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An Overlooked Tragedy of War

One of the tragedies of the Civil War that is seldom mentioned in textbooks is the impact of the death of a soldier on his wife and children.

In the spring of 1865, Union prisoners held in Confederate prison camps were freed and were brought together in Vicksburg for transport via the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to their home states. The Sultana, a commercial steam boat with a listed capacity of 376 passengers, was engaged, at $2.75 per enlisted man, for their transport despite a leaking boiler.

At Vicksburg, the boiler was hastily repaired and 1,960 former prisoners were loaded on board along with other cargo. Just north of Memphis, its boilers suddenly exploded. First the damaged boiler, followed within seconds by two others. Some men were thrown into the water by the blast, other jumped overboard to escape the inferno as the ship burned. Some were trapped in the wreckage. The official death toll was 1,238.

Through their long march through Georgia and South Carolina, J.F. McCartney became friends with Captain Jim Files of Company H. Files--along with more than two hundred other men in the 56th Illinois Infantry--had enlisted for three years in late 1861 or early 1862. By the spring of 1865, their enlistment had ended, With the war almost over, a ship, the General Lyon, was chartered to take them from Wilmington, N.C. to Norfolk, Virginia where trains would take them back to Illinois.

The General Lyon sank after a storm caused a barrel of kerosene to overturn which set the wooden ship on fire. Only three men survived in a lifeboat.

Jim Files’s wife was illiterate and had dictated her letters to him. They had three children: a boy nearing his teens, a girl of six and another boy who had been an infant when Jim enlisted. I think of them as representative of hundreds of thousands of families bereaved during the war. How could those wives support themselves? There would be a small pension, but could they manage?

The situation for Confederate families was even worse. Most Southern states did not provide pensions for widows until many years after the war. In 1886, Alabama finally authorized pensions for war widows in their state. Mississippi followed the next year, as did South Carolina. How did those families survive in the twenty previous years? A tragedy of war that is often overlooked.


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