The Sinking of the Sultana
The Sinking of the Sultana

By Elton Camp

(This is a lesser-known event that took place just after the end of the Civil War. This not NOT just a "Copy and Paste" job, but a carefully researched article that I've tried to form into a truthful, compelling account.   Even if you aren’t a history buff, you may find this horrendous, true story fascinating.)

It was 1865 and the Civil War was over.  Union prisoners of war who had managed to survive the horrifying conditions of Andersonville in Georgia and the less gruesome, but still shocking, Cahaba in Alabama were to be released to the north.  A grueling overland march of the weak, sick, emaciated men to a parole camp at Vicksburg on the Mississippi River set the stage for their return to homes and families. Many, at seeing the river, sang or shouted with joy.  

Moored at Vicksburg was the side-wheel steamboat Sultana.  Its name means wife, mother or daughter of a sultan.  The boat had the most modern safety equipment, including gauges that fused open when internal boiler pressure so dictated, three fire-fighting pumps, lifeboats, fire hoses and buckets, fire-fighting axes and life belts.  It had been constructed only two years previously.  

Its Captain, Cass Mason, was offered a deal by Col. Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster, that he wouldn’t refuse.  The United States government would pay five dollars per enlisted man and ten dollars per officer to any steamboat captain who would take a group north.  While that amount seems trivial by current standards, it would be about seventy dollars and 140 dollars in today’s money, an amount sufficient to set aside one’s scruples when large numbers of men were transported.  

Mason, part owner of the Sultana, was in need of money.  Hatch saw an opportunity to greatly supplement his military salary.  The two quickly struck a deal in which Hatch guaranteed a full load of about 1,400 prisoners in exchange for a generous kickback.  Hatch had a long history of incompetence and corruption.  A thief, he had bilked the government out of large sums, but managed to keep his job due to powerful political connections.  Then, as now, bribery was not uncommon, but neither man could foresee the horrendous outcome that would ensue.  

Setting the stage for the disaster, as the Sultana had drawn near to Vicksburg, one of its four boilers sprang a leak.   Being only an hour 
south, the captain reduced pressure and the steamboat limped into port to get the damage repaired.  Boilermarker R.G.Taylor explained that it was necessary to cut out and replace two metal sheets.  The job would take a few days.  Mason knew that much delay would cost him the lucrative contract.  Other boats would take the anxious men upriver.  Instead of making the repairs safely, he convinced the reluctant man to do a temporary job by hammering back the bulged boiler plate and riveting a patch of thinner metal over the ruptured seam.  The make-shift procedure took but a single day.  While it was being done, the ship took on the promised prisoners.   

Another major problem was that the boat had been designed for only 376 passengers, including crew.  The corrupt deal ultimately resulted in 2,427 boarding for the trip upriver.  Far more than the agreed-on number of ex-prisoners were loaded.  Possibly due to a mix-up with the parole camp books, the Union officer in charge, George Williams, placed every man at the parole camp onto the Sultana.  When she departed Vicksburg on April 24th, the ship was severely overcrowded with more than 2,100 former prisoners.  Weakened by the disease, dysentery and malnutrition of their incarceration, the men were ragged and some barefoot.  Jesting and singing showed they were in good spirits at the prospect of being home within a few days.  Thus, they didn’t object to being packed into every available space.  They jammed the steamer from top to bottom hull, cabins, all decks and even the pilothouse. The overload was so severe that, in some places, the decks began to creak and sag and had to be supported with heavy wooden beams.  

Despite these dangerous circumstances, the Sultana left Vicksburg and headed north on the mighty Mississippi.  Levees and dikes had been ruined during the course of the war.  Melting snow in the north had created one of the worst spring floods in the river’s history.  At some places, the river overflowed its banks and became a raging torrent three miles wide.  Only the tops of trees on the river bank were visible above the icy, swirling water.  The ship managed to reach Memphis on April 26th where it unloaded tons of sugar from the hold.  Just before midnight, it steamed a short distance to take on a load of coal before continuing to struggle upriver. Its two paddlewheels churned into the rushing current.  

Safe working steam pressure was exceeded in an attempt to move against the powerful flow as the ship followed the twists and turns 
of the raging river.  The severely overcrowded vessel was top heavy, resulting in extreme listing.  The captain mismanaged the water levels in the boilers, so that when the ship listed to one side and then the other, water ran out of the highest of the interconnected boilers.  With the fires still heating the empty boiler, it created hot spots.  When the ship listed the other way, water rushed back into the empty boiler, hit the hot spots and instantly changed to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure.  Maintaining a high water level in the boilers might have prevented this.  The faulty repair to the leaky boiler abruptly failed.  Several miles north of Memphis, at 2:00 a.m. on April 27th, as the Sultana rounded a bend in the river at the cluster of islands known as Paddy’s Hen and Chickens, one boiler suddenly exploded, followed a split second later by the other three.  

The tremendous blast instantly tore through the decks above the boilers like an erupting volcano.  Red-hot shrapnel, boiling water and steam immediately killed or maimed hundreds of passengers.  Others were hurled overboard into the freezing, turbulent water where the darkness and their weakened condition gave little chance of survival.  The furnace boxes had been exposed by the explosion and quickly ignited the upper decks that then collapsed into them. This set aflame the ship’s remaining superstructure.  The twin smokestacks tottered uncertainly and then fell onto the top deck, killing many. First one paddlewheel, and then the other, fell off which caused the flaming vessel to turn sideways in the river.  The deck supporting the passenger cabins where the officers were housed, collapsed at one end, forming a steep ramp.  Downward into the hottest fire, slid screaming men along with wreckage that further fueled the flames. Survivors of the explosion, willing to face anything rather than be burned alive, jumped into the water.  A survivor later wrote, “On looking down and out into the river, I would see men jumping from all parts of the boat into the water until it seemed black with men, their heads bobbing up and down like corks, and then disappearing beneath the turbulent waters, never to appear again.”  Some had presence of mind enough to first throw doors, mattresses, shutters or anything else that would float overboard and jump in after them.  Those able to swim soon ran out of strength and began to cling to each other.  Whole groups sank together to a watery grave. Showers of red-hot coals hissed and spurted as they hit the water.  Large fragments of wood, cabin furniture, railings and deck beams followed, adding to the horror of the hellish scene.  According to witnesses, it took a mere twenty minutes for the boat to burn to the waterline. At that place, the flooded river was almost five miles wide.  

These men who had been through unspeakable ordeals during their captivity had thought they would soon be welcomed and cared for by their families where rest and abundant food would be provided.  The dreams ended in a nightmare.  “It was all confusion,” remembered one Michigan soldier. “Brave men rushed to and fro in the agony of fear, some uttering the most profane language and others commending their spirits to the Great Ruler of the Universe.”  An Ohio soldier recalled, “There were some killed in the explosion, lying in the bottom of the boat, being trampled upon, while some were crying and praying, many were cursing while others were singing. That sight I shall never forget; I often see it in my sleep, and wake with a start.”

The deafening sound of the explosion was easily heard in Memphis.  The orange-colored pillar of flames leaping into the night sky was, likewise, visible for miles.  Because the disaster was unexpected and took place in the early hours of the morning, it took two hours before help to begin to arrive from the city.  First on the scene was a steamboat coming down the river.  For most, assistance arrived too late.  Rescuers did what they could be save people clinging to objects in the icy water or holding to treetops.  Sadly, the river was full of dead bodies floating downstream.  Boats searched for survivors all morning, but by midday, there were no more to find.  Only about 700 had lived.  For many days afterward, a barge was sent out each morning to pick up dead bodies.  Each night it returned to Memphis with its gruesome cargo.  Corpses of victims continued to be found downriver for months, some being swept as far as Vicksburg.  Many of the dead were never recovered, including the captain of the ill-fated Sultana.  

The survivors, many with horrible burns, were transported to hospitals in Memphis. Approximately 200 of them soon died from burns, infection or hypothermia. It is noteworthy that rescuers included former Confederate soldiers who, only weeks previously, would have slain them as bitter enemies.  One former Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have rescued fifteen Union soldiers single-handedly.  The war was over and the southerners realized that the men wanted nothing more than to return to the homes they hadn’t seen for years.  Most never made far past Memphis.  Today, many of them lie in the Memphis National Cemetery marked by simple, white headstones with the engraved words, “Unknown U.S Soldier.”  

About seven hours after the explosion, the hulk of the Sultana drifted several miles downriver to the west bank where it sank.  An archaeological team uncovered the wreckage in 1982.  Wooden deckplanks and timbers, blackened by the fire, were found about thirty feet below ground in a soybean field, some four miles from Memphis. The location two miles west of the current river channel is easily understood considering that the Mississippi River repeatedly changes course and the former channels eventually fill to become dry land.  

Despite the enormity of the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history, nobody was ever held accountable.  Death had placed Captain Mason out of reach.  Colonel Hatch who had concocted the scheme with him, was brought up on charges, but he managed to get letters of recommendation from such notables as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant. The letters are still available in the National Archives in Washington D.C.  Hatch refused three separate subpoenas to appear and give testimony before dying in 1871.  He managed to escape justice due to his powerful connections.  

The sinking of the Sultana was reported in newspapers, but little note was taken of it by any but families of the victims.  Because of the apparent guilt of some of its own officers, the army was not eager to publicize the story. The tragedy was soon virtually forgotten by history.  

Timing was a factor.  April of 1865 was a month of momentous events.  At Appomattox Courthouse, General Lee had surrendered and five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  The day before the explosion, John Wilkes Booth was caught and killed and General Johnson surrender the last large Confederate army.  Not long afterward, Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis.  As a result, the story was quickly relegated to the back pages of newspapers.  

Another reason the incident is largely unknown today is who the victims were--mostly enlisted men who had made no great mark on history.  The nation had just finished a long, bloody civil war in which over 600,000 men had perished.  People had become desensitized to death so much that 1,700 more did not seem such an enormous tragedy.  

The survivors and their families, however, didn’t quickly forget.  Twenty years later, they began having annual reunions in the north.  Like groups formed in other parts of the country and united under the banner of the National Sultana Survivors’ Association.  For years, they met as close as possible to April 27th.  Death took its toll so fewer and fewer survivors were able to attend.  In 1930, only one man appeared for the association meeting.  The last survivor, Albert Norris of Ohio, died at his home in 1936, seventy-one years after the tragedy.   

It has now been over a century and a half since that horrible night.  The event continues largely unknown except to those fascinated with the details of the Civil War.  Those few imagine with horror the screams and prayers of the victims and the compassionate efforts of the rescuers and ponder the greed and irresponsibility that led to the sinking of the Sultana.

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I little-known event in American history.