The golden light from the lamp shone on the ash blond hair of Scott Lancer and the light brown hair of his friend, Dr. Nathan Pruitt, as they sat at Murdoch Lancer’s desk looking over old newspaper clippings, photographs and other assorted documents.
It was April and they were determined that the events that were the subject of the clippings would not go unnoticed in their part of California as it was in other parts of the country.
“Look at this one!” Scott exclaimed in disgust. “Hatch died last July. With everything he did – stealing from the army and all – he never served a day in prison. But his wife complained to the Secretary of War that he was persecuted.”
“Well,” Nathan said in a quieter tone, “maybe she never knew of his crooked deals or how he was responsible in large part for the deaths of almost two thousand people.”
“Maybe.” Scott wasn’t completely convinced.
The two young men continued poring over the odd bits of paper that they had.
“I can’t believe that the papers back east don’t have more to say about it,” Scott stated in disbelief.
“You have to remember, Scott, that there was a lot going on at the time.” Nathan tried to soothe Scott’s ruffled feathers though, truth be told, he was just as upset.
“Remember – the war had just ended. Mr. Lincoln had been assassinated just a few weeks earlier and people were just hearing about it. John Wilkes Booth had been tracked down and killed just the day before,” Nathan sighed. “Bits and pieces of the confederate army were still surrendering. The tragedy took place far removed from the large newspapers of the East. Nobody in Philadelphia, that I know – outside of my parents – knows anything about this unless they were in Memphis at the time.”
Heavy footsteps were heard as Murdoch entered the room. Close on his heels were Johnny and Teresa – his younger son and his ward.
“What are you two up to?” Murdoch asked. “And what is that you’ve got all over my desk?”
“Sorry, sir,” Scott said, “but Maria was setting the table for dinner. Your desk was the only place we could spread this out.”
“It’s all right, Scott, but you still didn’t answer my question. What is all this paper?”
Johnny and Teresa approached the desk as well. It was Johnny who reached out for one of the clippings.
“’Ruben Hatch, aged fifty-three, died at his home, in Portsmouth, on Monday. A private family funeral was held on Thursday. Mr. Hatch is survived by his wife…’ So who’s this Reuben Hatch fella?” Johnny asked. “Why do you have a newspaper clipping telling about his dying?”
The dark haired Lancer brother was curious.
“Reuben Hatch was the biggest disgrace to ever wear the uniform of the U.S. Army!” Scott declared.
“How so?” Murdoch asked. He knew little of the affairs of the army outside of his occasional dealings with them in regard to horses or cattle.
“In April of sixty-one,” Scott explained, looking up at Murdoch, “he enlisted in the Sixth Regiment of the Illinois Infantry as a First Lieutenant. He was a merchant in private life – before the army. That December he was promoted to Captain and assigned to Cairo, Illinois.
“What’s a quartermaster?” Teresa asked.
“A quartermaster is an officer in charge of supplies,” Nathan explained. “That’s what Hatch was in charge of in Cairo – the army supplies.”
“To be specific,” Nathan said with a grimace, “the army was gathering war materials – among it vast quantities of lumber intended for General Grant who was planning his attacks on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers.”
“Greedy soul that he was, Captain Hatch – with help from his assistants – bought large quantities of lumber at a set price such as a thousand feet for nine dollars and fifty cents but the merchant was forced to write a receipt for ten dollars. Hatch pocketed the difference for quite a while before somebody caught on.”
“That’s terrible!” Teresa exclaimed. “He was stealing from the army!”
“Exactly,” Scott said. “He tried to destroy the evidence but his second set of books was found.
“So what happened to him?” Johnny asked. “Did he go to prison? Was he kicked out of the army?”
Nathan and Scott both scowled but it was Nathan who answered.
“No. He wrote to his brother, who was very well connected in political circles. His brother wrote letters to influential friends pleading Captain Hatch’s case. How he was innocent of all charges. His court martial proved otherwise but they went all the way to the top – to President Lincoln – and the charges wound up being dropped.”
“I suspect,” Murdoch said as he took a seat and filled his rarely smoked pipe, “that his conduct concerning the lumber is not exactly what has you two so worked up.”
Scott managed a smile. “You know me too well.”
Nathan took up the story. It was not quite as painful for him to talk about as it was for Scott since he had never been a prisoner of war.
“No sir, it’s not. There’s also a little matter of the eighteen hundred lives lost due to Hatch’s greed, substandard repairs and overcrowding.”
‘”And don’t forget the lack of adequate lifesaving equipment,” Scott reminded him.
“Yes. Seventy-eight life preservers, one yawl and a single metal lifeboat for use by approximately two-thousand six-hundred passengers and crew.”
Murdoch nearly choked on the smoke from his pipe.
“Did I hear you correctly?” he asked the two young men.
“Unfortunately you did,” Nathan told him. “The ship was legally qualified to carry three hundred and seventy six passengers but the military was offering five dollars per enlisted man and ten dollars per office for the transportation of troops. Many of them had just been released from the Confederate prisons, Andersonville and Cahaba.”
“Cahaba?” Murdoch gave his elder son a significant look. “Were you on that ship, Scott?”
“No, sir. I was on another one – the Henry Ames.”
“Thank God for that,” his father breathed.
“The military was paying them?”
“Yes,” Scott said.
“You’d think they would have done it for nothing considering what you fellas had been through in those camps,” Johnny said. “From what I’ve heard they were even worse than some of the Mexican prisons I saw over the years.”
“It was greed and incompetence and red tape and delays,” Nathan said, “that led to this tragedy. Colonel Hatch would not have been promoted – nor would he have been put to work in the Quartermaster Corps if the results of his appearance before the Department of Arkansas in Little Rock had made it to the desk of the Secretary of War.”
“Why is that?” Teresa asked.
“Because the board found him almost the least capable of the sixty or so officers who appeared before them,” Scott said, gripping his pen so tightly that his knuckles were white. “He was found to be totally unfit for the job. He knew nothing of – or cared little for – the accounting systems, policies and regulations of the Quartermaster Corps.”
“What happened to him and the other officers in charge?” Johnny wanted to know.
“Hatch was allowed to retire. He was mustered out in 1865 with his career ending in a cloud of suspicion and controversy. It took another five years to settle his quartermaster accounts.”
“Joshua Speed, I think,” Scott said, “is in Mississippi. They tried – unfairly – to pin everything on him. He may have been somewhat involved in the events leading up to the disaster, but it was unknowingly and the Judge Advocate General saved his career. Others are living in obscurity.”
“What do you fellas intend to do with his information?” Johnny asked the two former Union officers.
“Mr. Dalton has agreed to publish a special edition of his paper about this. It’s going to come out on the twenty-seventh which is the anniversary of the disaster,” Scott replied.
“One more question,” Murdoch said. “What was the name of the ship?”
“The SS Sultana,” Scott answered.
Historical Note: On April 27, 1865 the SS Sultana exploded, just a few miles from Memphis, as she headed north on the Mississippi River.
The actual number of passengers, on the Sultana that fateful night, will never be known for sure. Estimates of the loss of life vary, but close to 1,800 people – many of them survivors of the Confederate prison camps, Andersonville and Cahaba – died. Many were killed outright when the boilers went. Others were scalded by boiling water. Still others drowned or died of hypothermia from being in the cold river for hours before being rescued. Of the twelve members of the Spikes family that were aboard the Sultana eight of them died. Many crew members died including the captain who was part owner.
Reuben Hatch was never convicted of any wrong doing due, in large part, to his brother’s political influence. I have to believe that, good man that Mr. Lincoln was, he was overwhelmed by the issues of the raging Civil War. Hatch’s brother, O.M. Hatch, was a close personal friend of Mr. Lincoln. My personal feeling is that he took advantage of this friendship.
Joshua Speed retired to Vicksburg where a street is named after him.
There is a lot of information about the disaster available on the Internet but I took mine from the book The Sultana Tragedy – America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster by Jerry O. Potter. Actor Chuck Norris briefly touches on the Sultana disaster in his novel The Justice Riders.
Among the cargo on the ship was the crew’s mascot – a giant alligator. Passenger William Lungbeal stabbed the alligator with his bayonet and confiscated its cage for a raft.