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Mississippi River Catastrophe

The Sultana

Less than 2 weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln left an already traumatized nation reeling, a Mississippi steamboat transporting thousands of passengers, mostly Union soldiers paroled from Confederate POW camps, exploded, burned and sank, 7 miles north of Memphis, Tennessee.

Most people are familiar with the Titanic, but very few are acquainted with the Steamboat Sultana, the largest maritime disaster in American History.

The Sultana disaster is one of the most horrific events in U.S. history and yet few are aware that it even occurred.  A Mississippi steamboat, the Sultana, exploded just north of Memphis, Tennessee in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865 killing over 1,800 people.  The boat was overloaded with over 2,300 Union soldiers, newly released POW’s on their way back home after surviving the horrors of Civil War prison camps. This accident wasn’t only tragic because POW’s died on the way home; it’s not just tragic because greed-driven men squeezed well over 2,000 individuals onto a vessel licensed to carry 367 passengers; the Sultana disaster is tragic because it was covered up and, ultimately, forgotten. Greed, drama, and humanity make the Sultana a story to remember.

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.

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 April 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.”

This disaster has long been overshadowed in the press by other contemporary events; John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln’s assassin, was killed the day before.

The wooden steamboat was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati, and intended for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Registering 1,719 tons, the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, she ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans, frequently commissioned to carry troops.

Under the command of Captain J. Cass Mason of St. Louis, Sultana left St. Louis on April 13, 1865, bound for New Orleans, Louisiana. On the morning of April 15, she was tied up at Cairo, Illinois when word reached the city that President Abraham Lincoln had been shot in Ford’s Theatre. Immediately, Mason grabbed an armload of Cairo newspapers and headed south to spread the news, knowing that telegraphic communication with the South had been almost totally cut off because of the war.

The ill-fated Sultana in Helena, Ark., just before it exploded on April 27, 1865, with about 2,500 people aboard. Most were Union soldiers, newly released from Confederate prison camps. Library of Congress.

The ill-fated Sultana in Helena, Ark., just before it exploded on April 27, 1865, with about 2,500 people aboard. Most were Union soldiers, newly released from Confederate prison camps. Library of Congress.

Upon reaching Vicksburg, Mississippi, Mason was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg. Hatch had a deal for Mason. Thousands of recently released Union prisoners of war that had been held by the Confederacy at the prison camps of Cahaba near Selma, Alabama, and Andersonville, in southwest Georgia, had been brought to a small parole camp outside of Vicksburg to await release to the North. The U.S. government would pay $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to any steamboat captain that would take a group north. Knowing that Mason was in need of money, Hatch suggested that if he could guarantee Mason a full load of about 1,400 prisoners, Mason would guarantee to give Hatch a kickback. Hoping to walk away with a pocketful of cash, Mason quickly agreed to the offered bribe.

Leaving Vicksburg, the Sultana travelled down river to New Orleans, continuing to spread the news of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 21, 1865, the Sultana left New Orleans with 75 to 100 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and a small amount of livestock. About an hour south of Vicksburg, one of the Sultana’s four boilers sprang a leak. Under reduced pressure, the steamboat limped into Vicksburg to get the boiler repaired and to pick up her promised load of prisoners.

While the paroled prisoners, primarily from the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia, were brought from the parole camp to the Sultana, a mechanic was brought down to work on the leaky boiler. Although the mechanic wanted to cut out and replace a ruptured seam, Mason knew that such a job would take a few days and cost him his precious load of prisoners. By the time the repairs would be completed, the prisoners would have been sent home on other boats. Instead, Mason and his chief engineer, Nathan Wintringer, convinced the mechanic to make temporary repairs, hammering back the bulged boiler plate and riveting a patch of lesser thickness over the seam. Instead of taking two or three days, the temporary repair took only one. During her time in port, and while the repair was being made, the Sultana took on the paroled prisoners.

Although Hatch had suggested that Mason might get as many as 1,400 released Union prisoners, a mix-up with the parole camp books and suspicion of bribery from other steamboat captains, caused the Union officer in charge of the loading, Captain George Williams, to place every man at the parole camp on board the Sultana. Although the Sultana had a legal capacity of only 376, by the time she backed away from Vicksburg on the night of April 24, 1865, she was severely overcrowded with more than 2,100 paroled prisoners. Many of the men had been weakened by their incarceration in the Confederate prison camps and associated illnesses. The men were packed into every available space, and the overflow was so severe that in some places, the decks began to creak and sag and had to be supported with heavy wooden beams.

The Sultana spent two days travelling upriver, fighting against one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history. At some places, the river overflowed the banks and spread out three miles wide. Trees along the river bank were almost completely covered, until only the very tops of the trees were visible above the swirling, powerful water. On April 26, the Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas, where photographer T.W. Bankes took a picture of the grossly overcrowded vessel. Near 7:00 p.m., the Sultana reached Memphis, Tennessee, and the crew began unloading 120 tons of sugar from the hold. Near midnight, the Sultana left Memphis, went a short distance upriver to take on a new load of coal and then started north again.

Near 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, when the Sultana was just seven miles north of Memphis, her boilers suddenly exploded. First one boiler exploded, followed a split second later by two more. The cause of the explosion was too much pressure and low water in the boilers. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to overcome the spring river current. The enormous explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water, and destroyed a large section of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes which soon caught fire and turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno. Survivors of the explosion panicked and raced for the safety of the water but in their weakened condition soon ran out of strength and began to cling to each other. Whole groups went down together.

While this fight for survival was taking place, the southbound steamer Bostona II, coming downriver on her maiden voyage, arrived at about 3:00 a.m., an hour after the explosion, and arrived at the site of the burning wreck to rescue scores of survivors. At the same time, dozens of people began to float past the Memphis waterfront, calling for help until they were noticed by the crews of docked steamboats and U.S. warships who immediately set about rescuing the half-drowned victims. Eventually, the hulk of the Sultana drifted about six miles to the west bank of the river, and sank at around 9:00 a.m. near Mound City and present-day Marion, Arkansas, about seven hours after the explosion. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas, and the navy tinclad Essex and the side-wheel gunboat USS Tyler.

Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the boat. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from the tops of semi-submerged trees along the Arkansas shore. Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many bodies were never recovered. Sultana’s officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.

About 700 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 200 of them died later from burns or exposure. Newspaper accounts indicate that the people of Memphis had sympathy for the victims despite the fact that they had recently been enemies. The Chicago Opera Troupe, a minstrel group, staged a benefit, while the crew of Essex raised $1,000.

In spite of the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable. Capt. Frederick Speed, a Union officer who sent the 2,100 paroled prisoners into Vicksburg from the parole camp, was charged with grossly overcrowding the Sultana and found guilty. However, the guilty verdict was overturned by the judge advocate general of the army on grounds that Speed had been at the parole camp all day and had never placed one single soldier on board the Sultana. Captain Williams, who had placed the men on board, was a regular army officer and graduate of West Point, so the military refused to go after one of their own. And Colonel Hatch, who had concocted a bribe with Captain Mason to crowd as many men as possible on the Sultana, had quickly quit the service and was no longer accountable to a military court. In the end, no one was ever held accountable for the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.

An engraving of the Sultana explosion, published in Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865. An estimated 1,800 people died in the explosion and ensuing fire — more than died in the sinking of the Titanic. Library of Congress

An engraving of the Sultana explosion, published in Harpers Weekly, May 20, 1865. An estimated 1,800 people died in the explosion and ensuing fire — more than died in the sinking of the Titanic. Library of Congress

The exact death toll is unknown, although the most recent evidence indicates more than 1,700, almost 200 higher than the 1,512 deaths attributed to the Titanic disaster on the North Atlantic 47 years later. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,800. Final estimates of survivors are about 550. Many of the dead were interred at the Memphis National Cemetery.

The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by the fact that the vessel was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamboat made her way north following the twists and turns of the river, she listed severely to one side then the other. Her four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the boat tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the boat tipped the other way, water-rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that the boat’s boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden, a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis, had the opportunity and motive to attack it and may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden’s claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden’s claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation. The location of the explosion, from the top rear of the boilers, far away from the fireboxes, tends to indicate that Louden’s claim of sabotage was pure bravado.

The episode of History Detectives, reviewed the known evidence and then focused on the question of why the steamboat was allowed to be crowded to several times its normal capacity before departure. The report blamed quartermaster Hatch, an individual with a long history of corruption and incompetence, who was able to keep his job due to political connections: he was the younger brother of Illinois politician Ozias M. Hatch, an advisor, and close friend of President Lincoln. Throughout the war, Reuben Hatch had shown incompetence as a quartermaster and competence as a thief, bilking the government out of thousands of dollars. Although brought up on courts-martial charges, Hatch managed to get letters of recommendation from such noted authorities as President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant. The letters reside in the National Archives in Washington DC. Hatch refused three separate subpoenas to appear before Captain’s Speed’s trial and give testimony before dying in 1871, having escaped justice due to his numerous highly placed patrons—including two presidents.

In December 1885, the survivors living in the northern states of Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio began attending annual reunions, forming the National Sultana Survivors’ Association. Eventually, the group would settle on meeting in the Toledo, Ohio area. Perhaps inspired by their northern comrades, a southern group of survivors, men from Kentucky and Tennessee began meeting in 1889 around Knoxville, Tennessee. Both groups met as close to the April 27 anniversary date as possible, corresponded with each other, and shared the title National Sultana Survivors’ Association.

By the mid-1920s, only a handful of survivors were able to attend the reunions. In 1929, only two men attended the southern reunion. The next year, only one man showed up. The last southern survivor, Cpl. Samuel W. Jenkins of the 3rd Tennessee Cavalry, died on January 19, 1933 at age 84. The last of the northern survivors, Pvt. Albert Norris of the 76th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, age 94, died at his home on January 9, 1936, 71 years after the burning and sinking of the steamboat Sultana.

In 1982, a local archaeological expedition, led by Memphis attorney Jerry O. Potter, uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet (10 m) under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about 4 miles (6 km) from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster, leaving the wreck under dry land and far from today’s river. The main channel now flows about two miles (3 km) east of its 1865 position.

The History Detectives Video: The steamship Sultana exploded without warning one night in 1865, killing 1,800 people. Was the disaster a result of Civil War sabotage?

Sultana Disaster Records 

On This Date in 1865: Tragedy on the Mississippi – Sultana Explodes – Thousands Die

Steamboat Sultana

Sultana: A Tragic Postscript to the Civil War | HistoryNet

The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All …

Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Tragedy

Sultana: A Tragic Postscript to the Civil War | HistoryNet

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