J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Archive for the category “John Wilkes Booth”

Tragedy on the Mississippi

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history took place. This little known event happened on the Mississippi River, not long after the Civil War ended. The name of the vessel was the Sultana.

At the close of the war, Union prisoners were released from Southern POW camps. Some of the parolees were transported to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they awaited their release. Riverboats traveling along the Mississippi River vied for the lucrative opportunity to transport newly released prisoners to their homes in the north, and were paid handsomely by the Federal government. One such vessel, the Sultana, was chosen to transport Andersonville and Alabama prisoners, who were crowded onto the boat, surpassing the 376 person limit.

The boat made its way upriver to Helena, Arkansas, where the above photo was taken. It docked in Memphis, and shortly before 2 a.m., set off for Cairo, Illinois. However, seven miles north of Memphis, the boat suddenly exploded, sending burning prisoners to their deaths or into the icy cold river, which was flooded and swollen with spring thaw. Those who weren’t burned to death or drowned managed to make their way to the riverbanks, and waited for rescue while they watched the unmanned boat spin helplessly in the water, aflame in the night sky. After being rescued, the surviving Union soldiers were taken to hospitals in Memphis. Many succumbed to their wounds, or to their weakened state as POW’s, but some survived. Approximately 1,800 of the 2,427 passengers perished.

Controversy still surrounds the tragedy, including a conspiracy theory that Confederates sabotaged the boat, but this was never proven. It is believed that a faulty boiler actually caused the explosion. Although the riverboat was overloaded, and some people were rumored to have taken bribes, no one was ever held accountable.

Today, there are monuments signifying the event. One is located in Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis. The disaster was overshadowed by President Lincoln’s assassination, as well as the manhunt for his killer, John Wilkes Booth, who was killed the day before in Virginia. The Sultana tragedy was barely reported in newspapers. Americans were tired of war and death, so the horrific event was essentially ignored. It was a terrible ending to a terrible war.

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Killing a President

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150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln became the first U.S. president to be assassinated. On the evening of April 12, 1865, Lincoln attended a play at Ford’s Theater titled Our American Cousin with his wife, Mary Todd, Union army officer Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiance, Clara Harris, the daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. While they enjoyed the play from the presidential box, actor and Southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth, sneaked into the box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. The president was taken across the street to William Petersen’s Boarding House, where he lay dying for several hours. He expired at 7:22 a.m.on April 13.

Booth escaped Washington with accomplice David Herold. The two men traveled through southern Maryland until they were cornered in a barn in Virginia on April 26. Herold surrendered, but Booth refused and was shot to death. Conspirators of the assassination were arrested, including Mary Surratt, who owned the boarding house where Booth frequented. She later became the first woman in American history to be hung by the Federal government for treason.

The traumatic event left an incredible impact. Mary Todd, who claimed to communicate with her dead husband through seances, was eventually committed to an insane asylum by her oldest son. Henry Rathbone married Clara Harris, and later, murdered her. Rumors abounded for years that John Wilkes Booth had actually escaped and had gone West or to Mexico. The train Lincoln’s body was transported on from Washington to Illinois was seen for many years as a spectral ghost. And the spirit of Mary Surratt haunted the Old Capitol Prison where she was hung until the building was razed in 1929.

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