The Steamship Sultana Distaster
April 27, 1865 in Memphis, Tennessee
Not many know the story of the worst US maritime disaster. Over 1800 released Union POW's loaded onto the Sultana in Vicksburg were lost when the steamboat's boiler exploded near Memphis. April 1865 was a busy month; On April 9, at Appomattox Couthouse, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assasinated. On April 26 his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was caught and killed. That same day General Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. Shortly thereafter Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. Northern newspapers rejoiced, but because the Sultana went down when it did, the disaster was not well covered in the newspapers or magazines, and was soon forgotten. It is scarcely remembered today.
THE ILL-FATED SULTANA, HELENA, ARKANSAS, APRIL 27, 1865
In 1863, the Sultana was built in Cincinnati and began sailing the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, mainly from St. Louis to New Orleans. She was state of the art, including the most modern safety equipment--safety gauges that fused open when the internal boiler pressure reached 150 pounds per square inch, three fire-fighting pumps, a metallic lifeboat and a wooden yawl, 300 feet of fire hose, thirty buckets, five fire-fighting axes and 76 life belts.
In April, 1865, Union POWs were gathered at Vicksburg. They were loaded on steamboats for the trip to Cairo, Illinois, with the government paying $5 per man. That was big money, which led to corruption--steamboat captains kicked back $1.15 to the army officers in charge if they filled the boats with men.
The Sultana was the last to leave. One of her boilers had sprung a leak and needed repair, but instead of doing the job right--removing and replacing the bulge in the boiler that was the cause--the Sultana captain ordered a patch of metal put over the bulge. That could be done in one day, while a proper repair would consume three or four days. Before that was done, other steamboats would come to Vicksburg from New Orleans and pick up the POWs, leaving the Sultana without these lucrative passengers—thus the hurry-up.
The war-weary Union soldiers in the South had but one thought, they wanted to go home. Vicksburg had been turned into a great repatriation center, and here were gathered thousands Union "prisoners of war" just released from the horrors of prison compounds like Andersonville. They were waiting in Vicksburg, Mississippi for transportation back home.
More than any other soldiers, these were impatient to get started. Prison camps in the Civil War were hard places, in the North and South alike. Most of the survivors were little better than semi-invalids. Now their minds had no room for anything but a feverish desire to get North to their mid-western homes, where they could see their families, get out of uniform, and have the rest, care and good food they needed so badly.
Meanwhile, the Sultana was taking on passengers. A large number of repatriated Union prisoners of war were to go North on this steamer, and the men were so desperately eager to start that the authorities decided not to make out the muster rolls in advance, as usual. Instead, the rolls would be made out onboard, after the vessel had left Vicksburg.
Boarding the vessel for the voyage home seemed to put new life into the ex-prisoners. Weak as most of them were, they were shouting, singing, and jesting as they came aboard, as lighthearted a crowd as ever came up a gangplank.They came in almost unmanageable numbers, far beyond the Sultana's rated capacity. Army reports do not give the exact number, but apparently it was somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000. In addition, 2 companies of armed soldiers came aboard. Altogether, there were probably some 2,300 people onboard when it left. They packed the steamer from top to bottom hull, cabins, Texas deck, even the pilothouse. The ship had 6 times as many passengers as she had been designed to carry.
Somehow, the Sultana got clear of the wharf and went puffing upstream,
breasting a current made stronger than usual by the river's flood stage.
Mason seemed to be a bit worried. He cautioned the men not to crowd to one
side of the boat when a landing was made, because there were so many of
them it might cause serious trouble. But for 48 hours after casting off
the Vicksburg Wharf, the Sultana went on without trouble, making a few
scheduled stops and on the evening of April 26, docking at
By 2:00 A.M. on the 27th, the Sultana was just a few miles north of Memphis. It was making progress, but progress was slow; the current was powerful, the boilers were tired, the load was much greater than usual. The Sultana swung 'round a bend and began to labor her way past a cluster of islands known as the "Hen and Chickens."
Then it happened. The leaky boilers gave up. They quit holding the heavy pressure of steam and suddenly exploded with a tremendous crash that was heard all the way back to Memphis. Back at Memphis, the watch on U.S.S. Grosbeak, a river gunboat, saw the light and heard the noise. The skipper was called, and he had them cast off the mooring lines and the Grosbeak went pounding up the river. Other steamers on the Memphis waterfront did likewise, hurrying against the strong current to give any help they could give.
It was a loosing race. The Sultana had been half blown apart by the
terrific force of the explosion. Hundreds of sleeping soldiers were blown
into the river. With them went great chunks of twisted machinery, a shower
of red-hot coals that hissed and spurted as they hit the river, and great
fragments of wood, cabin furniture, railings, deck beams, half of the
steamboat had simply disintegrated.
Fire followed the explosion. The blast scattered hot coals from the furnaces all over the midships section of the steamer, and in moments the disabled vessel was on fire. The upper works were all collapsed, there was a huge, gaping hole in the middle of the hurricane deck and the flames were taking hold everywhere. So men who had not been knocked into the water went there of their own accord, willing to face anything rather than the spreading flames.
The Sultana was totally out of control by now and was drifting helplessly downstream. The deck supporting the main rank of passenger cabins, collapsed at one end, forming a horrible steep ramp down which into the hottest fire, slid screaming men and a tangle of wreckage. The huge twin smokestacks tottered uncertainly and then came crashing down, pinning men under them and holding them for the flames. The superstructure was falling in and the whole midships section was nothing better than a floating bed of coals. Survivors clung desperately to the bow and stern sections, which the fire had not yet reached and among them panic born. Men who were as yet unhurt began to throw themselves into the water, thrashing about frantically for some bit of wreckage that might help them stay afloat.
Hundreds of horribly burned and scalded men remained aboard the drafting hulk. Some had the strength and presence of mind to wrench doors or window blinds from their hinged, toss them overboard and jump in after them. Others simply huddled in the diminishing spaces that the flames had not yet reached and shouted, prayed or screamed helplessly for aid. Someone had gotten the steamer's lifeboats into the water and desperate, floating men tried to struggle aboard.So far the flames had not reached the bow, and there most of the survivors were jammed. Then the wind shifted, or perhaps the drafting boat swung around and took it from another direction,and the flames leaped forward. Most of the men preferred drowning to being burned alive, and leaped into the water.
At last, the boat struck a small island where there was a little grove of trees and some of those who still were aboard jumped ashore with ropes and made the hulk fast. Slowly, the worst of the flames died down, and finally with the mooring ropes still holding what was left of the Sultana gave up the hopeless struggle and sank, with a great noise of hissing and a huge pillar of smoke and steam rising toward the sky.
When the cold dawn light came, survivors dotted the river all the way
to Memphis, clung to logs, rafts, spars, barrels, sections of railing and
other bits of wood. All the rescue craft in Memphis put out to do what
they could, hauling half-dead men out of the cold river. Hundreds of men
were found on both shores of the Mississippi, cling to trees of driftwood,
many of them badly burned and without clothing.
So the Sultana was gone, and all that remained was to count the dead and to try to find out just why the disaster had happened. No definite count of the casualties was possible because there did not exist any really complete list of the number of men aboard at the time. Estimates of the number killed ranged from 1,500 to 1,900. Probably a median figure of 1,700 would be about right.
There were many rumors about the cause of the explosion, including a wholly baseless story that some vengeful ex-Confederate had put explosives in the coal. What is known is that the Sultana, fearfully overloaded, was struggling against an abnormally strong current with defective boilers exploded, the wrecked ship then took fire, and most of the men aboard were killed. There was an official inquiry, productive of a mass of documents to which nobody in particular paid very much attention and there, the affair ended. One of the worst marine disasters in history, but one which has a hard time finding its way into the history books.
Yesterday morning our city was startled with the news of one of the most appalling disasters which ever occurred on American waters. By this terrible catastrophe no less than twelve or fifteen hundred persons were hurried into eternity.
The steamer Sultana, one of the People’s and Merchants’ line of packets, Capt. Cass Mason commanding, bound from New Orleans to St. Louis, arrived up on the evening of the 25th at 6:30 o’clock, having on board, it is understood, 1,966 men and thirty commissioned officers. Besides this there was a considerable passenger list, including forty ladies and the boat’s crew.
Having discharged the freight for this city, the Sultana proceeded on her way up the river, leaving our wharf at about 2 o’clock yesterday morning. When about seven miles above the city she exploded her boilers; the entire middle portion of the boat, including the texas and pilot house, was hurled high in the air and scattered over the water. Immediately after the explosion fire broke out; a vast volume of flame swept through the cabin from the front to the stern of the boat. Then ensured a scene which language cannot describe - the most terrible that can possibly be conceived.
The explosion occurred in a wide portion of the river, there being no land for a mile on either side. Many were scalded to death immediately; those who were not injured were jumping overboard. The river for a mile around was full of floating people; the light of the burning boat shone over a scene such as has never before been witnessed; such as language cannot paint or imagination conceive. The screams of women, the groans of those who were wounded and thrown from the boat by the force of the explosion, the cries for help when there were none to assist - all contributed to create a scene over which we are compelled to shudder with horror.
The steamer Bostona was on her way down and about a mile above the Sultana at the time the explosion occurred. Her officers, perceiving the light of the burning boat and hearing the cries and struggles of the drowning people, made all haste to the scene of the disaster. Her yawls were sent out, stage planks thrown overboard; everything that could float was thrown into the river for the sufferers. Every effort was made by the officers of the Bostona in this trying emergency to render aid to the drowning multitude.
A passenger from the Bostona, Mr. Deson, rendered noble service by his courage and daring. It is said that this gentleman took one of the foot planks from the Bostona and went out on it and succeeded in saving the lives of no less than eight persons. Such deeds should not go unnoted.
The flames burst in great fury in a very few
minutes after the explosion on the Sultana. No time was allowed for the
people to do anything. Ladies rushed forth from their berths in the night
attire, and with a wild scream plunged into the angry flood and sank to
rise no more. The pitiful cried of children as they, too, rushed to the
side of the wreck and plunged into the water were mingled with the hoarser
voices of manhood in the desperate struggle for life. More than 2,000
people were thus compelled to choose between a death by fire and a sleep
beneath the wave. Hour after hour rolled away, and the struggle for
the great multitude in the river continued. Manhood was powerless.
Husbands threw their wives into the river and plunged into the water after
them, only to see them sink in death. Some had secured doors and fragments
of the wreck and were thus enabled to keep a longer time above the water.
Those who were swimmers struck for the shore, where they could find trees
and bushes to keep them above the water. Some were carried down by the
current until opposite the city, where their cries
attracted the attention of the people on the steamers lying at the wharf.
Messrs. John Fogleman, Thomas J. Lumbertson, George Malone and John Berry, citizens of Mound City, Arkansas are entitled to the eternal gratitude of every right-thinking mind. When they saw the burning, floating mass, and heard the cries of the struggling thousands, they made haste to construct rude rafts of logs and put into the stream. With these, they succeeded in saving the lives of nearly a hundred persons. They were unceasing and labored faithfully and courageously as long as there was any possibility of relieving a suffering fellow mortal. Mr. Fogleman’s residence was converted into a temporary hospital for the sufferers, and every possible care and attention were bestowed on them by Mr. Fogleman and his family. The number who had been brought in - rescued from the river - at 12 o’clock yesterday were 110 enlisted men, ten officers, four ladies and fifteen citizens.
The Sultana had been in service three years. She belonged to Capt. Cass Mason, Sam DeBow, W. J. Lewis and Mr. Thornberg, and was valued at $80,000. She was insured to a large amount.
The officers and crew of the ironclad Essex deserve unstinted credit and praise for the part they took in picking up passengers of the ill-fated steamer Sultana. Lieut. James Berry, ensign of the Essex, was awakened yesterday morning about 4 o’clock and informed that the steamer Sultana had blown up and was now burning; that the passengers were floating down the river and crying for help. The lieutenant jumped up immediately and was startled and horrified by the agonizing cries of the people in the river. He said that never in his life did he hear anything so dreadful, and hopes it may never be his lot to hear such screams again.
He immediately ordered the boats to be manned, which was done in very quick time. The morning was very dark; it was impossible to see twenty feet ahead; they had nothing whatever to guide them but the shrieks and groans of the wounded and scalded men.
The first man picked up was chilled through and through. Lieut. Berry, seeing the condition the man was in, very generously divested himself of his own coat and put it on this man. The second man they took up died a few minuted after being taken aboard. The men who had Capt. Parker’s gig picked up a woman out of some drift. She was at that time just making her last struggle for life. About the time this woman was picked up a steamboat yawl came there and helped pick up some more who were clinging about the drift. Lieut. Berry said it was impossible for him to give any description of the scene; he said it beggared all description; that there were no words adequate to convey to the mind the horror of that night. He continually heard persons cry out, “Oh, for God’s sake, save us! We can not hold out any longer!”
The boats of the United States steamers Groesbeck and Tyler were on hand and displayed great vigilance and zeal in picking up drowning men. Lieut. Berry, with the help of the crew, picked up over sixty men...... With commendable forethought Capt. Parker sent out ten boats to explore the shore from Memphis to the place of the disaster. Up to 3:30 yesterday afternoon only five of these boats had returned. They had found a few dead bodies, but could not find any survivors along the shore.
Had the disaster occurred an hour or two later Capt. Parker feels assured that the naval force could have saved several hundred lives instead of the sixty alluded to. Unfortunately the night was dark, and the boats were compelled to steer in the direction of the cries, being unable to see more than a few of those struggling in the water.
After the explosion of her boilers, and the rapid spread of the flames, the burning mass of what had been the fine steamer Sultana floated down with the current until within a few hundred yards of Mr. Fogleman’s residence, where it grounded on the Arkansas shore. We visited the wreck about 10 o’clock. It was sunk in about twenty feet of water; the jackstaff was standing up before th black mass, as though mutely mourning over the terrible scene, a silent witness of which it had been. The boat was almost entirely consumed. The charred remains of several human bodies were found, crisped and blackened by the fiery element. The scene was sad to contemplate, and those who witnessed it can never forget it. The Rose Hambleton, Pocahontas, Jenny Lind and Bostona were cruising around the place, ever and anon picking up the breathless body of some unfortunate who slept the sleep of death; or some more fortunate who had escaped a watery grave, though exhausted by a fearful night of struggle for life.
The names and places of many of those who were hurried into eternity by this terrible catastrophe will never be known. Capt. Cass Mason, who was in command of the Sultana, was among the lost. Capt. Mason was well-known to many of our business men as the former commander of the Belle of Memphis. It is said that he did well his part. During the trying scenes ensuing the explosion he stood upon the deck of the fated vessel, throwing buoys into the water, or anything that would float, encouraging others by his example; and was last seen after everybody else had left the burning wreck. His body is probably beneath the mighty reiver’s surging waves. The two clerks, W. J. Gamble and William Stratton, were among the lost. One of the engineers, lost. Harry Ingraham, one of the pilots, was lost. Mrs. Hardin of Chicago was among the lost. She was lately married, and was on a bridal tour.
DeWitt Clinton Spikes (whose father, mother, three sisters, two brothers and young lady cousin were all lost), a young Louisianian, with a noble courage that is beyond all praise, notwithstanding his exhausted condition, used every effort to assist his fellow sufferers and succeeded in saving no less than thirty lives... A soldier procured a log; several drowning men were seen; he directed his log toward them; they laid hold on the log, and were thus taken ashore. By this means he was instrumental in saving the lives of five men... Capt. Curtis, master of river transportation, sent out boats on the first intimation of disaster, and had the Jenny Lind fired up and dispatched her to the scene of distress. He and his assistants were very active, and performed many noble deeds...
Capt. George J. Clayton, pilot of the Sultana, was on duty at the time the explosion occurred. He says they were going on about as usual; that they had gotten about seven miles above the city, running at her usual rate of speed - if any difference, not as fast as usual. All of a sudden he saw a flash, and the next thing he knew he was falling into the water with a portion of the wreck of the pilothouse. He thinks that he must have been hurled at least forty feet into the air. When he reached the water he saw the flames bursting up from the furnace and soon enveloping the entire boat. The scene which ensued beggars all description. He says the river was full - a sea of heads for hundreds of yards around. Screams and cries arose, rendering the scene appalling. Mr. Clayton was slightly injured in his fall.
The following statement from Private Friend Albard, of the Second Michigan cavalry, is given:
"I was awake when the explosion took place, lying on top of the wheelhouse. As soon as I discovered that the boat had exploded I caught hold of the fender and slid down to the water and let myself in, having nothing on me at the time. I judge I swam about two miles. The river was alive with people crying and calling for help in the greatest agony - it was heart-rending in the extreme. Just as I was coming down off the boat, I saw two ladies who had thrown themselves into the water. They had nothing to keep them up, and they sank, and I saw them no more. When the explosion took place it threw the cabin into the air, and it fell back on the boat in one mass of ruins, crushing many of the passengers who were thus caught, and were undoubtedly burned to death. Very many caught hold of horses by their manes and tails, but whether those escaped or not, it is impossible to tell. I never heard of them afterwards.”
Another survivor was William Long, a civilian passenger. His statement is also given. Mr. Long said: “At the time of the explosion I was in room 10. I jumped up and saw that the partition separating my stateroom from the next room was knocked all to pieces. I ran out in the cabin and back to the stern, and saw that we were not near the shore. While standing there I saw fifty persons jump overboard every minute. I stood there for five minutes, but seeing the boat in flames, I ran back to my stateroom and got some clothing. I returned and jumped from the cabin floor down to the lower deck. I got up on the taffrail and stood there until I saw three or four hundred people go overboard. I stayed on board until the boat was burned clean to the stern and the whole upper deck had fallen in, when I jumped overboard, having a door to keep me up. I tried to make the Tennessee shore, but failed. I then tried to make the Arkansas shore, but failed again. I then let myself float. Pretty soon I saw lights. I then knew I was opposite Memphis. In floating I ran across a large saw-log. I got on this, because I was almost exhausted and ready to sink. I kept floating down, and pretty soon I picked up a soldier, and soon another, and then another, until I had picked up four. We would keep quiet for a moment and then hallo; and thus we went on until I was taken into a yawl with the rest.”
story and newspaper clipping donated by: Julie Johnson