Connection to History
Before writing my latest novel, The Edge of Hell, I first learned about Andersonville military prison when I was much younger. My mother had read John Ransom's published prison diary and recommended it to me. I checked it out of my local library and read it more than once. I was fascinated by the subject matter, as well as horrified. It made me want to learn more, so I devoured many related non-fiction books. I also bought and read (multiple times) McKinlay Kantor's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Andersonville. It wasn't until after I had written The Edge of Hell that I learned that I had had a relative who had survived imprisonment in Andersonville. Once I knew that, my deep interest in the prison camp made even more sense to me.
Newman A. Easlick's ancestors immigrated from Germany to America long before the Civil War. Our ancestors fought during the American Revolution. Newman enlisted in the 4th Michigan Infantry in 1862 at the age of 24. He had neither a wife nor children to leave behind. For the next year he was with the regiment, which was in the Army of the Potomac, as well as in the hospital for several months. It's unclear if the hospital stays were related to illness or injury.
During the battle of Gettysburg, Newman was taken prisoner on July 2, 1863. From there, he was sent to Libby Prison in Richmond, then in March of 1864, he was transported to Andersonville prison in Georgia. There he languished in deplorable conditions until the war ended. Forty-five thousand Union soldiers were imprisoned in Andersonville, and nearly thirteen thousand died.
I wondered how anyone could have possibly survived the rigors of Libby, Belle Island, and the horrors of Andersonville for such a lengthy period of time. A clue can be found in a letter written after the war by a fellow prisoner. He revealed that Newman had been paroled to work in the cookhouse outside of the prison stockade. Such work would have provided better living conditions. The letter described Newman as "a perfect gentleman in every respect" and that "he was possessed of many rare qualities that could but make him a favorite with all that knew him." Apparently the Rebel sergeant who supervised the paroled prisoners thought enough of Newman to provide "good medical attendance or the best they had" when Newman became sick.
When the war ended, Newman was paroled and sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to board the steamer Sultana on April 24, 1865, for the long-awaited trip home to Michigan. With him was a close friend from prison, Benjamin Johnston. The steamer was designed to hold 376 persons, but more than 2,000 ex-prisoners heading north packed her decks. It must have been a happy atmosphere for men who perhaps had lost all hope of ever seeing their homes again.
But the happiness was short-lived. In a letter Ben Johnston wrote on March 14, 1870, to Newman's brother William, he narrates the trip:
"Being...about the last to board, we took our position on the bow of the boat and kept together until we arrived at Memphis, Tennessee. And there the boat stopped until 11 p.m. to unload sugar, and I got tired waiting for her to start and laid down in my former place and went to sleep. Easlick said he would not lie down just yet, and in the meantime some other soldier laid down in his place at my side, and I spoke and told him that place was engaged, and Easlick said, 'Never mind. I do not want to lie down yet.'
"After we left Memphis, Easlick spoke to me and said, 'Johnston, I will lie down here tonight, I guess, and not disturb the other soldier that was occupying my place.' 'Very well,' I answered, that he was only a few feet from me, his feet nearly touching my head and that was the last time I ever saw him or heard him speak."
The steamer had a leaky boiler that had been patched rather than extensively repaired. The overloaded vessel and a river running faster than usual due to the spring thaw further taxed the boilers. Shortly after leaving Memphis on April 27, the boilers exploded, ripping apart the boat amidships and starting an uncontrollable fire.
Johnston's letter continued: "I do not know whether [Newman] was killed by the explosion or immediately tossed into the river." Newman was never seen again. All that remained of him was his pipe, which Newman had made while in Andersonville, which included on it his name and his corps badge. This pipe was discovered in the possession of another soldier who survived the Sultana disaster, the man saying he had picked up the pipe on board. Johnston wrote to Newman's brother, "You can see the effects of the fire on the pipe. Where it is charred was done on the boat." Johnston sent the pipe to Newman's brother, saying, "I cannot part with it without dropping a tear for my departed friend."
Of those who survived the explosion, 200 later died from burns. In total, 1,800 of the 2,000 aboard died, making the Sultana tragedy the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history.