Treated as a secular saint and icon by most Americans, and
unarguably the nation’s most eloquent president, Abraham
Lincoln has become almost wholly a mythic figure.
Following several new books about him during and after the
200th anniversary of his birth in 2009 (a recent example
is Harold Holzer’s superb Lincoln and the Power of the Press
in 2014), however, a more human, imperfect and perhaps even
more interesting Lincoln has emerged, and his overall eminent
stature has remained.
In late April, 1865, two weeks after his tragic assassination, a
disaster occurred as former Union prisoners of war were being
brought back to the North. The steamboat Sultana, which
had been transporting Union soldiers and supplies during the
war, was among the many Mississippi River steamboats used
to bring the surviving Union prisoners of war home. Many of
these soldiers had been held at the infamous Andersonville
prison camp, and all of them were undernourished and
weakened by their captivity. Offering a bounty of $5 for every
enlisted man and $20 for every officer, these former prisoners
were herded onto crowded steamboats for the ride North. In
what turned out to be the worst maritime disaster in U.S.
history, almost 2500 persons (mostly soldiers) were packed
into the Sultana in Vicksburg, even though the wooden ship
had a maximum capacity of only 350 passengers and 85 crew.
With the Mississippi flooded and in cold weather, the boilers on
the Sultana exploded in the night soon after sailing from
Vicksburg, and 1800 persons died either immediately from
drowning or from burns and exposure as a result of the sinking.
No sea disaster in war or peace, including the sinking of the
Lusitania 50 years later, killed more Americans. The death toll
even exceeded all those lost on the Titanic in 1912.
There were several men who shared levels of responsibility for
this tragedy, but clearly the greatest villain was a Union
quartermaster named Reuben Hatch, who had a long history
of corruption and incompetence throughout the Civil War..
Historical evidence clearly points to his taking bribes and
kickbacks to place as many soldiers as possible on the vessel.
How did he get to be placed in this position?
Despite a history of criminality during the Civil War, Hatch
happened to be the brother of an Illinois state official who was
a home state crony of president Lincoln. Each time he got into
trouble, Hatch’s brother wrote to Lincoln who promptly wrote
letters getting the quartermaster off the hook. The most recent
and most tragic example was a note from the president penned
only a few days before his assassination, and which enabled
Hatch's role in Vicksburg. As one of the most preeminent
Lincoln scholars today, Harold Holzer, concedes, had he
survived, Mr. Lincoln would likely have had to answer for his
part in the Sultana disaster.
Ironically, at about the same time he was writing such inspiring
speeches as the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural
address, indisputably among the most sublime public speeches
in American history, Lincoln the politician was writing notes of
patronage and giving favors for supporters and their friends and
relatives, including his repeated efforts on behalf of Lt. Col.
Hatch. (Virtually all of the notes in this case, in Lincoln’s own
handwriting, survive.) Historians point out that such patronage
was the order of the day in that era, and in 1864, an increasingly
pessimistic Lincoln, facing a revolt in his own party and defeat
for his re-election in 1864. was pulling out all stops to help his
political friends and allies on whom he depended to survive at
the polls. (As it turned out, when Union forces began winning
dramatic victories just before the election, public opinion turned
around and Lincoln won a resounding re-election.)
There is no evidence, of course, that Lincoln could know what
his notes to help Hatch would lead to, but there can be little
doubt that the always world-savvy president knew what a bad
actor the brother of his friend was. Others protected Lt. Col.
Hatch, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General
Ulysses S. Grant, but it was Lincoln, in the highest position of
all, whose complicity is the most serious.
Reuben Hatch was not punished for his crime involving the
sinking of the Sultana. Realizing he would be prosecuted, he
hurriedly resigned from the army and went into hiding.
Later efforts to prosecute him failed to materialize, and he
died in 1871 before justice could catch up with him. Despite
the enormity of the catastrophe, it was little known outside
the Vicksburg area. The nation was still reeling from the
shock of Lincoln’s assassination two weeks earlier, and the
headlines and stories filling the nation’s newspapers were of
the capture and killing of John Wilkes Booth the day before
the sinking. Today, such huge loss of life would be the number
one news story all over the world, but in late April, 1865, the
nation had just endured four years of immense death and
casualties. More than 600,000 American soldiers, north and
south, had died. Tens of thousands had perished in single
battles. How could 1800 more deaths stand out to a nation
already in shock and immense grief? The tragedy of the
Sultana was soon forgotten. Lincoln became a martyred and
sainted figure. After a brief period of Reconstruction and
emancipation, old patterns of prejudice, civil injustice and
racial segregation reappeared.
This was a difficult piece to write. Lincoln is my favorite
American political figure, my favorite American writer and
speaker. He remains so, perhaps even enhanced so, not
because I can or want to condone his tragic error in this
case, (or his pattern of reckless patronage), but because like
all great men and women of the past, the present, and the
future, he was sublimely imperfect, not just a myth.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.