SS Sultana sinking was nation’s greatest maritime disaster

SS Sultana

The SS Sultana left New Orleans, bound for St. Louis, Missouri, on April 21, 1865. It had been 12 days since General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. The Sultana was two years old and one of the largest and newest steamships on the river. It had served during the war to transport troops up and down the mighty Mississippi. The steamship was 260 feet long and 42 feet wide with a displacement of 1719 tons.
She carried a normal crew of 85 seamen and was rated for 376 passengers plus cargo. She exploded and sank at great loss of life on April 27, but the event was overshadowed and never received proper attention because the day before this event, President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed. This is recorded as the greatest maritime disaster in the history of the United States, but few have heard of this event.

She left New Orleans with between 75 and 100 cabin passengers, an unknown number of deck passengers and a load of livestock bound for St. Louis. Approaching Vicksburg she stopped for hasty repairs on one of the boilers, which had begun showing a bulge and become dangerous to operate. It would have taken three days to replace the faulty boiler, so they opted instead to make a hasty one-day patch repair, which proved to be a fatal mistake. The patch was later reported to have been made with a thinner boiler plate than the original, thus creating a weak spot.

During the layover for repair, the captain and crew were presented with another problem of serious consequence as they were mobbed by soldiers from the North who had just been released from Andersonville and Cahaba Prison. These infamous prison camps of the South had held over 50,000 prisoners during the Civil War and 12,913 had died while incarcerated. It is not hard to imagine the mood of the survivors as they tried desperately to find a way to return to their families whom they had not seen for three or four years. They had lived with filth and disease, watched their friends die by the score and almost given up hope of survival. Now they were free and all they wanted was to go home.

While tied up to the dock under repair, the ship was easily accessible to the Union soldiers and they mobbed the crew as they stormed aboard. The ship finished repairs and floated away from the dock, headed upriver. But now she was carrying over two thousand soldiers from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, finally on their way home.

She was top-heavy and unwieldy as she struggled to maintain headway against the currents of the upriver voyage. At
each bend in the river she heeled over dangerously from the extreme weight. It was spring and the river was in flood stage, which meant the currents were much stronger than they would be later in the season.

The men who now crowded every square inch of her decks, with standing room only, were weak, ill and malnourished from their long terms as prisoners of war, but they were willing to endure any hardship just to get up that long and muddy river. The engineers were forced to maintain an extremely high steam pressure to drive the great paddle
wheels hard enough to force the overloaded ship up stream.

The boilers gave way at 2 in the morning nine miles above Memphis, Tennessee. The enormous explosion flung deck passengers overboard into the icy waters and destroyed a large portion of the boat. The forward part of the upper decks collapsed into the exposed furnace boxes, which caused an inferno to erupt into the remaining superstructure.
The glare from the burning ship was visible as far away as Memphis.

The first boat on scene was the southbound steamer Bostonia II, which arrived about 3 a.m., an hour after the explosion, and began rescuing scores of survivors. The drifting hulk of the Sultana was sliding downstream and she ended up about six miles down on the west bank of the river near Mound City and the present day Marion, Arkansas. She sank around 6 a.m.

Other vessels arrived on scene to aid in rescue attempts and included the steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, Pocohantas, the Navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler manned by volunteers. Many who had survived the initial explosion died from hypothermia in the icy waters or drowning in the turbulent river. Some survivors were plucked from the branches of semi-submerged trees along the shores where they had managed to cling and pray. Bodies would be found for months afterward downstream when they washed ashore, some as far away as Vicksburg. Captain Mason was among those who perished in the initial explosion.

About 700 survivors were transported to hospitals in Memphis, many with terrible burns. Up to 200 of these survivors later died from their extensive burns or exposure.

The people of Memphis just days before had been mortal enemies of the wounded soldiers they were now trying to save. Human beings have a remarkable capacity to forgive and forget in the face of tragedy. The people of Memphis rose to the occasion and the mayor even took in three survivors. The official death count issued by the United Customs Service was 1800 dead. Ohio lost 791, Indiana lost 491 and Kentucky suffered 194 dead. Final estimates of survivors was between 700 and 800.

The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be poor judgement of water levels in the boilers, increased by the facts of heavy overcrowding and being top heavy. The steamboat made her way north following the twists and turns of the Mississippi and on each corner she listed heavily first to one side and then the other. Her four boilers were interconnected and as the boat tipped sideways, the water tended to run out of the highest boiler and left it dry. When the boat tipped the other way, the water rushed back in against a white-hot metal tank
and created enormous steam pressures. These flash steam surges could not be contained by the weakened boilers and they eventually exploded due to the careening, low water levels and faulty repairs.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner Robert Louden made a death bed confession of having sabotaged the Sultana with a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. He did have the opportunity and motive to attack and may have
had access and the equipment for the job. Thomas Edgeworth Cortnay invented the coal torpedo, and was a resident of St. Louis. Similar acts of sabotage had been experienced during the war and a piece of artillery shell was reported to have been observed in the wreckage. Loudens’s claim was highly controversial and most scholars since have supported the official explanation. The initial explosions were near the tops of the boiler tanks and not in the fireboxes where a coal torpedo would have exploded.

In 1982 an archaeological expedition led by Memphis attorney Jerry Potter uncovered what was believed to be the wreckage of Sultana. They found blackened wooden deck planks and other debris about 32 feet beneath a soybean field on the Arkansas side of the river about four miles from Memphis. The Mississippi changes course regularly and the main channel now flows about two miles east of its position in 1865.

It amazes me that the greatest maritime disaster in United States history did not make the history books or is even remembered by a vast number of Americans. It always seems strange how historic events are sometimes overshadowed by even more historic events occurring in the same time frame and thus one gets remembered and the other forgotten.

Frank C. Newby is the author of 17 books which are available on