Two veterans in my family tree came near death in war and survived, or I would not be here. One was my father, whose wounding at Tarawa in the South Pacific during World War II I’ve written about before: Tribute to a veteran: Robert Earl Richardson
My maternal great-great-grandfather Allen Danford Lile served with the Michigan Volunteers’ Company F , 18th Infantry Regiment, which was called into service by President Lincoln in July1862. In mid-September, 1,000-strong, the unit left Michigan for Cincinnati, where they crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky. After fighting their way through central Kentucky, in August 1863 they were ordered to Nashville to act as a rear guard for Union forces.
During the summer and fall of 1864, the Michiganders did garrison duty at Decatur, Alabama, as part of the First Brigade, Fourth Division, Twentieth Corps occasionally pursuing Confederate troops when they approached that part of the state. Allen Lile was among some 200 troops detached to reinforce the Union garrison at Athens, Alabama, about 15 miles to the north across the Tennessee River. On Sept. 24, 1864, the detachment was attacked by about 5,000 Confederate troops under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest near their destination. After fighting for five hours, the entire command was surrounded and captured with “heavy loss in killed and wounded.”
The survivors were imprisoned at Athens, Alabama, until the end of the war. On April 22, 1865, they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. A few days later, they were among 1,866 troops crowded aboard the Steamer Sultana headed upriver for home. In the early morning hours of April 27, near Memphis, Tennessee, “the boilers of the steamer exploded creating an appalling tragedy. Those on board were hurled into the air by the force of the explosion and their mutilated bodies fell into the Mississippi. Of the 1,866 troops on the steamer, 1,101 were lost. The hundreds who were not seriously injured were thrown into the river and drowned.”
Sixty-eight members of the Michigan regiment were killed or drowned; only a small number survived. My second great-grandfather, Allen Danford Lile, was one of them. He was mustered out on 10 June, 1865 at Camp Chase, Ohio, and returned to Michigan to farm and raise a family at Boardman in Kalkaska County. The steamship accident was the subject of a board of inquiry, but no cause of the explosion was determined.