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Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History Paperback – April 6, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The explosion and wreck of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana in 1865, which killed 1,700 passengers, mostly Union soldiers recently released from Confederate POW camps, is but the capstone of this engrossing survey of the many varieties of suffering in the Civil War. Journalist Huffman (Mississippi in Africa) doesn't even get aboard the Sultana until the last third of the saga. Before that, he fills in the backstories of four Yankee survivors as they fight in the battle of Chickamauga, go raiding with Sherman's cavalry and finally get captured and sent to the infamous Southern prison camps at Andersonville, Ga., and Cahaba, Ala. There they endure the torments of starvation, exposure, festering and maggoty wounds, predatory criminal gangs, lice and diarrhea—a scourge, Huffman notes, that was far deadlier to soldiers than bullets. Making skillful use of war diaries and memoirs, the author makes these quieter ordeals just as moving as the Sultana's doomed voyage, with its hellish scene[s] of hundreds of screaming people being burned alive or drowning each other in panic. Huffman fits the climactic disaster into a meticulously researched, harrowing look at the sorrow and the pity that was the Civil War. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Huffman succeeds in establishing the Sultana’s rightful place in Civil War historiography. Recommended.” (Library Journal)

Huffman rescues the Sultana tragedy from obscurity and brings the people and events surrounding it to vibrant life...[and] chronicles the explosion and its aftermath in startling detail with a wealth of striking images...A short but moving history that effectively captures both the disaster and the soldiers’ ordeal. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (April 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061470562
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061470561
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #850,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Alan Huffman is known for chronicling epic sagas that have slipped through the cracks of history, such as his 2004 nonfiction book Mississippi in Africa, which explores two parallel universes: The U.S. state of Mississippi and a largely forgotten freed-slave colony by the same name on the west coast of Africa. The book's backdrop is sweeping -- it spans two continents and two centuries, yet Huffman brings the story to life through engaging and thoughtful portraits of characters ranging from a 19th century Mississippi slaveholder who abhorred slavery to a contemporary Liberian man grappling with his nation's civil war, the causes of which were rooted in the conflicts of the old American South.

Ten Point, Huffman's first book, likewise tells a personal tale against a historical backdrop. Through his grandmother's poignant and revealing photographs, the book illustrates the final days of the wilderness of the Mississippi Delta, the setting for William Faulkner's short story The Bear. Sultana, released in 2010, follows three young soldiers through a remarkable series of survival challenges during and after the American Civil War, including their capture and imprisonment, culminating with their surviving the worst maritime disaster in American history.

We're with Nobody, co-authored with Michael Rejebian, is a quirky romp through the contemporary American political landscape, focusing on Huffman's and Rejebian's 18 years as opposition researchers, during which they roamed the U.S. in a succession of cheap rental cars, getting the goods on candidates from presidential appointments and congressional representatives down to local school board members.

Huffman's newest book (Grove-Atlantic in March 2013) is Here I Am, the story of war photographer Tim Hetherington, who covered conflicts from the West African nation of Liberia to Sierra Leone, Darfur, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Libya. Hetherington, whose artistic eye and focus on revealing the lives of his subjects set him apart from other conflict photographers, was nominated for an Academy Award (with codirector Sebastian Junger) for the documentary film Restrepo. He was killed in Libya, alongside photographer Chris Hondros, on April 20, 2011, while covering that nation's revolution.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By An American on April 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a story about survival and the many things that that means.

It is all true, every moment , and it is mostly in the words of the people that lived it.
YOU can walk in their shoes for awhile, you can have the shoes blown right off your feet. And you can live to remember.

Imagine: You went to fight. You get injured in ways you can never recover from,
Your body does not heal. You go to prison. You finally get released and think you are going home to finally get back to the life you remember or what you can still live of it based on your new limitations. And then the worst happens: the ship you are on to take you home - the boiler blows in the middle of the night and the ship catches on fire. You have two choices: Jump into water you know you can't live long in because it is so cold and because people are drowning each other OR
burn alive. It is April 27, 1865 around 2 am...

You will see varying accounts of the number of people on board but this is the worst maritime disaster in United States history, worse than the Titanic and yet you never heard of it. So consider these numbers:

2400 people on board a ship designed to hold 376. Only 700 survivors.

This book will take you there through several individual stories and many diaries and first hand recollections. This book made me empathize my way through the war, prison and the disaster. Many voices, one story: individual but universal.

Go there and see it, live it for a moment. Remember. Pass it on...
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Tim Challies TOP 1000 REVIEWER on July 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a book about the worst maritime disaster in American history. Through gross greed and negligence, the Sultana, hugely overloaded with Union soldiers recently liberated from Confederate prison camps, exploded and sank in the Mississippi. Around 1700 of the 2400 passengers aboard the ship died. The book does more than recount the disaster. It follows several of the men involved through their service in the Union army, through their imprisonment and it is only in the final few chapters that we come to the Sultana. Ironically, I found the earlier chapters more interesting and more compelling than the tale of the disaster itself. I appreciated that the author saw fit to widen the scope of the book by making it about the whole war and not just about a single tragedy. Any Civil War enthusiast will appreciate this book, I'm sure.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By J. R. Mellefont on May 7, 2009
Format: Hardcover
What's more extraordinary? That a huge riverboat, criminally overloaded by corrupt officials with thousands of sick and suffering Civil War POW survivors trying to return home, blows up in the middle of the night and kills 1700 men, women and children who burn or drown in scenes of unimaginable panic and chaos? Or the fact that the single worst maritime disaster in US waters is virtually forgotten, becoming just a footnote to a brutal industrialised war?

An amazing and piteous tale, competently told, it follows a few ordinary soldiers through their entire war experiences and marvels at their extraordinary ability to survive again and again and again. First they survive the chaos of battle and capture, and their terrible wounds, then train wreck en route to POW camps where they endure disease, exposure and disgusting victuals ... and finally they survive the nightmare on the Mississippi. The tales of panic and desperation in the dark, frigid waters are tragic, and one is amazed that anyone lived.

Just as melancholy is the postscript where we learn that surviving the Civil War - like surviving Vietnam or Iraq - so often left a legacy of illness, depression, alcoholism and domestic difficulties. Not a happy read ... but certainly a worthwhile one. For this Australian reader, an introduction to many unknown facets of America's Civil War, and as a maritime historian a sobering addition to my knowledge of shipwreck and disaster.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Robert Redd VINE VOICE on September 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
A seldom studied aspect of the Civil War is the immediate aftermath. Thousands of soldiers were far from home and needed to be returned to civilian life. Boat owners were more than anxious to cram every soldier possible on their boats and so was the case with the Sultana. Huffman estimates that nearly 2,600 men were on board though there is no passenger list. At least 1,700 of these men perished in the disaster. All of this plus the conspiracy theory that the Confederates played a role in the explosion of the boilers should have led to a fast paced and exciting story. Unfortunately that's not what we get.

Huffman takes the long route to get to the meat of the story. We read about friends from Indiana who join the military. We get to meet people like Big Tennessee who really have nothing at all to do with the story. He may (or most likely was not) on the Sultana and legend has it he swam away. We read about prison camps and the hope and despair they caused. Finally we get to the joy of being able to go home and the tragedy that awaited.

Ultimately what we have here is a disjointed work that doesn't really seem to have a focus. The book is 281 pages of text yet we don't hear of the Sultana until page 168. By this point this reader was just hanging on hoping for something to improve. Unfortunately it really didn't. There is no serious discussion regarding the theory that the Confederates had something to do with the explosion. Whether or not Huffman puts any weight to the story it should be addressed if for nothing else but to put it to rest. This could have been done as an appendix if nothing else. I couldn't really get a feel for the ship or the people aboard. While I should have cared about both I found myself looking for the end rather than not wanting it to end.
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