The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War

Larry Holzwarth - July 23, 2021

The Life of a Prisoner at Camp Sumter During the Civil War
Massively overcrowded with exchanged prisoners of war, the river steamer Sultana exploded and sank during the night of April 27, 1865. WIkimedia

20. Many of the Camp Sumter prisoners died on their way home

In late April, 1865, with the war over, the riverboat Sultana prepared to depart Vicksburg, Mississippi, to travel north. Outside Vicksburg was a Union parole camp, which held prisoners exchanged from Confederate camps, most of them from Camp Sumter. Though Sultana’s design allowed a capacity of 376, including crew, an estimated 1,960 survivors of the Confederate camps crowded aboard the vessel. Over 2,100 people left Vicksburg in the steamboat, which also carried cargo bound upriver. Sultana departed Vicksburg on April 24, 1865. As the vessel steamed north it made stops at Helena, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, discharging and taking on cargo and passengers. About 200 men remained behind in Memphis, the rest continued upriver approximately 7 miles, when the steamboat suffered an explosion. The vessel’s wooden superstructure was severely damaged and set ablaze.

At least three separate explosions were reported by survivors, leading some to suspect sabotage by Confederate agents. Over 1,000 men who had survived the horrors of Camp Sumter died in the explosion, fire, or by drowning when they tried to escape by swimming. The Mississippi River that spring was near flood, with a strong current. Even the strongest swimmer would have experienced difficulty reaching the banks. In their weakened condition, few of the former prisoners of war could make it without help. The official cause of the explosions found that three of Sultana’s four boilers exploded, due to mismanagement of their water levels. At least three individuals claimed to have sabotaged the steamboat, by varying means. All have been discredited. Boiler explosions on steamboats were not uncommon, and Sultana’s had been problematic. The tragedy is remembered with historical markers in several locations along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

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“Anderson Prison”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

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“General John H. Winder, CSA”. Arch Frederic Blakey. 1990

“The Sultana Disaster”. Article, American Battlefield Trust. Online

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