The photograph above, taken on April 25, 1865, is believed to be the last picture of the Sultana, a coal-powered steamer that carried cargo and passengers up and down the Mississippi River. Two days later, in the pre-dawn hours of April 27, one and then two more of the Sultana’s four boilers exploded, lighting flames all through the ship, which ultimately sank.
As the photo suggests, the ship was very crowded. It was designed to hold 376 passengers but at the time carried as many as 2,400. By sunrise, about 1,800 passengers and crew members had drowned or died of burns.
The Sultana incident is the most deadly in American maritime history, eclipsing the more often discussed loss of 1,500 lives when the Titanic plowed into an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage from England to the United States in 1912.
Maybe it’s proportion. The Titanic sinking occurred in peacetime, when large-scale deaths were rare. The Sultana incident followed the Civil War, when the country was reeling from the loss of 620,000 combatants who had died of wounds and disease. Another couple thousand lost lives may not have seemed to matter so much.
The war had ended earlier that same April. After several days of useless skirmishes in Virginia, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee answered a message from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, saying, “I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood.” Two days later, on April 9, Lee signed surrender documents at Appomattox Courthouse.
Less than a week after that, on April 15, Pres. Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Booth was hunted down and shot dead on April 26.
In the south, Union prisoners were released from Cahaba Prison in Alabama and the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Many made their way by train or on foot to Vicksburg, where they were to be transported up the Mississippi to their northern homes.
One Union officer agreed that all 2,100 of the camp’s remaining residents would be sent north on the Sultana, which already had booked a couple hundred other passengers, overloading it to many times its capacity. The soldiers, accustomed to crowded prison life and very eager to go home, no doubt boarded without complaint.
In exchange for premium pricing from the US Army, the ship’s captain agreed to pay a bribe to a Union quartermaster. All wars attract profiteers, alas.
On April 26, the Sultana docked at Memphis and took on a new load of coal for fuel. It left that evening and exploded around 2 a.m. after traveling about seven miles north.
Several reasons have been advanced for the explosion, starting with crowding on the passenger decks. On the other hand, it has been noted that the steamer’s cargo hold was largely empty and the overall weight of the ship was not extreme.
In addition, the first boiler to blow had been repaired with a metal patch on its side in its most recent stop at Vicksburg. The repair may have been done badly.
And finally, the winter of 1864-5 had been an unusually rainy one. The runoff in the river was much heavier than usual, creating a stronger southbound current against which the Sultana made its way north.
The current, fed by ice-cold runoff from distant mountains, made survival particularly difficult for the former war prisoners who went into the water. Most were malnourished and emaciated, and many were suffering from diseases contracted in prison camps. And, in that day, few people knew how to swim.
Boats from shore rescued some people, and another steamer heading south stopped and pulled as many as 150 passengers out of the river. But most of the passengers and all of the ship’s crew died.
The Civil War has been a preoccupation of American historians, professional and amateur, for 150 years. I spent an afternoon recently at the downtown Nashville library, reading from books about the Sultana and its sad end.
From “Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors,” (edited by Chester D. Berry, published by the University of Tennessee Press, 2005), comes one many soldiers’ stories:
“My first recollection was that I was on my feet and enveloped in a cloud of hot steam, and was considerably scalded in the face. After the steam had risen I said to Corporal Irons what is the matter. He said the boat had blown up. He seemed to be very much excited, and told me they thought they could make it to shore. These were the last words he said to me, but as the boys kept jumping off from the boat into the river he kept calling for them not to for they would all be saved.
“I then began to look around to devise some means of escape. I stepped back to where some of my company’s boys were untying a yawl; I thought that I would help them get it down, and then I thought if I did they would all jump for it and perhaps be lost, which I learned afterward was the case. I then got a shutter and board from off the pilot house and tied them together with a pair of drawers. By that time the flames had come through. I then got over the railing behind the wheel house and climbed down to the lower deck. By this time all was confusion and men were jumping into the river to get away from the flames. I looked around for a clear space to jump, for I knew that if I jumped in where men were struggling they would seize my board and I would be lost, for I could swim but little.
“I waited a short time and when there was an opening large enough I threw my board in, jumped on and went down under quite a way, but came up all right and floated away from the boat. After I had gone four or five rods a bundle of clothing came floating along and I took it in with my right hand and held on to the board with my left. I then floated with the current. . . .
“I was picked up four miles below Memphis by two men in a yawl and rowed to a gunboat . . . where I was taken in . . . eleven miles from the disaster. I wish to state here that there were thirteen of my company on board the Sultana, and but two besides myself were saved.”
Passengers threw boards, hay bales and shutters into the river, then held onto them to float. There were fights in the water for these handholds, and the losers drowned. As people on the Sultana prepared to jump, they found the water crowded with other people, some drowning, and so had to spend time looking for clear spots of water into which to leap.
Others were not so fortunate. The boilers’ explosion dislodged large pieces of the cabin walls, which pinned down some passengers who, their colleagues observed, “roasted to death.” Many of the burn victims begged to be thrown into the water to die there rather than endure the pain of the flames.
Some other Sultana titles:
Jerry O. Potter, “The Sultana Tragedy: American’s Greatest Maritime Disaster,” Pelican Publishing Company, 1992.
Alan Huffman, “Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, Harper Collins, 2009.
Gene Eric Salecker, “Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865,” Naval Institute Press, 1996.
–Like D-Day veterans or relatives of those who died on 9/11, the Sultana survivors gathered in various cities regularly on the anniversary of its occasion. The last known survivor, a Midwestern man, died in 1935.
–The remains of the Sultana were located in 1982, buried in under an Arkansas soybean field. (The river, appropriately called Big Muddy, had changed course over intervening years and deposited so much silt that the Sultana’s final resting stop was two miles inland.)
The nearby city of Marion, Ark., opened a small museum commemorating the Sultana last year and plans to increase the range and size of its exhibit over time.