SULTANA — SURVIVING THE CIVIL WAS, PRISON, AND THE WORST MARITIME DISASTER IN AMERICAN HISTORY
|D O W N L O A D|
There were six of them, five young men and one woman, dressed in brand-new desert camo and pristine combat boots, posing for a cell-phone photo at the terminal gate. They were the sort of soldiers you see everywhere in American airports these days: Guys with Oakley shades perched atop freshly shaved heads, women with hair tucked inside their caps, moving purposefully and a little furtively, separate from everyone else.
Their expressions seemed both confident and a little edgy. No one knows what the future holds, but it is seldom as obvious or meaningful as when a person sets off for armed conflict. From that moment on, anything can happen. The soldiers were documenting a true departure, the beginning of a very personal and potentially fatal group experiment: This is us leaving Atlanta, leaving the known world behind.
The scene has been repeated, in various incarnations, for as long as people have been going off to war. It would have been much the same for Romulus Tolbert, a soldier I was trailing, nearly a century and a half after the fact. In the fall of 1863, Tolbert was waiting with his fellow soldiers in the Indianapolis train station, in his own crisp uniform and unsullied boots, preparing to ship off to the American Civil War. He was about to step across a similar threshold, and he faced the same basic question: Will I make it back? He had no way of knowing how bad things would get, which was probably just as well.
I came across Tolbert's story while researching a comparatively obscure historical episode that had made the local news two decades before, when a farmer and a Memphis lawyer reported rinding what they believed to be the remains of a steamboat known as the Sultana buried beneath an Arkansas soybean field. The Sultana saga was by then largely forgotten, despite its epic proportions and the fact that it branched off into a network of intriguing subplots, one of which concerned Tolbert.
The interwoven stories of the Sultana disaster have a lot to say about human survival, and they are particularly attractive to those of us eating frozen yogurt in Concourse E. They show us what a full onslaught is like, with everything the Fates can throw at you...
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