A Somber Day
Today marks a somber day in the history of the United States of America. 155 years ago, our country suffered its, to this day unbeaten, greatest maritime disaster by loss of life. If that seems surprising to you, then you aren’t alone. It is, unfortunately, a chapter of our collective maritime heritage that has been largely forgotten. Why? Because it happened at the end of April in 1865.
If you’re familiar with the history of the American Civil War, then you no doubt know that April of 1865 was one of the most formative years of our Union. It was a month that saw union forces march into Richmond and high-profile surrenders that led to the end of the war. It was the month in which Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The day immediately before the disaster, Booth was cornered in Bowling Green, VA, and slain by Sergeant Boston Corbett of the 16th New York Cavalry.
With communication lines cut and the news media furiously reporting the constant stream of national updates, it stands little question why the destruction of a steamer on the Mississippi would pass with little note. That steamer was named Sultana.
Andersonville and Cahaba
Among the most notorious features of the Civil War were the prison camps at Andersonville, GA, and Cahaba, AL. Statistically speaking, if you were captured, you were more likely to die in the prison camp, then you had been to die in battle. Conditions in the camps were unsanitary and crowded. Men regularly died from exposure, malnutrition, and disease. Andersonville prison alone housed more than 45,000 troops, some 13,000 of whom died.
On March 20, 1865, prisoners from Andersonville and Cahaba were paroled as part of a prisoner exchange with the Union. There was no ceremony surrounding their release. They were told to gather what few things they possessed and to make for a nearby train station. After an exhaustive journey on foot, by train, and by boat, the parolees arrived at the Union headquarters near Vicksburg, MS, on April 1, 1865. The paroled Union soldiers are held at Camp Fisk for 23 days total.
To quickly return the paroled forces to their homes in the northern U.S., the federal government offers to pay Mississippi steamboat captains $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer that they transport. Captain James Cass Mason of Sultana hears of the offer and makes his way, with haste, from Cairo, IL to Vicksburg. Upon arrival, he is greeted by Colonel Ruben Hatch, Chief Quartermaster of the Department of Mississippi. A man with a, let’s call it colorful, past.
Mason and Hatch come to an agreement to load as many parolees aboard Sultana as she can carry, ostensibly in exchange for splitting the profits. Captain Mason then steers Sultana for New Orleans, LA, where he takes on commercial passengers and cargo before returning to Vicksburg on April 24, 1865. On the return trip, Nathan Wintringer, chief engineer for Sultana, discovers that one of her four tubular boilers has formed a bulge and begun to leak.
Wintringer and Mason consult with a local boilermaker named R. G. Taylor. After inspecting the boiler, Taylor estimates that a repair will take at least one week and that the boiler should, ideally, be replaced. Captain Mason refuses to wait the recommended length of time and pleads with the boiler maker to do a temporary patch on the promise that it will be adequately repaired when they return to Cairo. Taylor refuses and disembarks. Later that same day, he returns, for unknown reasons, and agrees to the temporary patch.
Bribery, Negligence, and Lies
Captain Frederick Speed was given the order to prepare the muster rolls for the recently paroled prisoners. He volunteered to do so while Captain George Williams, whose job it was, had been away delivering a report. Initially, Speed had no intention of giving Sultana any passengers as he was not informed of her ahead of time. Colonel Hatch stepped in to order that Speed not only issue passengers to Sultana but rather issue them ALL to the vessel.
Captain Williams returned from his report as the work was beginning. Seeing that the process was too slow for his liking, he convinced Speed that the muster could be completed after the soldiers departed and that, for the time being, a count was all that was needed. Speed reluctantly agrees and stays at Camp Fisk to load the parolees aboard a train that would take them to the waterfront. Williams, in the meantime, makes for the docks to count the passengers as they board.
The first train departs Camp Fisk with approximately 800 soldiers. The men load onto Sultana, all the while reporting seeing and hearing the work being performed on the damaged boiler. While a second train is being loaded, Speed takes a break and does not realize that it has departed. At the waterfront, Williams hears rumors of bribery. Assuming that it is Speed taking bribes, he goes to Major General Napolean J. T. Dana to issue a complaint. While he is away, the second group of approximately 700 soldiers is loaded aboard Sultana without anyone realizing it. That evening, a final train arrives at the dock with another 800 men who also board the boat.
In total, Sultana departs Vicksburg with some 2,500 people aboard. Her legal carrying capacity was 376.
“We would be home in a few days…”
Sultana makes her way up the Mississippi. The river is flooded and icy from the spring thaw, and the boat’s boilers struggle to propel her forward. Captain Mason orders a stop at Helena, AR, to take on more supplies. A photographer, stunned by the number of people aboard, takes a photo of Sultana at the docks. The men are alerted to the photographer’s presence and rush to the side to be part of the picture. In their haste, they nearly topple the boat. Captain Mason issues a warning that the men should stay put and not move around too much.
Further up the Mississippi, Sultana makes a brief stop in Memphis, TN to take on more coal and cargo. At 1 a.m. on the morning of April 27, she departs, intending to finish her journey north. Not an hour later, the damaged boiler succumbs to the struggle against the rapid waters of the Mississippi and explodes, detonating two other boilers as well.
The blast of steam and shrapnel rip up through the decking, blowing the pilothouse apart. Those who were near the boilers are killed instantly. Others are sent hurtling through the air and down into the cold water of the river. Splintered decking falls beneath the boilers and into the furnace where its flammable paint goes up in an instant. In no more than 20 minutes, Sultana is largely ablaze.
With their support system considerably weakened, the smokestacks crack apart. One falls fore and the other aft, pushing more and more kindling into the flames. Soon after that, the port wheelhouse breaks away from the main structure but does not fully break apart. It causes the boat to begin spinning. As Sultana spins, the flames are fanned toward the bow, and any remaining refuge is quickly engulfed. Those who remained on the boat are forced to jump.
Sultana continues to drift downriver until it gets stuck in an eddy off of a small island. It burns to the waterline and sinks into the mud.
A Rescue Effort
Bostonia II, on her maiden voyage, spots people and debris floating by. The captain orders the crew to throw anything they can spare overboard to be used as floatation. Realizing that there are far too many people for one vessel to save, the captain rushes to Memphis to raise the alarm.
In Memphis, boats had already begun mobilizing. Wesley Lee, a soldier aboard Sultana, had already drifted past the city, calling for help. Once pulled from the water, he told of the disaster, and a rescue effort began. All manner of boats responded to the call from passenger steamers, to ironclad gunboats, to fishing rafts.
By dawn, all of Memphis was on alert and rushing food, clothing, ambulances, medics, and caskets. The hospitals overflowed, and caskets ran out. The dead were lined up on the docks and covered with blankets. In total, approximately 700 people were saved from the disaster. The other 1,800 were lost.
Several investigations were launched following the loss of Sultana to determine who was responsible.
Captain Mason, who bribed Hatch into giving him so many passengers, died aboard his boat. Survivors reported seeing him doing what he could to help the people on board. Colonel Reuben Hatch, upon hearing the news, immediately quit the military and fled the state. As a civilian, military courts could no longer pursue legal action against him. Captain George Williams, who left his post at the docks, was a career military man and a graduate of West Point. The military courts refused to go after one of their own.
Captain Frederick Speed, on the other hand, made a promising scapegoat. He was found guilty of negligence for grossly overcrowding the boat. He was later cleared by a judge advocate general of the army because he had been at Camp Fisk all day and hadn’t personally placed a single soldier aboard the vessel.
In the end, no one was held responsible for the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history, and the event passed into obscurity.
Remember the Sultana
Today, several groups are working to bring recognition and remembrance to this tragic event. The Sultana Descendents Association meets once every few years to share stories and remember their ancestors who lost their lives in the disaster. They also work to spread the story of this chapter in our history.
In Marion, AR, near where the remains of Sultana have been located, a group is working to secure funding for The Sultana Disaster Museum. It is currently housed in a repurposed building, but organizers hope to turn it into a state-of-the-art building that brings the story to life to honor those who perished.