On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, some seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, carrying 2,300 just-released Union prisoners of war, plus crew and civilian passengers, exploded and sank. Some 1,700 people died.
It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, more costly than even the April 14, 1912 sinking of the Titanic, when 1,517 people were lost. But because the Sultana went down when it did, the disaster was not well covered in the newspapers or magazines, and was soon forgotten. It is scarcely remembered today.
April 1865 was a busy month; On April 9, at Appomattox Couthouse, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assasinated. On April 26 his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was caught and killed. That same day General Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. Shortly thereafter Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. Northern newspapers rejoiced.
The accident happened at 2 a.m., when three of the steamship's four boilers exploded. The reason the death toll was almost exactly equal to the number of Union troops killed at the battle of Shiloh (1,758) was gross government incompetence. The Sultana was legally registered to carry 376 people. She had six times more than that on board, due to the bribery of army officers and the extreme desire of the former POWs to get home.
Gene Eric Salecker tells the story in Disaster on the Mississippi (Naval Institute Press, 1996). He is a policeman who spends his off-duty time researching and writing about the Civil War. He does it so well that academic historians are envious of his work.
In 1863, the Sultana was built in Cincinnati and began sailing the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, mainly from St. Louis to New Orleans. She was state of the art, including the most modern safety equipment--safety gauges that fused open when the internal boiler pressure reached 150 pounds per square inch, three fire-fighting pumps, a metallic lifeboat and a wooden yawl, 300 feet of fire hose, thirty buckets, five fire-fighting axes and 76 life belts.
In April, 1865, Union POWs were gathered at Vicksburg. They were loaded on steamboats for the trip to Cairo, Illinois, with the government paying $5 per man. That was big money, which led to corruption--steamboat captains kicked back $1.15 to the army officers in charge if they filled the boats with men.
The Sultana was the last to leave. One of her boilers had sprung a leak and needed repair, but instead of doing the job right--removing and replacing the bulge in the boiler that was the cause--the Sultana captain ordered a patch of metal put over the bulge. That could be done in one day, while a proper repair would consume three or four days. Before that was done, other steamboats would come to Vicksburg from New Orleans and pick up the POWs, leaving the Sultana without these lucrative passengers—thus the hurry-up.
The army officers in charge knew this but they wanted the Sultana's kickback and loaded 2,300 POWs on board. Soldiers were packed in so tightly they could find no place to sleep and could barely stand.
On the Hurricane (top) deck, the second deck, and the main (bottom) deck, the POWs pushed, squeezed, and jammed themselves aboard. What the hell, after their experiences in the Southern prison camps, they could take anything in order to get to the North and home as quickly as possible.
Among the passengers was Lt. Harvey Annis, who along with his wife Anna and their seven-year-old daughter, was also heading north. Anna expressed great fear about the large number of men getting on the boat. The Hurricane deck was sagging from the weight of the men, despite a number of stanchions put in place to buttress it. But the Sultana's chief clerk told her it would be O.K. and Lt. Annis, who had just resigned his commission and was eager to get home, agreed. So the family joined the POWs, except Lt. Annis paid for a private cabin.
Overcrowded, Nor Overloaded/b>
At 9 p.m., on April 24, the Sultana left Vicksburg to head up river. The captain, J. Cass Mason, told an Army officer his ship had carried so many men before. He said the Sultana was a good vessel and the men were in capable hands. "Take good care of them, the officer replied. "They are deserving of it." The Sultana was badly overcrowded, Mason knew, but not overloaded.
On Apil 26, the ship docked at Memphis to pick up coal. At midnight she headed upriver. At 2 a.m., April 27, the repaired boiler exploded. Two of the three other boilers exploded. Fire spread through mid-ship. The two smokestacks fell on the boat, crushing the Hurricane deck and killing many men. Those who survived panicked and rather than fighting the fire began to jump into the river. The flames started sweeping toward the stern, causing more panic and jumping.
Lt. Annis opened his stateroom door to see what was happening. He was enveloped in a cloud of steam. He slammed the door shut, put life belts on himself and his wife, took their daughter in his arms, opened the door again, and rushed to the stern. There he shimmied down a rope to the lower deck, with his seven year old, and waited for his wife Anna to follow.
With his daughter in his arms, Annis jumped. Anna followed. When she hit the water she discovered her life preserver had been fastened incorrectly. She managed to grab hold of the Sultana rudder.
Anna was almost hysterical in her worry about her husband and child. Then, in horror, she saw her husband and her daughter disappear into the current. As they drowned, and the fire began to engulf the rudder, she grabbed a small board and floated away.
The river was high, flowing fast, crowded with dead, drowning and barely floating men. The Sultana was in flames. When the sun began to come up, more than 1,700 were dead. The survivors began singing marching tunes. Holding onto their driftwood rafts, they looked like frogs--some men noticed this and began croaking.
Mrs.Annis was picked up by a Navy gunboat coming from Memphis. Heartbroken by the fate of her husband and child, she nevertheless managed to say thanks to Corporal Albert King, who had helped keep her afloat. She took off her wedding ring and gave it to King, saying that everything she had was gone "except my ring," which was her only "token of reward."
Almost 800 of the 2,500 passengers survived (although 200 later died). On the Titanic, 882 feet long, 1,517 died. On the Sultana, 260 feet long, the toll was 1,700. The steamship, what was left of it, drifted downriver and sank opposite Memphis. She lies today, covered with mud, at the bottom of the Mississippi River.