The steamboat Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheeler destroyed in an explosion on 27 April 1865. This resulted in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. An estimated 1,800 of the 2,400 passengers were killed when one of the ship's four boilers exploded and the Sultana sank not far from Memphis, Tennessee. This disaster received somewhat diminished attention as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and during the closing weeks of the Civil War.
The wooden steamship was constructed in 1863 by the John Lithoberry Shipyard on Front Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, and intended 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 frequently 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 cabin passengers, deck passengers, and numerous heads of livestock bound for market in St. Louis. At Vicksburg, Mississippi, the steamship stopped for a series of hasty repairs to the boilers and to take on more passengers. Rather than have a bad boiler replaced, a small patch repair was made to reinforce a leaking area. A section of bulged boiler plate was removed, and a patch of less thickness than the parent 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. During the Sultana's time in port, men tried to muscle, bribe, and threaten their way on board, until the ship was bursting at the seams with soldiers. More than two thousand men crowded aboard.
Most of the new passengers were Union soldiers, chiefly from Ohio and just released from Confederate prison camps such as Cahawba and Andersonville. The US government had contracted with the Sultana to transport these former prisoners of war back to their homes. With a legal capacity of only 376, the Sultana was severely overcrowded. Many of Sultana's passengers had been weakened by their incarceration and associated illnesses. Passengers were packed into every available berth, and the overflow was so severe that the decks were completely packed.
The cause of the explosion was a leaky and poorly repaired steam boiler. There was reason to believe allowable working steam pressure was exceeded attempting to overcome the spring river current. The boiler (or "boilers") gave way when the steamer was about 7 to 9 miles north of Memphis at 2:00 am.[3 ] There was a terrific explosion that sent some of the passengers on deck into the water while destroying a good portion of the ship. Hot coals scattered by the explosion soon turned the remaining superstructure into an inferno, the glare of which could be seen in Memphis. [4 ]
The first boat on the scene at about 3:00 A.M. (an hour after the explosion) was the southbound steamer Bostonia II which overtook the burning wreck and rescued scores of survivors. The hulk drifted to the west bank and sank about dawn off the tiny settlement of Mound City, Arkansas. 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. [4 ]
Passengers who survived the initial explosion had to risk their lives in the icy spring runoff of the Mississippi or burn with the ship. Many died of drowning or hypothermia. Some survivors were plucked from 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. The Sultana's officers, including Captain Mason, were among those who perished.[4 ]
About 500 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 staged a benefit, the crew of the Essex raised $1,000, and the mayor took in three survivors.[4 ]
Monuments and historical markers to the Sultana and its victims have been erected at Memphis, Tennessee; Muncie, Indiana; Marion, Arkansas; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Mansfield, Ohio.
No exact death toll is known. Estimates range from 1,300 to 1,900. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547. Modern historians tend to concur on a figure of "up to 1,800". Final estimates of survivors were between 700-800. 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 "careening." The Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, the Sultana listed severely to one side then the other. The Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship 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 ship 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 Sultana '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 the Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana. He 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.
An East Tennessee Sultana survivors' group met annually on April 27 until 1928, when four survivors were left. [4 ]
In 1982, a local archaeological expedition uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of the Sultana. Blackened wooden deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about four miles from Memphis. The Mississippi River has changed course several times since the disaster. The main channel now flows about two miles east of its 1865 position. [4 ]
Jay Farrar of the band Son Volt wrote a song called "Sultana" which pays tribute to the "the worst American disaster of the maritime." Farrar calls the ship the "the Titanic of the Mississippi" in the song which can be found on the "American Central Dust" album.
Cory Branan of Memphis, TN (now living in Austin, TX) is known to perform an original song titled "The Wreck of the Sultana". Videos of this are available on YouTube.
The Norwegian group Titanic had a hit in 1971 with an instrumental called Sultana.
The J. Mack Gamble Fund of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen and the Friends and Descendants of the Sultana sponsored a mural entitled The Sultana Departs from Vicksburg as one of the Vickburg Riverfront Murals. It was dedicated on April 9, 2005.