There is a story in our family which has tugged at my heart ever since I first became aware of it a few years ago. I believe Ed Easlick of Richmond first told me about it. David and Lucy Easlick of Naples FL sent me a packet of information that mentioned it. It was also referenced briefly in a book on Michigan soldiers in the Civil War. And in 1997, my parents retrieved a mother’s pension application file from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., which detailed the tragic story.
Newman A. Easlick was born September 18, 1837 to William and Sarah (Olds) Easlick, the third child in a family of nine. His parents had married and resided in Steuben County, New York, then migrated to Crawford County, Pennsylvania, in the late 1830’s, along with William’s older brothers Cornelius and John and their families, and those of their sisters. In fact, the whole clan seems to have uprooted and left New York at about the same time, including the elder parents, William and Phebe.
In about 1849, William and Sarah, sometimes called Sally, moved with their growing family to Macon Township, Lenawee County MI. By 1850, their brood consisted of Alexander, age 17, Eliza, age 15, Newman, age 13, Robert, age 11, Wilder, age 7, and Sarah, age 4. They had lost a young son, Lewis, who died in 1848 while they were still in Pennsylvania. The next two children, Phebe and William, were born to the family in the 1850’s, after the move to Michigan.
In 1852, Newman’s brother Alexander married Louisa Spaulding. Sister Eliza married Elias Olds. By the time of the 1860 census, Newman was 23 years old, single, and living at home with his parents in Macon, Lenawee County MI, working on the family farm to help support his parents and five younger siblings.
But trouble was brewing for the country, and for many of our relatives. The Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861. When the time came for Michigan boys to enlist in the army and fight for the Union, Newman answered the call, as did his younger brother Wilder. Newman A. Easlick enlisted at Adrian MI on February 20, 1862, and was enrolled as a private in Company G, 4th Regiment of the Michigan Volunteer Infantry. At this point I do not have a history of the regimental action seen by the Michigan 4th, but I do know that the unit was engaged in the battle of Gettysburg on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. Newman Easlick was captured at Gettysburg on July 2, and held as a prisoner of war at Richmond, Virginia, through 1863. Then the Confederates finished constructing a more isolated prison camp, called Andersonville, located far from Union lines in the heart of Georgia. It was Newman’s misfortune to be taken there in March, 1864.
Most students of history are well aware of the horrors of the Civil War. Brothers fought against brothers, families were torn apart. Six hundred thousand young men died on both sides as a result of injuries or sickness. Ken Burns produced a documentary series on PBS which brought the violence and despair back to us on a level we can understand, from the personal letters and journals of those involved.
Some say the fate of those held as prisoners of war, whether Union or Confederate, was perhaps far more terrible than for those who died of battlefield wounds. Andersonville was known as one of the most horrible of all prisons. Designed originally to hold a maximum of 10,000 prisoners in the rectangular, 17-acre camp, it was later expanded to almost 27 acres, but with as many as 30,000 confined at any one time. During the course of its one-year operation, 45,000 Union soldiers were imprisoned at Andersonville. Of these, some 12,000 died. Conditions were severe. There was no shelter from the rains of winter nor the summer sun, save the crude tents the men erected from scavenged wood scraps and pieces of clothing and whatever other gear they still possessed by the time of their imprisonment. Often they dug holes in the ground to shield themselves from the biting wind. Lice and disease were rampant, food supplies inadequate, hygiene and medical care sub-standard. It is said that anyone admitted to the prison hospital had a slim chance of emerging alive. Our Newman was admitted to that hospital in early June, 1864. A month later he was released, still alive. I have personally seen his name on the hospital records, which have been microfilmed and are available to the public at the National Archives and its branch locations.
Mercifully, the war ended in April 1865. Newman had survived Gettysburg. He had survived Andersonville. The long war was over! Andersonville prisoners were sent by crowded trainloads to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they were to be paroled and sent home. Many were little more than skeletons after sickness and starvation had ravaged their once-healthy young bodies. Newman was paroled at Vicksburg on April 21, 1865. From there, the men were taken, again by the trainload, to the waterfront to be boarded onto steamships heading north on the Mississippi River. Many wrote letters from camp awaiting their trip home to freedom and the family they had not seen in months or years. Many dreamed of the simple things they would once again be able to enjoy–safe, dry shelter, home-cooked meals, love of family, sweethearts and wives and children left behind.
The Sultana was a wooden-hulled steamer designed to hold 376 passengers. It had recently undergone patchwork repairs on one of its four boilers. Docked at Vicksburg, it took on hundreds of released Union troops, while two other steamers left empty. This was partly due to miscommunications about the number of troops in each trainload, partly to the greed of persons interested in acquiring the $5 per head paid by the U.S. Government for transport of troops north. Whether the reasons were greed, indifference, criminal misconduct or gross stupidity, the number of men placed on the Sultana for their journey north was close to 2,300, four times the intended capacity. Witnesses and the men themselves were concerned about the overloading. Those who knew of the recent problems with the boilers were concerned about the safety of continuing without proper repairs. Nonetheless, the Sultana steamed away from the wharf and headed upriver in late April of 1865.
Just north of Memphis, Tennessee, during the wee hours of the morning of April 27, 1865, the boilers on the Sultana finally gave way. They blew up in an explosion seen for miles in the night sky. Some of the passengers were killed instantly by the impact of shrapnel tearing up through the decks as the boilers blew to bits. Some were scalded by the boiling water showered upon them. Some were crushed by the weight of collapsing timbers. Some were burned when the coal-fired flames under the boilers consumed the wooden steamship. Most drown in the mayhem of men and horses flung into the icy, flooded waters of the Mississippi. We do not know exactly how many men were killed, as the bodies were not all recovered, and there was no master list of names of those aboard. In the haste to load the ship, proper rolls were postponed until after boarding and the trip was underway. It is believed some 700 people may have survived the explosion and the night in the river. Of these, some 300 died within days from their injuries. Newman was never seen again.
The Sultana disaster was big news, yet it was crowded from the front pages of newspapers by other stories. Lincoln had been assassinated. Four years of civil war was finally over. John Wilkes Booth had been captured the day before the Sultana departed from Vicksburg. Many families were informed of the loss of their son, husband, or father in the Sultana disaster months later when the military finally notified them.
Back home in Michigan, Sarah Easlick had her hands full. Two of her sons were off fighting the rebels. Another son, Robert, was disabled from scrofula, and was able to work only “with great inconvenience.” What a blow to the family to learn of Newman’s death. Perhaps they did not yet know, when in April of 1865, Sarah’s husband, William Easlick, was severely injured after being thrown from a wagon by a runaway team, striking his back on a low stump. At the time of the accident, he was taken to a neighbor’s house and treated by a doctor there for several days, then carried home on a stretcher where treatment continued. But William never entirely recovered from the injury. Due to his disability, the family was forced to sell the farm in 1866 and move to Saline, in nearby Washtenaw County, Michigan. William died of Bright’s disease on May 8, 1877, immediately following which the property was probated, sold and proceeds divided among the children, except Sarah’s dowry, the income from which was not sufficient for her comfortable support. She applied for, and was granted, a mother’s pension based on Newman’s service. Sarah died in 1895.
With all the attention given lately to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, especially since the release of the major motion picture by the same name, it amazes me that so few people are aware of the Sultana disaster, which claimed over 1700 lives, exceeding the death toll of the Titanic. To this day, the Sultana explosion stands as the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Mother’s pension file of Sarah Easlick, based on service of Newman A. Easlick. National Archives, 5/97.
The Sultana Tragedy, by Jerry O. Potter, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, 1997.
Andersonville, by MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, New York, 1955.
Dancing Along the Deadline, The Andersonville Memoir of a Prisoner of the Confederacy, by Ezra Hoyt Ripple, edited by Mark A. Snell, Presidio Press, 1996.
The Sultana Remembered, Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends Official Home Page, http://sultana.org/ [THIS LINK APPEARS TO BE BROKEN as of 9/13/10].
Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster, American Heritage magazine, October 1955.
The Generations of Easlicks from David & Lucy Easlick, 10/97.
Also of interest:
Gettysburg, a Turner Pictures film, 1993.
Andersonville, a Turner Pictures film, 1996.
Both of these movies are very well done and give the viewer a good representation of the situations that Newman Easlick would have experienced.