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Penny Lyle holds a microphone for Pam Newhouse as she plays the spoons  during a period song session at the 20th reunion of the Sultana Association at Athens State University on Friday. Glenna Jenkins Green is attending the reunion, which commemorates  the 1865 explosion of the steamboat Sultana, which  killed more than 1,800 people. Her father was one of the survivors.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Penny Lyle holds a microphone for Pam Newhouse as she plays the spoons during a period song session at the 20th reunion of the Sultana Association at Athens State University on Friday. Glenna Jenkins Green is attending the reunion, which commemorates the 1865 explosion of the steamboat Sultana, which killed more than 1,800 people. Her father was one of the survivors.

Daughter traces Civil War soldier’s footsteps
Woman, 87, makes first visit to Limestone, where her Union dad was captured by Confederate forces

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

ATHENS — After dinner, when Samuel Washington Jenkins gathered his brood and the neighborhood children on his front porch in Tennessee’s Bakewell community, he entertained them with stories about being a prisoner of war and surviving smallpox and a sinking ship.

His capture by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in Limestone County is where his war tale began.

Jenkins’ daughter, 87-year-old Glenna Jenkins Green, recalled those porch gatherings Friday during her first visit to Limestone County. She is the last living child of Jenkins, who fathered 21 children. Jenkins was in his 70s when Glenna was born.

“The neighborhood kids would say, ‘Tell us another tale Mr. Jenkins,’ ” Green said. “We’d fill the swing and the steps on the porch to hear him.”

This is Jenkins’ tale.

He was 16 years old when his five brothers joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War. The family lived among the Cherokee in western North Carolina. Desperate to join the fight, Jenkins tried to enlist with the South but was too young.

Undaunted, he left home and joined the Union Army in Maryville, Tenn. He lied and said he was 17. His assignment was to Company L of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, a group that carried supplies to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea.

That led Jenkins to Limestone County, where the Union established forts to protect the supply route, which was the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad.

On Sept. 25, 1864, Forrest positioned artillery on hillsides around the fort at Sulphur Creek Trestle in Elkmont. Forrest also ordered sharpshooters into the trees to pick off Union soldiers. When the Union surrendered, it had lost 200 men.

“The dead lay thick along the works of the fort,” Forrest wrote in his report.

Captured by Forrest

Jenkins was on a bridge with other soldiers when Forrest took them captive. Forrest marched the white soldiers to Cahaba to a Confederate prison.

With diseases rampant among the prisoners, men died like flies, Jenkins said. Many, including Jenkins, vaccinated themselves against smallpox by using the scabs from the infected. Jenkins’ vaccination scar was the size of a silver dollar.

Faced daily with death, Jenkins vowed if he lived, he would become a doctor.

Jenkins thought he would get that chance when it was announced the prisoners were to go to Vicksburg, Miss., for an exchange for Confederate prisoners. At Vicksburg, Jenkins boarded the steamboat Sultana on April 26, 1865.

Two days later, near Memphis, boilers exploded and the ship sank. Jenkins, thrown into the water by the blast, held on to a tree until rescued. More than 1,800 died, including more than 170 former Union prisoners of war.

After his burn treatments, Jenkins went to Nashville for his discharge, and then walked to Bryson City, N.C. Two of his brothers died in the war, but he never fought against any of them.

Jenkins married his first wife and had eight children. He worked the coal mines and farmed. In 1894, he graduated from medical school and established a practice.

His first wife died, and in 1901, Jenkins married Sallie Ann Goode and fathered 13 children, including Glenna. Known as “Dr. Sam,” he often provided care for the poor who could not pay him.

On one trip up Soddy Daisy Mountain to deliver a baby, a man attempted to rob Jenkins. He shot the man in the leg and then got off his horse and tended him.

“Then he left and went to deliver the baby,” Green said, finishing her father’s tale. “I’ve followed his story as closely as I could. I’ve been to Vicksburg and Memphis, and now, I’ve finally made it to Alabama.”

Green came despite recovering from a recent heart attack. She was here for the 20th reunion of the Sultana Association at Athens State University.

Knoxville attorney and association founder Norman Shaw said Union soldiers who survived the sinking met annually to keep the story alive.

Now, their descendants continue the tradition.

Shaw said Green and Robert Warner of Texas, whose father was in the 9th Indiana Calvary and was captured at Elkmont, are the only known living children of Sultana survivors. Warner was unable to attend this reunion.

“You hear their stories, and you get hooked,” Shaw said. “These are stories that need to be told and remembered.”

If able, Green planned to go Saturday with association members to Elkmont’s fort to see where Forrest captured her father.

“I’m the only one left who heard him tell those stories,” she said.

“It’s exciting for me to see where it all took place.”

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