Has the soul-sucking monotony of your dog-eared daily grind, with all its pointless obstacles and frustrating social combat, got you down? Just read a few chapters of Alan Huffman's new book, Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, and you'll thank God for traffic jams, jerks and Mondays. There's nothing like a tour of true suffering and endurance to make you glad for your own meager misfortunes.
In his last book, Mississippi in Africa, Huffman told the story of freed slaves who returned to their native Liberia, only to set up their own plantation society with themselves as masters. Once again, the Mississippi journalist has exposed a fascinating, little-known piece of Southern history, lending his own rich moral texture and giving readers plenty to contemplate.
On April 27, 1865, the Sultana, an overcrowded steamship carrying Union soldiers home after the Civil War, exploded just north of Memphis, killing hundreds onboard and sending hundreds more spilling into the swift and frigid Mississippi River, which was flooded and stretched five miles wide from shore to swampy shore. The exact death count is unknown, but the scope is larger even than the Titanic, making it the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Rather than stretch the incident into 300 pages, Huffman expounds on the idea of survival and endurance, taking a soldier's eye view of the war by chronicling the sights, sounds and mental states of fighting men, and shows how humans overcome the most horrific circumstances to live on and prosper. In particular, he follows a group of Indiana soldiers through their own nine circles of hell, from the battlefield of Chickamagua to Confederate prisons Cahaba and Andersonville (think Nazi concentration camps without the efficiency) to the sinking Sultana and back home, where they each tried to put aside the physical and emotional effects of war to lead normal lives.
Huffman's reporting and interpretation is powerful, and the reader comes through with a more potent, perhaps even visceral understanding of such extreme endurance. Sultana is a rare history book with profound reverberations.
We've had the pleasure of hanging out and talking to Alan Huffman, a well-traveled, thoughtful guy who answered a few questions we had after reading the book.
Turnrow: We didn’t recall the Sultana disaster from
history class, even though it was obviously a significant event in the Civil
War. Where did you first hear about it and what convinced you to write a
book on it?
Huffman: I've always been attracted to little-known stories, in part because they don't receive the high gloss of the more popular ones. They tend to be more raw. I originally heard about the Sultana in the late eighties when a guy in Memphis, Jerry Potter, announced that he thought he'd located the remains of this incredible steamboat wreck. The story had more or less fallen through the cracks because of when it happened. It's hard to compete for headlines with "Civil War Ends!" and "Lincoln Assassinated!" I was struck not only by the magnitude of the disaster but by the fact that the passengers had already been through so much by the time it occurred. By that point, their very significant troubles were supposed to be behind them. I was curious to know how anyone could survive so many life-threatening episodes in succession, and live to tell the tale. The book was a natural outgrowth of that, though obviously it took me some time to get around to writing it.
Turnrow: Were you ever tempted to fictionalize the
Huffman: Not really. That's often a temptation when there are big gaps in a story, but this one had everything. Not that there weren't any gaps, but with so many people involved, there was always someone available to fill in the blanks. Of the three primary characters in the book, two left comparatively understated yet absolutely astonishing records. The third wrote extensively about the disaster — it was his identity, which was true for a lot of the survivors. There was more than enough to drive the narrative and develop the characters.
Turnrow: There are a lot of first person accounts
here. What was the research like for this book?
Huffman: I was immersed in the story for a year. At times it was a dark place to be, and it might have remained so had I not chosen to focus on survivors. Ultimately the research was inspiring because no matter what got thrown at these guys they made it through. I started with the official records, then read everything that had been written about the key events and characters, and just kept going deeper until I found myself in a small town in southern Indiana, in an abandoned graveyard, standing over the grave of someone I now felt I knew. The hard part was deciding what to leave out. You have all these accounts from the war, all these accounts from the prisons, all these accounts of the train wrecks and the marches, and they're all riveting, before you even get to the disaster. Then you have the disaster itself. What I did not foresee was how interested I would become in the aftermath — in what happened to these guys during the rest of their lives.
Turnrow: Reading about the prolonged suffering of
these soldiers, it makes you realize how good we really have it today. Where in the world today do people have it
Huffman: I think you can look at any war anywhere in the world and find people who are put to the test on multiple levels, perhaps not on the scale of this story, but then, everything is relative. Think of someone who perhaps was imprisoned under Saddam Hussein and somehow survived, only to be plunged into the current war. Maybe he lost his family, his home, his livelihood, and say he ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he gets sent to Guantanamo. That is an epic survival saga. What I learned from researching this story is that you never know when you've experienced the worst — at any point, it may still be ahead — but that it's possible to survive almost anything, if you're lucky and keep a cool head. There are lucky, cool-headed people surviving intense trials all over the world, and always have been. Some people just get put to more significant tests.
Turnrow: This book is as much, if not more, about
endurance as it is about a single tragedy. You've had some adventures in
the pursuit of fine journalism. What's been your greatest endurance test?
Huffman: I'm not a seasoned war correspondent, so for me it was without doubt traveling to Liberia during that country's civil war, for my book Mississippi in Africa. The challenge was not so much the immediate threat of violence, because the actual fighting was outside the city where I spent most of my time, but the uncertainty of a government that was hostile to my presence, and not knowing where the most serious dangers lurked — basically, being totally outside my frame of reference, by several orders of magnitude. That, it seems to me, is always where the greatest threat lies. If you're an experienced mountain climber, the real danger comes when you find yourself outside your frame of reference, when there's a combination of weather and low oxygen and terrain and maybe panic and the actions of other people that you haven't experienced in concert before. The trick is to adapt to the new circumstances, but people tend to cling to what they had hoped their circumstances would be, rather than what they are, which can get you killed. I never faced imminent death in Liberia, but I faced the very real possibility of imprisonment, and that was the most unnerving experience of my life to date. I'm glad I experienced it, though, because I think it's important to know how it feels to be unmoored, and to see what works and what doesn't.
Tell us about your last great
Huffman: I don't know if it qualifies as great, but the one I enjoyed the most, recently, was searching for the eighties actor Jan-Michael Vincent, who had disappeared from the radar screen after his life went off the rails. It was a quirky story for Lost magazine. "Whatever happened to..." is one of my favorite phrases because I love tracking things down, seeing how the story ends, especially if it's a story that's fallen through the cracks. This particular story was more about the search than it was about what actually happened.
Turnrow: Read any terrific books recently?
Huffman: I really enjoyed Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting, and after belatedly discovering the late David Foster Wallace, I've been reading everything I can get my hands on that he wrote, including Consider the Lobster and A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I also loved George Saunders' Pastoralia. Without doubt the best books I read while researching Sultana were Kenneth Kamler's Surviving the Extremes and Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival. Both of those will go in the glass-front case.