– Chester D. Berry; survivor of the Sultana
They drug us to New Orleans from Andersonville:
me, Hamblin, the whole 20th Regiment—
pale skin clinging to our bones. The Johnnys
fed us crackers on the train ride there
so our shrunken stomachs wouldn’t split.
I hadn’t seen a cup of water in nearly a week,
when we made it to the mouth of the river.
Its body was so wide at the brackish Gulf
I couldn’t see to the other bank.
We took the Sultana north to Vicksburg,
so many of us, I slept on the main deck.
I prayed to God I’d make it back
to Calhoun County, the Great Lakes.
Hamblin, brother, some days I can’t tell
the thread of Lake Michigan’s horizon
from that blue-brown water at The Gulf,
& even here freshwater tastes of salt.
It gets to where all the pines
look like your body’s fragile husk,
bone thin, burning in autumn.
I’ve been writing to your wife in Salinac.
She says Huron looks the same.
Like musket shot, the sound came second,
the smell long lingering after. The wreck of it
dredged on the top most water—splintered
wood floating like pine straw. I couldn’t hear
my own voice for the prayers of other men,
calling out to The Mother of Mercy.
Those who couldn’t swim jumped ship
on faith; I prayed my rosary would float.
When steam welled up & the pipes gave
way the blast sent most of us skyward,
the sound of it ringing like church bells.
A few from my regiment treaded the frigid
water, hoping snags would catch them—
slick logs reaching out from the water:
fool’s gold, a false hand.
I saw one man die in an instant
from the boilers steaming discharge,
rising heavenward, burning as Elijah.
This ship aflame, his chariot,
the river—the Lord—his maker.
I remember Hamblin, weeping near the wheelhouse.
I took him by the shoulder, asked twice if he was hurt.
I’m not, he said, but I cannot swim; surely
I’m going to drown. I told him to hush
& showed him my plank, the other broken pieces
of timber, told him to grab one like mine.
He said, Twice I’ve grabbed one, Chester,
and someone snatched it away. What’s the use, he said,
this boat was built to drown. I shoved him to move,
& when he didn’t, I called him a fool.
I’m certain now, when I looked back on that ship,
I could see his body bent & burning.
Tell me, Lord, why I didn’t give him my plank.
So many I never knew clung to the main deck,
Hamblin, the ship dragging them down in the undertow.
Their bodies caught fire so fast they lit-up like matches,
torches floating on the lip of the water. Their pyre,
our only light. Voices sung hymns all around me.
what few made it to the tree line, hung on to debris.
The whole swollen river was dark with dead men.
I saw a great many bones in the water, bones
all blackened & wet. Some nodded like corks
in the tar-black, going down & not coming back up.
I called out to my regiment with what voice
I still had—as Ezekiel did before the valley—
come breath, breathe into these slain.