The deadliest shipwreck in American history happened just a few miles north of Memphis.
One April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana was heading upstream on the Mississippi River. The boat was carrying an estimated 2,100 people, most of them Union prisoners on their way home from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.
At about 2 am, the boat exploded. About 1,200 people were burned to death, drowned or died of hypothermia–the worst death toll for a martime accident in American history.
What makes the Sultana story especially sad is that it came after so many men had survived both fighting in the war as well as time in a horrible prisoner-of-war camp.
After Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, the Civil War quickly drew to a close. At the time, there were thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) held on both sides. Under the terms of the surrender agreement, POWs were to be freed and sent home as soon as possible.
In the South, an estimated 5,500 prisoners at the Cahaba POW camp in Alabama and at the Andersonville POW camp in Georgia were sent to Vicksburg, Mississippi. There they waited a few days to be loaded onto boats heading north.
The Union Army commanders ordered these freed prisoners of war on non-military boats that happened to be heading up the Mississippi River at the time. The government offered to pay boat owners $5 per enlisted man and $10 per officer transported.
The first boat that took freed prisoners north from Vicksburg was the Henry Ames, which took about 1,300 men. Then a boat called the Olive Branch headed north with 700 freed prisoners.
What happened next makes little sense. The Sultana pulled into Vicksburg at about the same time as two other boats (the Pauline Caroll and the Lady Gay). After a couple of days, the Sultana left with more than 2,000 prisoners of war (plus an additional number of crew and passengers and a large shipment of sugar bound for Memphis). The other two boats left Vicksburg with no freed prisoners on board, but plenty of room for them.
At the time, many people noticed how overcrowded the Sultana was, and asked about why the other two boats were not given any former prisoners to transport. William Butler, a cotton merchant on board the Pauline Carroll, later said that “on every part of her [the Sultana] the men seemed to be packed in as thick as they could well stand. They were on the hurricane deck, on her wheel-house, forward deck and guard, and a person could go from one part of the boat to another only with much difficulty.”
A former prisoner named James Brady, who was on the Sultana, said that he and his fellow troops has been “packed in more like hogs than men.”
The Sultana also had an official capacity of less than 400 people–about one-fifth the number of people on board!
To make matters worse, the Sultana had a mechanical problem.
One of the boilers that converted water to steam to drive its engine had developed a leak. A mechanic brought on board in Vicksburg had patched the leak, but he warned the ship’s captain (and part owner) J. Cass Mason that it might not hold.
Mason ignored the warning.
The Sultana pulled out of Vicksburg on April 24, heading north, fighting the swollen current of the Mississippi River. The boat made short stops in Helena, Arkansas, (where it was photographed by T.W. Bankes) and in Memphis, before pulling out late on the evening of April 26.
At 2 a.m. on the 27th, the Sultana’s boilers exploded. The explosion threw many passengers and crew into the water, destroyed a large part of the boat and started a fire that quickly destroyed the rest of the boat.
You can read the verbal accounts of some of the survivors in books about the disaster; most of them are too horrible to recount here. Many people burned to death; many drowned; and many froze to death from exposure after jumping into the Mississippi River.
Since few soldiers could swim at the time, most of the people who survived did so because they were able to grab parts of the floating wreckage and hold onto them until they reached shore or were pulled out by a rescuer.
Gene Salecker’s 2022 book Destruction of the Steamboat Sultana puts the number on board at about 2,100, and estimates that 1,167 people were killed.
After the disaster, a military inquiry tried to determine the cause of the Sultana explosion as well as why it was so overcrowded. In the last 150 years, several historians have asked the same questions. Many of them have concluded that Mason, the captain and part owner of the Sultana, bribed Union army officers into letting him transport as many freed prisoners as possible so that he would make lots of money from doing so.
“The disaster was caused by greed, corruption, gross stupidity and military officers who just didn’t care,” says Jerry Potter, a Memphis attorney and author of the book The Sultana Tragedy.
Mason was killed in the accident. Captain Frederick Speed, a Union army officer, was found guilty of grossly overcrowding the Sultana. But his verdict was overturned by the army. So in the end, the U.S. Army never punished anyone for the disaster.
Most of the Union soldiers killed in the Sultana disaster were from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Tennessee. (Remember, most people from East Tennessee fought for the Union). Because of this, there are monuments devoted to the Sultana explosion in places as far apart as Mansfield, Ohio; Hillsdale, Michigan; and Knoxville.
However, the saddest memorials can be found in Memphis, and there are hundreds of them.
In the chaotic days and weeks in which dead bodies were found in the Mississippi River, there was no way to identify most of the dead. Therefore, when the Sultana victims were buried in the Memphis National Cemetery, they were buried as unknown soldiers.
And what became of the wreck of the Sultana?
Over the years, the Mississippi River north of Memphis changed course. The place where the Sultana exploded and sank is now in Arkansas.
In 1982, Potter found riverboat parts on and near the surface of the earth on the former location of the river, on the Arkansas side. Using modern technology, he determined that there was a very large object buried about 30 feet below the surface of the earth. However, the land is so close to the Mississippi River that it would be very difficult and expensive to dig there.
“While I’m about 90 percent certain that we found the Sultana, I’m not 100 percent certain,” Potter says.