The Tragic and Largely-Forgotten Story of the Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History

There is much about the worst maritime disaster in United States history that is counter-intuitive. For one thing, the story is largely forgotten. It has been overshadowed by events that were smaller in scale and with fewer casualties. Even at the time, it didn’t receive nearly the attention one would expect. Although it can be classified as a maritime disaster, it did not take place on the ocean. In fact, if you want to visit the site today, you won’t even have to get your feet wet.

This is the story of how a strange series of events conspired to keep the tragedy of Sultana from the headlines and the history books.

Sultana was a steamboat. It was designed to operate on inland waterways — primarily the Mississippi River. It launched on January 3, 1863. At the time of the disaster, it was little more than two years old. It should have been in its prime. The stress of its wartime use and deferred maintenance meant that Sultana was not quite as healthy as one would expect. For a steamboat, that meant nothing but bad news.

Excerpt from the April 29, 1865, edition of the Cleveland Daily Leader (Click image to expand)

Sultana was powered by four boilers. Each 18-foot (5.5-meter) long and 46-inch (120-cm) wide tube generated steam to keep the boat’s two paddle wheels moving. Although very effective at producing large amounts of steam, the boilers were notoriously high-maintenance features. They were prone to metal fatigue, weakening the tubes and making them susceptible to catastrophic explosions. Understandably, maintaining the mechanical health of the boilers had to be a priority for Sultana’s captain and crew.

It was April 1865. After four years of bloody fighting, the Civil War was over. Sultana was in Cairo, Illinois on April 15 when the crew received the news that President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. Captain James Cass Mason sent his crew to gather as many newspapers as they could find. Once they had done this, Sultana set full steam south to deliver the news to the parts of the country that had been cut off from telegraphic communication.

When Sultana reached Vicksburg, Mississippi, its captain heard about a deal that was too good to pass up. Now that the war was over, thousands of Union prisoners of war were released. They needed transportation back to their homes and loved ones in the North. The U.S. government was offering the princely sum of $2.75 ($45.71 in 2022 dollars) per enlisted man and $8.00 ($146.26 in 2022 dollars) per officer to any shipmaster who would offer transportation to the former POWs.

Excited by the prospect of earning some much-needed income, Captain Mason ordered his crew to set course for New Orleans. They picked up about 70 passengers and began their return to Vicksburg. There, the captain was expecting the opportunity to greatly enlarge his passenger manifest.

About ten hours from Vicksburg, one of Sultana’s crucial boilers sprung a leak. The boat limped the rest of the way to port under partial power. Captain Mason ordered immediate repairs so he could complete his mission.

He had every reason to want to get on his way. Since he had last been in Vicksburg, paroled prisoners made their way to the city by the hundreds. Additionally, dozens of ships were racing to Vicksburg, motivated by the same promise of easy income. If Sultana couldn’t get underway soon, Mason would lose out to his competitors. A proper repair of the boiler would take two or three days. Instead, Mason ordered a temporary patch-up job that would have his boat underway in one day.

Photo of the Sultana, taken the day before it was destroyed, showing the decks overfilled with passengers.

With the repairs completed, Captain Mason gave the word that Sultana was ready to take on passengers. It was as if the floodgates had been opened. When the boat started its journey north on April 24, it carried 85 crew members, 70 fare-paying cabin passengers, 22 guards from the 58th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, and 1,953 paroled POWs, for a total of 2,130 souls on board.

It should be noted that Sultana was not a massive luxury liner. It was a river steamboat. It was 260 feet (72.25 meters) long and 42 feet (12.8 meters) wide and had four decks. It was designed to carry no more than 461 passengers and crew. When Sultana departed Vicksburg, it was carrying four-and-a-half as many people. The last photograph of Sultana, taken the day before the disaster, shows the decks packed shoulder-to-shoulder with men.

For two days, the steamboat slugged its way upstream. The current was stronger than usual as the river overflowed with the worst spring floods in recorded history. Fighting against the current while carrying so much passenger weight required the boilers to be operating at full capacity.

On April 26, Sultana reached Memphis, Tennessee. It unloaded about 200 passengers and 120 tons of sugar. It picked up a load of coal a short distance from Memphis. At 1:00 a.m. on April 27, Sultana resumed its northern route.

Just one hour later, disaster struck. At 2:00 a.m. on April 27, a series of explosions rocked the boat. One boiler blew up, triggering the explosions of two more. The massive force of the blast obliterated the pilothouse and sent Sultana into an uncontrolled drift.

The explosion damaged the two smokestacks, causing them to collapse. Fire broke out throughout the boat. The explosion and collapsed smokestacks killed several people on the upper deck. Wreckage, smoke, and fire blocked the exits for many who were on the lower decks. Since the boat was horribly overcrowded, the panicking passengers quickly descended into chaotic clambering to find some way to escape.

For the next five hours, Sultana tried to say afloat. Many passengers who managed to escape the boat were too weak to swim in the mighty Mississippi’s current and drowned. Others died from hypothermia from the icy spring runoff. Many more died in the flames or from the toxic smoke while trapped aboard the doomed boat.

For months after the disaster, the bodies of Sultana’s victims could be found after being swept downstream for miles. Among the many victims who were never found was Captain Mason.

Because of the circumstances, getting a precise handle on the number of victims and survivors is impossible. The War Department determined that 931 passengers and crew survived. The U.S. Customs Service concluded in its official report that 1,547 people lost their lives in the tragedy.

By way of comparison, the well-known sinking of the Titanic — a massive ocean vessel many times the size of Sultana — took the lives of 1,500 people. Titanic met its doom in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Sultana’s victims perished on the Mississippi River, less than 100 yards from dry land.

Despite the horrific loss of life of so many Americans, the Sultana tragedy earned scant mention in the country’s newspapers. The reason for that was another ironic twist of fate. As we have already noted, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated just two weeks earlier. On April 26 — the day before Sultana met its tragic end — Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, had been located and killed. For days after, the newspapers devoted most of their coverage to Lincoln, Booth, and the conspiracy surrounding the assassination. When they did mention Sultana, it was almost an afterthought.

There is one additional curiosity about Sultana that should be mentioned. Years after the tragedy, flooding along the Mississippi River became so bad that the river altered its course. Today, the river flows about a mile to the west of the place where Sultana went down. If you want to visit the site, you can walk to the very spot where it happened, and you won’t even get your feet wet.

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