The Cruelest Month And The Duty To Remember


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.


Sources: National Geographic, The Smoking Gun

Graphic: Rectors Files

25 thoughts on “The Cruelest Month And The Duty To Remember

  1. I think there’s another reason why April 15th is a “historically awful day” especially for postal employees and those who wait to the last minute to file their taxes, especially if they’re not gonna get a refund. Enough said!

      • I’m still reeling that you actually used “Enough said!” after my contretemps with Elle over the weekend…
        Do you know what’s even worse than “Enough said!” ?
        “’nuff said!”
        Simply horrible.

  2. Or how about for the 1987 Orioles?

    First, they had to do the finishing touches on their taxes. Then they had to play the Brewers.

    Here was the pitching line of Juan Nieves that night:
    9 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 5 BB, 7 K, 0 hits allowed.

  3. Jack,
    Many years ago as a boy in high school I did a paper on the conditions at Andersonville. I really got into the research which was rather odd for me at 15 when there were so many other distractions at my disposal. That paper made me understand how badly mankind can treat each other; especially when political divides reinforce one’s inhumanity and serve as justification for it.
    I had not thought about that paper until I read your post today. I am reflecting on you comment that many find history irrelevant in their lives. That is a shame especially since it follows your recent piece on Godwin’s Law and the big lies that are being presented as factual evidence today.

    • Andersonville (the Union camp at El Mira was perhaps just as bad, but the North won) is an unimaginably horrible historical incident. I’ve directed the drama “The Andersonville Trial” twice, and studied the various sources and testimony transcripts. The fact that Lincoln and Grant intentionally created the conditions that forced the cruelty in the prison is also important to understand, as it shows how war precludes normal ethical considerations if the objective is to win. Yes, thinking about Godwin’s law sparked this post as well, along with the South Korea sinking.

      Remind me to write about Andersonville when the July anniversary of the trial comes around…

  4. Segura?

    Yes. 18 months for peeing on the Alamo is grossly inappropriate an disproportionate to the crime.

    I’d recommend he be forced to go from town to town begging forgiveness, followed by a televised flogging, flaying, and upon completion of his purification by pain: drawing and quartering. Sending his parts to the four corners of the nation.

    Then erasing all references to him from the public record.

    Although some Texans might not consider that stern enough.

    • Tex, you’re absolutely right, not stern enough by a long shot. For those not familiar with it, the Alamo, especially for those lucky enough to live in San Antonio, takes on religious significance, to the extent that there is a sign just inside the door reminding men to remove their hats and for all to speak in hushed, reverent tones. For some drunken idiot to pee on this monument to courage, honor and commitment…well, he deserves to lose it.

      • The date, not off the top of my head, although it was probably mentioned to me at some point. The disaster, yes, albeit not in much detail.

      • To clarify on this: My history teachers were either absurdly biased in favor of things like military details when covering the civil war (one spent two days on how various battles exploited terrain, for instance — which I think is a rather absurd set of priorities for covering the civil war in a High School American history course) or biased against Union soldiers on general principle (Junior High in rural SC, where our textbooks officially referred to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression”).

        That, and my history studies since then have generally focused in other directions.

  5. Excellent post, Jack. My thanks. I was only vaguely aware of the Sultana tragedy and had no notion of the casualty figures. Given my fascination with history, I find that embarrassing.

  6. I believe the Sultana disaster still ranks as the worst ship-borne tragedy in American history. I can’t say “maritime”, as it occurred on a river. I should point out that, at Andersonville prison, local people contributed what they could for the prisoners, despite the shortages incurred by the war. The prisoners held by Northern authorities not only suffered from the cold, but from short rations that were inexcusable. Lincoln and Grant’s decision to suspend prisoner exchanges was based on the cold mathematics of war. The North could afford the attrition in manpower, whereas the South could not.

    • Yes, that strategy was inherently cruel and the ultimate in total war tactics. I’m sure you’ve read the exchange between Lincoln and Grant in which Lincoln acknowledged what he was doing to Northern prisoners in Southern prisons.

      • This is what happens when you find a way to justify total war in terms of bringing a war to an end quicker. You have to take a hard look at your calculations to see if waging unrestricted warfare against soldier and civilian alike can truly be excused. For example, one could make a powerful argument about using the Bomb on Japan. Not so much the Sherman doctrine of “war is hell… so let’s go all out”.

        • The distinction between civilian and soldier is a relatively new one in the grand scheme of history.

          1) either War is the business State vs State… in which case, it doesn’t make sense to me, especially if the governments are elected. If the governments aren’t elected, then War is just a set of thugs advancing their own largesse.

          2) or War is the business of Nation vs Nation… in which case, why do the civilians (who inevitably support the war vicariously) get a pass from danger?

          2a) When we go to war against nations whose governments are non-elected or corrupted-elected, it would behoove us to engage the civilian population granting the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they DON’T support the war of their government.

          The South most certainly elected its government. They didn’t get a pass.

          • Despite the occasional infamous conduct of Banastre Tarleton, Lord Cornwallis’ march through the Carolinas from Savannah was a far cry from Sherman’s over pretty much the same route. It’s also notable the Lee didn’t leave desolation in his wake during his march through southern Pennsylvania… unless you include his raiding a shoe factory. Nor were there atrocities conducted against the civil population. Sherman was a capable general, as he had proved often. But he subscribed to total war as a legitimate method of operations against an enemy who had never provoked this.

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