Huffman, Alan. Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Smithsonian Books, New York, New York. 2009. 300 pages, 281 pages text, index, bibliography. Hardcover ISBN 9780061470547.
A seldom studied aspect of the Civil War is the immediate aftermath. Thousands of soldiers were far from home and needed to be returned to civilian life. Boat owners were more than anxious to cram every soldier possible on their boats and so was the case with the Sultana. Huffman estimates that nearly 2,600 men were on board though there is no passenger list. At least 1,700 of these men perished in the disaster. All of this plus the conspiracy theory that the Confederates played a role in the explosion of the boilers should have led to a fast paced and exciting story. Unfortunately that's not what we get.
Huffman takes the long route to get to the meat of the story. We read about friends from Indiana who join the military. We get to meet people like Big Tennessee who really have nothing at all to do with the story. He may (or most likely was not) on the Sultana and legend has it he swam away. We read about prison camps and the hope and despair they caused. Finally we get to the joy of being able to go home and the tragedy that awaited.
Ultimately what we have here is a disjointed work that doesn't really seem to have a focus. The book is 281 pages of text yet we don't hear of the Sultana until page 168. By this point this reader was just hanging on hoping for something to improve. Unfortunately it really didn't. There is no serious discussion regarding the theory that the Confederates had something to do with the explosion. Whether or not Huffman puts any weight to the story it should be addressed if for nothing else but to put it to rest. This could have been done as an appendix if nothing else. I couldn't really get a feel for the ship or the people aboard. While I should have cared about both I found myself looking for the end rather than not wanting it to end.
I can't personally speak for the research that went into the book but scholarship seems to be lacking. The bibliography comes in at just over a scant two pages with more than half being secondary sources and websites. There are no footnotes or end notes so don't bother trying to follow up on Huffman's research. There also are no illustrations or maps which become a serious failing in a modern Civil War book.
This is a book where I think Huffman would have been better off writing it as a fictionalized account. In that way the characters he introduces could have been developed and worked their way through the entire story allowing the reader to have gotten to know them and care about them. As it is I can't recommend this to anybody with a serious interest in the Civil War. Those who like an adventure but don't really care about the war may find this worthy of reading however.