More souls died on the Riverboat Sultana than the Titanic!
It is in fact, the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. So why is it such a forgotten piece of Americana, with few books and no Hollywood films? Everyone remembers the Battle of Gettysburg or the burning of Atlanta, so why not the Sultana? April 1865 was an eventful month for both the United States and Confederate States of America. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia on April 9th ending the U.S. Civil War. Barely a week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14th while attending a performance at Ford Theater in Washington DC. The manhunt for his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, ended on April 26th with his fatal shooting by Union troops in a remote Maryland barn.
The very next day, April 27th, the Riverboat Sultana exploded in the dead of night on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis, Tennessee. It sank with over 2,400 souls aboard, primarily Union soldiers returning home to the north. Regardless of the scope of the disaster, Americans were too wrapped up in the end of the War Between the States and the death of their beloved President Lincoln to take much notice of a Mississippi river boat sinking. Few newspapers gave it more than a quick paragraph of mention below the Booth shooting.
But the Riverboat Sultana more than just sank.
Its 4 steam boilers exploded suddenly in the dead of night, quickly engulfing the rest of the wooden boat in a wave of hungry flames. Survivors were faced with the terrible choice of burning to death or risk drowning in the dark, cold Mississippi. And these travelers were no ordinary passengers. The ship was beyond overcrowded with 2,400 former Union Prisoners of War wanting nothing more than to return home to their loved ones up north.
Sultana’s legal capacity was only 376! Worst still, these poor men had survived the worst POW camps in all the South, the infamous Andersonville and Cahaba prisons. For the last two years of the war, these soldiers endured horrific conditions at the hands of the Confederates, living in rags, subsisting on scraps, wasting away and dying of disease.
Due to a shady deal between the Sultana’s greedy Captain J. Cass Mason and some equally greedy Union officers, the newly released prisoners, weakened from disease and malnutrition, were all cramped together on the Sultana like hogs in a slaughterhouse. But they were still in good spirits! After all, the War was finally over and they were finally headed home.
They left Vicksburg, Mississippi and traveled up the twisting, muddy river already swollen with spring rains. Unfortunately, the captain had one of the Sultana’s cracked boilers cheaply patched, amounting to a ticking time bomb under their feet. The Sultana exploded at two o’clock in the morning at an isolated bend in the Mississippi just north of Memphis.
Only 600 of those 2,400 souls managed to survive the hell that followed.
There were no modern lifeboats and few life preservers. Those that did not burn to death, jumped into the cold, dark river, turning it into a frothing chaos of drowning men.
I too was one of those who had never heard of the Sultana disaster. How could that be possible? These men were all but forgotten except for a few descendants that keep the memory of their ancestors alive. I thoroughly researched the tragedy and wrote a historical novel, SULTANA AWAITS to make sure those brave men are not forgotten.
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