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The most terrible steamboat disaster in history was probably the loss of the U.S.S. Sultana in on April 27, 1865. Some 1,700 returning Union Veterans died... yet the tragedy got very few headlines. Late in April, the Mississippi River stood at flood stage. Four years of war had ruined many levees and dikes, and in the lower reaches of the river, the foaming water was over the banks for miles.
The war-weary Union soldiers in the South had but one thought, they wanted to go home. Vicksburg had been turned into a great repatriation center, and here were gathered thousands Union "prisoners of war" just released from the horrors of prison compounds like Andersonville. They waiting in Vicksburg, Mississippi for transportation back home.
More than any other soldiers, these were impatient to get started. Prison camps in the Civil War were hard places, in the North and South alike. Most of the survivors were little better than semi-invalids. Now their minds had no room for anything but a feverish desire to get North to their mid-western homes, where they could see their families, get out of uniform, and have the rest, care and good food they needed so badly.
Most of them would go by river, and as April came to an end, a huge contingent was slated to travel on the Sultana.The Sultana was a typical side-wheeler ship built at Cincinnati in 1863 for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. She was registered at 1,719 tons and carried a crew of 85, and for 2 years it had been on a regular run between New Orleans, Louisiana and St. Louis, Missouri. From War Department records, it is known that it frequently carried Army personnel up and down the river.
The Sultana left New Orleans on the 21st, on what looked like a regular run. She had from 75 to 100 cabin passengers, and a cargo which included 100 hogsheads of sugar and 100 head of assorted livestock. By law, it could carry 376 persons including her crew. She was commanded by Capt. J.C. Mason of St. Louis, who had a reputation as a good, careful riverman. On the evening of the 24th, the Sultana made a regular stop at Vicksburg to take on passengers and cargo. After it had tied up, an engineer made a disturbing discovery; the boilers were leaking rather badly. It was determined to lay up briefly, draw fires, and repair boilers and machinery before going up river to the scheduled stops at Tennessee (Memphis and Cairo), Kentucky (Evansville and Louisville) and Ohio (Cincinnati). The repair gang got to work, and the job was done more quickly than had been anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Sultana was taking on passengers. A large number of repatriated Union prisoners of war were to go North on this steamer, and the men were so desperately eager to start that the authorities decided not to make out the muster rolls in advance, as usual. Instead, the rolls would be made out onboard, after the vessel had left Vicksburg.
Boarding the vessel for the voyage home seemed to put new life into the ex-prisoners. Weak as most of them were, they were shouting, singing, and jesting as they came aboard, as lighthearted a crowd as ever came up a gangplank.They came in almost unmanageable numbers, far beyond the Sultana's rated capacity. Army reports do not give the exact number, but apparently it was somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000. In addition, 2 companies of armed soldiers came aboard. Altogether, there were probably some 2,300 people onboard when it left. They packed the steamer from top to bottom hull, cabins, Texas deck, even the pilothouse. The ship had 6 times as many passengers as she had been designed to carry.
Somehow, the Sultana got clear of the wharf and went puffing upstream, breasting a current made stronger than usual by the river's flood stage. Mason seemed to be a bit worried. He cautioned the men not to crowd to one side of the boat when a landing was made, because there were so many of them it might cause serious trouble. But for 48 hours after casting off the Vicksburg Wharf, the Sultana went on without trouble, making a few scheduled stops and on the evening of April 26, docking at Memphis.
While the Sultana was at Memphis, a leaky boiler gave more trouble. Again the repair gang was called in and the leak was repaired.
By 2:00 A.M. on the 27th, the Sultana was just a few miles north of Memphis. It was making progress, but progress was slow; the current was powerful, the boilers were tired, the load was much greater than usual. The Sultana swung 'round a bend and began to labor her way past a cluster of islands known as the "Hen and Chickens."
Then it happened. The leaky boilers gave up. They quit holding the heavy pressure of steam and suddenly exploded with a tremendous crash that was heard all the way back to Memphis. Back at Memphis, the watch on U.S.S. Grosbeak, a river gunboat, saw the light and heard the noise. The skipper was called, and he had them cast off the mooring lines and the Grosbeak went pounding up the river. Other steamers on the Memphis waterfront did likewise, hurrying against the strong current to give any help they could give.
It was a loosing race. The Sultana had been half blown apart by the terrific force of the explosion. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were blown into the river. With them went great chunks of twisted machinery, a shower of red-hot coals that hissed and spurted as they hit the river, and great fragments of wood, cabin furniture, railings, deck beams, half of the steamboat had simply disintegrated.
The water was icy-cold, many of them could not swim, and there was little wreckage to cling to. Men died by the hundreds in the water near the wreck. They had been half-starved for months and were in no physical shape to swim even if they had known how.
Fire followed the explosion. The blast scattered hot coals from the furnaces all over the midships section of the steamer, and in moments the disabled vessel was on fire. The upper works were all collapsed, there was a huge, gaping hole in the middle of the hurricane deck and the flames were taking hold everywhere. So men who had not been knocked into the water went there of their own accord, willing to face anything rather than the spreading flames.
The Sultana was totally out of control by now and was drifting helplessly downstream. The deck supporting the main rank of passenger cabins, collapsed at one end, forming a horrible steep ramp down which into the hottest fire, slid screaming men and a tangle of wreckage. The huge twin smokestacks tottered uncertainly and then came crashing down, pinning men under them and holding them for the flames. The superstructure was falling in and the whole midships section was nothing better than a floating bed of coals. Survivors clung desperately to the bow and stern sections, which the fire had not yet reached and among them panic born. Men who were as yet unhurt began to throw themselves into the water, thrashing about frantically for some bit of wreckage that might help them stay afloat.
Hundreds of horribly burned and scalded men remained aboard the drafting hulk. Some had the strength and presence of mind to wrench doors or window blinds from their hinged, toss them overboard and jump in after them. Others simply huddled in the diminishing spaces that the flames had not yet reached and shouted, prayed or screamed helplessly for aid. Someone had gotten the steamer's lifeboats into the water and desperate, floating men tried to struggle aboard.So far the flames had not reached the bow, and there most of the survivors were jammed. Then the wind shifted, or perhaps the drafting boat swung around and took it from another direction,and the flames leaped forward. Most of the men preferred drowning to being burned alive, and leaped into the water.
At last, the boat struck a small island where there was a little grove of trees and some of those who still were aboard jumped ashore with ropes and made the hulk fast. Slowly, the worst of the flames died down, and finally with the mooring ropes still holding what was left of the Sultana gave up the hopeless struggle and sank, with a great noise of hissing and a huge pillar of smoke and steam rising toward the sky.
When the cold dawn light came, survivors dotted the river all the way to Memphis, clung to logs, rafts, spars, barrels, sections of railing and other bits of wood. All the rescue craft in Memphis put out to do what they could, hauling half-dead men out of the cold river. Hundreds of men were found on both shores of the Mississippi, cling to trees of driftwood, many of them badly burned and without clothing.
Altogether between 500 and 600 men were taken to the Memphis hospitals. Some 200 of these died soon afterward, either from burns or exposure and general debility. For many days after the disaster, a barge was sent out each morning to pick up dead bodies Each night it would come back to Memphis with its gruesome cargo.
So the Sultana was gone, and all that remained was to count the dead and to try to find out just why the disaster had happened. No definite count of the casualties was possible because there did not exist any really complete list of the number of men aboard at the time. Estimates of the number killed ranged from 1,500 to 1,900. Probably a median figure of 1,700 would be about right.
There were many rumors about the cause of the explosion, including a wholly baseless story that some vengeful ex-Confederate had put explosives in the coal. What is known is that the Sultana, fearfully overloaded, was struggling against an abnormally strong current with defective boilers exploded, the wrecked ship then took fire, and most of the men aboard were killed.
Oddly enough, this overwhelming catastrophe got only a moderate amount of newspaper attention at the time. The nation's mind was fixed on the closing scenes of the Civil War. Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was surrendering on the day before the disaster.The country had a new President (Lincoln had been dead 11 days when this happened) and was beginning to sorry about the problem of rebuilding the sadly shattered Union. The Army naturally, was not anxious to publicize the accident, and anyway, the country's most influential papers were published in the East, and the Sultana's victims were all from the Middle West, far away and across the mountains. There was an official inquiry, productive of a mass of documents to which nobody in particular paid very much attention and there, the affair ended. One of the worst marine disasters in history, but one which has a hard time finding its way into the history books.