The Sultana Disaster (April 27, 1865)
Little recalled today, the wreck of the steamer Sultana remains the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history, with a death toll that exceeds the Titanic's. Like the Titanic catastrophe, this was a mishap whose causes were known and clearly foreseen, but dismissed by the ship's captain before the crucial event; the officials in charge had more urgent agendas in mind, driven by schedules and profits.
The Sultana was a large (260' long, 1,900-ton) side-wheel river steamer built in 1863 for the cotton trade on the Lower Mississipi. Constructed and engined in Cincinnati, Ohio, the vessel served as a lucrative charter vessel ferrying supplies and personnel to the federal armies during the Civil War. At the very end of the conflict, she was engaged in such a voyage upstream under the command of Capt. J.C. Mason of St. Louis, a part owner. It was the end of April 1865, weeks after Lee's surrender at Appomattox and days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Soon after the Sultana left New Orleans on her way north on April 21, boiler trouble was reported to the captain. One boiler in particular was cracked and leaking badly. Because the four boilers' water and steam were linked together, it was impossible to remove any one boiler from the vessel's steam plant. The chief engineer refused to take her onwards unless the cracked boiler were repaired.
When the ship docked at Vicksburg on April 24, repairs were immediately undertaken. Rather than swapping out the defective boiler for a new unit -- an operation which would have consumed 3 days and possibly resulted in a loss of passenger revenues to a rival boat -- Capt. Mason opted for a quickie patch job. This was most unfortunate, for the ship was already overloaded and soon to become more so. The ship was under contract to the War Department to transport personnel; fees were paid by the head. A great number of the passengers then embarking were newly-released POWs who had spent long months or years in the notorious Confederate prison camps including Camp Fisk, Cahawba, and Andersonville. Others were freshly discharged servicemen from the federal armies and riverine gunboats, on their way home via Cairo or Cincinnati.
As the day passed by, trainload after trainload of troops was embarked on Sultana. Rated for occupancy by 367 passengers, the ship was carrying an estimated 2,400 souls by the time she departed Vicksburg. The vessel was so densely packed that the crew had to shore up sagging upper decks with large timbers. In the photo at top, taken at Helena, Arkansas on the 25th, humanity can be seen jamming the decks of the steamer from bow to stern; she nearly capsized as passengers crowded the rail to be seen in the photo. Although responsible Army officials sounded the alarm and suggested splitting the load with another steamer due in shortly, they were overruled and the overloading continued until the gangplanks were taken up. On departure the ship was dangerously top-heavy, listing badly on turns. This effect, combined with the strong downstream current caused by heavy spring rains, placed an undue strain on the ship's engines. It was imperative to maintain high steam pressure to keep Sultana paddling upstream with her heavy cargo of war veterans, as became apparent on the journey upriver. The ship stopped at Memphis for fuel, departing shortly after midnight on the night of April 26-27.
As mentioned above, the Sultana's boilers were daisychained together, so that when she listed to one side on a turn, feedwater would slop to the low side of the boat. It is thought that this caused the development of local "hot spots" on the high-side boilers. Moreover, after the vessel righted herself coming out of a turn, the water surged back into the superheated high-side boilers, causing uncontrollable surges of steam pressure. Whatever the proximate cause, around 2 a.m. on April 27, 1865, while rounding a bend some seven miles north of Memphis, three of the ship's boilers exploded with a noise "resembling a hundred earthquakes." The cataclysm collapsed the upper decks onto the furnaces at their forward end, while spewing red-hot embers over the upper decks and surrounding waters. The tall stacks collapsed into the crater, showering sparks and soot over the scene. Panic ensued; and the heaps of sleeping men lying on deck hampered any effort to fight the flames. Within minutes, the now-unmanageable wreck blazed up into an inferno, as shown in the Harper's illustration above.
Hundreds of men were propelled into the water by the explosion; others faced the grim choice of diving into the swiftly racing current or roasting in a bonfire of blazing Victorian woodwork. Horribly scorched or scalded, some dived overboard and reached shore or stayed afloat until rescued. Many more met a gruesome death trapped in the blazing wreck, which drifted ashore on the eastern bank. The flames lit up the sky with a glow clearly visible from Memphis. Incredibly, none of the Union gunboats there put out to rescue survivors until 3:20, almost an hour and a half after the explosion. First on the scene was the downstream packet Boston, which happened on the scene around 3 a.m. Boston stopped and lowered her boats to rescue survivors. By the time the Navy put out to assist passengers, they had been swept downstream almost to Memphis on the swollen river. An officer wrote in the log of the USS Tyler of the survivors' cries for assistance, "Of all the sounds and noises I ever heard, that was the most sorrowful; some cursing, calling for help; and [some] shrieking. I will never forget those awful sounds." (Quoted in "Sultana: A Tragic Postscript to the Civil War," American History, p. 5)
The people of Memphis stepped up to assist the survivors and cope with the aftermath. Many incidents of extraordinary kindness from churches, charities, and individuals are recorded, along with the collection of bodies and mass burials common to such stern events. The military did its best to cover up the extent of the disaster, but was only partially successful. Capt. Mason had been killed in the disaster, making him the scapegoat of choice -- and in truth he bears much of the blame. It was especially cruel that those who had already sacrificed so much for the federal cause should be carelessly betrayed by their country just when the long-awaited victory was won. Of more than 500 men scooped from the muddy Mississippi, nearly 300 died quickly of wounds sustained in the explosion and fire. Altogether there were some 700-800 survivors, leaving at least 1700 or, more probably, 1800 killed in the tragedy; no accurate count is available since the Army grossly undercounted the number boarding the boat. The Sultana dèbacle was, and remains to this day, the costliest maritime mishap in American history, in terms of lives lost. Even the Titanic tragedy of 1912 missed the total number of victims by 300.
Why, then, is the Sultana disaster so little recognized in historiography and folklore? Following the enormous slaughter of the Civil War so closely, it fell into the shadows of that epoch-making conflict. Quite likely that the public was so numbed by the horrific shock of war casualties that this new horror failed to register. Also, the news of the Sultana's loss overlapped the reporting of Lincoln's assassination, the change in government, the pursuit of the assassin, and the preparations for a solemn state funeral honoring the Great Emancipator. It seems likely the nation's attention and emotions (at least in the North) were channeled into grieving for Lincoln -- that grief for the people killed on Sultana that deadly night found expression wrapped in mourning for the slain president.
In 1888, Robert Louden, one of the inventors of the coal torpedo -- an instrument of sabotage used as recently as the Vietnam War -- is alleged to have confessed on his deathbed to blowing up the Sultana with one of these devices. This has never been conclusively proven or disproven, although other river steamers were damaged this way; the case is laid out in the website cited below.
In 1982 fragments of burnt woodwork thought to belong to the wrecked ship were recovered in an Arkansas soya-bean field near Memphis. Sultana commemorative plaques and markers have been erected in eight U.S. cities in six states. Sultana survivors held commemorative reunions every April 27th through 1928. A society of Sultana buffs exists today and holds conventions every year on the anniversary of the wreck.