CHARLOTTE, N.C., May 23, 2015 – On April 27, 1865, a Mississippi River side-wheel steamboat named the Sultana exploded and burned to the waterline near Memphis, Tenn. To this day it remains the worst maritime disaster in United States history, yet almost nobody has ever heard about it.
Of the nearly 2,500 passengers aboard the ship, an estimated 1,800 died when three of the four boilers erupted in a fiery blaze.
Constructed of wood in 1863 by a boatyard in Cincinnati, Sultana was built for the lower Mississippi cotton trade with a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans. In the Civil War, she was also frequently commissioned to transport troops.
Sultana left St. Louis on April 13, 1865, bound for New Orleans with Capt. J. Cass Mason at the helm. Two days later she was docked in Cairo, Ill., where Mason was approached by Col. Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg, Miss. Hatch had a deal for Mason to transport hundreds of recently released Union prisoners for a fee of $5 per enlisted man and $10 for each officer to any steamboat captain who would carry the former prisoners to the North.
Hatch knew that Mason needed money, so he guaranteed the captain a full load of 1,400 prisoners if Mason would also pledge a kickback to Hatch. The two men shook hands, and Sultana set out from Vicksburg to New Orleans.
On April 21, Sultana departed Louisiana heading for Vicksburg to pick up the Union prisoners. Between 75 and 100 passengers and a small number of livestock were aboard the ship when one of the four boilers sprang a leak about an hour south of their destination.
Sultana managed to glide into Vicksburg under reduced pressure, hoping to have the boiler repaired while waiting for the prisoner transfer.
The mechanic who was sent in for the repairs explained that the boiler had a ruptured seam that needed to be cut out and replaced, but Capt. Mason knew such a job would take several days to complete, costing him his precious prison cargo.
As a compromise, Mason had his chief engineer persuade the mechanic to make temporary repairs that would allow the patchwork job to be completed in one day instead of two or three.
Due to a snafu in the prison camp registers, the 1,400 parolees swelled to more than 2,100 on a ship that had a legal capacity of only 376 people. Soldiers were packed into every available nook and cranny of the vessel. Many men were already in a seriously weakened condition as a result of their incarceration, which further increased the problem.
So severe was the overflow of people that heavy wooden beams were used to support decks that were now sagging under the extreme weight of humanity and cargo.
For two days Sultana traveled upriver against the one of the worst spring floods in the history of the Mississippi. When she finally arrived in port at Helena, Ark., a photographer by the name of T.W. Bankes took a picture of the unbelievably overcrowded vessel.
After reaching Memphis, where 120 tons of sugar were unloaded, the ship set sail once again, but one of Sultana’s boilers exploded at about 2 a.m. just seven miles north of the Tennessee port. Seconds later, two more boilers burst as a result of too much pressure and low water in the boiler system.
Some passengers were literally blown into the air and out to the river by the size of the blast. Many others raced for the safety of the water but in their weakened condition lost their struggle for survival and drowned.
Just an hour after the disaster, Bostona II, coming downriver on her maiden voyage, managed to rescue several hundred passengers. Before long several other ships arrived to provide relief, but nearly seven hours after the explosion, Sultana had drifted about six miles to the west and sank at about 9 a.m.
Why then would a disaster of such magnitude be overlooked by the history books?
The answer lies in the reason for the Union prisoners’ transfer back to the North. The war had just ended, and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated while attending a play in Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
When the Sultana went to its watery grave, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed the day before, and, given the slowness of communication at the time, the Booth story took precedence.
Thus the worst maritime tragedy in American history sank just like the Sultana. Surprisingly, even today, hardly a soul has ever heard of this fascinating story.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of the Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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