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Mississippi River Catastrophe: The Sultana

Updated on July 30, 2017

Less than 2 weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln left an already traumatized nation reeling, a Mississippi steamboat transporting 2,421 passengers, mostly Union soldiers paroled from Confederate POW camps, exploded, burned and sank, 7 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Less than 700 survived to tell the story with an additional 200 dying from wounds received.

Facts

  • The Sultana was a side-wheeled steamboat built in Cincinnati in 1863 to transport cotton. It was designed to accommodate no more than 376 passengers, including the crew.

  • The Sultana, under the command of Captain J.C. Mason, departed St. Louis for New Orleans on April 13th, 1865.

  • The Sultana was docked at Cairo, Illinois, on the morning of April 15th, the day of the assassination of President Lincoln.

  • Receiving word of the assassination while in Vicksburg, the Sultana departed, spreading the news while continuing south to New Orleans..

Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History
Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History

In April 1865, the steamboat Sultana slowly moved up the Mississippi River, its overtaxed engines straining under the weight of twenty-four hundred passengers—mostly Union soldiers, recently paroled from Confederate prison camps. At 2 a.m., three of Sultana's four boilers exploded. Within twenty minutes, the boat went down in flames, and an estimated seventeen hundred lives were lost.

The worst maritime disaster in American history, the sinking of the Sultana is a forgotten tragedy lost in the turmoil of the times—the war's end, the assassination of President Lincoln, the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth. Alan Huffman presents this harrowing story in gripping and vivid detail and paints a moving portrait of four individual soldiers who survived the Civil War's final hell to make it back home

 
  • The Sultana began it's final journey up the Mississippi River when it departed New Orleans on April 21 en-route to Cairo, IL. Just prior to arriving at Vicksburg, the ship's engineer, J.W. Kennison, reported a leak in one of the four boilers and suggested a replacement.

    Instead, Captain Mason ordered a quick fix by Master Boilermaker, R.G. Taylor of Vicksburg, in order to expedite the voyage.

  • As the Sultana was under repair in Vicksburg, Mason took on Union prisoners of war from Confederate POW camps Fisk, Cahawba and Andersonville, to be returned to their home states of Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.

  • Taking on 100 regular passengers and over 1,700 paroled Union troops, the Sultana dangerously exceeded its capacity.

  • Though two other northbound steamboats left Vicksburg on the same day, Sultana was the only one carrying Union POWs.

  • The fated steamboat made a stop in Memphis on April 26th to drop off a large shipment of sugar then traveled a short distance further to take on more coal before proceeding upriver at 1:00 AM on April 27th.

  • At approximately 2:00 AM, the first of four boilers exploded followed by two more. About an hour later, a southbound steamboat picked up many of the 700 survivors.

  • After burning for about seven hours, the remnants of the steamboat finally sank along the west bank of the river at about 9:00 AM.

  • Of the 700 initial survivors, 200 later died as a result of the incident.

Greed a Primary Factor

If a single cause could be attributed to the disaster, it would be greed.

A contract was offered by the Chief Quartermaster in Vicksburg to transport paroled Union prisoners of war back north at $5.00 a head for soldiers and $10.00 a head for officers. Suspected of receiving a "kickback", a deal was made with Captain Mason.

Corruption touching the Very Top

Lieutenant Colonel Reuben B. Hatch the Chief Quartermaster in charge at the time of the loading of Union POWs on steamboat Sultana at Vicksburg, had been a source of great controversy since before the war. Accused of multiple fraudulent acts, Hatch then went AWOL and was replaced. After being in seclusion for three months, Hatch then wanted back in.

Against the advice of Major General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster General of the Union Army, Hatch was re-instated per the request of President Abraham Lincoln, who had strong political ties to Reuben Hatch's brother, Illinois Secretary of State, Ozias M. Hatch.

Official Cause

For several years, the official cause of the explosion was determined to be the weakened boiler, aggravated by the roll of the top heavy boat. Scientists concluded that the water shifting from one side of the boiler to the other caused the metal to get "red hot", further weakening the already damaged boiler.

Confederate Conspiracy?

It was well known that a group of secret Confederate agents known as the "Boat Burners" operated in the St. Louis area. The "Boat Burners" were credited with the destruction of several Union steamboats during the war, however, were not seriously suspected of involvement in the Sultana disaster since it occurred after the conflict was officially over.

Coal Torpedos
Coal Torpedos

Twenty-five years later, William Streetor of St. Louis claimed that his business partner, "Boat Burners" member Robert Louden, confessed on his deathbed in 1867 that he had been responsible for the sabotage of the Sultana by planting a "coal torpedo" in the vessels coal hopper.

HDSI - Civil War Sabotage?

Accountability

Though one Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was charged with grossly overcrowding the Sultana and found guilty, the verdict was later overturned as Speed was not present on the day of the boarding.

No one was ever officially blamed for the incident.

Ghostly Photograph

Ill-fated "Sultana", Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865.
Ill-fated "Sultana", Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865. | Source

The Sultana was last photographed while docked at Helena, Arkansas, on April 26, the day before the disaster and the day that Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was tracked down and killed.

The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster
The Sultana Tragedy: America's Greatest Maritime Disaster

On April 27, 1865, the Sultana, a 260-foot, wooden-hulled steamboat, exploded on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee. More than 1,800 men died.

 

Why the Obscurity?

April of 1865 was a busy month in US history. The Appomattox Treaty between Lee and Grant on April 9nth, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater on April 15th, the absolute end of the five year long American Civil War with the pact between Sherman and Johnston at Bennett Place, North Carolina, and the capture/death of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth on April 26th, overshadowed the largest maritime disaster in US history.

Renewed Interest in the Disaster

Pieces of the wreckage of the steamboat have recently been located near Marion, Arkansas, in what is now a corn field due to the winding and weaving that a river naturally incurs over the years, with the discovery resulting in a museum. Since the discovery, renewed interest was been kindled in the story of The Sultana and popularity has grown to the point that a new museum is in the works.

Afterword

Though leaving an indelible mark in American history, the story of the Sultana is relatively little known. Myself a Civil War aficionado, I was only made aware of the incident through research of the Sesquicentennial of my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, where I discovered a memorial in historic Beech Grove Cemetery to the 55 losses from Delaware County.

Sultana Disaster Monument - Beech Grove Cemetery, Muncie, IN
Sultana Disaster Monument - Beech Grove Cemetery, Muncie, IN | Source
Loss Of The Sultana And Reminiscences Of Survivors.: History Of A Disaster Where Over One Thousand Five Hundred Human Beings Were Lost, Most Of Them ... Months In Cahaba And Andersonville Prisons.
Loss Of The Sultana And Reminiscences Of Survivors.: History Of A Disaster Where Over One Thousand Five Hundred Human Beings Were Lost, Most Of Them ... Months In Cahaba And Andersonville Prisons.

Published in 1892, this is the story of the loss of the S.S. Sultana and the reminiscences of some of the survivors. Over 1500 passengers, including many Union soldiers who had just been exchanged from Confederate prisons were killed in April of 1865 when the S.S. Sultana was destroyed by a covert operation by a Confederate sympathizer at the close of the Civil War.

 

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    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      2 years ago from East Central Indiana

      Sad indeed, especially when you think about the hope those finally going home were feeling before their final fate.

      Thanks for your input HSchneider!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent historical Hob on this terrible tragedy, Stevarino. It is sad that horrible events like these are lost to the scrap heap of history. They are the types of events where human beings learn from mistakes and act to prevent them and improve technology. But oh the human cost.

    • stevarino profile imageAUTHOR

      Steve Dowell 

      2 years ago from East Central Indiana

      There were many reasons for this disaster to wane from the front page of the press - with all of the events of April of 1965, a war-torn nation tired of tragic news, and of course, the political ramifications. It then just faded into oblivion until many years later.

      Thanks for your comment FlourishAnyway!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      2 years ago from USA

      Sadly, this certainly is a forgotten tragedy. Thanks for researching and presenting the information. So much comes down to greed in this world. Always has.

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