Today Marks the 152nd Anniversary of the Greatest US Maritime Disaster

By: Steve Dodd

When you think of maritime disasters, ones that come to mind would be the Titanic or possibly the Lusitania. There was one though, that occurred within the borders of the continental United States and claimed more lives than either the Titanic or Lusitania.

On April 27, 1865, the steamship Sultana exploded, caught fire and sank killing approximately 1,800 people. The tragedy occurred 7 miles north of Memphis around 2 a.m.

The Sultana was built in 1863 and was a twin wheeled steamboat. Capt. J. Cass Mason oversaw the crew of 85 as they made regular trips between St. Louis and New Orleans with stops along the way. Legally, the Sultana was approved to carry up to 376 passengers and freight on the trips.
Capt. Mason and crew left St. Louis April 13 and headed downstream to New Orleans. The weather was still cold and the river level was high making the current swift. Having no problems making the journey to New Orleans, the Sultana started the return trip to St Louis.

Heavy rains and flooding up north caused the river level to rise higher and was also filling it with logs and debris. The trip back North was more difficult due to the current so the Sultana was struggling some against the current. This was nothing that she had not been able to overcome in past trips.

One of the stops on the return trip was Vicksburg, MS. Capt. Mason planned to pick up more passengers and supplies as usual but those plans were to be drastically changed. A problem with one of the ship’s boilers was discovered and a mechanic was hired to make the necessary repairs.

The Civil War had officially ended April 9 when Gen. Robert E Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, VA. Since the war was now over, there was a great need to transport Union soldiers back to their homes up north. While docked at Vicksburg, Capt. Mason was approached by Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch who was serving as the Quartermaster in Vicksburg for the Union Army.

The two reached an agreement to transport recently paroled prisoners from the Confederate prison camps of Cahaba and Andersonville. Transporting soldiers was very profitable for the steamship companies. The U.S. Government paid $5 each for enlisted men and $10 for officers.
While inspecting the boiler, the mechanic found a bulge in the side of the boiler and determined it would take at least a couple of days to repair. Capt. Mason determined he could not wait that long because the soldiers would leave on other steamboats and there would be a large monetary loss.
As the soldiers were being loaded, Capt. Mason convinced the mechanic to make the temporary repair of bolting a larger plate over the bulge in the boiler so the Sultana could get underway. While the repair was being made, soldiers began boarding the Sultana.

Although never confirmed, it appears there was widespread greed and corruption between the steamboat captains and the Army officials. Reports of bribes and payoffs were alleged. When it was time for the Sultana to leave, the ship that was supposed to carry 396 people, now had 1,978 soldiers, 22 guards, 70 paying passengers and the 85-member crew. The soldiers were packed into every available space. At one point, there were so many on the upper deck that it started to sag and had to be braced from underneath. Capt. Mason assured everyone that the ship was overcrowded but was not overloaded.

The Sultana left Vicksburg the 26th of April and started northward. River conditions had deteriorated due to the flooding. The current was swift, the water level high and the Sultana was struggling. Around 7 p.m. that night, the Memphis stop was reached. Here, 120 tons of sugar was unloaded and the trip was resumed around midnight after replenishing the coal supply.

After travelling 7 miles upstream from Memphis, the temporary patch on the boiler gave way causing it to explode. The explosion damaged the second and third boilers causing them to explode as well into a massive fireball in the middle of the ship. Many were killed instantly in the explosion. For the others, they now had to face a fire sweeping through the ship and the deadly smoke. With nowhere to go, people started jumping into the swirling, icy river frantically attempting to grab hold of debris. Many perished aboard the ship while others died of their injuries in the water or drowned.

Residents along the bank awakened by the explosion rushed to the riverside to assist the survivors. Boats were launched to pick up those in the water and take them back to shore to treat injuries and best they could. Other steamships travelling along the Mississippi also come to the rescue. Some of the injured were transported to Memphis hospitals a soon as possible.

Regrettably, the Sultana tragedy was not highlighted in the news of the day due to other events. April had been a very newsworthy month in the United States. The Civil War officially ended April 9. Five days later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the 14th. Then twelve days later, April 26, John Wilkes Booth was cornered and killed.

The Sultana finally come to rest at Mound City in Arkansas. Local historians established a museum in Marion, AR. To honor those who perished and survived. It contains stories and artifacts recovered from the wreckage. The museum’s address is 104 Washington St. and is open Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sunday from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m.