In Civil War literature accounts of contagious diseases sweeping through training camps, of Minié balls and artillery shells mowing down men in battle, and of gangrene claiming wounded men’s lives in hospitals abound, but these were not the only causes of soldiers’ deaths.
Accidents also claimed many lives, but only a relative few incidents have become part of Civil War lore. One such exception involves the explosion of the Sultana. On the night of April 26, 1865, an estimated 1,700 died when a boiler on the overloaded sternwheeler exploded as she churned her way up the Mississippi just north of Memphis, Tennessee. Recently discharged Union soldiers, many of whom had survived the horrors of Andersonville, comprised most of the casualties.
However, another accident involving a Mississippi steamboat laden with Union soldiers is almost unknown. John Dill, a nineteen-year-old from Muscatine, Iowa traveled to nearby Burlington to enlist in July 16, 1861. On July 23, he was mustered into the Seventh Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry, which was ordered to St. Louis on August 6. Within a day, the men of the Seventh were assembled aboard the steamship Jennie Whipple for their trip south. Soldiers crowded the deck at nightfall, seeking relief from the late-summer heat. Private Dill found a spot near the edge of the deck and fell asleep. During the night, while turning over in his sleep, he rolled overboard and drowned in the Mississippi River.
Tragedy takes many forms.