Camp Austin Blair and the Sultana Memorial

This project, which began in February of 2001 was completed on November 11, 2001. The role of Camp Austin Blair was to assist the descendants of all the Michigan Union soldiers who perished on the sidewheeler Sultana, with the approval, the initial planning, the construction, a program brochure, and the dedication ceremony of the memorial.


Sultana

The Titanic of the Mississippi


The great American Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 and in the south the Union soldiers imprisoned at Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia, were freed. For months these survivors had endured hunger, disease and the unbearable cramped conditions of the prisons. Many had barely enough strength to walk. Now they were waiting for the Army to get them to their homes in the north. As they waited, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th and the country was in a turmoil. It would be almost two weeks before plans were made to pick them up.

Finally these weak and weary soldiers were brought to Vicksburg to begin the long journey home to places like Knoxville, Tennessee; Cincinnati, Ohio; Hillsdale, Michigan and Madison, Indiana. Most were walking skeletons, many had to be carried on litters but their spirits were high because soon they would be united with their families.

Over 2,200 were loaded along with other passengers and cargo onto the small steamboat “Sultana”. Like so much baggage they were crammed on board a vessel with a maximum capacity of 376 passengers. The engines of the overloaded sidewheeler strained as it pushed northward against the current of the flooded Mississippi River. Six miles beyond Memphis, Tennessee, at 2:00 A.M. on the morning of April 27, 1865, the boilers exploded and the boat burst into flames. Over 1,700 would die either from the explosion, by fire, or drown in the icy river. For some death was merciful, for others unspeakable agony, in what remains to this day as the greatest maritime disaster in the history of the United States. The death toll was higher than that on the ocean liner Titanic in 1912.

The tragedy would have commanded banner headlines at any other time in history but unfortunately it received little print. Relegated to the back pages of all the nation’s newspapers, it was soon forgotten. Stories about the assassination of the President occupied every inch of space, much to the relief of those in the Army who had been responsible for so major a blunder.

Until 1930 the surviving veterans met annually to discuss the one item on their agenda which was to get the Federal Government to erect a memorial in honor of their comrades who perished that night. It never happened. Now only two ailing survivors remained with a dying wish that their descendants take up their cause. This movement, though few in number in the beginning, grew fast and in 1989 several families began gathering in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Today, they number in the hundreds and gather annually to honor the memory of these brave men and have erected memorials in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Ohio and Indiana.

On November 11, 2001 at 11:30 A.M., in conjunction with the Hillsdale Veterans Day ceremonies, the many descendants in Michigan joined other states in erecting and dedicating a memorial to all the Michigan veterans that perished on the Sultana. Given approval by the Hillsdale County Board of Commissioners, it was placed on the Court House lawn in downtown Hillsdale. This Michigan city is so appropriate because over 100 soldiers from the 18th Michigan Infantry, that mustered-in in Hillsdale, were on board the Sultana that night.


Construction of the Memorial Begins

THE FOUNDATION


Brother Dan Doyle, Project Coordinator, locates the template and outlines the foundation.


Bob Simon ( left ) County Supervisor of Maintenance, discusses foundation depth with crew.


Darby Ready Mix, Addison, Michigan,
contributes the concrete and provides an experienced finisher.


Over two yards of a premium mix is required to fill the hole.


The one man operation of driver, filler, leveller and finisher is kept busy.


After two hours the concrete has set enough for master finisher, Terri Ratliff, to apply the final touches.


Terri Ratliff

The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War thank Randy Darby and Terri for a job well done.
These men can always look with pride at their contribution to this historic monument.


THE GRANITE MEMORIAL


The five foot high, dark blue-grey granite on display at Arnet's Inc., Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Jim Moomey of Arnet's shown programming the words of the inscription.


A plotter then pens and cuts the inscription onto a heavy adhesive backed mat.


The mat is then accurately centered and aligned over the granite.
Note the letter "N" has been removed, exposing the surface to be sandblasted.


David Webber (left) and Jim Moomey carefully remove each individual letter from
the mat so that the surrounding surface is not exposed to the sandblaster.


The inscription is now ready for David Webber to sandblast the letters.
This stage of the process is critical as the depth of each letter must be consistent.


The letters have been sandblasted and now the etching of the steamboat Sultana
is being skillfully applied by the steady hand of Jim McIntyre.


Every line in this detailed sketch of the steamboat must be etched with a hand-held rotating tool.


A close-up of Jim working on the paddlewheel housing.


THE INSTALLATION


The base is aligned and fastened to the foundation.


Readying the granite for placement on the base.


Aligning and epoxy-cementing the granite to the base.


Michigan's Sultana Memorial

It is fitting that Michigan's only monument to these men be in Hillsdale,
for it was Hillsdale County where the majority of Michigan's Sultana victims
had enlisted, most of those joining the 18th Michigan Infantry.


DEDICATION

November 11, 2001

Veterans Day, November 11, 2001 began crisp, clear and sunny. On the 11th month during the morning of the 11th day at the 11th hour,
the opening ceremony of Veterans Day 2001 commenced in front of the Hillsdale County Court House in downtown Hillsdale, Michigan. Wreaths were placed at memorials for veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Prisoners of War and the World War II Mothers. A wreath was also placed by Hillsdale County Commissioner, Alice Britton, in memory of the People who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks two months earlier in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington on September 11, 2001.


The laying of the wreaths concluded with a 21 gun salute by Company A of the 18th Michigan Infantry Re-enactors.
As the sound and smoke from their muskets hung in the silent air, taps was played by Jorden Sherer.


Jim Spencer, playing the pipes, then led everyone to the corner of the Court House lawn
where the Sultana Memorial, draped in black, had been erected ten days earlier.


Bill Lowe, Austin Blair Camp No. 7, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War welcomes everyone. To his right is the draped memorial, the color guard, Jim Spencer and Company A of the 18th Michigan Infantry Re-enactors standing in the shadows of the trees.


Following the Invocation by Bill McAfee, Chaplain, Department of Michigan SUVCW, a gathering of over 300 took part in the opening ceremony with the Pledge of Allegiance led by Bene Fusilier and Judie Warren. Both ladies are Great-Granddaughters of veterans who were on board the Sultana that fateful night.


Pam Newhouse, Great-Great-Granddaughter of Private Adam Schneider,
who perished on the Sultana, talks about him and the family he left behind.


Arlan Gilbert, Professor of History, Hillsdale College, tells the story of the Sultana
and talks about the prominent role Hillsdale played during the Civil War.


Steve Vear, State Representative of the 58th District reads to everyone
a "Special Tribute to Those Who Perished On The Sultana" signed by Michigan Governor John Engler.
This Tribute will be on permanent display in the Hillsdale Court House lobby.


A group of descendants including Pam Newhouse standing to the left of the memorial
and Bene Fusilier standing on the right wearing a white sweater.


Judie Warren on the right and her mother Catherine Cole Warren standing next to her with family and friends.

Catherine Cole Warren of Ann Arbor grew up in Pittsford, Michigan, and is the Granddaughter of
Corporal Orlando Cole, Company F, 18th Michigan Infantry, who survived the Sultana disaster.
At age 89 she was the oldest descendant present at the dedication and was given
the honor of unveiling the memorial during the ceremony.


Updated January 9, 2006


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