The city of Helena welcomed the Sultana Descendant’s Association on the weekend of April 26th thru the 28th. Nearly 70 members of this group visited historical sites around town. The event started off at Phillips Community College with a reception and introduction along with several guest speakers including the Mayor.
On Saturday, the group visited a number of Civil War sites including the Phillips County Museum and took a group picture near where the last photograph of the Sultana was taken.
The Sultana was a steam ship on the Mississippi River used by the United States government to transport recently freed Union prisoners back home. These men had survived the horrors of a Civil War prison and were looking forward to seeing their loved ones now that the conflict was over. Unfortunately the ship was overcrowded and that could be dangerous for steamers struggling north against the currents of the Mississippi River. Although the ship could hold up to 376 passengers, an estimated 2,137 were on board. On April 26, 1865 the Sultana pulled into the port at Helena. With the city being flooded, the men who were all over the ship ran to one side to look at what was going on. The ship nearly tipped over until order was restored. It was at this point that a photographer took the famous picture located above. After a few hours, it continued the journey north. Then on April 27th, three of the ship’s boilers blew near what is now Marion, Arkansas. Passengers who were not killed in the initial explosion faced fire and drowning in the mighty Mississippi River. Ships from Memphis and other places quickly came to their assistance but nearly 1,200 people died. The sinking of the Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in United States history. However for years the story of the Sultana would be almost unknown because of when it took place. It occurred right after the death of President Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent hunt and capture of his assassin John Wilkes Booth.
In December 1885, the survivors living in the northern states of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio met to commemorate the Sultana. They continued these gatherings in the years following. They also formed the Sultana’s Survivor’s Association. As the last of this group passed away, their family members formed the Sultana Descendant’s Association. These men and women have continued the tradition honoring what happened on that dark night.
The Sultana Survivor’s Association visited Battery C and Fort Curtis on Saturday as well. Local re-enactors discussed the Battle of Helena and the city’s role in the Civil War.
They also toured the Moore-Hornor Home which survived the Civil War. All of these properties are operated by the Delta Cultural Center.
I was honored to discuss the role of the 1st and 2nd Arkansas Infantry of African Descent and the U.S.C.T. in the Civil War at Freedom Park. The Delta Cultural Center operates this park on part of the actual battle field and the site of the Contraband camp organized by African Americans fleeing slavery.
I know I speak for everyone in thanking this wonderful group for visiting historic Helena. They are keeping history and heritage alive.