Raising The Sultana

Story of Private Isaac Noah "Ike" Davenport

Sylvia Clemons | 13 August 2014 | Comment(s)
Isaac Noah Davenport wrote a fifteen page account of his ordeal during the Civil War and passed along his experience to his relatives.  His nephew Gordon H. Turner also wrote a book called The History of Scotts Hill, Tennessee and featured his uncle’s story found on page 194.  Davenport is one of the men who survived his experience of not only the Civil War or the horrible conditions they faced in Andersonville Prison, but also survived the Sultana Steamboat explosion that occurred at 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865.  He was on his way home as the Civil War had just ended.

Isaac Noah Davenport was born on November 21, 1840 probably in Henderson County, Tennessee.  By 1850 Isaac nickname “Ike” is living with his father Stephen Davenport in Hardeman County, Tennessee.  In 1860 he is known to be a laborer living in Hardin County, Tennessee at the age of 18.  He was living with Samuel K. Gill while his father was living nearby in Decatur County, Tennessee.  Sometime in 1860 Isaac Davenport married Eliza Ann Holmes who lived in Scotts Hill, Tennessee.  Their first child Amanda was just a year old when Isaac enrolled into the Union Army on August 28, 1862 for a 3 year service as a private.  He was assigned to Company C of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Volunteers.

During the war he was stationed at Union City, Tennessee.  On March 24, 1864 the fort came under siege by Confederates who claimed that General Nathan Bedford Forrest was on his way with reinforcements. The Union commander surrendered the fort believing that they would surely be massacred if Forrest arrived.  They were marched southward to be imprisoned at Andersonville, Georgia prison.  Davenport described one of their stops where they were held was a fenced-in cotton shed. I believe this to be the Cahaba prison in Alabama where there is record of him being held.  They did not have beds only the sandy hills and very few had raged blankets to wrap themselves in at night.  He witnessed so many men’s death he was afraid he would succumb to that fate as well, but he would immediately think of his home and friends which encouraged himself that he would reach home one day.  While there one soldier he referred to as one of his brethren by the name of S.F. McCollum was sick so Davenport wrapped his blanket around him and bid him goodbye as they started marching once again for Andersonville.    He never saw him again as his friend died there.   

In October 1864 Davenport said he was hurried off to Savanna, Georgia where he remained sum time.  He was hurried off to Blackshear at Pine Grove where they took shelter under branches and slept once again on the ground.  They were there a few days until they were transported to Thomasville, Georgia.  On February 15, 1865 they were happy to hear of orders to start preparing to march as this brought them closer to going home.   They had to march on foot for about 40 miles across the pine hills of Georgia.  Even though many of them were weak and feeble just the thoughts of being released and going home gave them encouragement to keep going.   They were put on railcars in Albany, Georgia and taken to Andersonville, Georgia where once again they found themselves in prison.  Davenport described it as a desperate and gloomy looking place.   They didn’t know what to expect as one incident they noticed confederate soldiers standing in little groups as if they were studying what to do and thought something was going to happen pretty soon.   While there they experienced many horrible scenes through all types of weather conditions, and stated they were nothing more than just skeletons.  He was a witness to 6 men being hung on one pole which is now known as “The Raiders.”  Davenport referred to them as thieves and murderers that killed and robbed several men that didn’t have much to begin with anyways.  He stated for the most part they had sympathy towards one another and would help each other as much as they could, except for these demons. 

At sunrise on March 20 1865, the word came that the prisoners would be exchanged and they were soon ordered to fall in line.  They didn’t take much time till they were soon embarked on the confederate cars which carried them to Jackson, Mississippi.  Once there they had to travel on foot to Black River Bridge for several miles until they reached the river.  He never mentioned what the place was called, but merely stated once there they were met by soldiers carrying that brave old flag and was given food and drink as well as some clean clothes.  I believe this to be Camp Fisk outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi where many other soldiers are known to have also journeyed to.  Davenport describes remaining there in peace with plenty until they were to board a steamboat which would then carry them north to Camp Chase, Ohio and from there be sent home. 

On April 25, 1865, Davenport along with many others boarded the Sultana Steamboat that was waiting for them at the port.  He described them being as thick as bee’s on board, but they were so glad they marched right on board.  They moved out around ten o’clock moving very slow as the river was very high and swift from the spring rains.  He then describes landing at Memphis, Tennessee about nine o’clock the next night where some unloading and loading took place and stayed sometime.  Many of the soldiers got off and got something to eat, but Davenport was listening at all times for the signal bell to ring which did about eleven o’clock.  Once back on the steamboat they had to find a spot on deck to lay down.  He along with some other guys went around on the outside of the banisters of the middle deck.  They used their shoes, hats, and coats for their bedding.  He had not been asleep long when he was awakened by a loud noise.

Even though he saw many horrible things while a prisoner to him it wasn’t anything compared to what he saw that night.  Men’s faces were sheet white with fear as they were jumping overboard as if wolves were after them.  Some men were drowning and some burning while many others were crying out for help from being smashed.  He said that some were killed instantly and others were scared to death while others burned away.  He himself was slightly wounded by a pile of timber and two of his buddies that were on each side of him, named Isaac Smith and Guan Flowler, both died. He stated that Isaac Smith was killed instantly as his head was smashed and Flowler spoke saying, “boys, I am a dead man.”  He didn’t see him anymore after he fell off into the river.  Davenport met up with another one of the men he became friends with while in prison, Morgan L. Gray.  Davenport asked him what they should do so his friend told him to tear up some strings and he would tear up some planks and tie them together and swim out on them.  Davenport stepped to the bow of the boat to see if he could see any chance for them to make their escape when he went back to Gray he wasn’t there.  Davenport thought he had drowned and was left alone once more.  He couldn’t swim very well and didn’t like the idea of having to just jump into the river, but he was running out of time and had to do something by this time the flames and smoke was busting through all parts of the burning boat.  He didn’t want to stay on boat and burn to death so he got another piece of plank and jumped.  As soon as he hit the water someone snatched his plank away, and was left to help himself the best he could.

While trying to swim himself a nearby drowning man grabbed him and carried him beneath the river.  They struggled until he thought he was about to drown himself he finally broke free by what he stated was the strength of God.  Weakened by the struggle he knew he couldn’t make it to shore so he started back towards the hulk of the boat when he was struck in the head by another piece of plank which he held onto till the break of day when he saw a large piece of timber fell from top of the boat.  He managed to get from the plank onto the log.  After settling down he saw a man swinging on a rope, he paddled over to him and pulled him up a little.  The man spoke as he wasn’t sure if he was dead or alive.  Two men spotted them that had a raft and rescued not only them but all that was hanging around the boat.  Davenport stated he was one of nine that got away from the burning boat.  There was a large sycamore tree they took them to so they could quickly go back and save as many as they could.  Amusingly even after going through all of this once these men were on the limbs of the tree they shared wet tobacco and after taking a good chew, amused themselves in fitting the musketeers.  He thought they were a happy little band as ever that sat on limbs of a sycamore tree above the waves of the Mississippi River.    

The two rescuers came back at sunup and gathered them back up and took them to shore.  As they were heading to shore Davenport looked out to where the Sultana was and saw the hulk for the last time as it sunk beneath the waves.  Others had built a good fire and were already warming themselves when another steamboat came to their rescue had about eighty survivors on board.  They were taken back to Memphis.  When they landed they got off the boat where there was another group standing around a fire trying to dry themselves.  Some of them swam the seven miles from the burning boat.  Surprisingly he had seen his friend Gray.   In a token of their friendship and love they gave each other their hand of token as they thought the other had drowned.  They marched up through the streets of Memphis bare footed as they had lost their shoes as well as their hats.  They were wet and cold but they soon reached the Soldiers Home where they got some warm dry clothes and something to eat.  Davenport said there were about eight of his regiment on the boat and six of them were lost.  Only he and John Derryberry were left to tell their story.  Morgan. L. Gray and Olynthus. G. Shelton was from the 6th Tennessee Cavalry Company E, but they were like brothers to them from their long prison life together.  They all stayed at the Soldiers Home a few days then they were ordered to their own states to be discharged.  Davenport was discharged in Nashville, Tennessee on June 29, 1865 and arrived back home in Scotts Hill, Tennessee on July 3, 1865.

By the 1870’s Census, Davenport had settled in Scotts Hill, Tennessee with his wife and three children. Altogether Isaac and Eliza have ten children. Eliza had two sets of twins.  Eliza dies on June 27, 1893 and is buried in Grandsire Holmes Cemetery which is named after her father, Ralph Holmes.  Isaac remarries his first wife’s second cousin, Margaret Austin Maness.  She was the widow of J. Frank Maness who died in 1891. They continued to live in Henderson County, Tennessee for the remainder of their lives.  Isaac served as one of the deacons in the Scotts Hill Church of Christ.  He died on September 16, 1922.  He is buried at Grandsire Holmes in Henderson County, Tennessee.

Descendants of William Dabenport
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