The fire raged, the floodwaters swirled, and the alligator had to die.
William Lugenbeal brandished his bayonet and killed the Sultana crew's mascot -- the alligator owned by the captain. It was kept in a crate, and Lugenbeal needed that crate to float through the deadly waters of the Mississippi River on the night of April 27, 1865.
The fire raged, the floodwaters swirled, and the alligator had to die. William Lugenbeal brandished his bayonet and killed the Sultana crew's mascot -- the alligator owned by the captain. It was kept in a crate, and Lugenbeal needed that crate to float through the deadly waters of the Mississippi River on the night of April 27, 1865. The Civil War veteran jumped onto the crate and made it to shore -- one of about 600 Union veterans of the Civil War to survive the explosion of the Sultana. As many as 1,800 men died in the water and flames that night, making it the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. And it happened near Marion. Lugenbeal never forgot the poor alligator that died so he might live. He turned the crate into a curio box and engraved the animal's likeness into it. The Travel Channel's series "Mysteries at the Museum" will have an episode this fall dedicated to the Sultana, and a film crew from PBS is in Marion this week putting together an episode for their own show, "History Detectives," Arkansas State University professor Louis Intres said. "More people died that night than died on the Titanic," Intres said. A team of geophysicists will travel with the film crew this week in hopes of finding the long-abandoned ship, which sank beneath the waves near Chicken Island, Intres said. The 260-foot wooden steamer trolled the Mississippi River and other interior waterways for about four years when it was sent to pick up Union soldiers in Vicksburg, Miss., in April 1865. The goal after the Civil War ended was to release Northern and Southern prisoners of war as quickly as possible and return them home. At least 2,000 Union soldiers, including some who'd been held at the infamous Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, waited to be picked up by the Sultana. The ship's maximum passenger load was 376 passengers and its cargo hold could carry 700 tons, Intres said. Boat owners got $5 for every soldier transported home. Officers were worth $10. Shady deals were struck, and two other ships in Vicksburg left with virtually no passengers, leaving the Sultana with nearly 2,500 men -- and all the profits that went along with it, Intres said. Soldiers aboard the ship had already survived some of the fiercest battles in American history -- Antietam, Shiloh and Gettsyburg. Many of the men were sick with disease and weak from internment. Many of them were on the verge of death and might not have survived the trip, anyway, Intres said. The overloaded ship slowly steamed north from Vicksburg towards Helena, its final stop before the explosion. The boiler that erupted was patched before the trip began, and the ship's engineer knew it was on the verge of being compromised, Intres said. Heavy rains inundated the ship that fateful night. The Mississippi River ballooned to flood stage, and strong down-river currents tugged at the boat. When the boiler burst, scores of men were likely killed quickly. Others met their fates in the water. An exhibit with Sultana artifacts, letters from passengers and other historic collectibles are on display at Angelo's Grove in Marion. Once the ship is positively located, a marker will be erected. Intres said ASU is working on a Sultana archive, and a museum is planned in Marion. He hopes the television shows and the media hype will bring attention to the men who lost their lives after the fighting ended. "It's the last, great tragedy of the Civil War," he said. "I think we need to give the people aboard her that night their proper due in history."