(WHTM) — It was the worst maritime disaster in American history. And yet, the explosion and sinking of the Mississippi riverboat Sultana was almost completely forgotten.
Sultana measured 260 feet, with a beam of 42 feet. Four high-pressure boilers powered her twin paddlewheels. She was rated to carry up to 376 passengers.
On the day of the sinking, she carried over 2,000 people.
The Civil War was over, and thousands of Union prisoners of war at Vicksburg, Mississippi were awaiting a trip home. James Cass Mason, Captain of the Sultana, was approached by the Quartermaster of Vicksburg, Captain Reuben Hatch, with a proposal that he transport the prisoners north. Given that the Federal Government was paying a tidy sum to steamboats taking soldiers home, Mason was happy to agree. (There was also a kickback to Hatch involved.) Sultana departed Vicksburg on April 24 with 2,137 people aboard, almost 2,000 of them POWs.
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But one of Sultana’s boilers had a leak. Rather than lose a day-and his lucrative passengers-Captain Mason convinced a mechanic to make a temporary repair.
It didn’t hold.
On April 27, at about 2:00 AM, with Sultana about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, one of the four boilers exploded, probably the “repaired” one. Almost immediately, two more blew up. Hundreds of passengers were killed immediately by the explosion; with the riverboat in flames, drifting downstream out of control, the remaining passengers faced either burning to death or taking their chances in the icy cold, fast-running waters of the Mississippi. Many of the soldiers, weakened and sick by their time in the prison camps, couldn’t survive.
Boats came in to rescue survivors. In many cases, those coming to the aid of the Union POWs were former Confederates, who would probably have been exchanging gunfire with them on a battlefield a few weeks earlier.
Sultana drifted down to Marion, Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis, and eventually sank. When the death toll was tallied, no one could agree on the final count. Numbers range from the nine hundreds to the United States Customs Service’s official count of 1,547. Some estimates go even higher, up to 1,900, worse than the Titanic. Whichever number you pick, it’s still our worst maritime disaster.
So why was it forgotten? Consider if you will that in April of 1865 we had Lee’s surrender and the effective end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination; and the hunt for the assassin, John Wilkes Booth. All of those pushed the Sultana disaster off the front pages. And after four years of war and over 600,000 dead, people were just tired of hearing about death and destruction.
Over the years the Mississippi River changed course. In 1982 remnants of what is believed to be the Sultana were found about 32 feet under a soybean field.
In 2015 the town of Marion opened a museum dedicated to the Sultana disaster. Right now they are in the process of converting a building into a new, bigger museum, helping to keep the memory of the disaster alive.
For more about the Sultana museum, click here.