Iron Crosses to members of the Hitler Youth. Two days later Hitler was advised by his military staff that his plan to have Berlin relieved by an Army Group under General Steiner had failed, or to be more accurate, his fantasy that there ever was a Steiner Army Group capable of relieving the Nazi capital was finally punctured.

The failure of the Steiner attack was the basis for one of the most memorable scenes in the 2004 German film Downfall, which recounts the final days in the bunker, much of it told from the perspective of Traudl Junge, a young secretary to the Fuhrer.  The film is stunning in its grim account of the end of an evil era and Bruno Granz, in the role of Hitler, is astonishing.  Ian Kershaw, the author of an excellent two-volume biography of Hitler (Hubris and Nemesis) wrote of the performance:
Of all the screen depictions of the F├╝hrer, even by famous actors, such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler's voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.
You can watch the scene by clicking here; it's well worth your time.  In the room with Hitler at one point we see two men standing, one thin and odd looking in a brown uniform. The figure in brown is Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda.  Next to him is Martin Bormann, the Fuhrer's Chief Secretary and nominal head of the Nazi Party - they are the primary political figures left in the bunker as both Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering had fled the city.  Outside the room are two women standing next to each other.  The taller one on the right is Traudl Junge.  Towards the end of the scene another woman moves forward in the crowd; Eva Braun, Hitler's long-time mistress.

[This scene has since been adopted for hundreds of parodies along the lines of "Hitler finds out . . . ".  You can sample a recent and well done one here: Hitler finds out about Brian Williams.]

The fighting for the city ground on day after day with the Soviets inching forward towards the Reichstag and the Chancellery under which the Fuhrer's command bunker was located.  This video contains footage of the street fighting as recorded by Soviet cameramen.
Hitler and Eva Braun were married on April 29 and killed themselves the following day.  Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda killed their six young children by having a doctor inject them with morphine and then crush cyanide capsules between their teeth.  Goebbels and his wife then committed suicide.

The burned remains of Hitler, Braun and the Goebbels were discovered and identified by the Russians (though they did not inform the British or Americans), reburied and reexcavated several times, winding up at a Soviet security base in Magdeburg, East Germany.  In 1970 the KGB conducted a final excavation, smashing and burning the remains and scattering them in a river (though part of Hitler's skull may have been preserved in the Moscow archives of the KGB).

Martin Bormann attempted to escape the bunker on the night of May 1-2 but likely committed suicide when trapped by Russian patrols.  His fate remained uncertain for many years until remains were found at a West Berlin site in 1972 and identified as his (later confirmed by genetic testing in 1998).  Himmler committed suicide on May 23 after being captured by the British and Goering killed himself the following year at Nuremburg just hours before his scheduled hanging.

The formal German surrender of the city took place on May 2, 1945 and the overall capitulation of Germany took place on May 7 (US and British front) and May 8 (Russian front) though severe fighting continued in the area around Prague, Czechoslovakia until May 11.

Stalin ordered the Soviet military commanders to take Berlin as quickly as possible and not to be concerned about casualties (not that the Soviet leaders ever appeared to be concerned about casualties).  The cost was about 350,000 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded in the Battle of Berlin (for comparison, American losses for the entire war were about one million) along with an indeterminable but probably similar number of German soldiers and civilians.  The city, already heavily damaged by British and American bombing raids, was reduced to rubble and significant reconstruction did not begin  until after the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-9 and the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.

Traudl Junge was among those that left the bunker on the night of May 1-2 and was one of the few who escaped death or Russian captivity.  Just before her death in 2002 she gave an interview, parts of which are included at the beginning and end of Downfall.  This excerpt from the close of the movie shows her escape (the depiction of which is largely fictional unlike much of the rest of the movie which is factually accurate) and then at the 4 minute mark the elderly Junge speaks about her actions.
For the returning Russian soldiers, of whom 8 to 9 million had died in the war, the hopes of many for a better life and less arbitrary cruelty by their rulers were destroyed by Stalin's suspicion as told in the greatest and most factually accurate of rock/pop history songs, Roads To Moscow by Al Stewart, of which THC has written before, with its haunting and poignant closing verse.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Martha & Louis

After doing the posts of the past two days, THC realized he needed to update the first of those posts:

The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our disposition and not upon our circumstances
Martha Washington

That's me and I don't want to be nobody else.  They know I'm there in the cause of happiness.
Louis Armstrong in 1965 explaining his approach to entertaining audiences and of whom Terry Teachout wrote in his biography, Pops, "he lived life in a major key".

Thursday, April 23, 2015

How Long Has This Been Going On?

I know how Columbus felt
Finding another world

Kiss me once and then once more
What a dunce I was before
What a break!  For Heaven's sake
How long has this been going on?
A wonderful vocal by Louis Armstrong (listen to his handling of the tricky melody) accompanied by Oscar Peterson on piano.  From 1957.  Composed by George and Ira Gershwin.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Our Disposition, Not Our Circumstances

The greater part of our happiness or misery depends upon our disposition and not upon our circumstances

Martha Washington

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The New Face Of The Yankees

With Derek Jeter's retirement there was a lot of talk about who should be the "new face" of the New York Yankees franchise.  THC thinks the answer is pretty clear.  Shouldn't it be the everyday player who leads the team in home runs, batting average, RBIs, slugging and on-base percentage?  You betcha and here he is!  THC is sure that Derek, and for that matter, Hank Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman, could not agree more!,fl_progressive,q_80,w_636/18j4wt05z0wd5jpg.jpg