As a passionate reader of history, there can be weeks/months that go by where I think I know enough about American history that I can hold my own and be able to tell the stories of our past. Then as I am sitting on my couch, happily eating Pumpkin Spice TicTaks and drinking Pumpkin Spice coffee, I come across a documentary tucked far into Amazon Prime that shakes my whole world and reminds me that I have so much more to learn.
Let me set the stage for you:
April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant at the McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court House. The Civil War had ended.
April 14, 1865- John Wilkes Booth, one of the most famous actors in America, assassinated President Lincoln at the Ford Theater in Washington D.C. President Lincoln died hours later in the back bedroom of William Petersen’s boardinghouse across the street from the Ford Theater.
April 15, 1865- Captian James Cass Mason of the Sultana Steamboat is at Cairo, Illinois, when word of the assassination is printed in the Cairo newspapers. He grabs an armload and starts heading south to spread the word since the telegraph has all but cut off in the southern states. Thus, he became, unintentionally- the unofficial ‘messenger of death’ down the Mississippi River.
April 21, 1865- Captain Mason gets the deal of a lifetime. Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, the chief quartermaster at Vicksburg, Mississippi, offers him $2.75 per enlisted man and $8.00 per officer to take Union POWs home to the north. In addition, Captain Hatch ensures that he can fill the Sultana with at least 1,400 prisoners if Captain Mason is willing to give him a kickback.
April 24, 1865- the Sultana, loaded with 1,960 paroled prisoners, 22 guards, 70 paying passengers, and 85 crew members, not to mention cargo and livestock, backs away from the docks of Vicksburg. Due to the weight strain, the decks began to sag and had to be supported with wooden beams. In addition, boilers of the steamship, which had been hastily repaired just two days prior, strains under the pressure of the turbulent Mississippi River and the weight.
April 26, 1865- John Wilkes Booth was discovered in a barn on Richard Garrett’s tobacco farm. While his accomplice, David Herold, surrendered, John Booth refused even while the barn burned around him. Finally, realizing that there was nothing left to do, he emerged from the burning building and was shot in the neck by Union Soldier Boston Corbett. Booth died a few hours later on the front porch of the farm.
April 27, 1865- The worst maritime disaster in American history occurs-the Sultana caught fire, and over 1,800 people lost their lives on the Mississippi River, according to Battlefields.org. Of those who survived the initial disaster- 200 later died from the burns sustained during the explosion.
Side Note: The actual death toll is not known. On May 19, 1865, less than a month after the disaster, Brigadier General William Hoffman, Commissary General of Prisoners who investigated the tragedy, reported an overall loss of soldiers, passengers, and crew of 1,238. In February 1867, the Bureau of Military Justice placed the death toll at 1,100. In 1880, the 51st Congress of the United States, in conjunction with the War Department, Pensions and Records Department, reported the loss of life aboard the Sultana as 1,259. The official count by the United States Customs Service was 1,547. The Sultana Disaster Museum places the death toll at 1,200, with hundreds more dying from injuries sustained months later.
The total casualties, how they died, the back story of who lost their lives- why don’t we know this story? Why is this a side story? It is the worst maritime disaster in all of American history- and it is not common knowledge?
And then it hits me- look at the timeline of events. This event was not going to be front-page news. The country did not even like each other. So who was going to care that more than 2,000 POWs survived a war, survived some of the most brutal prison camps in the country, survived three train wrecks on the way to a steamship, and were on their way when their ticket home blew up on the Mississippi River? No one.
I want to tell the story.
Who was on the boat?
On the Sultana were Paroled Prisoners of War, primarily from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Most of those on board had been enlisted men- no famous war heroes, no high-ranking officials, just everyday men who spent years fighting for their country.
Why were they loaded onto the Sultana?
As I mentioned above- Captain Mason was offered $2.75 per enlisted and $8.00 per officer loaded onto his ship. However, the Federal Government rate was $5.00 per enlisted and $10.00 per officer. The Union Officer, Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch, who packed the Sultana was about as crooked as you could get, and he knew that his cash cow was about to be dried up with the end of the war, so he was banking on a big score. Captain Mason was in debt because of various issues with the Sultana, and he needed the cash to carry on with his business, or he was out of a job.
In another twist of fate, three steamships were waiting to load passengers onto their vessels to take them home. The other two were loaded with 17 passengers as there were no backdoor agreements of splitting the fares.
What happened to the Sultana that night?
Around 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865- the Sultana was about seven miles north of Memphis when its boilers exploded. That year, the Mississippi River was struggling from one of the worse spring floods in the river’s history. Currents and shifting tides caused the Sultana to list back and forth precariously, causing an uneven distribution of river water to flow through the boilers to cool them off. As the temperature rose, the boilers quickly hit their breaking point.
It is said that steam shot from the top rear of the boilers at a 45-degree angle at least 100 feet into the air and tore through the crowded decks demolishing the pilothouse. The twin smokestacks toppled over, one falling backward into the blast hole and the other forward onto the crowed forwarded section of the upper deck. The weight of the smokestack caused the forward portion of the upper deck to crush down onto the middle tier, trapping and killing those who were sleeping below. In addition, the collapsing decks formed a slope downwards into the exposed furnace boxes- allowing the broken wood to catch on fire. The remaining intact steamship quickly became an inferno.
Unfortunately- there were only two lifeboats and 76 lifevests on board.
With no Captain steering the boat, the blazing woodpile drifted down the Mississippi River, leaving a trail of survivors and the dead in its wake.
Those who survived the initial blast and jumped into the waters of the great river had two options. Hold on to whatever they could find that floated and listen to the screams of their friends who were still on board the blazing ship, or swim the length of the Mississippi River (which was 5 miles across) and hope they made it to shore.
Can you imagine what it would be like during that chilly April morning? The river flooded, tons of debris floating by you, tree limbs from the shore pulling at your clothing if you came too close, the currents pulling you in the opposite direction of the shore. Most of those on board were too weak from their time in the POW camps to survive if they knew how even to swim. Even the most potent swimmer in the best shape of their lives find that the Mississippi River is a challenge to cross. Furthermore, most of them did not know.
Within an hour of the explosion- the Bostona, on a southward journey, came upon the scene and attempted to rescue as many people as possible. However, unfortunately, it was too late for many of the passengers as the river drew them downstream.
There were no rescue efforts for the survivors until hours after the incident- when bodies started washing ashore down in Memphis hours later. When the sun finally rose, the river was covered in bodies and debris- some alive, but mostly dead. Memphis sent out any and every possible boat to rescue the survivors- but it had to had been overwhelming. At one point, it was noted by a survivor- that boats were floating past the people they thought to be dead and only stopping for the ones that could still scream.
Ironically- due to the location, the Union soldiers were being saved by their confederate enemies. Thus, just weeks prior, this act of humanity may not have occurred.
The Sultana drifted about 6 miles down the river and finally sank around 9:00 a.m. near Marion, Arkansas.
Months later, bodies were still washing ashore as far down the shore as Vicksburg.
What happened after?
It is believed that the number of survivors totals 969. Of those, 760 were transferred to hospitals in Memphis for recovery, with about 200 dying of their injuries later. However, the actual number is hard to calculate since many people on the Sultana were never recorded. In addition, at least 200 hundred had gone ashore during its first stop in Memphis to download cargo and never made it back on.
The recovered soliders’ bodies were interred at the Fort Pickering cemetery on the south shore of Memphis. Unfortunately, there were women and children on board the Sultana, and they were buried at a local cemetery in Memphis. The U.S. Government established the Memphis National Cemetery on the northeast side about a year later and moved all the bodies there.
Personally, the blaring issue is that these men, who had survived years of a bloody war and some of the worst POW camps in the U.S.- had essentially been murdered by agents of the Federal government.
Moreover, despite the tragedy that unfolded- no one was held responsible for the loss of life. The military, at the time, did three investigations- and while they state that the Sultana was overcrowded- it was not considered to be overloaded. Lt. Col. Reuben Hatch was court-marshaled for deliberately overloaded the Sultana– but that was quickly overturned because it was realized that he never went to the Sultana to ensure proper loading procedures were accruing. Lt. Col Hatch was highly connected with political members of the Federal Government and had quickly resigned his commission when he had heard about the general inquiry into his actions. Because of his resignation- he was not held accountable by a military review of his actions.
The Captian who did the actual loading was a West Point graduate and a member of the Regular Army. The military was hesitant to try one of their own for an ‘obvious mistake.’
The survivors of the Sultana explosion held reunions until 1936, when the last survivor died- 71 years after that fateful night.
I know what you are thinking- was not the Titanic a worse tragedy as far as loss of life. No- it wasn’t. Statistically speaking, even with the play of the unknowns in the Sultana story:
The Sultana was 260-feet long, whereas the Titanic was 882 feet in length. The Sultana was 42-feet wide, and the Titanic was over twice the width, at 92 ½ feet. The Sultana was four stories high, from keel to the top of the chimneys. The Titanic was 11 stories. The Sultana was completely made of wood; the Titanic had a steel hull.
However, the most overwhelming of the numbers has to be the passengers. At the time of the explosion, the Sultana was carrying nearly 2,300, even though the legal limit of the vessel was 375, including crew.
The Titanic carried 2,227…the capacity was 3,327.
Of the passengers on the Sultana, nearly 1,800 died, and 583 survived. On Titanic, 1,522 perished, and 706 were saved.
So why does the Titanic have its own personal movie, documentary, china collection, and song? It was the largest ship in the world as it made its maiden voyage…and carried some of the wealthiest people in the world, including John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, Macy’s owner Isidor Strauss, and industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim.
The Sultana carried enlisted paroled prisoners of war.
As always, my friends, I invite you to do some more research into this story on your own. I happened upon this story because of a random documentary on Amazon Prime. It is a story that needs to be told- as with all parts of the Civil War and Maritime disasters. I have included some books about the Sultana and invite you to check out the Sultana Disaster Museum (Home – Sultana Disaster Museum).
And remember- Be Great at something you are Good at!
Side Note: I have always found it ironic that we called it a ‘Civil War.’ Of course, there was nothing Civil about those years- but then I can across its original use dating back to the 14th century, which was the Latin form of the word- Civilis, coming from the word Civis– meaning citizen. When used in this format- the term Civil War means ‘a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.’