by Kenneth P. McCutchan
The Evansville Boneyard - March, 2007
There’s an empty grave in the McCutchanville Cemetery marked with a somewhat impressive marble stone carved with an American flag and inscribed:
Thomas W. Horan.
Co. H. 65th Indiana Volunteers.
Died in the explosion of the steamship.
Sultana, April 27, 1865, Age 25 years.
The grave is empty because Horan’s remains were never found.
Thomas W. Horan, the only son of the widow Hannah Horan, who lived in a log cabin on North Green River Road in Vanderburgh County, enlisted in the Union Army on August 18th, 1862. He fought with his unit in several battles in Kentucky and Tennessee until he was captured by a scouting party of Texas Rangers near Tazwell, Tennessee.
From then on his life was a hell on earth.
He was shunted from prison to prison. At Morristown, Tennessee, as he wrote later:
”We were drove into a pen like hogs and kept until the 2nd of Feb. when were marched into Russellville. On the evening of the 8th, we took cars to Bristol, Va. and arrived there that night. I will give a slight idea of our rations on this trip.”
”When we arrived at Bullsgap, they turned us out to help ourselves to beef which was in great quantity but not quality, but we skinned and eat quite hearty of the beefheads that our forces left after butchering them some three week before. It had not a nice smell I assure you, but it wasn’t the smell we was after.”
Horan was finally interned at Bell Island.
”Here we find a retched place. Men died more or less every day with cold and hunger. Our rations per day are two spoons full of beans and a little piece of corn bread equal to a pint of meal”
”Here we were turned on the island destitute of blankets or shelter with two sticks of cordwood to 20 men for 24 hours. Men froze to death every night.”
Finally he was taken out , hopeful that maybe he was going for an exchange. Instead he was transferred to the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia. That was March, 18, 1864.
”If there is a hell on earth it’s one. Here I was turned in the stockade without a blanket or a shoe to my foot and the skies above me for shelter, and I remained in that condition until the 13th of December.”
”During this time I saw sights and went through hardships too numerous to mention. During my stay in this place from 18 March to 13 September the number of deaths was 13 thousand and 800 …I have saw men lying not able to help themselves with maggots working in their wounds with them alive.”
On September 13, Horan and a companion managed to escape by tunneling under the fence. For weeks they tramped through swamps barefoot, living on whatever they could find until they were recaptured and returned to the Andersonville Prison on Christmas Eve.
By the following March the war was almost over , and on March 18, 1865, the prison gates at last were opened. The prisoners had been liberated by the Union forces. They were then taken to Camp Fisk near Vicksburg , Mississippi, to await transportation home.
When the gate was opened, “I felt I could march 50 miles as poor and as weak as I was. When I was captured my weight was 175 pounds and when I was released I weighed 106 pounds. Thank God I am spared to return to the land of plenty.”
The foregoing excerpts are from a long letter he wrote home as soon as he arrived at Fort Fisk. Tragically he did not “return to the land of plenty.”
The United States government was offering steamboat captains a $5 a head for enlisted men and $10 a head for officers to transport them upriver to their homes. There seems to have been some skullduggery afoot and bucks passed under the table.
It appears that a Captain Williams, who was in charge of arranging transportation for the men, was getting a rakeoff from the captain of the steamboat Sultana.
On the morning of April 24, they began loading men aboard the Sultana until, it has been estimated , there were 2,400 soldiers, 100 civilian passengers and a crew of 80 aboard the boat – which had a legal load limit of 376.
This occurred while other boats were standing by empty, eager and willing to take on passengers.
Finally, the overloaded Sultana headed upstream. On April 26, she took on fuel at Memphis. Tennessee. Then at 2 o’clock the following morning, when the boat was about 40 miles above he city, the boilers exploded. The vessel was ripped apart and burst into flames; it sank within a hour. Fewer than 1,000 survived, which meant more the 1,400 perished.
One of the survivors, William McFarland, a distant relative of Horan’s, was one of the soldiers aboard. He reported that just minutes before the explosion, he had walked to the stern. When the boilers exploded he was thrown into the river but managed to cling to debris until he was rescued the next morning.
He said he remembered seeing Horan lying asleep beside the boiler room because that was the warmest place on a cold April night. Horan’s body was probably torn to bits. No remains were ever found.
Although this was the greatest inland marine disaster of all time, it received almost no notice in the nation’s newspapers because it was just 10 day after Abraham Lincoln was shot, and all the papers were filled with accounts of his funeral and the capture of John Wilkes Booth.
Several other Tri-State soldiers also lost their lives, including Anton Heinrich, Remig Moushart, and Joseph Smith of Vanderburgh County and James Redman of Posey County.
The history of the 10th Calvary, 125th Regiment, which was made up partly with men from the area, states that 23 enlisted men and three officers from the unit died on the Sultana, but their names were not given.
It has been said that Horan’s mother refused to believe her son was lost. For months she kept a light in her window at night awaiting his return. But he never came back.
*Editor's note: In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, had made a deathbed confession to have sabotaged the Sultana by means of a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana, and he may have had access to the means (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial and most scholars support the official explanation.
Back to The Boneyard