Friday, August 28, 2009

Knoxville: Playing the survivor's fiddle

Friday, April 24, 2009

When a local group known as the Appalachian Harmonizers started in on an a cappela rendition of the Civil War anthem “Battle Cry of Freedom,” Glenna Green, seated at a display table where she was selling cookbooks for $1 each, began to sing along. Unlike most Americans, who first heard the song in Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War,” Green learned it as a child from her father, Samuel Washington Jenkins, a Union soldier who was captured and sent to Cahaba prison, then survived the Sultana disaster.

Green, 89, was the lone person at Friday night’s Sultana survivors’ descendants reunion in Knoxville whose reminiscences were only once removed; the closest anyone else came was a grandfather. Jenkins’ story says as much about virility in old age as it does about youthful survival: He was 17 when captured by the Confederates; endured scourges of starvation and disease at Cahaba prison in Alabama; was blown into the water by the explosion of the Sultana; lived to become a physician; and fathered Green (18th among his 21 children) at age 71 in 1919.

Green said her father recounted his survival often. “He hung on to a part of the boat and was washed among the tree limbs in the water, and from there he swam ashore,” she said. Dressed in a blue velour pantsuit and jogging shoes, she added, “Of all his children, none ever went to jail. All were educated and honorable citizens. I’m the only one left. 

As bluegrass music emanated from the stage in the fellowship hall of Mt. Olive Baptist Church, south of Knoxville, Green’s son, Maxie Green, said Jenkins enjoyed entertaining people with his “stories of the war,” and resolved to become a doctor after observing the suffering of the soldiers at Cahaba. Green said Jenkins and several of his friends survived a smallpox epidemic at the prison by innoculating themselves: “They pricked the sores of men who had smallpox and then pricked themselves, and vaccinated themselves,” he said.

The descendants reunion was patterned after reunions held by the Sultana survivors themselves, who met until the late 1920s, until there was only one left. The point of the descendants' reunions is to keep the stories alive, and as Arkansas State University historian Louis Interes, who was at the event, observed, a lot of what passes for casual conversation represents important oral history. Interes traveled to Knoxville to conduct interviews about the Sultana, and there struck the mother lode. The group was extremely talkative, because when else could they converse about their shared family sagas to this degree?

About 80 Sultana survivors’ descendants attended this year’s event, the 22nd orchestrated by Norman Shaw, who lives in Knoxville; a large contingent of Sultana passengers were from east Tennessee. The reunion highlighted a significant yet little-known slice of history while providing a window into a quirky corner of contemporary American life.

Among the descendents who attended the reunion was Pam Newhouse, whose ancestor, Adam Schneider, died in the Sultana disaster. Schneider had previously been involved in an attempted assassination of what Newhouse referred to as "the Prince of Prussia," the father of Kaiser Wilhelm I, after which Schneider was found not guilty despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. “It was kind of like the O.J. Simpson trial of its day,” she said. The trial took place in the 1840s, at a time when the Prussians and the Hessians were fighting over a divided Germany, and Schneider was hailed as a local hero for his failed assassination attempt, Newhouse said. But the controversy ultimately caused him to emigrate to the U.S. with his family, and in 1864 he was drafted into the Union army.

Newhouse, who with her husband sold reunion t-shirts and tote bags for $5 each at the event, is clearly enthralled with Civil War history. She is active in the Civil War Roundtable in Michigan and Indiana; was once a seasonal historian for the National Park Service at Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia; and was a featured historian on the History Channel’s 1998 show, “Sultana: Mississippi's Titanic.” She also publishes a newsletter, “The Sultana Remembered.”

Also on hand were Jerry Wilson, whose great, great grandfather missed the boat when the Sultana departed Memphis, and so avoided the disaster (several passengers were left behind because they tarried too long in Memphis bars, and it is easy to imagine them later exclaiming, "Whiskey saved my life!"), and who later became a moonshiner in a place called Gun Holler, near Knoxville; and Helen Chandler, of Miami, whose great, great grandparents were aboard the boat. Chandler’s great, great grandmother, Anna Annis, a native of England, had by then lost two husbands to shipwrecks at sea (one of which she herself survived) before boarding the Sultana at Vicksburg to escort her ill third husband home. Her husband, a Union soldier, drowned, as did the couple’s daughter; Annis survived, though she was severely burned and wore long sleeves the rest of her life to cover the scars on her arms. “The family called her Granny Annie,” Chandler said. “She was tough, but she had the English manners.”

As the descendants lined up to buy copies of Sultana, each had a detailed story to tell about survival or death, and each one seemed worthy of its own book. Linda Kerr Wells’ great, great grandfather, Samuel Pickens, now lies buried in the cemetery behind the Mt. Olive church. She said that Pickens, an officer in the original east Tennessee Sultana survivors’ group, liked to say that “he traded a live horse for a dead one, and it was the best trade I ever made” – a reference to the fact that he first tried to get off the burning boat on a live horse, and when it proved intractible, dove in and climbed atop a dead one, on which he floated until he was rescued. Among those who bought books, the majority asked for inscriptions in memory of someone who survived or died in the Sultana disaster, the anniversary of which is April 27. A few were admittedly obsessed with their ancestors’ travails, and when asked why, one woman answered, “Because it’s a part of history, and it has personal meaning for our family. We don’t want them to be forgotten.”

Newhouse was among the callers to last week’s NPR show, during which she announced that she has a complete list of known passengers aboard the boat. She has since received numerous inquiries from people wanting to know if their ancestors were aboard, she said. “Most were wistfully hoping they were,” she observed. “I could confirm only two, and to the rest I said: ‘No, I am happy to say, because he didn’t have to suffer through the experience, that no one of that name or any variation of it was on the Sultana, according to our records.’”

Why would someone want their ancestor to have been on the boat? Perhaps for the same reason that many of the survivors wanted to HAVE BEEN on the boat – because it was an epic trial over which they triumphed. And for those who did not triumph, the point is simple remembrance.

Despite the gloomy subject matter, the reunion was anything but somber. Friday evening’s gathering included poignant displays, typically of photocopies glued to cardboard cutouts, illustrating someone’s survival story; a collection of survivor reunion memorabilia; and a 1/96th scale, radio-operated, handmade model of the Sultana.

And in addition to the Appalachian Harmonizers, musical entertainment included a Kentucky bluegrass group, the Murdy Standard, who performed a feature song about the Sultana, and Tom McCarroll, a fiddler who was accompanied by his daughter on guitar. McCarroll, 81, whose father was a locally famous fiddler, and who was himself taught to play by his grandmother when he was a young boy, looked the part: He was dressed in denim overalls, a black derby with a red hat band, and black shoes with white socks. It was not just a get-up; McCarroll was the real deal, and absolutely tore up the fiddle.

The most meaningful musical moment came when the Murdy Standard played a song called “Soldier’s Joy,” augmenting their guitars, banjo and upright bass with a fiddle that once belonged to Sultana survivor Norman Ealick. The survivor’s fiddle still resonated and wailed after all these years, and I couldn’t help thinking that it could be heard back in the cemetery where Samuel Pickens lay.

It was an odd and powerful gathering, more so than I expected it to be. I knew it would be interesting, but I had no way of knowing how sublime it would be. On the way up from Jackson, as I drove into the mountains north of Gadsden, Ala., I was thinking of the Sultana passengers who had passed through the region around the escarpment of Lookout Mountain, how hard their passage must have been, and how it was, for them, only the beginning. Then, in a strange coincidence, I passed a caravan of pickups pulling two horse trailers and a trailer loaded with Civil War-replica artillery caissons. I assumed it was a group headed to a reenactment, and thought: That's definitely an easier way through the mountains! I wondered if the Sultana reunion would reflect something equally attractive yet sort of fabricated -- if it would ring true. As it turned out, it did. It was fascinating, touching, and real.

I’m grateful to the Borders staff for being there to sell books, though some of the descendants were so caught up in the music that they fretted to find that the book sellers were gone when the music ended. 

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