A Survivor of Andersonville and the Sultana

The steamboat Sultana

The steamboat Sultana

William Davies’ 1864 diary opens with a list of 19 men from Company A who have given him their photographs.

At Andersonville National Historic Site (see recent posts about Davies‘ stay in the Confederate prison), there is a POW museum with a database listing the nearly 42,000 prisoners who passed through the gates of the camp. Each prisoner’s entry contains such information as name, date of capture, and date of exchange, release, escape, or death.

The first name on the list of men who gave Davies their pictures is G.H. Young. The database shows that George H. Young, of the 95th Ohio Regiment, Company A, not only made it through Andersonville and two other prisons, he also survived the wreck of the riverboat Sultana, sometimes known as the Titanic of the Mississippi.

In late July of 1864, a month after Davies, Young, and other members of Company A were captured, General William T. Sherman was plotting his assault on Atlanta, 140 miles north of Andersonville. The inhuman conditions at the prison had reached the Northern press, and Sherman sent a detachment of cavalry to serve a dual mission of destroying railroads that supplied Atlanta and liberating Andersonville.

The troops failed in their efforts, but the prospect of 32,000 prisoners released into the Georgia countryside sent a thrill of fear through the area’s residents. In mid-September, when Sherman had taken Atlanta, Davies was among the prisoners who were told they were going to be exchanged. Trainloads of men were shipped out. They had been lied to about the promise of exchange many times, in order to discourage attempts at escape. That’s probably why Davies and his friend Wakeman Bell slipped into the woods while enroute to the exchange point.

They made their way to Sherman’s lines and freedom. Records show that the remaining 17 men of Company A, including George Young, spent time in other prisons, suggesting that that they were not on their way to be exchanged but to fill new prisons that were out of Sherman’s reach. Some of those men were later brought back to Andersonville.

At the end of the war, Union soldiers liberated from Andersonville and Cahawba prisons were mustered out of the army at Vicksburg, where the steamboat Sultana stopped to pick them up and take them home. Young was one of those men.

The ship had spent a day in dock to repair the boiler, which apparently should have been replaced, but the captain didn’t want to lose his government contract to transport the waiting passengers, who were desperate to get home. The boat, which had a legal capacity of 376, headed out with 2400 people aboard on April 27, 1865. When the boiler exploded, the Sultana sank, and an estimated 1600 passengers died. It was the day after John Wilkes Booth’s assassination, so the sinking of the Sultana was crowded out of the headlines.

George Young, however, lived and made it home to Columbus, Ohio, to raise a family. So did William Davies, my great-great-grandfather.

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10 Responses to A Survivor of Andersonville and the Sultana

  1. Barbara Carter says:

    The article is very interesting

  2. sara says:

    Trying to imagine the escape and how Davies and Bell snuck through the countryside to get back to Shermans lines and relative safety. How many miles was it? I wonder why Andersonville, in particular, was such a horrible, horrible prison and how the guards were able to contain so many desperate men . Fascinating and awful.

  3. Trisha Bomar says:

    My 3x great grandfather was on the Sultana and at Andersonville, Samuel Hines, 5th Tennessee Infantry Co. B Private. He Survived so I am here today! I wonder if their is a photo if him?

    • visnow77 says:

      Trisha, you bring up an interesting aspect of the war–I didn’t know there were Union regiments from Tennessee, a Confederate state. It turns out that most of the Southern states had some Union regiments, according to http://www.civilwararchive.com/regim.htm. Tennessee, a border state, had 56 organizations (including infantry, infantry of African descent, artillery, cavalry). Mississippi had ten, and even Virginia and Georgia had one each.

      So you and I have something in common–ancestral survivors. How do you know about Samuel Hines’s regiment? Did your family keep his records?

  4. emmiline vincent says:

    this really was interesting.i always wondered about what happened.

  5. Anonymous says:

    A distant grandfather of mine, John J Kurtz (7th Ohio Cavalry), had also been a prisoner in the South then survived the Sultana disaster. According to federal records (from what I could discern) he had been at Andersonville, but family oral history says he had been a Libby prison. I’ve always wondered about the discrepancy. Now wondering if he hadn’t been transferred from one prison to another at some point.

    • visnow77 says:

      There was a lot of transfer from one prison to another. According to my memory of the research I did a few years ago, Andersonville was built partly to take the strain off the prison at Richmond (Libby), which was full to bursting and threatened with liberation by Union assaults. Here is a quote I just found: “In March 1864, worries about the safety of the capital, the security of the prisons, and the scarcity of resources peaked, and Winder ordered the evacuation of most prisoners of war in Richmond to Georgia. Enlisted men would go to Andersonville while the officers housed at Libby would transfer to the new prison in Macon.” From https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/libby_prison#start_entry.

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