April 27, 1865 – The steamboat Sultana exploded and sank on the Mississippi River. As many as 1,800 recently released Federal prisoners of war were killed in the worst maritime disaster in American history.
Soldiers from Confederate prison camps were brought to Camp Fisk, a parole camp outside Vicksburg, Mississippi, to await their return to the North. The Sultana arrived at Vicksburg to deliver the news of President 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. Mason agreed.
However, the Sultana could only safely hold 376 passengers. Also, one of her boilers had recently sprung a leak. A mechanic recommended a seam replacement, but that would take several days, during which time another steamboat would come and take Mason’s promised load. Mason therefore convinced the mechanic to simply patch the leak. A mix-up in orders (and/or a possible bribe) compelled Captain George Williams, commanding the parole camp, to place every prisoner aboard the Sultana, bound for Cairo, Illinois. According to a passenger, they were loaded on the boat “more like so many cattle than men.”
On the night of the 24th, the steamboat left Vicksburg crammed with 2,427 passengers, 60 horses and mules, and over 100 hogs. A survivor of Andersonville prison camp recalled that “our condition on this boat was more like a lot of hogs than men.” Another former prisoner stated, “We were huddled together like sheep for the slaughter, many as yet suffering from battle wounds and most of them emaciated from starvation in prison pens, as all conversant with Andersonville can testify.”
Movement was virtually impossible. According to a witness, “The great weight on the upper deck made it necessary to set up stanchions in many places in spite of which the deck perceptibly sagged.” The official report later stated:
“At night, it was impossible to move about and it was only with much difficulty that it could be done during the daytime. The cooking was done either by hot water taken from the boilers or at a small stove on the after-part of the main deck, and owing to the limited nature of this arrangement, the difficulty of getting about on the boat, and the want of camp kettles or mess-pans, the cooking could not be very general.”
The Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas, on the morning of the 26th. She then continued upriver and reached Memphis later that night. A passenger remembered:
“The boat ran smoothly, and the soldiers were enjoying the thought of being homeward bound. Yes, with joy that cannot be expressed, although many of them were suffering from wounds received in battle, and all were sadly emaciated from starvation in the prison pens where we had been confined. But now we were en route for home, the cruel war was over and the long struggle closed. Battles, sieges, marches and prison pens were things of the past.”
Another former prisoner wrote:
“I remember well as the boat lay at Memphis unloading over one hundred hogsheads of sugar from her hold, that my thoughts not only wended northward, but I put them in practical shape. The Christian commission had given me a hymn book. At the time I left home, the song ‘Sweet Hour of Prayer’ was having quite a run. I found this, and before the darkness had stopped me in the evening I had committed these words to memory and sang them for the boys, little dreaming how soon I should have to test the power of prayer as well as the hour when it was held.”
After two days of moving against the current during one of the worst floods in Mississippi River history, the Sultana left 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 the Sultana’s four boilers suddenly exploded. A survivor later recalled:
“What a scene of consternation! I pray God to never let me witness anything like it again. Men lying in all imaginable shapes, some crying, some praying, many who, perhaps, never prayed before for God to help them until it was too late; some with legs broken, or arms smashed, and some scalded and mangled in all ways. Those who were not disabled seemed to be at a loss to know what to do. Many of them stuck to the burning boat until the flames drove them off and they went down in squads to rise no more.”
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 floated downriver to Memphis where they called for help, and several boats hurried to the rescue.
The Sultana burned for several hours before finally sinking near Mound City, Arkansas, around 9 a.m. Nobody left onboard survived, including Captain Mason, who went down with his ship. 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.
Investigations brought no convictions for wrongdoing. Captain Frederick Speed, who had sent the Federal prisoners from the parole camp to Vicksburg, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the Sultana, but the judge advocate general exonerated him because 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 West Point graduate.
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, who had been a close advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. Despite Hatch’s shortcomings, he had received letters of recommendation at some point from Lincoln, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.
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 conditions in Confederate prison camps.
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, 1998), 842-50; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 563; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 586-88; Harvey, Hank, “Unknown Title (coverage of Sultana disaster),” The Blade (Toledo, OH, October 27, 1996), Section C, p. 3, 6; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 731-32; 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. 24, 27-31, 40, 50, 55-56, 62, 74-85, 129, 164, 193-94, 196-202, 206; Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael, A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 353