The Sinking of the Sultana

April 27, 1865

The Sultana was a steamboat that operated on the mighty Mississippi River, one that was absolutely obliterated by an explosion on April 27th, 1865, resulting in the worst loss of life in a maritime disaster in United States history. Of the 2,400 passengers on board the Sultana, an estimated 1,700 were killed, as one of the ship's four boilers blew up. The Sultana explosion did not receive a great deal of press coverage because the Civil War had just ended and Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated just a couple of weeks earlier. Making the Sultana disaster even more heart rending was the fact that most of the people that perished were ex-Union prisoners of war, being taken back North to be reunited with their families.

It may not have been possible to get more people on one steamship than the number that were sardined onto the Sultana for the trip from Alabama to Cairo, Illinois. Prisoners from the infamous Andersonville prison camp and from Cahawba were packed onto the Sultana, which had a legal capacity of 376 people. But the Sultana, which had been contracted by the government to transport these men back to the North, had more than five times that many as it steamed its way up the Mississippi to its fate. At one point, at one of its stops in Helena, Arkansas, a photographer took a picture of the Sultana. When the prisoners came to the side of the ship to be in the picture, the Sultana almost overturned.

That would have been simply a mild disaster with much less loss of life than what awaited the doomed paddleboat. Most of the ex-prisoners on the Sultana had been weakened to some degree by the trials and tribulations of their imprisonment, and illness was common among these men. The Sultana had been built just two years earlier, in 1863, at the cost of $60,000. The Sultana weighed in at 660 tons and could carry an additional 1,000 tons; she was 260 feet long and 39 feet wide, with an upper deck and an officer's quarters. Equipped with a newly developed fire-tube engine, a series of chambers through which hot gases flowed, created by a fire that was burning below the engine, the Sultana was a few miles north of Memphis, Tennessee on April 27th when one of the boilers exploded at three in the morning.

An inquiry later found that the overcrowding on the Sultana had resulted in it being top heavy. This in turn made her list from side to side, so much so that the water in the four boilers, which were interconnected, kept running out of the highest boiler. The hot spot that was created turned the water that finally came rushing back in when the ship tipped back the other way into steam, creating a huge pressure surge. This caused the explosion that wrecked the Sultana and sent hundreds to their deaths.

Much of the ship was destroyed by the initial blast, killing men instantly and sending many into the water. The searing coals that were scattered everywhere caused the Sultana to catch fire, and it was soon ablaze. A southbound steamer, the Bostonia, was the first ship on the scene, and it was able to rescue dozens of survivors. Two of the other boilers also exploded, and men were burned to death, scalded, or forced to decide whether to brave the fire or attempt to survive in the Mississippi, which had been swollen by recent floods. The men were in such an emaciated state from their captivity that many that jumped overboard drowned in the cold and turbulent water. Meanwhile, the burning Sultana could easily be seen from Memphis, and other ships came to join the rescue. The drifting Sultana floated to the western side of the river and sank near a town named Mound City, in Arkansas.

There were more than 500 injured men that were taken from the ship or from the river; they were transported to Memphis where the city did it all it could to help these ex-Union soldiers despite the fact that they had been enemies for the last few years. Of the 500 survivors, as many as 300 of them died; most of them from burns or from the exposure of being in the cold waters. Scores of the missing were never seen again, and bodies were recovered along the great waterway for months after the Sultans met her end. The captain of the Sultana and all the officers were killed, and the official death toll was put at 1,547 at the time, a number moved higher by modern historians researching the catastrophe.

Rumors that a former Confederate agent had made a deathbed confession that he had sabotaged the Sultana that night circulated 23 years later, but they have been largely dismissed. However, it would not have been out of the question for this particular individual to have pulled off such an act, as he had motive, means, and opportunity. Whatever the reason, the Sultana was lost; in 1982 pieces of what were thought to be from her were found under a soybean field in Arkansas, as the Mississippi had changed course several times over the decades. Monuments and markers to the disaster were erected in such cities as Memphis; Muncie, Indiana; Hilsdale, Michigan; Mansfield, Ohio, Knoxville, Tennessee, Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Cincinnati, Ohio, remembering the tragic loss of life that spring evening in 1865.
See also:
The Sinking of the Sultana - Newspaper account
Building of Andersonville Prison
W. Tennessee Unionist in Andersonville

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