April 27, 1865, was a morning like any other. The boat was cruising through Memphis, Tenn., when the boiler coughed up all the crusted oil it had been holding back since Vicksburg, Miss. The cough erupted into flames that engulfed the ship in minutes.
More than 1,800 soldiers died. The Titanic killed 1,500 people.
The Sultana Disaster was the deadliest maritime incident in United States history.
It is also the setting of education professor Lila Sybesma’s new fictional book “Yours: The Civil War, a Love Triangle, and the Steamboat Sultana.” The Sultana Disaster is a tragedy almost unheard of in the United States, despite its magnitude.
Sybesma’s great grand-uncle, Joseph Taylor, was one of the few survivors, and is the main character and inspiration behind her book.
It wasn’t until 12 years ago that Sybesma learned of the tragedy from family members who showed her handwritten letters from Joseph, dating back to before and after the incident.
Ever since, she has been haunted by the ghost of her family history.
“I had difficulty sleeping because the story was running through my head,” Sybesma said.
The morning sun rose, spreading sunlight on the picturesque Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. The steamboat Sultana cut through the cerulean waters carrying more than 2,100 – Union Civil War soldiers returning to their families from Confederate prisons.
It was only meant to hold 367 people.
Just four days prior, the boat’s captain, J. Cass Masson, had stopped to dock in Vicksburg, Miss. There was an issue with the ship’s boiler.
While docked, Masson was approached by a Union Army captain asking him to transport soldiers back to their families. Every transported soldier was $10 that the government would pay him. Today, that would be $147 per soldier.
So, Masson hastily put a patch on the boiler instead of a repair and welcomed the surplus of soldiers aboard the cotton steamboat Sultana. Its 260 foot-long length was packed with every crevice containing cotton or combatants. Fewer than 300 people survived.
Sybesma would scribble notes on napkins in the car, on tickets at rodeos; everywhere she went. Ideas for a novel would percolate past her focus, demanding to be heard.
Twelve years later, “Yours” is now available for purchase from Amazon and other outlets as of April 1. The fictional book follows Sybesma’s great grand-uncle Joseph, his brother Gabe and Sarah Sutton as they write each other letters during the Civil War. The brothers serve with the Union army until they are taken prisoner and sent to a Confederate prison camp. Sarah spends her time in battlefield hospitals and spying for the Union army. It’s a story of love and loss all tied in to be as historically accurate as possible.
Sybesma went to many of the sites and locations tied to the disaster in order to teach her audience the facts while giving them fantasy. Her coworker, Derek Brower, said Lila has always been a storyteller.
“She weaves stories into her teaching, and she uses music and art and her voice to make her stories engaging,” Brower said.
Sybesma may even turn her book into an audiobook in order to stay with the current trends in literature. If so, she would choose to voice Sarah Sutton due to her gift for storytelling and knowledge of the characters.