It was April 27th, 1865 – 151 years ago today. And I bet that most people have never even heard of it, even though it killed more people than the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 or the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915.
It was an American steamboat named the Sultana.
The sinking of the Sultana is often forgotten now because the event took place in April 1865, when so many other things were happening at the end of the Civil War. It was less than two weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was the day after assassin John Wilkes Booth was cornered in a tobacco barn and shot. And it was also the day after the largest surrender of Confederate troops in the Civil War took place at Bennett Place in North Carolina. So even at the time, news of the Sultana sinking was somewhat drowned out by all of the other major news events taking place.
Still, it was a totally preventable tragedy. And a truly terrible one.
The Sultana had been contracted by the Federal government to take Union prisoners that had been released from the Confederate prisons at Andersonville, Georgia and Cahaba, Alabama. The captain of the boat was worried about losing his contract, and was hoping to make a lot of money as the government was paying $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer to be transported back to the North. So when one of the boat’s boilers sprung a leak, the captain was more worried about making his schedule than any safety concerns. So rather than taking several days to make a proper repair, he made a temporary one that took less than a day.
Sultana‘s legal capacity was 376 people, but the lure of making a lot of money led to the overloading of the vessel with far more people than it was ever designed to carry. Although the exact number of passengers on board is unknown, the best guess is that it carried between 2,100 and 2,200 former POWs, as well as the crew of 85. The overloading of the steamboat was obvious, as you can see from this photo taken when the steamboat stopped in Helena, Arkansas on April 26th.
The boat made its way to Memphis, unloaded some cargo, refueled, and then headed upriver. It didn’t get very far.
About 2 AM on April 27th, 1865, about 7 miles upriver from Memphis, Tennessee, the patched boiler exploded, which was immediately followed by the explosion of two more of the steamboat’s four boilers. The boat had been built in 1863, so it was not that old. The likely cause of the boiler explosion was the operation of the boilers at a higher pressure than normal, in an attempt to get more power to push the overloaded boat upriver against the current.
The explosion blew many passengers into the water, and what remained of the boat’s wooden superstructure, straining under weight it was not designed to take, collapsed onto the fireboxes, causing what was left of the boat to burn fiercely. Many of the former prisoners were too weak from their captivity to swim to safety, and so they drowned. Many others died from exposure to the cold water, or from their wounds or burns. The best estimate of the final death toll (including those who died soon after of their injuries or from other causes related to the sinking) was between 1,700 and 1,800. Downriver, bodies were still being found months later, and many were never found.
I can’t imagine what that must have been like – to survive Civil War combat, then end up in Andersonville, which was one of the absolute worst prisons in American history, somehow manage to survive that until the war finally ended and you were released, only to die on the way home.