The quarterly meeting of the Butler County Historical and Genealogical Society (BCHGS) was held on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Fellowship Hall of the First United Methodist Church of Greenville.
Mollie Waters, teacher at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College’s Greenville Campus, was the guest speaker, and she presented her program titled “Cahaba Prison and the Sultana Disaster.”
“Before I get started,” said Waters, “I just want to give a disclaimer here. First off, I am not a historian. I teach literature, and the reason I teach literature and not history is because the historians always let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
Waters opened her presentation with a brief history of Cahaba, Alabama’s first state capital, then she told how it lost its spot as the capital but continued to be a vibrant city until the end of the American Civil War.
It was during the Civil War that Cahaba became the site of a prisoner of war camp named Cahaba Prison, but also known as Castle Morgan, after a Confederate general.
“It was on a third of an acre,” said Waters of the prison. “There was 7.5 square feet for each inmate, which was barely enough room to turn over.”
During February 1865, Cahaba flooded, and the prisoners stood waist-deep in the water.
This event led the commander of the prison to release the prisoners even before the war had ended.
Even with these conditions, Cahaba Prison only had a three percent mortality rate.
“When you compare that to Andersonville, which was considered the worst prisoner of war camp in the Confederacy,” said Waters, “Cahaba was not as bad. Andersonville had a 30 percent mortality rate, which would have been thousands of men.”
Once released from Cahaba, the prisoners of wartraveled to Camp Fisk, just outside of Vicksburg, Miss., where they awaited transportation north to their homes.
Unfortunately, of the nearly 3,000 men who were released from Cahaba, 988 of them ended up on the steamboatSultana, which exploded just north of Memphis on April 27, 1865.
“There is no way to know exactly how many people were on the Sultana when it exploded,” said Waters, “but almost all accounts say 2,000-2,500 people. Over half of them died, and Sultana remains the deadliest maritime accident in American history.”
Waters explained how so many people came to be on the ship through a financial agreement between Camp Fisk’s quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, and Sultana’s captain, James Mason.
Waters then gave a timeline of Sultana’s demise. She also shared several eyewitness accounts of the tragedy, including one by Corporal Benjamin Franklin Learner.
“No two of us saw the same details,” said Learner, “but in a general way the scene presented itself to all of us alike. It was terrible beyond the power of words to describe…. It would be hardly possible to overdraw the picture of that awful hour.”
Waters concluded the program by sharing that no one was ever held accountable for the loss of so many lives.
In the end, 505 of those former prisoners of war from Cahaba Prison died in the Sultana tragedy.
The next meeting of the BCHGS will be in October.