The Sultana Tragedy

April 27, 1865 – The steamboat Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River, killing up to 1,800 recently released Federal prisoners of war in the worst maritime disaster in American history.

Federals from Confederate prisons had been brought to a parole camp outside Vicksburg, Mississippi to await their return to the North. Sultana arrived at Vicksburg to spread news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. While there, Sultana Captain J. Cass Mason learned from Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch that the U.S. government would pay steamboat captains $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for every officer they transported home. Hatch guaranteed a load of at least 1,400 prisoners if Mason paid him a kickback. Although Sultana could only safely hold 376 passengers, Mason accepted.[1]

Moreover, one of Sultana’s boilers had recently sprung a leak. A mechanic recommended replacing a seam, which would have taken several days. Mason convinced the mechanic to simply patch the leak to prevent another steamboat from taking his load. A mix-up in orders and/or a possible bribe compelled Captain George Williams, commanding the parole camp, to place every prisoner aboard Sultana. On the night of April 24, the steamboat left Vicksburg with 2,427 passengers.[2]

After spending two days moving against the current during one of the worst floods in river history, Sultana passed Memphis late on the 26th. Around 2 a.m. on the 27th, seven miles north of Memphis near Old Hen and Chicken islands, three of Sultana’s four boilers suddenly exploded.[3]

The Sultana Explosion | Image Credit: Bing public domain

The Sultana Explosion | Image Credit: Bing public domain

The blast ripped the boat apart, hurling men, horses, and mules into the air and engulfing the boat’s remnants in flames. The fire and boiling water burned and scalded many to death. Others jumped into the cold river to escape, but many weakened by imprisonment could not swim to shore. Men clung together to stay afloat, and several groups went down together. Survivors soon began floating past Memphis where they called for help, and several boats hurried to the rescue.[4]

Newspaper article regarding the Sultana disaster | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Newspaper article regarding the Sultana disaster | Image Credit: Bing public domain

Sultana burned for several hours before finally sinking near Mound City, Arkansas around 9 a.m. with nobody on board alive. The 783 survivors, many of whom suffered horrible burns, were transported to Memphis hospitals. Up to 200 of them later died from burns and other injuries. The official death count was 1,238, but the U.S. Custom Service’s count was 1,800.[5]

Investigations brought no convictions for wrongdoing. Mason went down with his ship. Captain Frederick Speed, who had sent the Federal prisoners from the parole camp to Vicksburg, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding Sultana, but the judge advocate general exonerated him on the grounds that he did not actually put the men aboard. The military did not try Captain Williams (who did put the men aboard), possibly because he was a regular army officer and graduate of West Point.[6]

Colonel Hatch had been notorious for incompetence and corruption throughout the war, but he quit the military before officials could court-martial him. Hatch’s brother was Illinois politician Ozias M. Hatch, a close advisor to President Lincoln. Despite Hatch’s incompetence, he had received letters of recommendation at some point from Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant.[7]

The final investigation blamed the most terrible maritime disaster in U.S. history on faulty boilers, which tragically killed many prisoners finally heading home after enduring horrific Confederate prison camps.[8]

—–

[1] Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 27-31

[2] Berryman, H.E., Potter, J.O., Oliver, S., “The Ill-Fated Passenger Steamer Sultana: An Inland Maritime Mass Disaster of Unparalleled Magnitude,” Journal of Forensic Sciences (33[3], 1998), 842-50; Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 40, 50, 55-56, 62

[3] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 683; Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 24, 74-85

[4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 683; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 79-85, 129; Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 353

[5] Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 244; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 683; Memphis Daily Bulletin and Memphis Daily Appeal, various dates, April 1865; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 164, 206

[6] Harvey, Hank, “Unknown Title (coverage of Sultana disaster),” The Blade (Toledo, OH, October 27, 1996), Section C, p. 3, 6; Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 197-202

[7] Salecker, Gene Eric, Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865 (Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 193-94, 196-97, 206

[8] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 683; Robertson, Jr., James I., Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 134; Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 353

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2 thoughts on “The Sultana Tragedy

  1. […] steamboat Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River, killing up to 1,800 recently released Federal prisoners of war in the […]

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  2. […] steamboat Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River, killing up to 1,800 recently released Federal prisoners of war in the […]

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