The Sultana Disaster
By Henry Robert Burke
Though much smaller than the Titanic, perhaps the most terrible boat disaster in the United States history, was the loss of the Sultana on April 26, 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. The war-weary Union soldiers in the South had but one thought. They wanted to get home! Many had just been released from the horrors of war-prisons like Andersonville, and were waiting in Vicksburg, Mississippi for transportation to their northern homes. Prison camps were hard places, in North and South alike. Many men had died in prison camps, and many of the survivors were semi-invalids. All of them had a feverish desire to get North to their homes and families, where they could get needed care and good food. Unfortunately, they were slated to travel north on the ill-fated riverboat called "The Sultana".
The Sultana was a typical side-wheeler built at Cincinnati in 1863. Registered at 1,719 tons she had a crew of 85. During the American Civil War, she had frequently carried Union Army personnel up and down the river. On March 20, 1864, she had carried a contingent of the 2nd Missouri Colored Infantry Regiment downriver. Sultana's captain, J.C. Mason of St. Louis, had a reputation as a good careful river pilot. On the evening of April 24, 1865, the Sultana made her regular stop at Vicksburg to take on passengers and cargo.
I reiterate that the repatriated Union prisoners of war were desperate to go North on this steamer, so they were allowed to board in almost unmanageable numbers, far beyond the Sultana's rated capacity. Besides the regular passengers and crew numbering about 200, somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 Union soldiers were finally allowed to board. Altogether, there were about 2,300 passengers and crew aboard the steamer. All available space was literally filled from top to bottom, the steamer could not have carried one more human being.
When the Sultana got clear of the wharf and proceeded upstream, she was breasting a current made stronger than usual by flood. Captain Mason seemed to be a bit worried, and cautioned the passengers not to crowd to one side of the boat, because there were so many of them it might cause serious trouble. But for 48 hours after casting off the Vicksburg Wharf, the Sultana made its way upstream without trouble, making a few scheduled stops and finally on the evening of April 26, 1865, docking at Memphis.
While the Sultana was at Memphis, a leaky boiler was discovered. A repair gang was called in to repair the boiler. After taking on coal for fuel, the Sultana proceeded up river bound for Cairo, Ill.. In fact most of the servicemen aboard were to disembark there. As she swung 'round a bend about six miles north of Memphis, and began to labor her way past a cluster of islands known as the "Hen and Chickens", tragedy struck. The leaky boilers gave out and exploded!
The water in the Mississippi was icy-cold, many of the men could not swim, and there was little wreckage to cling to. People died by the hundreds. Estimates of the number killed ranged from 1,500 to 1,900. Probably a median figure of 1,700 would be about right. In any case, the wreck of the Sultana was at the very least, one of the most devastating boat disasters in history, if indeed not the worst. Ohio suffered the greatest loss of lives, with over 700 of her returning servicemen killed.