Another Disaster of Western Troops
- Often you hear of the terrible disaster and the loss of lives of the steamer Sultana exploding just north of Memphis on the Mississippi. There is a group that have bonded together that are descendents of those that were on the Sultana. However, how many of you have heard of the disaster of the ship, General Lyon, where only five of 213 men of the 56th Illinois survived that disaster. Of the approximate 600 individuals that were on board that ship, there were only thirty-four survivors.
This photo of Company E of the 56th Regiment was taken at Huntsville, Alabama.
Most of these men later perished in the General Lyon accident at sea.The 56th Illinois was primarily made up from Southern Illinois counties in an area that is commonly known as "Little Egypt". Immediately after being mustered into service on February 27, 1862, it was ordered to Ft Anderson in Paducah and became part of that garrison. It did not participate in the Battle of Shiloh, but was ordered by General Halleck to move and take part in the "siege" of Corinth. It was part of the Army of the Mississippi until November 1862, at which time it then became part of the Army of the Tennessee. This regiment took part in the operations against Vicksburg during the Central Mississippi Campaign, Champion's Hill, Big Black River, Siege of Vicksburg, Missionary Ridge, Atlanta Campaign, March to the Sea, and then in the Carolina's and at Bentonville.In February 1865, the term of service of those not having non-veteran status expired. In March having reinforcements added to the regimental rolls, those of non-veteran status were ordered home to be mustered out, along with some that were released from Confederate prison camps at Wilmington, NC. Thus, 193 enlisted personnel and 12 officers of the 56th embarked on the steamship General Lyon to sail to Fortress Monroe.The General Lyon was a screw steamer of 1026 tons chartered on March 24, 1864. It participated in the first attempt to take Ft Fisher in December of 1864. It then participated as a troop ship in the successful assault against Ft Fisher in January 1865. Its last mission was to take released prisoners from the Confederate prison camp at Wilmington, NC to the Chesapeake.The General Lyon left Wilmington, NC with approximately 600 individuals aboard on Wednesday, March 29, 1862. Two days later, sixty miles off the shore of Cape Hatteras, it encountered a severe thunderstorm and heavy seas. Apparently, with or without the knowledge to the Captain, the ship was carrying unauthorized coal oil and explosives in the boiler room of the ship. The rough seas then caused a barrel of coal oil to overturn near the boilers of the General Lyon. Flames burst out of the boiler room and with the help of the heavy winds, spread like wild fire over the ship. Attempts were made to put out or to curtail the fire, but to no avail. Two life boats were lowered, the first having ten men including the Captain of the General Lyon, who according to witnesses, was crazed with fear. This boat after the rigging had been removed, drifted to under the stern of the ship and was hit by the ship's screw, and immediately sank. Only three of the ten men escaped. The second lifeboat lowered contained twenty-seven individuals.A US transport, Gen. Sedgwick came upon the scene along with several small schooners, but were helpless to aid the General Lyon due to the rough seas. The second lifeboat was able to reach the Sedgwick, but as it approached, a wave violently sent the lifeboat crashing into the side of the ship, and twenty of the twenty-seven individuals aboard, were thrown into the sea. The Sedgwick remained on the scene and rescued as many as they could from the rough seas. When the Sedgwick left, not able to give any further aid, the General Lyon in flames could be seen drifting towards the breakers off Cape Hatteras, known as the graveyard of ships.When the Sedgwick docked at Wilmington, NC on Sunday, April 2, 1865, it carried only twenty-nine persons out of approximately six hundred individuals that initially sailed on the ill-fated General Lyon from this port five days previously. For all practical purposes, the war was over twelve days later when Lee surrendered his forces to Ulysses S, Grant at Appomattox. Those men of the 56th that never found defeat on land, found it at sea.