Tonight, PBS aired a new episode of its show History Detectives. Titled “Civil War Sabotage?” the show focused on the destruction of the S.S. Sultana, a steamship that burned to the waterline on April 27, 1865. Of the 2,000 people crammed onto its deck, 1,800 died. It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and ended more lives than did the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Tonight’s show attempted to unpack the disaster, looked for possible sabotage or intrigue that brought about its demise, and even went so far as to attempt to locate the remains of the wreck, which drifted seven miles downriver after the ship caught fire.
There were three major narrative themes that the episode seemed to pivot around. The first was incompetence, particularly on the part of Lt. Col. R.B. Hatch, U.S. Army Quartermaster at Memphis, who overloaded the Sultana while allowing two other steamboats to clear for points upriver without any cargo whatsoever. The overloading of the Sultana meant that when the ship caught fire, many hundreds more were on board to burn up than otherwise would have been. Second, the political connections of Lt. Col. Hatch kept him in his position, despite an earlier court martial for malfeasance and a period of three months in which he was simply away from his post without leave. These connections, which ran all the way to the White House, placed him in the position to manufacture this disaster through his greed and incompetence. Finally, the show explored the possibility that the Sultana was destroyed by a deliberate act of sabotage, perhaps involving a coal-shaped bomb developed by Confederate agents during the war.
Of these, incompetence seems to be the biggest culprit. The Sultana had an issue with its boilers, which placed it at the more-likely-to-explode end of the spectrum for 19th century steamboats, which is, unfortunately, saying something. Those things blew boilers routinely, often with disastrous results. Boiler explosions were horrendous experiences, as the crew of the U.S.S. Mound City discovered when a Confederate shell burst one of its boilers, scalding 82 men to death. Lt. Col. Hatch sent the boat off in such a condition that anyone should have expected it to explode ere it arrived at its destination. One of the more interesting segments of the show involved demonstrating how the rocking of an overloaded Sultana likely caused sloshing of the water in its boilers, hastening their explosion. THAT was cool.
What wasn’t as engaging, frankly, was the manufactured controversy about whether or not Confederate agents deliberately destroyed the Sultana. Yes, there were Confederate agents who were using coal-shaped bombs to blow up steamers during the war, but none of the experts consulted gave much credence to the idea that the Sultana was sabotaged. Well, one did, but she wrote a book on the subject, and her most solid piece of evidence was a drunken boast by a former boat-burner in 1886. It’s far from compelling evidence.
As I was writing the above, I was trying to iron out my feelings on the presentation of the history of the wreck in the show. Something didn’t sit right, but I couldn’t quite place it. What I think is needling at me is that the show spent a huge amount of time talking about the Confederate agents who didn’t blow it up, the incompetent and corrupt quartermaster who set the whole affair up, and the various political links that kept the guy in power, but we learned comparatively little about the people who actually endured the disaster. There was one survivor account mentioned beforehand, and some passing reference to the fact that a lot of those who died were recently released from Camp Sumter, better known as Andersonville, the most notorious prison in the war. The real pathos and engagement lies in the people whose lives were cut short or altered by that night, not in the manufacturing of faux controversy about mythical Confederate agents. Why sensationalize everything with conspiracy theories? It wasn’t, really. It was a tragedy bred of ineptitude and greed.
For as much as the presenters seemed to want to draw some scurrilous ties between Lincoln and Lt. Col. Hatch, even suggesting that Lincoln had a hand in generating the disaster, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that politics have kept terrible officers in positions of authority and power in every. major. American. conflict. and continue to do so today. Lincoln’s support for other, more famous officers, such as Nathaniel Banks, Benjamin Butler, or Franz Sigel, cost hundreds of men their lives, and the Sultana disaster, as tragic as it is, was certainly well supplied with precedent. The red strings pinned between Lincoln and Hatch, surrounded by dramatic music, overblew a lamentably mundane fact, that the common soldier pays with his life for the political and economic considerations of government elites.
Archaeologically, this show did have some nice aspects, but some troubling as well. They did manage to find actual factual archaeologists. Their maritime specialists was Steve James, with Panamerican Consultants in Memphis. If you didn’t know him when they mentioned him (I’ll admit I was unfamiliar), when he trotted out that cart with the Bartington twin gradiometers on it, you know he was for real. Profiteers don’t generally sport that kind of instrument. Earlier this week, I had a chat with a colleague about fellow archaeologists and their most recent work. My colleague mentioned that Chet Walker’s new thing involved using drones to document sites. Who else appears on the show? Chet Walker and his drones, of course! Perfect. They generated a nice plot of gradiometer anomalies cast over airphotos. Looked good, and, sure there were some big anomalies that could have been parts of the Sultana.
Here’s the thing, though. All they have are anomalies. Their biggest anomalies might be portions of it, but without excavation, we won’t know. Finding boat hardware and broken iron in an Arkansas bean field (which they did in the show) does not mean you have found the wreck. I’ve worked in enough Arkansas bean, cotton, corn, and other fields to know that you get that kind of stuff everywhere. They found some anomalies, but without testing, they did not find the Sultana. Mr. James was careful to communicate that. Kudos.
The archaeologically-oriented point that was not made, however, is the most troubling. I’ll wind this up by focusing on that. While 1,800 people died in the disaster, not all went down with the ship. Some floated away, some were recovered. However, many were left on the hulk. Wes Cowan even stated that “This is the final resting place for hundreds of Union POWs,” acknowledging that the wreck contains the remains of many who died that night. As such, the Sultana is a shipwreck, and archeological site, and a massive, massive grave. More to the point, it is a massive, massive grave in the state of Arkansas, which means it is protected by the Arkansas Burial Law. While I hope that the show’s focus on the site being under both alluvium and standing water tells most viewers that it is utterly inaccessible, we are potentially one good drought away from it being more easily accessed, which could bring some enterprising individual out there, trying to find the thing. Whether looking for profit or working from some shallowly-considered sense of connection with the past, digging to recover the Sultana not only disturbs the final resting place of many, it also is illegal. I wish that this factor had been made clear in the show, as it would have offset some of the threat to the site created by telling viewers about the existence of maps that show its location and filming the place where they think it is.
As an archeologist who focuses on Civil War sites, I realize it might seem somewhat… squiffy?… to see me object to televising the location of a significant event in Civil War history. Moreover, it’s a big thing in Arkansas’s Civil War history, which I’m generally trying to promote knowledge of (because we get overlooked like nobody else). Yet, here’s the thing. Showing the location of the Sultana is likely going to spark somebody somewhere to go out and find it. A lawyer from Memphis tried doing this back in the 1980s, if you believe Wikipedia. We wouldn’t dream of going and digging into a National Cemetery or a formally laid-out Confederate cemetery, but you can just feel, watching this show, people firing up the trucks to go looking for the wreck site. That the people whose remains lie on the ship still were not buried in a formal cemetery should not deprive them of protection, and the way this show covered the site makes its location less safe.
There is more than enough of interest in the Sultana disaster to have made this a fulfilling hour of television. A friend and I were chatting on Facebook (not this comment blog’s comment feed) about the show, and she made the comment that it seemed like PBS was trying to keep up with the dreck that the Discovery Channel and National Geographic were putting out in the past few years. While this show is still a looooooong way off from Nazi War Diggers and its ilk, there was a lot of needless sensationalizing going on here. It could have been so much better.