The Sultana was built in 1863 for the transport of cotton, passengers and other cargo. Captain J. C. Mason entered the side-wheel steamboat in several races, winning the prize as the fastest steamer from New Orleans to St. Louis.
During her first two years the Sultana made regular runs, hauling cotton from New Orleans to St. Louis. The boat fell in disrepair and the captain was failing financially but with the close of the Civil War there was new hope.
Thousands of troops were shipped by the federal government, paying $5 for each soldier transported, $10 for officers, big money in those days. It was a lucrative market and Captain Mason took advantage of the opportunity. Some captains gave kick-backs of twenty percent or more to officers in charge to have them fill their boats with passengers. Captain Mason bargained with Col. Reuben Hatch who was in charge of transportation of soldiers on the Mississippi following the war. Their agreement resulted in a boatload of soldiers boarding the Sultana, many of them released Yankee prisoners from nightmarish prisons such as Andersonville, Cahaba and others.
The Sultana had a boiler that was leaking and needed repair in April of 1865. Captain Mason babied it into Vicksburg where he sought the service of a mechanic before picking up his passengers. He knew if the repair work was done properly, removing and replacing the boiler’s ruptured bulge, it would require several days and result in the loss of his passengers to other transports. If instead, a patch of metal was put over the bulge it could be done in a much shorter time. Unfortunately the captain opted for the quick fix, to have the hurry-up job.
Captain Mason didn’t divulge this information to Col. Hatch and as many as 2,300 Yankee soldiers were loaded onto the Sultana. The soldiers were packed so tightly many couldn’t find a place to sleep and could barely stand. The number of passengers grossly exceeded the legal limit of 376. It put the skipper in line for a big payday but it put the passengers, crew, and the Sultana itself, at risk.
They made a three hour stop in Memphis on the evening of April 26, 1865, where 30,000 pounds of sugar was unloaded from the cargo hold. The loss of weight from the Sultana’s belly resulted in the loss of her ballast. The ballast is what enables a boat to be level and not list (lean) to one side.
“Overcrowded but not overloaded,” Captain Mason would say before resuming the journey, listing heavily. She crossed the Mississippi River and stopped at a coal barge at the mouth of Wolf River to take on fuel before continuing her journey
The mighty Mississippi was experiencing one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history. The river overflowed the banks and spread out as much as three to four miles wide in some places, often with only the very tops of trees giving an indication of the river’s normal dimension. When the boat passed a difficult stretch of the river, a cluster of islands called “the hen and chickens,” the river current became greater and grudgingly gave up ground to the heavily laden Sultana. She was listing badly and the boilers began to falter.
“I’d give all my interest in this steamer if we were safely landed at Cairo,” he exclaimed.
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 and then two more a split second later. The water in the boilers was low and it caused too much pressure. The blast could be heard for many miles around.
Much of the Sultana was blown to smithereens, hundreds of fragments of twisted metal tore through the bodies of passengers and crew, hurtling into the river. The momentum of the Sultana halted, began taking on water and then drifted uncontrollably downriver.
Hundreds of men were killed by the explosion and by drowning. The Yankee prisoners, weakened from months of malnutrition, could do little to save themselves. Hundreds of others, disabled by the blast or fastened to the boat by metal or wood from the deck, burned in the fires following the explosion. Some of the men jumped into the cold water, even some of those who couldn’t swim.
“I could see hundreds of men jumping in the water until it became black with men… their heads bobbing up and down in the water like corks,” a lucky survivor wrote. “Many would then disappear in the cold, rough water… never to appear again.”
The primary boat deck collapsed sending hundreds of men who were still aboard, sliding down the slippery slope, screaming into a roaring fire. The twin smoke stacks dislodged as the ship teetered, the huge masses pinning men to the Sultana’s remains.
“She’s sinking,” yelled some of those who were still aboard the burning wreckage.
Others could be heard praying, shouting and many emitting screams of horror. Those with a chance of surviving leaped into the dark water. Some were too frightened to abandon the burning oven of a boat.
“Those who couldn’t swim and too afraid to jump, could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow until they were singed off like flies,” Joseph Taylor Elliott, a survivor would later tell. “The shrieks and cries were all that I could hear. It reminded me of the stories of doomsday I had heard and read about as a child.”
Finally the remains of the ship struck one of the series of small islands and sunk with a great hissing noise and an immense pillar of steam.
Crewmen of the U.S.S. Grosbeak, a gunboat, heard the huge bursts and many saw the flash from the explosion in the distance. They cast off immediately for the site of the wounded steamer and found many bodies. They also found survivors clinging to rafts, logs, barrels, railings and other pieces of wood. Others were found along the shorelines clinging to trees, many badly burned. Every morning for over two weeks a barge went out to pick up dead bodies.
As many as 1,900 men were killed in the mishap. The exact number will never be known. So many passengers boarded at Vicksburg there wasn’t sufficient time to complete a manifest. Captain Mason said it would take too long, that the list would be completed while enroute. If this was done it was lost during the catastrophe.
“At the time I had a list of the officers and men shipped on the ill-fated steamer Sultana,” Joseph Taylor Elliott, the aforementioned survivor would later relate. “The total number from each State was: Ohio, 552; Michigan, 420; Indiana, 460; Kentucky, 180; West Virginia, 12; and Tennessee, 522. Added to this list was a squad of Confederate prisoners who were under guard, on their way to another military prison camp.”
Many readers ask why the extreme over-crowding and tremendous loss of life didn’t lead to more notoriety as many individuals haven’t heard of this dark day in America’s history. It is likely because there were so many huge newsworthy events in that historic month of April 1865.
Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, signaled an end to the Civil War, a huge story with many underlying elements. The assassination of President Lincoln occurred on April 16, 1865. It remains as one of the most-publicized events in our history. The attack on War Secretary William H. Seward happened the same night with Lincoln’s cabinet member suffering knife wounds to his throat and face during the assault at his home. The week-long search and death of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, occurred on April 26, just hours before the Sultana’s explosion. Parallel plans to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and Union General U.S. Grant were also prominent in the same period. The overwhelming amount of news activity ate up the news print, relegating the Sultana to secondary status.
It was also a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.” Most of the influential newspapers were in the east and the Sultana tragedy happened many miles away. The death toll exceeded that of the Titanic.
It was one of the worst marine disasters in history. copyright 2015 jadon gibson
Editor’s note: Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com
*Author’s note: Individuals desiring more information may acquire “Disaster on the Mississippi, the Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865″ by Gene Eric Salecker and/or The Sultana Tragedy, America’s greatest Maritime Disaster” by Jerry Potter.
Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read periodically at bereaonline.com