November 21, 2017
If you’ve ever taken a riverboat cruise, you probably heard the tour guide discuss what may have been the deadliest maritime disaster in American history – and, no, it’s not the Titanic.
On April 27, 1865, a side-wheel steamboat named the Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River seven miles north of Memphis. The number of fatalities varies from source to source, with some (like Lloyd’s Register of Shipping) placing the number as low as 1,192. But others, like NPR.com, estimate closer to 1,800 deaths, exceeding the more famous Titanic’s 1,512 fatalities.
What exploded were three of the Sultana’s four boilers, which were linked together side by side. The official inquiry, as reported in Alan Huffman’s Sultana: Surviving Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, determined that the boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water levels in the boilers and a faulty repair. There’s no doubt these factors contributed to the disaster.
On the date of the explosion, the top-heavy Sultana was careening – rocking back and forth dangerously – as it fought its way upriver from Vicksburg against one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history. At some points the Mississippi waters, churning south to the Gulf of Mexico, had flooded to a width of three miles.
As the boat lurched port and starboard, water would flow from one side of the boilers to the other, leaving “hot spots” where the water was low, which would immediately produce steam – and pressure – when the water rushed back. Full boilers might have prevented any problem. But the boilers were, the investigation showed, poorly attended.
Library of Congress
The Sultana docked at Helena, Ark., just before it sank on April 27, 1865.
They were also not in the best shape. Six days earlier one of the boilers had sprung a leak, which was hastily repaired before the Sultana left Vicksburg for its fateful trip north. According to ancestry.com, it was repaired a second time in Memphis, which was the “faulty repair” listed in the inquiry.
But those problems are just half the tale. The other half is how overcrowded and top heavy the Sultana was. Designed with a capacity for 376 passengers, she was carrying – and this is not a typo – roughly 2,500 at the time of the explosion, according to NationalGeographic.com.
“Soldiers were packed in so tightly they could find no place to sleep and could barely stand,” said the website.
It seems incredible that a captain would overload his ship so dangerously. But J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, captain of the Sultana, was likely to make a small fortune in doing so.
Vicksburg in April, 1865, was packed with paroled prisoners from Confederate prison camps. Many were from Ohio and Tennessee, and – weak from disease and starvation – were slowly making their way home. The government agreed to help, offering $5 for every enlisted man a riverboat would carry upriver, and $10 for every officer.
That was a stunning price in the 19th century. And that’s why the Sultana’s captain was willing to stress his boilers battling a spring-swollen Mississippi all the way to St. Louis, with too many people and too little care. It’s why a temporary repair was done on the faulty boiler instead of a full replacement – the latter would have taken several days, and Mason wasn’t willing to miss his window of opportunity.
As we know, all these mistakes added up. Shortly after a stop in Memphis, the Sultana’s boilers surrendered to the inevitable and blew the ship apart.
Instantly, that stretch of the Mississippi became a charnel house.
“It was like a tremendous bomb going off in the middle of where these men were,” said Jerry Potter, lawyer and author of The Sultana Tragedy, according to NPR.com. “And the shrapnel, the steam, and the boiling water killed hundreds.”
A 2015 New York Times opinion piece resurrected this contemporary account:
“I pressed toward the bow, passing many wounded sufferers, who piteously begged to be thrown overboard,” testified Daniel Allen in 1892. “I saw men, while attempting to escape, pitch down through the hatchway that was full of blue curling flames, or rush wildly from the vessel to death and destruction in the turbid waters below. I clambered upon the hurricane deck and with calmness and self-possession assisted others to escape.”
Ancestry.com wrote: “Most of the men preferred drowning to being burned alive, and leaped into the water. One man remembered, ‘The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow of the boat until they were singed off like flies. Shrieks and cries for mercy were all that could be heard; and that awful morning reminded me of the stories of doomsday of my childhood.’”
“When I got about three hundred yards away from the boat clinging to a heavy plank, the whole heavens seemed to be lighted up by the conflagration,” another survivor recalled, according to ancestry.com. “Hundreds of my comrades were fastened down by the timbers of the decks and had to burn while the water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves.’”
Library of Congress
An artist’s rendering imagines the ill-fated Sultana after the explosion on April 27, 1865, with about 2,500 people aboard. Most were Union soldiers, newly released from Confederate prison camps.
Other nearby river traffic immediately raced to the rescue. Among the responders were the steamers Bostona II, Silver Spray, Jenny Lind and Pocohontas, plus the U.S.Navy ironclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler. But it was slow, difficult work, and many of the parolees were too weak to swim, or didn’t know how. Hypothermia in the frigid spring waters was also an issue.
On April 29, 1865, the New York Times wrote: “The greater portion of those rescued were more or less wounded or scalded; some had the cuticle taken entirely from their bodies by the hot steam. … Three dead men were taken from trees, to which they had swum and climbed up. Those found dead and floating are supposed to have been so long weakened by imprisonment that they chilled to death.”
Crews pulled survivors from the cold water, or plucked them from the treetops that poked out of the swollen river. Dockhands and passersby on both sides of the river gave what help they could. The dead floated downstream, some as far as Vicksburg.
Fortunately for injured survivors, the disaster occurred close to Memphis, which was uniquely suited to help. Occupied by the U.S. Army since 1862, it was the rare Southern city undamaged by the war and had served as a huge supply depot and medical facility. Thousands of hospital beds were available, with trained personnel and the most advanced equipment. Of the 760 rushed to Memphis, only 40 died – 18 on the day of the disaster, and 22 in the days that followed.
Some victims were buried at Elmwood Cemetery and Memphis National Cemetery, then called Mississippi River Cemetery, according to findagrave.com. The Elmwood victims were later moved to National, but a cenotaph remains. “In honor of those who died on the ill-fated passenger steamer SULTANA,” reads the legend at the top of the marker.
As to the Sultana herself, the initial explosion incinerated the pilothouse, so the burning hulk floated downriver unguided. It ran aground on the Arkansas side, and continued to burn. Its remains were found in 1982, according to NationalGeographic.com, 32 feet below a soybean field, two miles inland from the river’s present course.
That position is four miles south of Memphis, near Marion, Ark., which has a small museum dedicated to the Sultana (104 Washington St., 1-800-739-6041). Marion held a commemoration in 2015, the 150-year anniversary. That’s not a lot of recognition for a disaster of that magnitude, but now and then, the Sultana hasn’t gotten much attention.
It failed to make an impression in April 1865, sadly, because Americans at that time had become numb to huge numbers of casualties.
Further, that was a busy news month. Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthourse on April 9. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, with his killer, actor John Wilkes Booth, caught and killed on April 26. That was the same day that Gen. Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. The Civil War was, in effect, over.
In that environment, another thousand or so dead soldiers simply didn’t rate a lot of attention. The Sultana fell quickly from front pages and the public’s attention. Additionally, no one was anyone held accountable. Hearings were held, but only one officer was found guilty of overcrowding the Sultana (likely receiving kickbacks in the process), but his verdict was overturned. The captain was dead, and other complicit parties were protected by cronyism and/or red tape.
The Sultana remains largely forgotten. As NationalGeographic.com says:
“Despite the publication of six books and a short docudrama in recent years, this tragic event has failed to seize the imagination of American readers, even those endlessly fascinated by the war. Ironically, while the infamous Andersonville prison has long attracted public interest, few make the connection that many of the Union survivors of Andersonville perished after all, or survived yet another descent into hell that spring night.”