Dead Reckoning

April 5th, 2012

You would think if the biggest something that’s ever happened – in a category of pretty big somethings – blew up practically in front of you, you’d remember something like that.

You’d think.

As published in The Daily News, April 6, 2012, and in The Memphis News, April 7-13, 2012


Jimmy Ogle is a Memphis history savant. He knows things about people and places around here that even those people didn’t know in the first place.

Going somewhere with Jimmy is a trip.

The other day, Jimmy navigated and I handled my car’s tiller across a 30-mile-wide lake – on dry land. I plowed upstream in the main channel of the Mississippi – in a plowed field. In the surreal light of fire on water, I wove my way through hundreds already dead and heard the desperate screams of hundreds still alive – as I passed the water features and faux Georgian facades of a brand-new subdivision. In the dusty reality of today’s all-but-forgotten Mound City, I remembered that day’s Mound City and its citizens throwing together rafts to save all the souls they could. I saw her go down, a spectacular tragedy at the end of a spectacularly tragic war, her fiery gunwales disappearing – 40 feet below a farmer’s field. I steered to the landing at Marion, a bustling Mississippi port – and parked my car in front of a still Southern swamp.

It was a late afternoon in March, but Jimmy and I were spending quality time with the ghosts of an early morning in April of 1865.

Before the levees, the river was 30 miles wide this time of year, perhaps but ankle deep in places but all wet. Then, the channel north of the Desoto Bridge was the Tennessee Chute, choked with sandbars. Then, the chute we now see against the river’s west bank was the main channel, sweeping six-plus miles west and then north, placing Mound City and Marion on the Mississippi.

Before there was the Titanic, there was the Sultana.

The Titanic carried 2,229 when she hit that iceberg. The Sultana had a capacity of only 376, but carried 2,300 when her boiler exploded, igniting the dawn off Marion, visible from Memphis eight miles south.

The Titanic lost 1,517, capturing the attention of the world then and even now. The Sultana lost at least 1,700, the greatest maritime disaster in American history, and she couldn’t even capture a regional headline. Her news was lost in the wave of mourning for Abraham Lincoln, awash in the gunshots that killed his assassin the day before.

She carried the weak and wasted human detritus of war, Union prisoners heading home after somehow surviving the infamy of Andersonville only to die in hot, bright flames or beneath cold, dark water. Where their hope sank, where there was once a great river, a great tragedy and a singular marker in the nation’s history and ours, that place should be properly marked and always remembered.

Folks in Marion and around the country – Jimmy introduced me to a few – are determined to do just that. They know if you travel the road that once was a river and stop and listen, you can hear bits and pieces of 2,300 stories washed away by a forgotten current.

I’m a Memphian, and Jimmy and I see ghosts.


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