The Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on April 27, 1865. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank near Memphis. This disaster received little public attention, as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and about three weeks after the end of the Civil War.
The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Litherbury Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati, and was intended to be used for the lower Mississippi cotton trade. Weighing 1,719 tons, the steamer normally carried a crew of 85. For two years, the Sultana ran a regular route between St. Louis and New Orleans. The steamship was sometimes commissioned by the War Department to carry troops.
Under the command of Captain J. C. Mason of St. Louis, the Sultana left New Orleans on April 21, 1865, with 75 to 100 paying civilian passengers and numerous heads of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for some hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than replacing a leaking boiler, a patch repair was made to reinforce it. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of less thickness than the original plate was riveted in its place. This repair only took about a day, whereas to replace the boiler completely would have taken about three days.
Most of the new passengers who boarded at Vicksburg were Union soldiers from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee who had recently been released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahaba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with the captain of the Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, the boat was severely overcrowded. Many of the these soldiers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses in the prison camps. They were packed into every available space on the open decks.
At 2 AM on April 27, 7 miles north of Memphis, at least one boiler gave way, causing a huge explosion that destroyed the center portion of the boat, throwing sleeping men high into the air before landing in the river. Confusion and pandamonium ensued as men tried to save themselves and others. Many drowned while others burned to death.
While the direct cause of the explosion was later determined to be the leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler, there was also reason to believe that allowable working steam pressure was exceeded while attempting to overcome the strong spring river current.
The first boat on the scene at about 3:00 AM (an hour after the explosion) was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, which overtook the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors. Other vessels joined the rescue, including the steamer Arkansas, the Jenny Lind, the Essex, and the Navy sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler, manned by volunteers. The ship’s regular crew had been discharged days before.
What was left of the Sultana drifted to the west bank if the Mississippi and sank about dawn off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas. Many citizens in the area worked tirelessly to save victims floating by in the water, or those who had ended up in trees that were nearly covered by the flooded river on the Arkansas shore .
Bodies of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some as far as Vicksburg. Many were never recovered. Some of the Sultana’s crew, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.
About 800 survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Up to 300 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, which was traveling through Memphis, staged a benefit; the crew of the Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.