In the worst maritime disaster in United States History, the Sultana, a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat, exploded on April 27, 1865, killing between 1,100 and 1,547 of the 2,137 people on board.
The Sultana was made of wood and was used for lower Mississippi cotton trade. It typically carried a crew of 85. It was actually designed to carry only 376 passengers, but was carrying more than 5 times that when it exploded.
Though the disaster was, and still is, the biggest maritime disaster in history, it was overshadowed by Civil War-related stories in the press. Additionally, John Wilkes Booth had been killed just the day before, leading to further overshadowing. Despite the deaths of more than 1,000 people, no one was ever held accountable.
BACKGROUND OF THE SULTANA
On April 13, 1865, under the command of Captain James Cass Mason, the Sultana left St. Louis, Missouri, bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. On April 15, word had reached the Captain that President Abraham Lincoln had been shot, and because telegraphic communication with the South had been cut off due to the war, he headed south to spread the news. (Obviously, this happened 155 years ago, but it is kind of funny that today, our president says to inject disinfectant into your veins during a press conference and within minutes, every single American knows about it, there are hundreds of thousands of tweets about it and memes are viral immediately, and in this story, a ship captain had to re-route his boat to sail off and spread the news that the president had been assassinated.)
He reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, hands full of newspapers, and was approached by the chief quartermaster of the city, Captain Reuben Hatch. He had a deal for Mason: Thousands of Union prisoners of war, held by the Confederacy in prison camps, had just been released, and the U.S. government was willing to pay $2.75 per enlisted man and $8 per officer to any ship captain who would take the prisoners north. Because there were about 1,400 prisoners, Mason took the deal, in need of money.
Mason left Vicksburg, ship full of prisoners, and continued to spread the word of the president's assassination. After about 10 hours of spreading the big news, one of the boilers began to link, so Mason headed back to Vicksburg to repair the boiler and pick up the prisoners.
As the prisoners assembled, a mechanic was brought to work on the leaky boiler. The mechanic wanted to replace a ruptured seam, but Mason knew that would take days and he didn't want to lose his lucrative boatfull of prisoners, as if he waited for a few days, they'd be sent north on other boats. Mason and his chief engineer convinced the mechanic to just do some bandaid repairs so they could get moving more quickly.
Though Hatch had told Mason he'd get about 1,400 prisoners, a mix-up occurred and instead, every man at the parole camp was loaded onto Sultana. Legally only allowed to carry 376 passengers, the boat left Vicksburg with 1,960 prisoners, 22 guards, 70 paying cabin passengers and 85 crew members: 2,137 people. It was severely overcrowded, the decks creaking and sagging with the sheer amount of people in every available nook and cranny.
The massive crew spent 2 days traveling and fighting a terrible spring flood, one of the worst in the river's history.
At around 2 AM on April 27, 1856, 7 miles north of Memphis, the Sultana's boilers suddenly exploded. The first exploded, following immediately by the second, and then the final 2 exploded. The exact cause of the explosions is unknown, though theories range from too much pressure in the boilers, low water, and even a bomb placed as a maritime attack from the war.
The decks were demolished, as well as the pilothouse. Because the pilot had died and no one was steering the boat, it just began to drift as it burned. Some passengers were flung into the water by the explosion. Some survived long enough to jump into the water, but because they were weak from spending so much time as prisoners of war, they began to cling to each other, drowning in entire groups.
A southbound steamboat was coming down the river on her maiden voyage and approached the horrific scene about an hour after the explosion, hoping to find and rescue some victims. The ship didn't fully sink until 8 hours after the explosion and by that time, various boats had come to help rescue the half-drowning survivors.
The decision for the passengers who survived the initial explosion was a difficult one: Burn with the boat and hopefully die more quickly, or risk it and jump into the cold, late-April Mississippi river. Many died of drowning or hypothermia in the water. Bodies were found downriver for months, but many were not recovered. Captain Mason was among the casualties.
The exact death toll is not known, with conflicting reports totaling the loss of life. Some believe that nearly 1,800 died (2), but some estimates are as low as 1,100. 760 survivors were transported to Memphis hospitals.
The official cause of the disaster was ultimately determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boilers, noting that the issue was exacerbated by the overcrowding. The twists and turns of the flooding river didn't help, either, as the boat would list severely to one side and then the other. But further investigations determined additional causes, essentially creating a perfect storm of issues.
First, the type of metal used for the boilers became brittle with prolonged heating and cooling, and was therefore more dangerous. It stopped being used for boilers in 1879. Secondly, the dirty Mississippi River water was used to feed the boilers, which allowed dirt to settle to the bottom and clog it. And lastly, the design of the boilers themselves as problematic, and 2 other steamboats exploded shortly after the Sultana, leading to the eradication of that type of boiler on steamboats.
Further, some blamed Captain Hatch for bribing Captain Mason to overload his boat. But, he had serious political connections, the brother of a politician who was an adviser and close friend of Abraham Lincoln's. Though Hatch was known as an incompetent quartermaster, he had a history of criminal activity such as corruption and theft. However, he had letters of recommendation from Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, among other notable authorities, and escaped justice because of his connections.
The officer who ultimately was responsible for the mix-up at the parole camp and allowed nearly 2,000 prisoners onto the boat, Captain Frederic Speed, was charged and found guilty of grossly overcrowding the boat, but his verdict was overturned. And Captain Mason, who realistically was the most responsible (took a bribe, allowed his boat to become more overcrowded for money, ignored serious boiler issues and okayed temporary repairs) had died in the explosion, so he was never held accountable, meaning no one was ever held accountable in any way for the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history.
20 years later, the survivors living in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio started attending annual reunions and formed the Sultana Survivor's Association, meeting in Toledo, Ohio. Survivors living in Kentucky and Tennessee began meeting a few years later in Knoxville, Tennessee. Attendance dwindled yearly and by the mid-1920s, only a handful of survivors were able to make it. The last survivor was Private Charles M. Eldridge who died at age 96 in his home in 1941.
Monuments for the dead were erected in Memphis Tennessee, near where the explosion happened and the city where the survivors were brought to hospitals; Vicksburg, Mississippi, where the passengers were picked up for the fateful journey; Marion, Arkansas, the state where a famed photo of the overcrowded boat was taken, and the city where the ship ultimately exploded; and Cincinnati and Mansfield, Ohio, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Hillsdale, Michigan, where many of the prisoners were from.
On the 150th anniversary of the disaster in 2015, a Sultana Disaster Museum was opened in Marion, Arkansas. It is a temporary museum until funds can be fully raised for a permanent museum. The museum houses relics, such as shaker plates from the boat's furnace, furnace bricks, and wood and metal pieces from the boat. It also houses a 14-foot replica of the boat, and a wall with every soldier, crewperson and passenger who was on the ship.
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about the Titanic, which, until now, I assumed was the biggest maritime disaster in history. Even when I picked this topic for a story, I assumed that more people would have died on a doomed giant passenger ship, sailing the ocean, than a steamboat with a max capacity of less than 400, that was far smaller in every type of measurement. But beyond that, I had never even heard of the Sultana, and to have not heard of the Titanic, you would have to be living under a rock.
As mentioned, the coverage of the Sultana sinking was overshadowed by general Civil War press, but since the disaster, artwork, books, music and film have all memorialized the event in various ways. Since it happened 155 years ago today, nobody who was alive during the disaster has been alive for many, many years, whereas the last Titanic survivor died just 11 years ago. Also, perhaps a boatfull of rich people on an extravagant ship makes for a better Blockbuster film than a boatfull of war prisoners, and I think today, the majority of knowledge about the Titanic comes from the movie.
It is hard to imagine such an immense loss of life in one event, and it especially difficult to imagine such an immense loss of life receiving minimal press coverage, especially now where everything is "breaking news". Even with a war going on, 1,600 people losing their lives in one accident seems like it would have been the biggest imaginable story, but it was glossed over.
It has been 155 years since the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, and this was the first I ever heard about it. Had you ever heard of the sinking of Sultana?