Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and The Worst maritime Disaster in American History, Alan Huffman, Smithsonian Collins Press, 300 pp., bibliography, index, 2009, $26.99.
In the past 20 years there have been six books on the Sultana, several magazine articles and one History Channel program. Huffman's effort, written in an engaging style, offers a somewhat unique point of view that both embraces and diverges from others' work. In Sultana Huffman personalizes the story in an unique way. Never fully removing himself from the story, there are frequent references to what science tells us today about starvation, exhaustion, brain functions, infected wounds, and survival in water of soldiers, prisoners of war, and victims of mechanical catastrophes. He uses the words of Civil War soldiers to illustrate his discussion and move the narrative forward. Where the soldiers are silent, Huffman advances the story with today's knowledge of the impact of personal catastrophes similar to those suffered by the soldiers.
So frequently does the author offer the soldiers' words on events that CWL wishes that an annotated list of characters were in the book. Huffman's brings the reader to these engaging characters and then moves on leaving the reader wondering if a particularly interesting individual will be in the story again. Some are and some aren't. Not all the soldiers Huffman introduces are on the Sultana but they leave their remarkable story with the reader. Several Indiana soldiers often come to the fore, then step aside, intermittently return thereafter until the Sultana docks and begins to load Federal former POWs.
There is just enough discussion of the Sultana as a vessel to move the narrative forward. CWL wishes that the ship itself would have been developed by Huffman as he had developed the soldiers. Also missing is any discussion of the possibility of Confederate sabotage of the vessel. North and South Magazine a few years ago published the story of the successful construction by Rebels of hollow coal filled with gunpowder. The North and South author, successfully in CWL's mind, found the possibility of Confederate saboteurs at both the explosion of a ship at Grant's Headquarters in City Point, Virginia and at the Memphis, Tennessee docks where the Federals embarked on the short fateful voyage. Also unfortunately the book has neither illustrations nor maps. It is certainly not the definitive (and CWL doesn't like that word at any time) telling of the Sultana. Huffman's accomplishment is that the soldiers are at the center of the story. Their experiences are those of brave men, some who endured and some who did not endure, passing through the rapture of war.