Loss of the Sultana
April 27, 1865
Of all the disasters on the
rivers, the worst occurred at the end of the Civil War, to a passenger boat, the
Sultana, overloaded with Union
soldiers homeward bound after release from Confederate prisons. More people
perished when the Sultana blew up on
the Mississippi River above Memphis than perished when the famous ocean liner
Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. Yet the Sultana
disaster received less attention than it should have, because it occurred at the
time the funeral train of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln was traveling past
huge crowds in Washington to the President’s burial place at Springfield,
Illinois. Millions were grief-stricken at the death of Lincoln and could think
of little else.
The month of April 1865 was a
momentous one. On the ninth, General Robert E. Lee surrendered the main
Confederate Army to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House,
Virginia. On the night of the fourteenth, President Lincoln was shot while
attending a play at Ford’s Theater in Washington. The two armies, victors and
vanquished, were starting to disband. Emotions and uncertainty were high – as
were the waters of the Mississippi. Four years of war had ruined many levees and
dikes, and in the lower reaches of the river the foaming water was over the
banks for miles.
In the midst of all this, the Sultana
sailed on a routine trip north from New Orleans with passengers and freight. She
was a good boat, only two years old; large, but not quite the size of some
Mississippi packets. The Sultana was a
typical side-wheeler built at Cincinnati in 1863 for the lower Mississippi
cotton trade. She was registered at 1,719 tons and carried a crew of 85, and for
two years she had been on a regular run between New Orleans and St. Louis. From
War Department records it is known that she frequently carried Army personnel up
and down the river. One dispatch of March 20, 1864, for instance, shows her
carrying a contingent of the Second Missouri colored troops. She was licensed to
carry 76 cabin passengers and 215 deck passengers, a total of 376 along with the
crew. Among her cabin passengers were a man and his wife who were moving from
the South to the North and had seventeen thousand dollars in gold hidden in
their stateroom – gold that has never been found.
Shortly before reaching Vicksburg, the Sultana
had trouble with her boilers. After she had tied up, an engineer made a
disturbing discovery: the boilers were leaking rather badly. Captain J. Cass
Mason (who had a reputation as a careful riverman) determined to lay up briefly,
draw fires, and repair boilers and machinery before going up river to the
scheduled stops at Memphis, Cairo, Evansville, Louisville and Cincinnati. The
repair gang got to work and a local boilermaker welded a patch onto the side of
one boiler. The job was done more quickly than had been anticipated. While the Sultana was in port, the Army decided that she could carry to the
North a throng of Union soldiers from Confederate prisons, including the
notorious Andersonville, who had assembled at Vicksburg. Captain Mason welcomed
this decision, because the boat was to be paid five dollars for each soldier it
carried. But as he watched more and more soldiers marching aboard, he became
aghast. The Sultana was being
dangerously overloaded, he knew, but Army officers ignored his protest.
Boarding the vessel for the
voyage home seemed to put new life into the ex-prisoners. Weak as most of them
were, they were shouting, singing, and jesting as they came aboard, as
lighthearted a crowd as ever came up a gangplank. They spread blankets wherever
they could find space, packing the steamer from top to bottom hull, cabins,
hurricane deck, Texas deck, even the pilothouse. Almost literally, the steamer
could not have carried another human being. In addition, two companies of
soldiers under arms came aboard. Nobody knows exactly how many people were
aboard the Sultana, but by the best
count available she left Vicksburg carrying about 2400 soldiers, 100 civilian
passengers, and 80 crewmen, a total of more than 2500. That was nearly seven
times as many as safety regulations permitted. The men were so desperately eager
to start that the authorities decided not to make out the muster rolls in
advance, as usual. Instead the rolls would be made out onboard, after the vessel
had left Vicksburg. The boat also carried a shipment of horses and mules near
the stern on her lower deck.
Somehow, the Sultana got clear of the wharf and went puffing upstream, breasting a current made stronger than usual by the river's flood stage. Captain Mason seemed to be a bit worried. He cautioned the men not to crowd to one side of the boat when a landing was made, because there were so many of them it might cause serious trouble. But for 48 hours after casting off the Vicksburg Wharf, the Sultana went on without trouble, making a few scheduled stops and on the evening of April 26, 1865, docking at Memphis. Here some of the passengers disembarked. Hogsheads of sugar were unloaded and some of the stronger ex-prisoners helped in the work, to earn a bit of pocket money. A number of the soldiers went ashore to see the sights and some of these, not knowing how lucky they were, saw so many sights that they did not get back by sailing time. While the Sultana was at Memphis, a leaky boiler gave more trouble. Again the repair gang was called in and the leak was repaired.
About 1:00 a.m. on April 27, the Sultana sailed from Memphis and crossed to the Arkansas shore for coal. As she pulled out from the coaling station in the rainy darkness, almost everyone settled down to sleep as best possible in the overcrowded conditions. She was bound for Cairo, where most of the servicemen aboard were to disembark. Her pilot steered her out into midstream. The current was strong and the Sultana was overloaded... fearfully overloaded. The big paddle wheels thrashed the water, straining against the powerful current. One of the ship's officers later recalled that as they left Memphis he remarked "I'd give all the interest I have in this steamer if we were safely landed at Cairo!" Because the river was exceptionally broad with the spring rains, the Sultana proceeded upstream more than a mile from the Arkansas shore and two miles from the Tennessee shore. By two in the morning, she was just a few miles north of Memphis. She was making progress, but progress was slow; the current was powerful, the boilers were tired, the load much greater than usual. The Sultana swung ‘round a bend and began to labor her way past a cluster of islands known as the "Hen and Chickens," about seven miles north of Memphis, when her boilers suddenly exploded with a tremendous crash that was heard all the way back to Memphis.
The explosion sent an orange-colored flame boiling up into the black sky. A sudden stabbing pillar of fire that lit up the black, swirling river and was visible for miles. Back at Memphis, the watch on U.S.S. Grosbeak, a river gunboat saw the light and heard the noise. The skipper was called, and he had them cast off the mooring lines and the Grosbeak went pounding up the river. Other steamers on the Memphis waterfront did likewise, hurrying against the strong current to give any help they could give.
It was a losing race. The Sultana had been half blown apart by the terrific force of the explosion. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were blown bodily into the river... snugly asleep one moment, hurling through the air into the cold black water the next. With them went great chunks of twisted machinery, a shower of red-hot coals that hissed and spurted as they hit the river, and great fragments of wood, cabin furniture, railings, deck beams, half of the steamboat had simply disintegrated. One man was said to have been thrown more than two hundred feet. By some freak, he was not seriously hurt and landed in the river, floundered a few yards to a floating tree, clung to it and was picked up by a boat of the Grosbeak, miles downstream. Three other men were blown clear of the ship, a big piece of the afterdeck under them. Deck and men made a square landing seventy-five feet from the wrecked vessel; dazed and still no more than half awake, the men clung to the wreckage until it had floated down to Memphis where rescue boats saved them.
Few of the returning prisoners fared that well. The water was icy-cold, many of them could not swim, and there was little wreckage to cling to. Men died by the hundreds in the water near the wreck. They had been half-starved for months and were in no physical shape to swim even if they had known how.
One man recalled afterward; "When I got about three hundred yards away from the boat clinging to a heavy plank, the whole heavens seemed to be lighted up by the conflagration. Hundreds of my comrades were fastened down by the timbers of the decks and had to burn while the water seemed to be one solid mass of human beings struggling with the waves."
For fire followed the explosion. The blast scattered hot coals from the furnaces all over the midships section of the steamer, and in moments the disabled vessel was on fire. The upper works were all collapsed, there was a huge, gaping hole in the middle of the hurricane deck and the flames were taking hold everywhere. To stay aboard could be worse than to be in the river, even if a man was too weak to swim. So men who had not been knocked into the water went there of their own accord, willing to face anything rather than the spreading flames. One man who clung to the wrecked upper deck wrote afterward: "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."
The Sultana was totally out of control by now and drifting helplessly downstream. The deck supporting the main rank of passenger cabins where the officers were housed collapsed at one end, forming a horrible steep ramp down which into the hottest fire slid screaming men and a tangle of wreckage. The huge twin smokestacks, hallmark of every Mississippi packet boat, tottered uncertainly and then came crashing down, pinning men under them and holding them for the flames. The superstructure was falling in and the whole midships section was nothing better than a floating bed of coals. Survivors clung desperately to the bow and stern sections, which the fire had not yet reached and among them rose the panicked cry: "The boat's sinking!" Many voices took up the cry as if it were a death chant and men who were as yet unhurt began to throw themselves into the water, thrashing about frantically for some bit of wreckage that might help them stay afloat.
Somewhere aboard the Sultana was a ten foot alligator in a stout wooden cage -- a man-eater according to soldier gossip. One soldier bayoneted the reptile, rolled the wooden crate over the side, jumped in after it, and hung onto it until a passing boat rescued him.
Hundreds of horribly burned and scalded men remained aboard the drafting hulk. Some had the strength and presence of mind to wrench doors or windows blinds from their hinges, toss them overboard, and jump in after them. Others simply huddled in the diminishing spaces that the flames had not yet reached and shouted, prayed or screamed helplessly for aid. Someone had gotten the steamer's lifeboats into the water and desperate, floating men tried to struggle aboard. So far the flames had not reached the bow, and there most of the survivors were jammed. Then the wind shifted, or perhaps the drafting boat swung around and took it from another direction, and the flames leaped forward.
Most of the men preferred drowning to being burned alive, and leaped into the water. One man remembered, "The men who were afraid to take to the water could be seen clinging to the sides of the bow of the boat until they were singed off like flies." Captain Mason stayed with his boat to the end and was seen tossing wreckage overboard to floundering survivors.
"Shrieks and cries for mercy were all that could be heard; and that awful morning reminded me of the stories of doomsday of my childhood."
At last the boat struck a small island where there was a little grove of trees and some of those who still were aboard jumped ashore with ropes and made the hulk fast. Twenty or thirty more than managed to fabricate a makeshift raft from broken timbers, and cut loose just in time. Slowly, the worst of the flames died down, and finally with the mooring ropes still holding what was left of the Sultana gave up the hopeless struggle and sank, with a great noise of hissing and a huge pillar of smoke and steam rising toward the sky.
When the cold dawn light came, survivors dotted the river all the way to Memphis, clinging to logs, rafts, spars, barrels, sections of railing and other bits of wood. All the rescue craft in Memphis put out to do what they could, hauling half-dead men out of the cold river. One former Confederate soldier in a small boat is said to have rescued fifteen Union soldiers single-handedly.
Hundreds of men were found on both shores of the Mississippi, clinging to trees or driftwood, many of them badly burned and without clothing.
Altogether between 500 and 600
men were taken to the Memphis hospitals. Some 200 of these died soon afterward,
either from burns or exposure and general debility. For many days after the
disaster, a barge was sent out each morning to pick up dead bodies Each night it
would come back to Memphis with its gruesome cargo.
The most reliable count placed the loss of life at 1585. Over eight hundred men and women were saved. Of these who finally got home, a few formed an association called the "Sultana Survivors Society" which held annual meetings for many years.
There were many rumors about the cause of the explosion... including a wholly baseless story that some vengeful ex-Confederate had put explosives in the coal. W. Hoffman, Brevet Brigadier-General, U.S. Army, who conducted an inquiry under the direction of the secretary of war, states in his report: "I am on the opinion that the shipment of so large a number of troops (1,866) on one boat was, under the circumstances, unnecessary, unjustifiable, and a great outrage on the troops." Further:
"It is the common opinion among engineers that an explosion of steam boilers is impossible when they have the proper quantity of water in them, but boilers may burst from an over-pressure of steam when they are full of water, owing to some defective part of the iron, in which there is generally no harm done than giving way of the defective part and the consequent escape of steam. One engineer who is said to be the most reliable on the river, says that even in such a case the great power of the steam, having once found a yielding place, tears everything before it, producing the effect of an explosion, and his view seems to be reasonable. What is usually understood as the explosion of the boiler is caused by the sudden development of an intense steam by the water coming in contact with red-hot iron, which produces an effect like the firing of gunpowder in a mine, and the destruction of the boilers and the boat that carries them is the consequence."
All of which tells little enough. What is known is that the Sultana, fearfully overloaded, was struggling against an abnormally strong current with defective boilers exploded, the wrecked ship then took fire, and most of the men aboard were killed.
Oddly enough, this overwhelming catastrophe got only a moderate amount of newspaper attention at the time. The nation's mind was fixed on the closing scenes of the Civil War. Lee had surrendered. General Joseph E. Johnston was surrendering on the day before the disaster. The country had a new President (Lincoln had been dead 11 days when this happened) and was beginning to sorry about the problem of rebuilding the sadly shattered Union. The Army naturally, was not anxious to publicize the accident, and anyway, the country's most influential papers were published in the East, and the Sultana's victims were all from the Middle West, far away and across the mountains. There was an official inquiry, productive of a mass of documents to which nobody in particular paid very much attention -- and there, the affair ended, one of the worst marine disasters in history, but one which has a hard time finding its way into the history books. One wonders what the handful of shore-going soldiers who missed their boat at Memphis thought about it afterward.
Following is the eyewitness report of Sergeant Robert Talkington of the 9th Indiana Cavalry:
"We left Memphis about midnight. There were so many on the boat that quarters for sleep or rest were very scarce. Each person had to bunk as he could. There was a dead northern officer on the forward part of one deck, almost over the boiler room. I laid down on his coffin using my knapsack for a pillow. I told someone that I was going to hold that officer down for the rest of the night."
"We had proceeded about ten miles north of Memphis and it was about two o'clock in the morning of April 27. I was awakened by a loud crushing noise. I was in the midst of a dense cloud of hot steam and realized I had been scalded but how bad I did not know."
"The steam was so hot I could scarcely breathe. I groped my way out of this place as quick as I could. It took me a moment to realize what had happened. A boiler had blown up. Within a few minutes the ship caught fire. When the crowd fully realized what had happened men began to jump into the water by the hundreds."
"Articles of all kinds were thrown overboard for men to cling to. It seemed the water was swarming with men crying for help and drowning. I saw two men pick up a large board probably two by twelve inches and perhaps twelve feet long, carry it to the edge of the boat and drop it overboard among the crowd of men in the water. They immediately jumped in after it. The board and two men both disappeared under a mass of humanity struggling to get hold of it."
"I, and others, threw several cords of four foot engine wood overboard for the men in the water to hold to. Many were praying, some were crying, and a few were cursing. Some did not seem to be the least bit excited. Personally, I tried to imitate the latter although I thought my time had come and did not think I would get out alive. Since I never could swim I did not intend to leave the board as long as I could stay on. The current kept sweeping men away from the boat and more kept going overboard."
"The fire was spreading rapidly from the forward end of the boat and only a few of us were left on board. The back part of the boat was getting pretty hot so I began to consider taking to the water. I procured a piece of timber about two by four by four or five feet long. I removed all my clothing except my underclothes and socks, and with this as my only support dropped into the water. Not many people were near me and I paddled around awhile on my piece of scantling and got a little way out from the boat. It was now burning fiercely".
"I was lucky enough to capture two fence rails that came floating along. The river was very high from spring rains and there was much debris in the river. It had been raining, was still cloudy, and I never saw a darker night. In this manner I floated past Memphis. I could see the lights as I went by but was so far out I knew there was no use to call for help."
"About twelve miles below Memphis I floated nearer the shore. There was an army post at a small town there. I began to cry for help. Someone heard me and answered back. We called to each other several times, then I heard someone throw an oar in a rowboat. I thought at the time that was the best sound I had ever heard. I guided them by shouting and in a few minutes my rescuers caught up with me. They hauled me into the boat and landed me safely in the little town I had just passed among Union soldiers and friends. After about two weeks I was released and sent home."
of Sultana Descendants and Friends, http://www.sultana.org/
Death on the Dark River, http://www.rootsweb.com/~genepool/sultana.htm
The Sinking of the Steamship SULTANA near Memphis, Tennessee, http://www.ionet.net/~cousin/dale4.html
The Gallery of Transport Loss, http://www.cargolaw.com/gallery.html
INDIANA HISTORY BULLETIN (Volume 32 - Number 7, Pages 123-125) for July of 1955
Whistles Round the Bend, Ault, 1982.
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