By Moody Conell-City Editor,
The Daily Citizen-News, Dalton, Georgia
April 6, 1987
The phone rang at my desk like it does many times daily, but when B.J. Morrison of Dalton called it was with an unexpected comment that he had relatives who died in one of America's greatest tragedies when the Sultana sank 122 years ago.
He told of a father and his love for two teen-age sons. His people lived in Tennessee. They were working a crop in Bradley County near the Georgia line. Leafing through an old family Bible, Morrison said a yellowed clipping fell out. It told the story of the sinking of a Yankee steamboat bringing ex-prisoners of war to Cairo, Ill.
Considered the most disastrous water mishap of its day in 1865, the sinking of the Sultana was mentioned in a March 16 column. Morrison is a persistent person who dug out details of how his relatives ended up on the ill-fated steamer.
Capt. Pink Cameron enlisted Gilford and Issiac Morrison June 17, 1864 in Nashville, for a three-year hitch with the Third Tennessee Calvalry of the Union Army. They were brothers. They were 17 and 19 years old. Life was an adventure to them then. Tennessee was strongly divided in sentiment and the state sent troops to both sides during the Civil War.
For just three months the boys were part of Company L. Youths were constantly drawn by the glamour of bands playing, men marching in uniforms carrying weapons and stories of the clash of troops.
Although fortunes were turning against the South that late in the war, one Rebel general kept many Federal soldiers on edge. That was General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a raider and calvalry leader.
There might have been motivation for Gen. Forrest to look up the Third Tennessee Calvalry Sept. 24, 1864. Months earlier his brother, Col. Jeffery Forrest, was killed and a number of high ranking Confederate officers captured in a bruising battle with that unit.
Forrest attacked a small fort at Sulphur Branch Trestle, Ala., taking hundreds of prisoners and returned to overwhelm 150 returning scouts of the Third Tennessee which practically wiped out the regiment. Among those captured were the Morrison boys.
Gilford and Issiac Morrison were among prisoners taken by train which derailed en route to Cahaba Prison, an old cotton shed with partial roof located in Dallas County, Ala., on the Alabama River near Selma. A steamboat carried them on the final leg of the journey.
Cahaba Prison was designed to temporarily house 500 prisoners until Confederates could transfer their captives to a more permanent facilty.
As the war took its toll and funds dwindled, Cahaba Prison was housing 2000 to 3000 Union prisoners by the fall of 1864. Once known as Castle Morgan, it was anything but a castle. The small brick building was surrounded by a wooden stockade. Funds for warmer clothing or fuel for fire that late in a war were non-existent.
Artesian well water was diverted inside the prison to drink and was high in sulfurous content and usually polluted. During the winter of 1864, prisoners had to stand in flooding waters seeping into Cahaba Prison for several days. The quality of food deteriorated. Usually, no more than two meals per day were given prisoners. Conditions weren't much better for the Rebel guards.
Now was it a coincidence that 45-year-old Pleasant Morrison decided to ride to Knoxville and enlist in Company A, 3rd Mounted Infantry Regiment of Tennessee a few months after his sons' capture?
Prisoners had heard of a Federal force close enough for them to plan a prison break, but after some hostages were seized, they backed down. The sons' father was fighting in the Battle of Nashvile in December, but too far away to gain freedom as prisoners at Cahaba Prison struggled just to live.
The war ended. The Morrison brothers were among elated prisoners released from from Cahaba. They boarded a train that was jarred by several mishaps injurying some returning Union boys. They finally arrived in Vicksburg, Miss., an exchange point. The soldiers were told they could be mustered out of duty at Camp Chase, Ohio.
Instead, on a dark night beyond Memphis, the Sultana, carrying prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba prison, April 27,1865 exploded. Nearly 1700 deaths were recorded. More survivors died later.
The nation was interested in getting the prisoners safely home, but stunned by the assassination of President Lincoln.
The loss was too much for the sons' father who after months awaited a reunion that never came. He took his own life, according to Dalton's Morrison who researched the events.
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