If we have the education, curiosity, perspective and respect for our origins and those who have gone before us, the calendar is a source of constant reminders of what matters in life, and how we can be better citizens and human beings. It is a common belief among Millennials, and a lot of older Americans too, that history is irrelevant to their lives, and this is both a fallacy and a self-inflicted handicap. Not that keeping history in mind is easy: in this month, which T.S. Elliot dubbed “the cruelest,” paying appropriate respect by remembering is especially difficult.
Still, respecting history is our duty. It won’t be remembered, perhaps, but in April, 2012, a 23-year-old drunken fool named Daniel Athens was arrested for climbing over a barrier to urinate on a wall at the Alamo. Monday, a Texas judge threw the book at him, sentencing him to 18 months in state prison for vandalizing a National Monument and a shrine. The sentence seems extreme, and is a good example of how the law is a blunt weapon with which to enforce ethics. The Alamo has near religious significance in Texas, brave men died there, and the ruins serve as a symbol of critical virtues like loyalty, sacrifice, dedication, courage and patriotism. Athens, himself a Texan, defiled the memory of the fallen and symbolically rejected the values and heritage of his community and fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the harshness of the sentence will create sympathy for him: 18 months for peeing? But how else does a culture reinforce the importance of respect for the past? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps I would have sentenced him to take an exam on the lives of Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Seguin and the rest, as well as the siege itself, and imposed the jail term only if he flunked.
Yesterday, Major League Baseball celebrated the heroism and transformative life of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 by becoming baseball’s first black player, setting in motion powerful forces that propelled the cause of civil rights. Every player wore Robinson’s now retired uniform number 42, and there were commemorative ceremonies in the ball parks where it wasn’t too cold and wet to play ball. This remembrance had a difficult time competing with tax day, as history usually does when our immediate life concerns beckon.
Other important historical events deserving reflection, however, were more or less ignored entirely, for April 15 is a historically awful day:
- On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank in the icy North Atlantic, carrying more than 1500 of its 2,224 passengers to their deaths. The tragedy teaches us about human hubris and arrogance, corporate incompetence, greed, apathy, leadership failure, the limits of technology, class inequities and hindsight bias; it also inspires us with its examples of love, sacrifice, nobility, innovation in crisis, the duty to rescue, and amazing courage.
- In the early hours of April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln died from the bullet to the head delivered by John Wilkes Booth’s derringer the previous night in Ford Theater. It is a valuable lesson in how events are violently affected, and with it the lives of millions and the course of civilization, by random acts and accidents that could not have been foreseen.
It should be easy to remember the death of a great President, and the Titanic sticks in our cultural memory in part because of the dozens of accomplished and famous people who died on the ship, many of whom left libraries, museums, schools and companies that bear their names still. A date is coming up in April that marks yet another disaster, and the victims of that one are largely forgotten and should not be. Consider this an early alert to spend some time this April 27 thinking about the victims of the S.S. Sultana steamboat disaster on the Mississippi river in 1865. (Today’s news of the South Korean ferry disaster reminded me of it this morning.)
It was, perhaps, a more horrifying maritime disaster than the Titanic. At 2 a.m on the 27th, the steamboat Sultana was carrying 2,300 just-released Union prisoners of war, plus the crew and civilian passengers. Seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, three of the steamship’s four boilers exploded. The ship was engulfed in flame, and most of the passengers were not healthy enough to rescue themselves; many were survivors of the infamous Andersonville prison, and were suffering from illness and severe malnutrition. Passengers who dived into the icy spring waters died of hypothermia; others burned to death on deck, while still more sank with the doomed riverboat and drowned. Between 1,700 and 1,800 people died that morning: an exact number has never been determined, and even that number doesn’t count the estimated 200 injured who later perished from the wounds they suffered from the accident. Charred bodies of victims continued to turn up along the river’s path for months after, and an unknown number of the dead were never recovered or identified. The Titanic is infamous for having inadequate life boats, but the Sultana’s safety violations make the White Star liner seem exemplary: it was legally registered to carry only 376 people, and had six times more than that on board when it exploded. Desperate Union prisoners of war had stormed the boat and bribed officers to get transportation back North, causing the overcrowding.
I learned about the Sultana as a boy, and the story has haunted me ever since. For soldiers to brave the terrors of the Civil War battlefields and the torture of the inhumane prison camps only to die a horrible death at the very moment they thought their ordeals were at an end seems unbearably cruel. Yet there are no movies about our nation’s most deadly maritime disaster, just a handful of humble memorials placed along the river, and in the home towns of some of the victims.
There is a lot of history to remember in April, but perhaps we can make a special effort on April 27 to honor the victims of the Sultana.
Graphic: Rectors Files