Sultana Riverboat Civil War Disaster Occured 150 Years Ago


More souls died on the 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 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 effectively ending the 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 John Wilkes Booth ended on April 26th with his fatal shooting by Union troops in a remote Maryland barn. 

The very next day, April 27, the Sultana exploded in the dead of night on the Mississippi River just north of Memphis.  It sank with over 2,400 souls aboard, mainly Union soldiers returning home.  Regardless of the scope, Americans were too wrapped up in the end of the War Between the States and the death of their beloved president to take much notice of a Mississippi river boat sinking.  Few newspapers gave it more than a quick paragraph of mention.

But the riverboat Sultana more than sank. 

Its 4 boilers exploded, quickly engulfing the rest of the 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 overcrowded with 2,400 former Union Prisoners of War wanting nothing more than to return home to their loved ones.  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 compounds.  For the last two years of the war, these men endured horrific conditions at the hands of the Confederates, living in rags, subsisting on scraps and wasting away. 

Now 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 cramped together like hogs in a slaughterhouse.  But they were still in good spirits!  After all, the war was finally over and they were headed home at last.  They left Vicksburg, Mississippi and travelled up the twisting, muddy river.  Unfortunately, one of the Sultana’s cracked boilers had been cheaply patched and amounted to a ticking time bomb on the boat.  The Sultana exploded at two o’clock in the morning at an isolated bend in the Mississippi just north of Memphis. 

Only 600 souls managed to survive the hell that followed.

I too was one of those who had never heard of the Sultana disaster.  How could that be possible?  But no more.  I thoroughly researched the tragedy and wrote my next novel, SULTANA AWAITS to make sure those men are not forgotten. 

For a similar early American disaster tale, check out my novel FIREBRANDS about the horrific Great Chicago Fire of 1870.

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Filed under Historical Disasters

2 responses to “Sultana Riverboat Civil War Disaster Occured 150 Years Ago

  1. Hello Paul. I just read your blog about the tragedy of the Sultana. I’ve NEVER even heard of this. I love history, and I know a book on this, written well :-), would be fantastic, and would allow us to peek into what occurred on that tragic day. I’d love to read it. Grace & peace.



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