A Brief History
On April 27, 1865, the paddle-wheel steamboat, SS Sultana was carrying 2427 people when she blew up, killing 1800!
The Mississippi steamboat was jammed with soldiers returning North from the Civil War, mostly Union soldiers who had been in Confederate prisoner of war camps (especially Cahawba and Andersonville).
Crowded onto the riverboat designed to carry only 376 people, many of the soldiers were emaciated and ailing from their time in the horrendous prison camps. The ship had started from New Orleans and had made a stop at Vicksburg (Mississippi) in order to repair a boiler. The repair was hastily done in a slip shod manner to avoid the 3 day delay that replacing the boiler would entail. Fate determined that choice was a grave mistake.
Struggling under the extreme overload against the strong Mississippi River spring current, the engineers probably overloaded the pressure in the boilers in order to continue to make good speed. After the ship had passed Memphis 7 or so miles ago, at 2 a.m. a huge explosion tore the ship apart and sent passengers flying! Obviously, a boiler had exploded, the greatest fear of riverboat sailors in those days.
Not only was the ship grievously damaged, but it was also now a burning hulk. Drifting to the west bank, the burning hulk sank around dawn. Passengers not killed in the initial explosion or injured when hurled into the water and drowned had a choice: stay with the ship and burn, or jump into the freezing cold water. Neither choice was desirable, as the cold water quickly sapped the strength of the people trying to swim and the powerful current took them downriver.
Several steamboats rushed to the rescue and picked up as many survivors as possible, with about 500 burned and injured survivors taken to hospitals in Memphis. Of those, at least 300 ended up dying anyway. Hypothermic swimmers could resist the cold no longer and drowned by the scores.
Amazingly, about 800 people survived the explosion and sinking, but the official estimate of 1800 dead made the Sultana incident the worst maritime disaster in US history. Investigators found that the overloaded and top heavy ship would lean to each side as she turned with the curves of the river, causing the water in the boilers to slosh back and forth, creating a problem with maintaining safe pressures. The jury rigged boiler patch and lower than desired water levels in the boilers contributed to the disaster.
The Sultana disaster may not have been an accident. In 1888 a former Confederate saboteur claimed on his deathbed that he had caused the wreck by placing a “coal torpedo” on the ship, that is, a hollow cast iron device filled with gunpowder and camouflaged to look like a piece of coal. The device would be placed in the ship’s coal bins and when it was shoveled into the fire under the boilers, BOOM! In spite of this confession, the official version remains that the ship blew up accidentally.
The last survivor of the Sultana, “The Titanic of the Mississippi,” died in 1931. At least 3 songs have been written about the ill fated ship and a mural by Robert Dafford was painted in 2005. Question for students (and subscribers): Was it an accident or sabotage? You decide in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Potter, Jerry. The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster. Pelican Publishing, 1992.