Tragedy on the Sultana

Tragedy on the Sultana

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The passenger ship Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River killing over 1,800 civilians and solfiers returning from the battlefield after the Civil War. Though the war had officially ended, was this tragedy the work of Confederate agents?

Marion, Ark. remembers the Sultana, disaster that history forgot

MARION, Ark. (AP) &mdash What remains of the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history lies buried beneath an Arkansas beanfield where the Mississippi River once ran.

A century-and-a-half later, residents of the nearest town and descendants of passengers aboard the steamboat Sultana are gathering to commemorate a disaster that was overshadowed by Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Along Highway 55 entering Marion, Arkansas, a small banner welcomes the descendants arriving for Monday's anniversary. Workers are feverishly restoring a mural depicting the steamboat as they seek to give the disaster its place in history.

The Sultana blew up on April 27, 1865, about seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, claiming as many as 1,800 lives, according to historical estimates. The Titanic claimed fewer &mdash 1,517 &mdash when it sank 45 years later.

But the momentous events of April 1865 &mdash Lincoln's death and Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender among them &mdash all but eclipsed the tragedy on the Mississippi.

That month, thousands of Union prisoners newly freed in the South were being sent back north on steamboats. The Sultana was carrying six times its capacity with almost 2,500 people, among them many emaciated, injured or sick Union veterans.

"The nation had just endured four long years of civil war, over 600,000 lives were lost and people were accustomed to reading about thousands of men dying in battles," said Jerry O. Potter, a Memphis lawyer who counts himself among a handful of Sultana experts.

At 2 a.m. on April 27, as the Sultana navigated a swollen Mississippi that was flooded to treetop height and about 4 miles wide, three of the steamer's boilers exploded, sending flames and passengers into the air.

Residents of the tiny towns that dotted the river lashed together logs to make rescue rafts. Marion Mayor Frank Fogelman said people on both sides of his great-grandfather's family were among those rescuers.

"My grandmother made reference to it in the family Bible," Fogelman said. "The way I understand it, they used the raft to remove people from the wreckage and put them up in the treetops and then came back for everyone once all the survivors were away from the wreckage and the fire."

Passengers who escaped the burning ship struggled in the dark, cold water. Hundreds died of hypothermia or drowned. Bodies were still being pulled from the riverbanks months later, while others were never recovered.

The wreckage is now buried about 30 feet beneath a field not far from Marion, inside the river's flood-control levees. The river has since run a new course and runs about a mile east of the spot.

It wasn't until last year that the state of Arkansas erected a bronze plaque at the edge of a parking to memorialize the tragedy. Those who know the Sultana's story are hoping Monday's anniversary events will help make the sinking more than just a footnote to the end of the Civil War.

When the memorial is over, the 12,000-person town plans to turn a temporary exhibit into a permanent Sultana museum. The exhibit includes documents, photos, a canoe-sized replica of the steamboat and a wall covered in white panels with the name of every soldier, civilian and crew member.

"We've had a few people see this list and find an ancestor," said Norman Vickers, a local historian. "We hope more people will come and look at it, and maybe find something."

Potter, who wrote "The Sultana Tragedy" in 1992, is still researching the stories of those involved.

He recalled one former soldier who failed to re-board the Sultana when it steamed from Memphis. The soldier paid a local man to ferry him out to the Sultana so he could continue on to Ohio. The ex-soldier died in the disaster, but his best friend survived to tell about that twist of fate.

Years later, sitting at a descendants' reunion, Potter was able to connect the two families.

"That has been the one of the most rewarding parts of this, being able to help descendants make that connection," he said.

"Because to me, the greatest tragedy of the Sultana is that history has forgotten these men."

The Sultana Tragedy

On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded on the Mississippi River. She was heading north, dangerously overloaded with some 2,200 passengers, most of them freed Union prisoners of war from the Andersonville and Cahaba camps. A weakened boiler, which had been patched instead of fixed, blew up about 7 miles north of Memphis, hurling men into the frigid river. Men from Marion were among those who tried to save passengers, but around 1,800 people died in history's worst maritime disaster. No one was ever punished for the tragic loss of the Sultana.

Erected 2013 by Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission, City of Marion, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council. (Marker Number 62.)

Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Disasters &bull War, US Civil &bull Waterways & Vessels. In addition, it is included in the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission series list. A significant historical date for this entry is April 27, 1865.

Location. 35° 12.907′ N, 90° 11.897′ W. Marker is in Marion, Arkansas, in Crittenden County. Marker can be reached from Arkansas Route 77 north of East Military Road, on the right when traveling south. Located in the rear of the Marion City Hall parking

lot. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 14 East Military Road, Marion AR 72364, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. The Loss of the Sultana (here, next to this marker) Military Road (here, next to this marker) Margaret E. Woolfolk Library (within shouting distance of this marker) Marion School Auditorium-Gynamnasium (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line) Confederate Soldier's Memorial (about 400 feet away) a different marker also named Confederate Soldier's Memorial (about 400 feet away) Rhodes Storefronts (about 400 feet away) Crittenden County Health Department (about 600 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Marion.

Related markers. Click here for a list of markers that are related to this marker.

Also see . . . Wikipedia article on the Sultana. “The enormous explosion of steam came from the top rear of the boilers and went upward at a 45-degree angle, tearing through the crowded decks above, and completely demolishing the pilothouse. Without a pilot to steer the boat, Sultana became a drifting, floating hulk. The terrific explosion flung some of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a large section of the boat. The twin smokestacks toppled over, one backwards into the blasted hole,

Civil War Sabotage?

When the SS Sultana exploded on April 27, 1865, more than 1,800 died &mdashoutnumbering the death toll from the Titanic disaster. Why, then, do so few people know about one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history? And what caused the explosion that took so many lives?

The Civil War was finally over, and most of the passengers aboard that night were Union soldiers returning to their families from Confederate prison camps. But the number of people on board far exceeded the ship&rsquos capacity&mdashthey barely had room to stand.

At 2:00 a.m. a mysterious explosion below deck set the Sultana ablaze and catapulted passengers into the frigid Mississippi.

Can the History Detectives solve the mysterious explosion of the SS Sultana? Was it an act of Confederate sabotage? Faulty machinery? Dangerous conditions?

Meeting with descendants of rebel boat burners and Sultana survivors, uncovering government records, and hunting for the wreck site, the team reveals a tale of incompetence, bribery, politics and nepotism that leads all the way to President Lincoln and the White House.

Season 11, Episode 1

Tukufu Zuberi Detective:
Wes Cowan Detective:
Kaiama Glover Location:
Near Memphis, TN

The Sultana Tragedy

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.

Unraveling the mystery

The story is only a story because of the boiler explosion and without it, the Sultana would be only a few lines in history books. As HSB’s principal engineer for boilers, I was asked to comment on the cause of the explosion for the upcoming documentary. At first, I thought the request would be a quick review and acknowledgement of the most commonly cited theory of the explosion. I was wrong and it became a challenge to determine the causes of the explosion. The blogs that follow will track my discoveries leading up to the revelation of the causes of the explosion. In the next post, I will look at boiler explosion theory and what the engineers in 1865 did and did not know about boiler explosions.

© 2015 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is intended for information purposes only. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this article.

Future Museum

The present Sultana Disaster Museum, created in 2015, and providing less than 1000 square feet, will soon be replaced by a permanent modern museum of nearly 17,000 square feet. The historic Marion gymnasium, shown above, has been identified as the possible site of the new Sultana Disaster Museum. The still-in-use gymnasium was built in 1938 by the WPA. Discussions are presently ongoing in hopes of the site being acquired by the city, and thereafter leased to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society for its future use. By preserving the historic structure and transforming it into a modern museum and archive, the Society will be able to more fully educating and entertaining the public by telling one of the most compelling stories of the American Civil War. Join us in the effort to preserve this historic building and the story of the Steamboat Sultana, the "greatest maritime disaster in United States' history."


The teacher will ask students to create a cause and effect chart. While working with partners, the teacher will instruct the students to use the Mississippi History Now article to complete the chart by putting the appropriate cause answers on the left of the events listed below and the appropriate affect answers on the right of the listed events:

  • Lack of good roads and access to the railroad
  • Transport of Union soldiers was delayed
  • The Sultana was overcrowded as it left Vicksburg
  • The Sultana exploded
  • The Sultana disaster is not well-known

Once the chart has been completed, the teacher will facilitate a class discussion about the article by asking for student volunteers to share information from the charts. The teacher can record student responses on the chalkboard or on an overhead transparency.

The students will be instructed to write a newspaper article about the Sultana disaster. The teacher will remind the students that even though the Sultana remains the worst maritime disaster in American history, it was not front page news in 1865. When composing their news article, the students should be instructed to give the Sultana front page status.

Once the students have completed their news articles, allow them to move into groups of four and share their articles. Ask them to select one article from the group to be read to the class.

Have students remain in their groups for the next portion of the lesson. Instruct the students to write a poem or song that laments the Sultana disaster. The teacher may want to use as an example the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.

The Sultana Tragedy

Soldiers from Company F of the 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry died in the explosion of the steamboat Sultana seven miles north of Memphis on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. The Sultana reportedly carried more than 2,400 passengers—six times its capacity of 378. The vast majority were Union soldiers recently freed from Southern prisons at the end of the Civil War. Approximately 1,800 passengers and crew died in what is considered the worst maritime disaster in American history. Company F was organized in Stark, Columbiana, and Portage Counties and was mustered into service at Camp Massillon in the fall of 1862. This marker is a memorial to the soldiers of Company F who died as a result of the Sultana tragedy and other war-related causes.

Erected 2011 by "Scotty" Hays and the Friends of the Cemetery-The Ohio Historical Society. (Marker Number 23-76.)

Topics and series. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: Disasters &bull War, US Civil. In addition, it is included in the Ohio Historical Society / The Ohio History Connection series list. A significant historical month for this entry is April 1911.

Location. 40° 55.867′ N, 81° 6.717′ W. Marker is in Alliance, Ohio, in Stark County. Marker is on West

Vine Street (Cemetery Entrance) east of North Rockhill Avenue. This marker is located within Alliance Cemetery. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Alliance OH 44601, United States of America. Touch for directions.

Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 3 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. The Deceased of Co. F. 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (here, next to this marker) Spanish American War Veterans (about 800 feet away, measured in a direct line) Mabel Hartzell (approx. 0.4 miles away) Alliance-Birthplace of Ohio's State Flower - The Scarlet Carnation (approx. 0.7 miles away) The Crossing (approx. 1.1 miles away) Abraham Lincoln (approx. 1.1 miles away) Mount Union Stadium (approx. 2 miles away) Lexington Quaker Cemetery (approx. 2.1 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Alliance.

More about this marker. The reverse side of this marker is The Deceased of Co. F, 115th Ohio Volunteer Infantry-posted separately

Related markers. Click here for a list of markers that are related to this marker.

21 Images Depicting the Sultana Disaster of 1865

In late April, 1865, the Civil War was coming to an end. Union and Confederates decided that the POWs should be released. Prisoners Cahaba, Andersonville, and Libby Prisons were sent to the Vickersburg, Mississippi to take steamboats up the river into the North and home to their families.

The steamboat companies competed amongst each other to take the most freed prisoners up river. Each company was paid $5 ($90) per enlisted men and $10 ($180) per officer transported. The Sultana was one of the steamboats carrying soldiers up river. She was designed to carry about 375 passengers and crew members.

On April 24, 1865, The Sultana was loaded with 1,978 paroled prisoners, 22 guards from the 58th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 70 paying cabin passengers, and 85 crew members.

The Sultana traveled up river for two days, fighting one of the worst spring floods in the Mississippi&rsquos history. In some places the river was three miles wide.

Around 2:00 a.m. on April 27, 1865, just seven miles north of Memphis, The Sultana&rsquos boilers exploded destroying major sections of the boat, and igniting a large fire. The weak freed prisoners who survived the explosion were forced to attempt to swim through the cold, fast moving waters.

Approximately 1,700 people died. The Sultana disaster was the worst maritime disaster in American history, causing more deaths than the sinking of the Titanic.

The Sultana disaster remains a relatively unknown tragedy because it was over shadowed by Abraham Lincoln&rsquos assassination on April 14, and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln&rsquos assassin, was killed April 26, just one day before the Sultana tragedy.

Union POWs at a Confederate Camp Sumpter, known as Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Pinterest There were 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumpter while it was open almost 13,000 never made it out. Pinterest Andersonville Prisoners. Pinterest Libby Prison, 1865. National Archives and Records Administration Cahaba Prison, Dallas County, Alabama. Pinterest Depiction of Cahaba Prison Camp, mycivilwar The Sultana steamboat paddle-wheeler made its first appearance on June 1, 1861 in the Ohio River near Cincinnati.up-ship On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana, carrying 2,300 just-released Union prisoners of war, plus crew and civilian passengers, exploded and sank. Some 1,700 people died. More costly than even the sinking of the Titanic. Pinterest Sultana mural on the floodwall at Levee Street in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Artist, Robert Dafford. Courtesy Vicksburg Riverfront Murals. mshistorynow Sultana. cw-chronicles


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