The Sultana was a privately owned sidewheel steamboat built in Cincinnati, Ohio, in February 1863. A relatively large boat, the Sultana stood three decks tall and measured 260 feet long and approximately 70 feet wide – a little shorter than a football field and about half as wide. Built for the New Orleans cotton trade, the Sultana spent her first two years carrying troops and supplies up and down the Mississippi River for the Union Army, until Vicksburg, MS, was captured in July 1863. She then carried cotton, manufactured goods and civilian passengers between New Orleans and her home port of St. Louis, MO.
In the spring of 1864, the original owner sold the boat to a conglomerate of St. Louis businessmen including thirty-four-year-old James Cass Mason, who would captain the Sultana. Unfortunately, times were tough in the Mississippi trade, since there seemed to be more steamboats than goods. In mid-April 1865, Captain Mason set off downriver with the Sultana after making the fastest trip upriver for any steamboat at that time. In honor of his record, the Sultana was awarded a set of elk’s antlers, a symbol of a speedy steamboat, which Captain Mason immediately placed high up on the lower bracing between the twin smokestacks. Any businessman or passenger looking for a fast boat only had to look up at the coveted elk’s antlers between the stacks of the Sultana to know that Captain Mason and his two-year-old boat could deliver.
THE SURRENDER, ASSASSINATION, BRIBE AND BOILER
On April 9, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox, VA, marking the beginning to the end of the Civil War. On the morning of April 15, while the Sultana was sitting at Cairo, Illinois, word came over the telegraph wire that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated while watching a play. Knowing that telegraph communication with the South had been cut off because of the war, Captain Mason headed towards New Orleans hoping for fame as the first to boat to spread the news of Lincoln’s death.
When Captain Mason stopped at Vicksburg, MS, he was approached by Capt. Reuben Benton Hatch, the Chief Quartermaster in Vicksburg. Hatch, knowing that Mason was hurting for money because of a lack of commerce, had an offer for Mason. Almost 5,000 recently paroled Union soldiers, who had just recently been held captive by the Confederates in rebel prisons at Andersonville, GA, and Cahaba, AL, were being released to be sent home. Steamboats were taking the men home and the US Government was paying so much per man, per hundred miles, to carry them home. Hatch proposed to Mason that he could guarantee that the Sultana got at least 1,000 men (worth about $2,500, or more than $40,000 today) if Captain Mason would give him a kickback. Even though both men knew that the legal carrying capacity of the Sultana was just 376 passengers and 80-85 crew, Mason agreed to the bribe. He then continued downriver spreading the news of the assassination before coming back to get the Union soldiers.
On April 23, 1865, the Sultana limped back into Vicksburg from downriver. She had sprung a leak in one of her four boilers, and it needed to be repaired. While the work was being done to fix the boiler, the recently released soldiers began showing up. Instead of 1,000 soldiers, as Captain Hatch had suggested, the Sultana got almost 2,000 men. They were crowded together in every nook and cranny of the steamboat, as Captains Mason and Hatch knew more men meant more money. Very late in the evening of April 24, 1865, the Sultana finally backed away from the Vicksburg wharf and started upriver on her final journey. She carried on board a total of 2,137 people; 1,960 ex-prisoners, 22 guards, 85 crew members, and 70 paying passengers.
The overcrowded Sultana moved steadily upriver against a strong spring flood current. On several occasions, as the Sultana steamed past a southbound steamboat or passed a small farm, the men crowded to one side to wave and holler. Fearful that his boat would capsize from the sudden shift in weight, Captain Mason implored the men to stay in place. Equally as disconcerting was the fact that the sudden shift in weight caused the water inside the four inter-connected boilers to slosh back and forth, decreasing water in the highest boiler and increasing the level of water in lowest boiler. The highest boiler, without water, would still be exposed to the fire from the furnaces and would become red hot. When the Sultana shifted back to an even keel, the water would return to the super-heated boiler and turn to instant steam. With the Sultana’s boilers already taxed against the spring flood, a sudden increase in pressure would be dangerous.
On the morning of April 26, 1865, Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas where photographer Thomas W. Bankes captured an image of the overcrowded steamboat (see photo). Near 7:00 p.m. the Sultana reached Memphis, where about 300,000 pounds of sugar was removed from the hold. The top-heavy vessel, which had tilted quite often despite the extra weight down in the hold, would tilt even more now. Near 1:00 a.m. on April 27, after unloading the sugar and taking on a new load of coal, the Sultana finally started on the last leg of the journey towards Cairo, Illinois, where the men were to be transferred to trains and taken to Camp Chase, near Columbus, Ohio for mustering out.
Around 2:00 a.m., when the Sultana was about seven miles north of Memphis, three of the four boilers suddenly exploded. The horrendous explosion came from the upper back part of the boilers and ripped upward through the heart of the Sultana. The blast went up at about a 45-degree angle, ripping apart the center of the main cabin, destroying the middle of the texas cabin (the section of a steamboat that includes the crew's quarters), and shearing off the back two-thirds of the pilothouse.
Since the explosion had not come from the furnace fireboxes, the Sultana did not burst into flames immediately. With the loss of three of the four huge boilers, the towering smokestacks lost their support and toppled. The right smokestack fell into the giant hole in the center of the Sultana while the left stack crashed heavily onto the center of the crowded hurricane deck, smashing it down onto the equally crowded second deck underneath. Dozens and dozens of soldiers were crushed to death between the two decks although some were saved by the support of the heavy railings outlining the openings of the main stairway.
As the debris from the wrecked upped decks slid down into the exposed fireboxes, the center of the Sultana slowly burst into flames. A few soldiers tried to put out the flames but they could not locate any of the fire buckets. The men had used them to retrieve water from the swollen Mississippi and had not returned them to their racks. It was not long before the entire middle of the steamboat was in flames.
Many people had been catapulted into the river by the force of the explosion while hundreds more fought to get away from the spreading flames and to find scraps of lumber to keep them afloat in the water. People trapped in the wreckage cried out for assistance as men women, and children who were lucky enough jumped into the icy cold river. Many of the ex-prisoners, emaciated from their time in Southern prisons, soon lost their strength and grabbed onto anything that might help them stay afloat – a scrap of wood, a swimming horse, another struggling human being.
At first, the bow of the Sultana was facing into the wind and the flames were blown only backward towards the stern. Many people on the bow stopped their panic and waited while the people behind the flames leaped into the water and fought to survive. Eventually, however, one of the big side paddlewheel boxes broke away and fell into the water causing the steamboat to turn completely around. By the time the second paddle wheel box broke away and fell into the river, stabilizing the vessel, the bow was pointed downstream and the flames were suddenly being pushed back towards the bow. All of those who had sought safety on the bow while flames were blowing toward the rear, were now suddenly in the path of the advancing flames.
Approximately four hundred men and a few women had clustered on the bow when the flames began blowing their way, and by now most of the floating debris was gone, taken by the first group to leave the boat. Pushing and shoving into the water, men and women grabbed onto each other as they fought a life-or-death battle to keep their heads above the freezing, swirling waters.
Shortly after the explosion of the Sultana, the steamboat Bostona (No. 2) came downriver upon the harrowing scene. The crew and passengers immediately tossed doors, shutters, stage planks, chairs, and all floating items into the water to help survivors stay afloat while rescuing approximately 150 people. Hoping to raise the alarm and get other steamboats to rush to the scene, Capt. John Watson decided to head downriver to Memphis to spread the alarm.
At Memphis, the other steamboats were already aware of the disaster. In fact, Sultana victims had begun floating past the docked steamboats at the Memphis wharf, calling out for help. While the Memphis steamboats had to wait for enough pressure to build in their cold boilers, crews sent out smaller boats and sounding yawls (a ship's smaller boats) to rescue people floating past the Memphis waterfront.
Upriver, closer to the burning Sultana, hundreds had managed to float to flooded treetops or rooftops of submerged barns or other outbuildings. As the sun began to crease, the morning darkness, the surviving soldiers, civilians, and crew awaited rescue.
Near 7:00 a.m., the still-burning hulk of the Sultana floated in among a group of flooded trees atop Hen Island, a few miles northwest of Memphis. A handful of survivors climbed back up onto the bow of the boat and fought back the flames while John Fogleman and his sons set out from Fogleman’s Landing to rescue them. Working with only a crude raft and a pole, the rescuers took the last desperate man off the boat before the Sultana sank beneath the waters of the Mississippi River.
A LESSON IN HUMANITY
It has been said that disaster sometimes brings out the best in humanity. It is widely known that people on the Confederate side during the Civil War, even Confederate soldiers, risked their lives to save people from the deadly Mississippi River during the Sultana disaster, most of whom were Union soldiers, their common enemy just weeks earlier. In a lot of ways, this represents the beginning of healing between a divided nation, and a lesson to us all that we are all human beings.
In total, 786 people had to be rescued and were taken to five hospitals and the Soldiers’ Home – a sort of Civil War USO. Most of those rescued were suffering from scalds and broken bones. Almost all were suffering from exhaustion and exposure in the frigid spring water. Of approximately 50 women and children that were aboard the Sultana, only four or five women survived. Two were civilian passengers, the other crewmembers. All of the children perished.
As the dead were pulled from the river they were placed into pine coffins and set along the waterfront. Eventually, Memphis ran out of coffins and the bodies were laid next to each other on the levee, covered by blankets or cloth. Unfortunately, with the river at flood stage and running fast, most of the victims of the Sultana disaster were never recovered. Bodies were seen floating in the river days after the explosion, hundreds of miles downstream.
Only 31 of the 786 people in the hospitals or Soldier’s Home died after rescue. Three civilians were buried in Elmwood City Cemetery while the soldiers who had died in the hospitals or whose bodies were pulled from the water were buried at Fort Pickering Cemetery, just south of the city. The surviving prisoners left Memphis in three large groups, and then in twos and threes, climbing onto steamboats and going upriver to Cairo, IL, where they were transferred to a train and shipped to Camp Chase, OH. In mid-May, the men were finally released from the army and went home to their loved ones.
Capt. James Cass Mason, who took the deal from Captain Hatch to overcrowd his hobbled steamboat, lost his life in the disaster. Only 21 civilian passengers survived, out of 70, while only 28 crewmembers lived, out of the 85. Only 6 guards survived out of 22, and only 913 ex-prisoners-of-war survived out of 1,960. Of a total of 2,137 souls aboard the Sultana on April 27, 1865, there were 963 survivors and 1,169 deaths, giving the Sultana the ominous distinction of being the worst maritime disaster in American history, to this very day.
The loss of 1,047 Union soldiers (subtracting the 122 dead civilians and crew) surpasses the Union deaths on most Civil War battlefields. In fact, there were about 100 significant battles during the Civil War. If the Sultana was a battle, the number of Union deaths would put it in 11th place, compared to Union losses suffered in other battles. Only monumental battles such as Gettysburg and Shiloh had more Union deaths. Proportionately, however, if we consider deaths versus survivors, the Sultana disaster would rank number 1 with a death/survival ratio worse than any battle, for either side, during the entire Civil War.
Within days of the Sultana explosion, the U.S. government was investigating the disaster. Questions needed answers. Who was responsible for placing so many men on one boat and what had caused the explosion? Eventually, it was determined that the explosion was the result of faulty boilers, too much steam pressure, and not enough water in the boilers. The government looked into the possibility of sabotage but it was quickly dispelled. The one surviving boiler was inspected and found to contain scorching on the inside, a clear indication that the boat had been run with too little water. Also, the location of the explosion, from the top, the back-end of the boilers, far away from the fireboxes, ruled out the possibility of a coal torpedo being the cause of the explosion.
In January 1866, Captain Frederic Speed, who had been at the Parole Camp sending men out to the Sultana, was put on trial for overloading the Sultana. Captain Speed was found guilty, but after reviewing the case, the judge advocate general of the army overturned the conviction, stating that Captain Hatch was responsible for the overcrowding. Reuben Hatch, however, ignored three subpoenas and was nowhere to be found when a US Marshal was sent to arrest him and was therefore never brought to trial. Ultimately, nobody was ever held accountable or brought to justice for the 1,169 victims of the Sultana disaster.
The Sultana disaster was not the biggest news at the time, and so it never garnered the attention it deserved back then or even today. General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant just weeks earlier, indicating the beginning of the end of the Civil war. Abraham Lincoln had just been assassinated and his body was being transported across the United States. His assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was tracked down and killed on April 26, just one day before the disaster. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered to Union General William T. Sherman that same date in North Carolina, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis was on the run and being pursued by Union cavalry. Too many monumental events were taking place for people and big eastern newspapers to get excited over the sinking of a steamboat or the deaths of soldiers from western states.
After disappearing beneath the waters of the Mississippi, the Sultana was eventually covered with sand and silt until she was buried deep beneath the mud on the bottom of the Mississippi River. When the river changed course and moved to the east, the buried Sultana was left under an Arkansas soybean field, approximately two miles from the river. In 1982, Memphis attorney and Sultana historian Jerry O. Potter located the buried remains of the Sultana. To this date, she still remains dormant under the Arkansas soil, a fitting memorial to the men, women, and children that were on board the Sultana between April 24 and April 27, 1865.
In addition to the beautiful monument erected in Mount Olive Cemetery by the Tennessee survivors in 1916, there are now monuments at the Cincinnati waterfront, where the Sultana was built, at the Vicksburg waterfront, where the Sultana was overcrowded, and at the Memphis wharf, the last place the Sultana stopped. Additionally, there are now monuments in Mansfield, OH, Franklin Township, MI, Hillsdale, MI, Delaware County, IN, Adrian, MI, Lime Creek, MI, Alliance, OH, Cuyahoga Falls, OH, and Marion, AR. Since 2015, there has been an interim Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion, Arkansas, near the last resting place of the Sultana.