It was the worst disaster in civilian maritime history, outdistancing even the April 14, 1912 sinking of the Titanic nearly fifty years later. On the night of April 27, 1865, over 1700 Union soldiers, many of them former prisoners of war returning home after years of captivity at Confederate prisons in Andersonville, Cahawba, and elsewhere, lost their lives in a fiery explosion on board the Sultana, a private steamboat hired by the federal government to transport troops after the war. Yet while the loss of life from the Sultana’s sinking ultimately exceeded the total Union deaths suffered in both days of the Battle of Shiloh -- generally acknowledged to be one of the most horrific battles of the Civil War -- the Sultana disaster is scarcely remembered today.
The War Ends
The Civil War was coming to a rapid conclusion by the end of April 1865. On April 9, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the combined Union armies. Five days later, on April 14, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater, in Washington, D.C. Not two weeks afterwards, on April 26, Joseph Johnston surrendered the remnants of the Army of Tennessee to William Tecumseh Sherman, while on that same day, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was surrounded and killed by Union troops. Shortly thereafter, Union troops captured Jefferson Davis, effectively putting an end to the war.
At the close of hostilities, both sides began the process of releasing thousands of prisoners of war, and by the end of the month of April, 1865, thousands of former POWs from the Union army had gathered in Vicksburg, Mississippi for the return trip home. Most of the Mid-Western troops were scheduled to take a steamboat trip up the Mississippi River to Cairo, Illinois, and from that point to spread out to points further North and West.
To carry out this movement of troops, the federal government had hired steamboats to transport the former prisoners, at a rate of $5 per man. This was a significant amount of money at the time, leading steamboat captains to kick back as much as $1.15 per man to the army officers in charge, to ensure that their steamboats would be filled with troops to transport.
The Sultana was one of the many river boats hired by the federal government. Built in 1863, in Cincinnati, the ship had been sailing the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, mainly from St. Louis to New Orleans, for nearly two years. As paddleboats went, the Sultana was state-of-the-art. According to Disaster on the Mississippi, by Gene Eric Salecker, the ship had all the latest safety equipment, including safety gauges that fused open when the internal boiler pressure reached 150 pounds per square inch, three fire-fighting pumps, a metallic lifeboat and wooden yawl, 300 feet of fire hose, 30 buckets, 5 fire-fighting axes, and 76 life belts.
But at the end of April, the Sultana also had a problem. One of her four boilers had sprung a leak, and was in need of repair. Unfortunately for the Sultana’s captain, J. Cass Mason, a proper repair would take three or four days, during which time other steamboats would undoubtedly come up from New Orleans and pick up the precious POWs that Capt. Mason was counting on.
So Mason cut corners. Instead of a full repair, he ordered that a simple patch of metal be welded over the bulging boiler wall. A patch like that could be done in a day, instead of three or four, and with the Sultana already being the last ship out of port as it was, Mason didn’t think he could afford to take any more time. He would just cross his fingers and hope the patch would hold.
To make matters worse, the federal officer in charge – Captain Frederic Speed, assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Mississippi -- was well aware of the situation on board the Sultana, but with the gleam of kickbacks sparkling in his eyes, he ordered the Sultana loaded to bursting with 2,300 POWs. The Sultana’s legal passenger capacity was 376, and Capt. Moss soon found himself carrying nearly seven times the legal number of passengers on his ship.
Union POWs were jammed aboard both decks of the ship, and were packed into every available berth, nook and cranny below. They could barely find room to stand, much less sleep. The Sultana’s upper deck sagged from the excess weight, despite a number of support beams that had been put in place to carry the load. The ship could almost literally not take another passenger.
But somehow, the Sultana managed to clear the wharf at 9 p.m. on April 24, and went puffing upstream, fighting a Mississippi current that was stronger than usual because of the river’s flood stage. Fearful that the surplus passengers could upset the boat, Capt. Mason ordered the men to stay away from the side of the boat when a landing was made.
On April 26, the ship briefly docked at Memphis to pick up coal, heading upriver again almost immediately. At 2 a.m. on the morning of April 27, the repaired boiler exploded, setting off a chain reaction with two of the remaining three boilers. The ship itself was blown nearly in half by the initial blast. Fire, spread by the full load of red-hot coal that had just been taken onto the ship, consumed the rest of the ship almost instantly. The ship’s upper deck collapsed at one end, forming a steep ramp the men could not climb. The ship’s two smokestacks fell onto the deck, killing hundreds of panicked troops. Those troops that survived the initial explosion were left with a terrible choice – either stay on board and burn to death, or jump into the chilly Mississippi River and run the risk of drowning in their weakened condition.
Most of them chose to jump. It was dark – the only light came from the raging flames of the Sultana herself. The river was high, flowing fast, and packed with dead, drowning, and barely floating men. The men barely stood a chance.
As one man recalled afterward, "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. 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."
When the sun finally came up that morning, the bodies of over 1,700 dead federal troops were scattered up and down the river. Of the 2,300 passengers originally on board the ship, only 800 survived that first night. And even many of those survivors were horribly burned or scalded, and 200 of them would die in the coming weeks following the accident. The remains of the Sultana, burned beyond repair, drifted downriver and sank in the riverbed opposite Memphis, where she rests today.
In the months to follow, this catastrophe got little, if any, serious attention in the press. News of the terrible steamboat tragedy found itself buried in the back pages of the newspapers. The weary nation, which had grown accustomed to death and destruction over the previous four years, was hardly shocked at even such a staggering loss of life, and was determined to put the carnage of the Civil War behind it.
While local papers, such as the Memphis Daily Appeal, screamed with headlines proclaiming “IT WAS MURDER,” the country's most influential papers, which were still published almost exclusively in the East, ignored the situation. It didn’t help that the Sultana's victims tended for the most part to be poor, and from the Middle West.
For its part, the Army was understandably reluctant to publicize the accident. Within hours of the disaster, General C. C. Washburn, the commanding officer at Memphis, appointed a military commission to quietly investigate the tragedy. After weeks of testimony, the commission ultimately discounted the crowded conditions aboard the Sultana, concluding that "the evidence fully shows that the government has transferred as many or more troops on boats of no greater capacity than the Sultana frequently and with safety."
A court-martial was eventually convened to hear charges against Captain Speed, who was initially found guilty on all charges and sentenced to be dismissed from the Army. The verdict was later reversed by the Judge Advocate General, however, and Speed was honorably discharged from the service. With Speed’s exoneration, the Army closed its investigation of the Sultana tragedy. No one was ever held responsible.
- Stephen Ambrose,Remembering Sultana , (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/05/0501_river5.html)
- Gene Eric Salecker, Disaster on the Mississippi: the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865, Naval Institute Press, 1996
- ”Sultana: A Tragic Postscript” (http://historynet.com/ah/bltragicpostscript/index.html) by Jerry O. Potter, from American History Magazine
- ”The Sultana: Death on the Dark River” (http://www.rootsweb.com/genepool/sultana.htm