Sultana ANN, aka ANNA
VESSEY LAIRED SIMS ANNIS

and the Sinking of
the SULTANA

Text By Helen E. Chandler

Ann Annis Ann Annis was widowed three times - each husband drowned. Ann survived two shipwrecks in which she lost husbands. On one of those, she also lost her 7-year old daughter, Belle (Isabella).

Ann lived in Liverpool, England and her first two husbands were sea captains. The first, Capt. Laird, was killed when he and Ann were on a voyage at sea about six months after they were married. They were shipwrecked near a tiny island, so small it had only two trees. Ann and a few crew members that survived made their way to the island. Two pigs were brought from the ship and were carried off by crocodiles, one each night. The survivors were spotted by a passing ship and rescued on the third day. That was Ann Annis's first shipwreck, but not her last.

Captain Sims.was the second husband, father of her three oldest children. He was lost at sea.

The twice-widowed Ann came to America with her parents and children. Her third husband (my great grandfather, Harvey Annis) listed himself in the Oshkosh, Wisconsin City directory as a pump maker. After two husbands lost at sea, one would think that a marrying a man in a "landlubber's" trade in the Midwest, would be safe enough to assure her of a "happily-ever-after" type marriage. Not so, as you will see.

Harvey AnnisHarvey Annis enlisted in the army in the Civil War in the 18th Wisconsin Regiment and fought at the "Hornet's Nest", a disastrous battle at Shiloh, in which he was captured. He must have been exhanged because he lived to fight again - and to be killed. Later, he took a commission as an officer in the 51st United States Colored Infantry. He was a White officer in Vicksburg with this unit. He became extremely ill and resigned February 11, 1865 in Vicksburg. The Civil War was nearing its end.

In November of 1864, Ann went down to Vicksburg from Oshkosh, WI, bringing their seven-year old daughter, Belle. She left her other children at home with the older daughter while she took care of her ailing husband. Harvey had chronic chills and fever, an enlarged spleen and dysentery. Ann stated that she was afraid that Harvey would die. Ironically, she said, "I thought that he would not be able to survive the trip home." She took care of Harvey in his serious illness so diligently, that he didn't need to go to the hospital. Therein lies a major problem for her in the future - one of many for Ann.

Harvey could not get a medical discharge unless his illness was considered to be a 100% disability and the doctor didn't want to say that. He and his officers arranged it so that Harvey would be discharged under the guise that he was needed at home.

This done, he and Ann waited for his discharge papers to arrive. He continued to work in the army stores, up to, and including, the day he and his family left Vicksburg for Cairo, IL on the ill-fated Sultana. The Annis family's plans were to go from there by train and home to Wisconsin.

The discharge papers had still not arrived, but his orders were signed and in existence somewhere. The Annis family, Harvey (in his officer's uniform), Ann, and their little daughter, walked aboard the Sultana in Vicksburg. This boat was designed as a luxury paddle wheel steamboat that should have carried only three hundred seventy passengers. Of course, the Annis family was given a cabin, befitting an officer and private passengers. The private passengers were not alone, but 2,000 paroled (exchanged) prisoners were put on board this small boat. The boat company was paid per head for as many prisoners as it could board. Harvey and Ann expressed concern about the sagging deck to one of the boat's officers.

This account of what follows will be brief, but is well covered in the books and articles by Jerry Potter and Gene Salecker. The books, The Sultana Tragedy (Potter) and Disaster on the Mississippi (Salecker) are excellent sources. I searched the many accounts of this disaster in newspapers, books, and articles to gain information and some had the element of fiction or were completely inaccurate. The two authors mentioned above appear to have set the record straight in their accounts of the many tales of this horrible disaster.

In the case of the Annis family (my particular interest) some other authors seemed to have taken liberties with the available information. There were many errors and some used sheer imagination in their accounts as they spun their tale. I have done quite a bit of research on the Sultana, but am in no way prepared at this time to elaborate on the technicalities of the disaster, except that the apparent cause seems to be an explosion in the boiler which had previously been patched. The sheer weight of over 2,000 passengers on a boat designed for 370 people, was a huge strain. This is addressed in both Salecker's and Potter's writings. There were also rumors of sabotage, as might be expected. This tragedy remains our country's largest marine disaster (more passengers killed than on the Titanic.) The boat exploded on April 27, 1865, only a few days after President Lincoln was shot and killed. The country did not seem to be as interested in the Sultana disaster as it might have been. Local newspapers (Memphis, in particular) had many daily accounts of the explosion and its aftermath. In these papers I read about the plight of Ann Annis, in particular, of her tragedy and how she was aided. Each account in books about the Sultana I read include the Annis family-many quoting her own words.

As stated, the vast majority of the passengers were exchanged prisoners returning home from Andersonville and Cahaba prison camps. Most were ill, barely able to walk, and all were weak and undernourished. The Andersonville prisoners were in worse shape than those from the Cahaba prison camp were. To add insult to injury, those released from Andersonville were in three train wrecks enroute to Vicksburg, suffering broken bones and other injuries. The former prisoners were to go by boat from Vicksburg to Cairo, Illinois, and from there, by train to the north and east to return home. Very few did return, however. There were only about 780 survivors of the Sultana disaster - over 250 of these died, leaving approximately 550 who lived. By most accounts, Ann Annis was one of only two women who survived. Many passengers were killed and burned in the explosion and fire of the Sultana, and many were drowned in the dark, icy floodwaters of the Mississippi that night in April, 1865.

Ann Annis, her husband and little daughter, Belle, were asleep in their cabin when they heard a loud noise that sounded like the clanking of metal. Harvey noticed steam was rapidly filling the cabin. He put on his life jacket and one on Ann (but not correctly, and later it slipped off.) Carrying his daughter, he led Ann to the stern and tied a rope from the boat's bridge. He put the child on his back and descended into the cold, fast-moving floodwaters of the Mississippi, instructing Ann to follow. She started down the rope when a man from the upper deck jumped into the water, hitting Ann and knocking her off the rope and into the hold of the boat. She was extricated from there and once more, went down the rope. When she got into the water she watched, helplessly, as her husband and daughter slipped under the icy waters as they were swept away from her. By Ann's account (deposition) she and several others were, at one point, holding onto a part of the rudder, but forced to let go because of flames. Ann was burned from the back of her both hands up to her shoulders. She managed to grab a piece of wood (our family stories said she floated to shore on a hatch cover.) According to Ann, she lost consciousness and when she regained it, she was on the deck of a rescue boat. She told her family afterwards that the last thing she remembers was her husband holding their daughter and seeing his hand slip off the board and watching them sink under the water. She was rescued and was taken to the Gayoso hospital in Memphis where she was treated for shock as well as other injuries.

I searched for any reference to Ann Annis in the depositions given by the survivors. None stated her name, but one of the survivors said that he helped a woman get onto and remain on a board and that he led her to safety. He says that he helped her wade ashore, thereby taking credit for her rescue. He further states that she took a ring from her finger and gave it to him and said that it was all she had to pay him with - that everything she owned was on the Sultana. Although the woman was unnamed it has been assumed by some authors to be Ann Annis, since she was one of the few female survivors. Even though this man claiming to rescue the woman, mentions her outcries and concern, he does not mention that his female companion said she had lost a husband and child. One would be lead to believe that she certainly would state this. One survivor appears to have encountered Ann when he heard a woman cry out from the dark waters, that she had just lost her husband and child and needed help. None of Annis family letters, nor other depositions talked about any help in her rescue. The only help appears to have been by those on the rescue boat that took her to the hospital. One letter written by Ann's niece says that Ann stated that she was not conscious when rescued. The man giving the deposition could possibly have been talking about another woman (even though there were few), or he could have been telling a good story.

Ann Annis stayed at least a month and one letter says that she stayed six weeks, going from morgue to morgue, viewing hundreds of bodies - searching for that of her husband and little daughter - only to return to Wisconsin with no knowledge whatsoever.

Newspaper articles in a Memphis paper told of Ann's plight and pleaded for help for her. They stated that the Sisters of Charity collected clothes and gave them to Ann. The crew on another boat (with an auction or sale of property) collected and gave Ann Annis one thousand dollars, which was a very large sum at that time.

Meanwhile-back in Oskosh, Ann's daughter was taking care of the other children. One of the boys was to become my grandfather. When Ann arrived home, she found that her oldest son had run away and joined the army and one had tried to join, but was too young. He signed on as a mule-train driver and eventually was put in jail for two weeks and then went into the regular army. This left only the two younger boys and her older daughter.

One point that I brought up earlier is the statement about Lt. Annis's retirement orders not arriving before his death. This was the cause of a tremendous problem for her Ann for several years to come. She applied over and over again for pension money for her and her dependent children, but they were refused because the discharge orders had been signed, sealed-and all but delivered before Harvey was killed. Ann gave depositions and signed papers time and time again. The government refused, saying Harvey Annis was not in the service at the time of his death and therefore should not receive any money. She fought this for seven years, even through her grief. Eventually she did get the pension ($17 per month,) but only by a special act of Congress. Those papers are available at the National Archives. Family letters also show how emotionally draining were her legal struggles. It did take its toll on Ann Annis.

To add to her grief, my grandmother, Ann's daughter-in-law, died in childbirth of her second child. According to her sister's letters, Ann loved her son's wife very much. For her this was another tragedy. Ann's two granddaughters were raised by (one account says "adopted by") the maternal grandfather, Robert Campbell. Ann had little or no contact with her two granddaughters.

Ann outlived four children as well as three husbands. She died at age 80 in Oskosh of a stroke or cerebral hemorrhage and is buried beside her son (my grandfather). She passed on many stories to her children and grandchildren. She always wore long sleeves with lace she sewed on at the wrist to cover her scars. The deeper scars remained with her until her death.

Ann lived with her children remaining at home for a few years. She took in at least two roomers. At one time she lived in a boarding house. After doing research on her whereabouts, Ann was found living in the homes of her various sons and daughters. It must have been difficult for her to support herself, but she managed and survived - and never remarried. She was certainly made of sterner stuff, far more than many of us are ever called upon to endure.

A copy of the deposition given by Ann Annis of her account of the events that took place is as follows: Mrs. Annn Annis

Widow of Lt. Harvey Annis, 51 U.S.C.T.

Being duly sworn testifies as follow:

11 May 1865

I embarked with my husband on board the steamer Sultana at Viksburg on the 24th Ult. My husband was not a paroled prisoner but had resigned. Sometime during the night when both of us were awake, we heard a loud noise, something like the rattling of iron. My husband immediately got up, then looking into the cabin seeing that there was a considerable steam there, and fearing that it would come into the stateroom, he closed the door and tried to open the one leading out to the guards, but this was jammed by something, and someone outside said we are all stove in. My husband then put a life-preserver upon me and one upon himself, and took me and my child to the stern of the boat. He let himself down to the lower deck with the child, and I followed him, but as I was descending the rope a man from above jumped on me and knocked me into the hold of the vessel. From this I was extricated, and my husband, with our child, jumped overboard. I followed as soon as I could but the life-preserver was not placed on me right and I held onto the rudder till I was obliged to let go by the fire.

While I remained there I heard a second explosion which seemed to be made up of three great reports like the explosion of shells or gunpowder. By this explosion there seemed to be a great deal of fire thrown all over the water about the boat to a considerable distance from her. I was obliged to take to a small piece of board and upon this I was saved. Great fear was felt by everybody on account of the large number of passengers and the boat being top heavy. The clerk or mate pointed out to my husband and myuself the sagging down of the hurricane deck in spite of extra stanchions which were put in a great many places. The boat was very much crowded, but the men behaved very well indeed. There was no carousing or quarrelling, and only little moving about. The boat was perfectly quiet at the time of the explosion and was running very smoothly and not fast.


Sinking of Sultana

Other sites pertaining to survivors of the Sultana
  • Death on the Dark River, The Story of the Sultana Disaster, 1865
  • The Sinking of the Steamship, Sultana near Memphis, Tennessee
  • Lt. Thomas B. Reeves and the April 1865 Sultana Disaster

    If any of you have a connection with the Sultana, please e-mail Helen Chandler.email icon

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