In April 1865, the Civil War was all but over. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on the 9th. President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days later and John Wilkes Booth run to ground and killed, on the 26th. Thousands of former POWs were being released from Confederate camps in Alabama and Georgia, and held in regional parole depots.
The sidewheel steamboat Sultana left New Orleans with about 100 passengers and a few head of livestock, pulling into Vicksburg Mississippi on the 21st to repair a damaged boiler and pick up a promised load of passengers.
With a bulging seam on her boiler, the ship’s mechanic wanted to cut it out and install a new plate, easily three day’s work. Captain J. Cass Mason declined, for fear of losing his passengers. He wanted the seam hammered back into place and covered with a patch and he wanted it done, in a day.
The passengers Mason was so afraid of losing were former prisoners of the Confederacy, and Confederate parolees, returning to their homes in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Federal government was paying $5 each to anyone bringing enlisted troops home, and $10 apiece for officers. Lieutenant Colonel Reuben Hatch, chief quartermaster at Vicksburg and one of the sleazier characters in this story, had approached Captain Mason with a deal. Hatch would guarantee a minimum of 1,400 passengers and they’d both walk away, with a pocketful of cash.
As it was, there were other riverboats in the vicinity. Mason didn’t have time to worry about boiler repairs.
The decks creaked and sagged, as beams were installed to shore up the load. Sultana backed away from the dock on April 24 with 2,427 passengers. More than six times her legal limit of 376.
Sultana spent two days traveling upstream, fighting one of the heaviest spring floods in the history of the Mississippi River. She arrived at Memphis on the evening of the 26th, unloading 120 tons of sugar from her holds. Already massively top heavy, the riverboat now lurched from side to side with every turn.
The crew must have exceeded allowable steam pressure, pushing all that load against the current. Pressure varied wildly inside Sultana’s four giant boilers, as water sloshed from one to the next with every turn, boiling water flashing to superheated steam and back to water.
At 2:00am on April 27, Mason’s temporary boiler patch exploded. Two more boilers detonated a split second later. The force of the explosion hurled hundreds into the icy black water. The top decks soon gave way as hundreds tumbled into the gaping maw of the fire boxes below.
Within moments, the entire riverboat was ablaze. Those who weren’t incinerated outright now had to take their chances in the swift moving waters of the river. Already weakened by terms in captivity, they died by the hundreds of drowning, or hypothermia.
Seven hours later the drifting and burnt out hulk of the Sultana, sank to the bottom. The steamers Silver Spray, Jenny Lind, and Pocahontas joined the rescue effort, along with the navy tinclad Essex and the sidewheel gunboat USS Tyler. 700 were plucked from the water and taken to Memphis hospitals of whom 200 later died of burns or exposure. Bodies continued to wash ashore, for months.
History has a way of swallowing some events whole. Like they never even happened. Sultana was the worst maritime disaster in American history, though her memory was swept away in the tide of events, that April. The United States Customs Service records an official count of 1,800 killed, though the true number will never be known. Titanic went down in the North Atlantic 47 years later, taking 1,512 with her.
Despite the enormity of the disaster, no one was ever held accountable. One Union officer, Captain Frederick Speed, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the riverboat. It was he who sent 2,100 prisoners from their parole camp into Vicksburg, but his conviction was later overturned. It seems that higher ranking officials may have tried to make him into a scapegoat, since he never so much as laid eyes on Sultana herself.
Captain Williams, the officer who actually put all those people onboard, was a West Point graduate and regular army officer. The army didn’t seem to want to go after one of its own. Captain Mason and all of his officers were killed in the disaster. Reuben Hatch, the guy who concocted the whole scheme in the first place, resigned shortly after the disaster, thereby putting himself outside the reach of a military tribunal.
The last survivor of the Sultana disaster, Private Charles M. Eldridge of the 3rd (Confederate) Tennessee Cavalry, died at his home at the age of 96 on September 8, 1941. Three months later, the air forces of Imperial Japan attacked the US Naval anchorage, at Pearl Harbor.