This Day in History: The Sultana, a Titanic-sized disaster, barely noticed
On this day in 1865, the SS Sultana explodes as it steams north up the Mississippi River. The loss was the biggest maritime disaster in U.S. history, yet the event received relatively little news coverage at the time. Instead, the story got lost amid news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, President Lincoln’s assassination, and John Wilkes Booth’s death.
Sources disagree on the exact number of casualties, but pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: More people died in the Sultana explosion than in the Titanic tragedy.
Like the Titanic, the Sultana was considered to be a state-of-the-art vessel, complete with many safety features that should have protected it. The steamboat had departed New Orleans on April 21 with about 100 passengers. It was headed to Vicksburg, where it intended to pick up former Union POWs and transport them back to the northern states. The government would pay $5 per man! It was a hefty sum back then.
On the trip to Vicksburg, an engineer noticed a leaking boiler. When the ship’s captain had it checked out, he was told that a proper repair would take three or four days. Alternatively, the boiler could be patched in just one day, and a real repair could be obtained later. The captain, concerned about losing his $5 per man bounty, opted for the easy patch.
An unreliable boiler wasn’t the Sultana’s only problem, though.
The Sultana was designed to carry 376 people. Nevertheless, more than 2,000 POWs were crowded onto the steamboat before its departure. Remember, more POWs meant a higher pay day for the ship’s crew! The Sultana also carried a handful of paid passengers and a cargo of goods. The attached picture was taken one day before the tragedy. Look at how crowded the ship was!
Indeed, the ship was so burdened with people that the decks sagged, and beams were put in place in an attempt to reinforce the overburdened decks. Reportedly, one of the paid passengers balked at getting on the ship, but she was eventually offered enough reassurances that she and her family continued their journey. Her husband and 7-year old daughter would later drown.
By April 26, the steamboat was pulling into Memphis. It unloaded its cargo, then headed upstream to pick up another cargo of coal. Unfortunately, disaster struck in the early morning hours of April 27.
At about 2:00 a.m., one of the ship’s boilers exploded. The explosion ripped through the ship and caused the smokestacks to fall over, instantly killing many of the men on the top deck. Those who survived the explosion panicked and began jumping into the river.
Many died in the explosion. Many more died in the water afterwards. Survivors clung to portions of the boat that were floating in the river.
In the days and weeks after the disaster, rumors swirled. Had someone loyal to the Confederacy sabotaged the ship? The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, investigated the matter, but sabotage was never proven. Instead, the cause of the explosion was found to be insufficient water in the boilers. Surely the patch on the boiler and the overcrowded ship couldn’t have helped matters?
The size of the tragedy was enormous, but the country was just then emerging from a bloody Civil War—AND it had just received news of the first presidential assassination! News of a huge maritime disaster was barely a blip on the screen.
How sad that the country was then so desensitized to bad news that a Titanic-sized disaster went by, barely noticed.
Alan Huffman, Surviving the Worst: The Wreck of the Sultana at the End of the American Civil War (Mississippi Historical Society)
Disasters and Tragic Events: An Encyclopedia of Catastrophes in American History (Mitchell Newton-Matza ed., 2014) (Vol. 1)
Jerry O. Potter, The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Maritime Disaster (1992)
Stephen Ambrose, Remembering Sultana: Expedition Journal (National Geographic; May 1, 2001)
Sultana Remembered website (History)